Assumptions Testing Series February 3, 2021

Assumption #1: Revisionist states are the cause of great-power competition

By Emma Ashford

What’s the issue?

A key unwritten assumption underlies most of today’s strategic thinking on US foreign policy: that stable multipolarity is impossible because of fundamentally aggressive and revisionist states that seek to rewrite international institutions, grab territory, and challenge the status quo. Though these states are presumed to be creating a dangerous new era of great-power competition, it is an assumption with remarkably limited evidence to back it up. With regard to China, for example, not all rising states are revisionist; the question of Chinese intentions is still open. The weakness of this assumption also calls into question various derivative assumptions: that multipolarity is bad, that rising powers cannot be accommodated, and that the biggest risk of conflict in the international system arises from deterrence failures rather than misperception. Though the concepts are abstract, the real-world implications are profound. Simply assuming aggression on the part of these states shuts off a variety of plausible policy responses, leaving only maximalist options on the table, whether military buildup, economic decoupling, or diplomatic isolation. Worse, overreacting to a perceived revisionist state in this way, particularly with military means, has the potential to spiral toward conflict, setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy like those seen in 1914 or 1945.

The case for risk mitigation in great power competition

Though this paper is in many ways theoretical, the ideas discussed here are fundamental to the future of US foreign policy. If this assumption is not true—if other states are not necessarily revisionist, or if the extent of that revisionism is unclear—then many of the neo-primacist approaches currently being proposed for US foreign policy are problematic. Worse, they are potentially dangerous. As history has shown, one state’s defensive choices are often perceived by other states as aggressive. It hardly matters whether this arises from misperception (as defensive realists often claim), or from uncertainty (as offensive realists argue). In either case, an overreaction to a perceived revisionist state—particularly if it involves military buildup—has the potential to move the United States closer to conflict and set up a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, this is the core of the security dilemma: the policies that flow from deterrence theory are simultaneously the ones most likely to increase the risk of conflict. The most famous and catastrophic instance of this was the First World War, when the perceived advantages of early mobilization ultimately led to a conflict no one wanted, killing millions. But it is a more general phenomenon: the Cold War may also have emerged from a spiral of this kind, as did the Six Days War, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, and a variety of other conflicts. The lessons of history are clear: if not careful, overreaction to perceived Chinese revisionism could be worse than the alternatives.

This is the core of the security dilemma: the policies that flow from deterrence theory are simultaneously the ones most likely to increase the risk of conflict.

As a result, attempting to ascertain the scope of Chinese intentions—or Russian intentions, or Iranian intentions, etc.—is key to building a coherent, workable US grand strategy. Simply assuming unbridled revisionism on the part of these states shuts off a variety of plausible policy responses, leaving only maximalist policy options on the table, whether military buildups, economic decoupling, or diplomatic isolation. At the same time, it is possible that this analysis is wrong; though the evidence today suggests the opposite, it is conceivable that China or Russia are genuinely irreconcilable territorial revisionists. How to address this dilemma? Though a full response to this weighty problem is outside the scope of this paper—indeed, it remains one of the fundamental questions of the field of international relations!—the analysis here suggests four categories of concrete policy response that can help to mitigate the risks of being mistaken about the extent of adversaries’ revisionism. In each case, the response would be useful even if states are more revisionist than currently assumed.

  • An intensification of efforts to understand the scope of ambition of other states (particularly China and Russia), including increased peer-to-peer contact between governments, and at the Track Two level, as well as increased intelligence funding.
  • Focus less on forward deployment and more on defensive contingencies; wherever possible, rely on partner and allied forces, rather than US troops, for forward presence.
  • Engage in reassurance measures with China and Russia; draw from the lessons of the Cold War to develop joint confidence-building measures (CBMs) with peer adversaries.
  • Initiate a policy process designed to more clearly define key US priorities and red lines, and to explore places where mutually acceptable revision of international institutions or norms might reduce tensions and defuse future conflicts.

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Image: Photo: "Indian and US naval ships in formation during Malabar 2012", by Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, licensed under CC BY 2.0