Great powers, big questions

Welcome to the new era of great power competition.

While the Trump administration’s decision to invite a Chinese delegation for a new round of trade talks has granted investors a momentary reprieve from an escalating economic conflict, the news shouldn’t distract from the new reality that Inflection Points has been observing for some time.

The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy declares that the return of great power competition with China and Russia poses the greatest challenge to the security and economic well-being of the United States. The problem with that relatively simple declaration, however, is that though this is a test of political systems and ideological outlooks, it isn’t a zero sum game in a global system of interdependencies far more complex than existed during the Cold War.

This past week one could watch this story in motion in the historic participation of China in some of the largest military exercises Russia had ever staged. It was apparent in US President Trump’s on-again, off-again trade conflict with Beijing, underscoring ongoing dilemmas about how to deal with a more assertive China. And it was a factor in the emerging US-European trade truce and also in a potential Philippine energy agreement to share resources with the Chinese.

Unfolding before us – if one takes sufficient time to digest what often appear to be unconnected decisions, events and calamities – is the design of a confounding new era.  It is being shaped by an economic competition between democratic and autocratic systems, by political trends like nationalism and populism, and by unprecedented technological shifts that will touch every aspect of our lives and societies, particularly artificial intelligence.

At such moments when the global tectonic plates are shifting with unpredictable consequences, decisions by leaders have outsized importance. The obvious political protagonists to watch are Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump.  Xi in many parts of the world is displacing the United States, Putin is acting to disrupt it at home and abroad, and President Trump’s domestic struggles and America First-driven rethink of US international purpose raises a cloud of uncertainty over the economically robust global incumbent.

Just beneath this top layer, however, are countries and actors whose shifting fates will have outsized importance because of what they represent to global and regional stability. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey are real-time examples in their geography. In Europe, Great Britain’s voluntary exit from the union and this week’s sanctioning of Hungary by the European Parliament are just two of many reasons to worry about the steadiness of America’s democratic go-to partners of the past 70 years.

What the United States faces, argues Thomas Wright of Brookings in The Atlantic, is “an ideological challenge that dwarfs any the United States faced during the Cold War. Then, communism never had any real traction politically. Today’s neo-authoritarianism has gone viral… Americans must figure out how to preserve liberty at home, amid political and technological shifts, while also pushing back against its great power rivals.”

Just as US leaders after World War II conjured up an approach that fit their times, ultimately resulting in a system of global institutions and regional alliances, so must the United States and its friends and allies rise to this new era of global competition. Wright argues correctly that this strategy should have the US play a leading role in shaping multilateral cooperation and institutions, including cooperation with non-democratic powers on issues such as nonproliferation, the global economy and climate change.

However, this strategy also would do far more to recognize the growing and underappreciated threats to free societies. “The post-war American strategy,” concludes Wright, “Was always about shaping an environment that would enable and support the flourishing of free societies. It is time to rediscover that spirit and intention.”

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe. This blog post is based on his weekly InflectionPoints newsletter. Read the newsletter in full here.

Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin toast during a visit to the Far East Street exhibition on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on September 11. (Sergei Bobylev/TASS Host Photo Agency/Pool via Reuters)