Foreign Policy with Jam Stunna: What Does “Great Power Competition” Mean?

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It’s been a little bit of time since my last post in this series, but I want to be more consistent in writing about these topics. So today’s post is about a phrase that has been thrown around alot in the last few years: great power competition.*

Basically, great power competition is political, economic and military competition between the “great powers” of the world. Right now, that’s understood to mean competition between the United States, China and Russia. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s, many American policymakers and military leaders believed that we lived in a unipolar world- that is, a world where the only global superpower was the United States. Leaders believed that both Russia and China would eventually become Western-style democracies, and the mood of a global system led by the United States was captured in Francis Fukuyama’s infamous essay, “The End of History?”

As we can see, history did not end. Russia and China did not become Western-style democracies. In fact, the United States’ status as the undisputed power in the world lasted for just about ten years, and crumbled into dust along with the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. Yet the global War on Terror (which I’ll write about soon, because there’s alot to say), while a catastrophic and incredibly deadly conflict which has claimed the lives of people all across the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, is not the same as great power competition. The War on Terror has been fought with organizations that are substantial and deadly, but could never really succeed in destroying the United States.

On the other hand, nations like China and Russia possess the power to inflict serious damage on the United States, and their power is growing. China already has 500 nuclear weapons, and the Russians have thousands of bombs. China and Russia are both in the process of rapidly increasing their other military forces too: building more ships, more planes, more missiles and more cyberweapons. We’re seeing these forces being put to use, both in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and China’s militarization of the South China Sea.

As these nations push further and further out, they will inevitably come into contact with American forces. The United States has a global presence; our military is present in 150 out of 195 nations in the world. Our Navy patrols every sea and ocean on the planet, even the Arctic. Military and civilian leaders believe now that, in order to maintain the United States’ global dominance, they must shift away from the tools used to fight terrorism and instead prepare for the possibility of conflict with other nations- in other words, to compete with other great powers.

But why should you care? After all, there are more pressing daily concerns for all of us than theoretical conflict with China. Perhaps we don’t need to have this concern at the front of our minds, but we need to be aware because the potential for conflict will have serious consequences for us. We only need to look backwards to see what those consequences could be. While the phrase wasn’t used in the past, we’ve seen great power competition before. The emergence of Germany as a unified nation in the 1870’s introduced a brand new country to a Europe where Great Britain, France and Russia were already competing for power; while a bit of an oversimplification, the result was two world wars and more than 100 million people dead.

China is now roughly in the same place that Germany was in the early 1900’s: powerful, and growing more and more powerful (this is another gross oversimplification, but I think the analogy works to make the point). American leaders consider China’s rise as a potential threat to our dominance, and this could lead to a phenomenon known as the Thucydides Trap– basically, that as one power rises (China) and another one fades (the United States), war becomes likely.

But history is not destiny, and knowing that our leaders are preparing for war gives us the opportunity to have a say. We have the right to say that maybe we don’t need our military everywhere around the globe; that maybe the South China Sea isn’t worth it; that we should be talking to other great powers instead of getting ready to fight them. Everything is a series of choices, and we need to start making choices that lead to peace.

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