2016: Back to the Future for the World’s Major Powers?

Will the return of great power competition give rise to conflict, as it has done many times over human history? Given that an increasingly multipolar world makes dispute management more difficult and heightens the chances of accidents, government leaders and policy experts would do well, warns Paul Saunders, to study the history of major power rivalry over the past two centuries so as to avoid a worst-case scenario of a nuclear war.

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Looking ahead to 2016, it seems increasingly likely that future historians will define the first and second decades of the twenty-first century through the return of great power competition. The outstanding question is whether the century’s second and third decades will see the reemergence of the great power conflict that has regularly followed such competition in the past, whether among China’s warring states, ancient Greek cities, or Europe’s nineteenth and twentieth century empires. So far, the prospects for a peaceful century look dim.

The problem is much broader than “China’s rise” or, as some argue, “America’s decline.”

Multiple Major Powers

First, what matters is not America’s or China’s absolute wealth—or the military power it produces—but their capabilities relative to one another and to other powers. Second, Washington and Beijing are not the only important actors. There are multiple additional major powers, including individual European countries like Britain, France, and Germany; the European Union (to the extent that it is able to act in unison); Japan; and Russia. There are also rising major powers like India and Brazil.

Perhaps perversely, this situation is a direct consequence of seven decades of successful US policy following World War II, though US policy is far from the only cause and is probably not even the most important one. Nevertheless, Washington deliberately chose to rebuild Europe through the Marshall Plan, to support Japan’s postwar reconstruction by ensuring its security, to open to China and promote its economic development and, after the Cold War, to encourage Russia’s integration into the international economy. America also chose to support economic development in Brazil, India, and other countries, partly due to self-interest and partly for nobler reasons.

Washington helped Europe and Japan in no small part because US officials wanted strong allies and partners in confronting the Soviet Union. America’s engagement with China likewise began in a Cold War context for good strategic reasons, and it has certainly accelerated China’s economic development. That said, from a broad historical perspective China’s economy would eventually have grown quite substantially—it is a huge country with considerable human and natural resources.

Indeed, World War II hugely distorted the global distribution of wealth and power by devastating most of the world’s major powers—notably excluding America, which did not experience years of fighting on its territory. Thus, it was likely inevitable that as other nations recovered economically from the war, they would gain power relative to America. From this perspective, US policy successes accelerated underlying trends rather than changing long-term outcomes. Only in dealing with the Soviet Union—and in the context of Cold War competition—did Washington attempt to restrain these processes. And after the Soviet collapse, America rapidly sought to assist Russia too.

The result is something closer to a multipolar international system, though the United States remains the dominant power, with multiplying friction points between the major players. At times, this looks so much like past patterns that US officials—in both the Bush and Obama administrations—have complained that China and Russia are behaving like nineteenth century great powers by seeking to build spheres of influence. Historical patterns of armed conflict between established powers and rising powers have even generated discussion of a “new type” of great power relations that transcends competition and builds cooperation.

America’s Challenges

Unfortunately, there are few grounds for optimism that Washington and Beijing will be able to construct such a relationship—particularly one that incorporates other key powers. At this point, militarized friction points already exist between US/Europe and Russia (over Ukraine and Syria) and between US/Japan and China (over the East China Sea and South China Sea). These friction points exist within a context of wider competition for influence in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and East Asia.

America’s challenge is that as China and Russia become increasingly assertive in pursuing their interests, the emerging multipolarity makes US allies increasingly independent from Washington. This is not to say that either Japan or America’s NATO allies are likely to align against the United States. Nevertheless, all have varied perspectives. Where Tokyo is more interested in some form of modus vivendi with Moscow in order to focus on competition with Beijing, many European governments are more interested in confronting Russia (politically and economically, but not militarily) and taking a cautious approach to China. Notwithstanding its “rebalancing” policy, the United States has generally shared this view.

A simultaneous challenge is that while there may be no more friction points than existed during the Cold War (generally speaking, the geographic locations of competition have not changed), there are many more players. It is much simpler to manage several disputes between two parties than several disputes between multiple parties. Among other things, this increases the chances of miscalculations, mistakes, and accidents.

Nuclear weapons make this especially disturbing in several respects. First, each of the current major friction points involves at least two rival nuclear powers. Second, nuclear proliferation is likely to make this worse, particularly in the Middle East. Third, the United States and Russia are gradually losing much of their shared experience in managing nuclear confrontation, as the people who led and participated in these processes gradually leave policymaking roles and even public debates. Fourth, some nuclear powers—like China—do not have even these eroding experiences and understandings.

Finally, and most worrisome, many people no longer consider nuclear war a realistic possibility. While it may be counterintuitive, this could actually make nuclear war more likely by removing fears that would otherwise constrain decision-making. It is notable that both Beijing and Moscow appear to be considering limited nuclear strikes as a means to de-escalate an armed conflict through demonstrative attacks that some believe would force the United States and its allies in Europe and/or Asia to back down.

To avoid disastrous outcomes, officials and experts would do well to study the major power competition and conflicts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They are not as far in the past as some may hope.

Paul J. Saunders

  • Senior Fellow in US Foreign Policy at the Center for the National Interest

    President, Energy Innovation Reform Project