US Inflexibility and ‘Great Power Competition’

If there is no willingness to be flexible in dealings with other major powers, “great power competition” is a short road to great power conflict.

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Peter Beinart makes an interesting observation about the way most U.S. policymakers understand “great power competition” with China and Russia:

What prevails today in Washington’s halls of power is a defense of unipolarity dressed up as a recognition that unipolarity is dead. In both parties, top officials herald the return of great power competition but resist meaningful great power accommodation [bold mine-DL]. What they mean when they say the US must compete with Russia and China is that the US must prevent Russia and China from altering the frontiers of American dominance established in the 1990s, when China’s GDP was roughly one-third as large as America’s and Russia was flat on its back.

The resistance to accommodation is bound up with our political culture’s disrespect for diplomacy and compromise, but it is mostly a relic of the first decade and a half after the Cold War when US policymakers tricked themselves into thinking that they didn’t have to accommodate any other powers. This reached its peak during the early Bush years when Karl Rove was talking about “creating” our own reality. Back then, US policymakers grew used to thinking that US power was either effectively unlimited or so vast that it could overcome almost any obstacle, and they weren’t shy about using it. Now that the obstacles are bigger, major powers are more formidable than before, and the US has fewer advantages than it once did, the US hasn’t adapted to the new realities.

We see an inflexibility born of pride today in the insistence that the US and its allies should make no alterations to NATO’s “open door” and in arguments that the US must increase its commitments in East Asia to contain a much more powerful China. Right now, the US is still considering expanding its defense perimeter in the face of major powers that are stronger than they were twenty years ago. The US and its allies refuse to rule out further NATO expansion even when everyone can see that the alliance cannot defend the states in question. Something has to give somewhere.

Read the rest of the article at Eunomia

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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