The Case for a Grand Strategy of Responsible Competition to Defend the Liberal International Order
SWJ interview with Thomas J. Wright, author of All Measures Short of War: The Contest For The 21st Century & The Future OF American Power, published by Yale University Press, 2017.
Thomas J. Wright is the director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. Previously, he was executive director of studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and senior researcher for the Princeton Project on National Security.
Let’s start with the title. Why do you feel that the “all measures short of war” concept captures the essence of the competition of our time?
The title of the book was inspired by the famous lecture gave by George Kennan in the mid 1940s but also by the strategy that president Roosevelt pursued against Germany in the late 1930s. What I really mean is that we are entering a period of renewed geopolitical competition between the major powers. They do not want to fight each other directly in a general war. I don’t think China has any interest in waging a hegemonic war against United States. But they will compete vigorously beneath the threshold and they will use a lot of strategies and tactics, all measures short of war to achieve their strategic objectives. So it is likely to see economic, cyber and proxy warfare, coercive diplomacy and all sorts of other measures. That doesn’t mean of course that general war won’t occur. When FDR pursued that strategy, general war did occur, but it does mean that it is more likely to see that the intention of these powers is to use all of these other measures. We are looking at a long period of greater competition between big countries.
How do you assess the role kinetic/hard power plays in advancing contemporary revisionism? Although not central, hard-power capabilities are always in proximity, offstage. Moreover, the proliferation of A2/AD capabilities is changing the calculus about what is achievable regionally, making limited war more likely.
Hard power remains a crucial element of this. But the point that I am trying to make in the book is that it is not just about the overall level of defense expenditures, not just about the overall balance of power but about strategic power and the strategy you pursue where hard power remains a key aspect. For example in Crimea the overall balance of power between Russia and U.S. has mattered less than of the deployable power that Russia had in that particular crisis, the stronger Russian will to act or the proximity and the fact that they could take the initiative. All of these things were decisive and mattered a lot in that case. To me it is not really about an overall balance of power as it is about the strategic advantages and disadvantages that each side has in a particular strategic competition.
At the core, your book is about preserving and defending a certain type of international order, one with liberal traits. What are the virtues of the liberal international order, of the world that America made? Why is preserving a liberal international order a strategic and vital interest for the U.S.?
When we look at foreign policy and strategy we need to think about the type of world we want to create. What is the type of system we want to live in? I think there are basically two fundamental options available. One option is some version of the liberal international order that existed in the Western world since the mid-late 1940s and in most of the world since the end of the Cold War. That would not be identical to what it was in the past, but it would be somewhat similar to that. The second option is a sphere of influence system where China is the preeminent power in East Asia, Russia is much stronger in Eastern Europe, the European Union has disintegrated, the global economy is much more mercantilist, the world is much more nationalistic, the U.S. still has influence in some parts of the world but essentially has retreated from the proactive role that has had in promoting regional equilibriums in the key regions of the world.
To me the liberal international order is far preferable because the mercantilist alternative is much less stable, is much less likely to provide prosperity for the world as a whole, it would be far less cooperation on transnational issues and it will be extremely difficult and dangerous in getting to a sphere of influence system. The liberal international order is preferable in absolute terms but it is increasingly contested, under severe pressure internally because of the rise of the populism, but at the same externally with the return of the revisionist powers and of a more nationalistic geopolitically competitive world. U.S. has a fundamental strategic choice to which path to take. The real debate in American strategy is between two schools of thought one favoring restraint and retrenchment, and the other, increased engagement and competitiveness, one that puts at the heart of U.S. strategy the existential geopolitical challenge against the liberal order.
It is often said that Vietnam War was lost in the minds of the American people. Are we in danger of losing the competition for hearts and minds when it comes to persuading the American people that the costs of defending a liberal order are worth paying? What does the rise of Trumpism tell us about the consensus regarding U.S. foreign policy? He campaigned on a narrative that is the anti-thesis of the core beliefs that were articulated after WW2.
It is true that Trump is the first elected president that is critical of this international order. It is also true that he wasn’t elected on foreign policy. The people that cared about foreign policy tend to vote for Hillary Clinton. From this perspective I don’t think the country has moved and fully believes in Trumpism internationally. It is also true that he had to moderate its position while in office. As people see the alternative of what America first would look like they will recoil and not become fans of it. It does present a big challenge, we need to ask some fundamental questions but I don’t think it necessarily signals an irreversible shift in how America thinks about the world. I think there is a general support for the alliances and liberal order. The real problem is a strategic one-how we respond strategically to some of these challenges.
The story of this administration is really a struggle between the two different camps and it will remain that way. There is a mainstream camp led by the Secretary Mattis and Lieutenant General McMaster and others that basically want to preserve the international order, the U.S. alliances-system and an open global economy. But there is also a more nationalist camp, the America first camp, composed by people like Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller and most importantly Donald Trump himself who is quite nationalistic in his views. This struggle will never be really resolved. Neither one is going anywhere.
The president will still have all these nationalistic impulses even if he compromises on occasion. The mainstream camp is not going anywhere because they realize that what they are doing is so important. We will never get to a Trump doctrine and to a common strategy because that tension will never be resolved. You will have it swing one way or the other way. As long as somebody like Donald Trump is President we will have high levels of systemic risks in U.S. foreign policy because there is uncertainty about his commitment to the basic tenets of U.S. strategy as has existed over the past 70 years.
What at stake if the international community accommodates China’s South China Sea claims? In Tokyo, for example, there is a perception that it is a matter of when, not if, China will push to establish an ADIZ in the South China Sea. More broadly why does the future of the borderlands/border-regions matter for the liberal international order?
These disputes really go beyond some islands in the South China Sea or for that matter small towns and villages in Eastern Ukraine. What they are fundamentally about is whether China and Russia get to establish a major sphere of influence in their regions. The control of South China Sea for China would be a key part of establishing a sphere of influence in East Asia, one that largely had the control of the Western part of the Western Pacific. That will fundamentally change relations with the U.S. in the region because it will give China a much stronger power base, much more influence regionally and capacity to push U.S. to the side and become the main organizer of the regional politics. China would be in a position to control the sea and airspace within its sphere of influence and dictate key economic, political, and foreign- policy decisions to its neighbors. That will not be welcome by the rest of the region, it will probably lead to more competition, but if it would succeed it would badly damage the U.S. interests and the international order and it be a step towards a sphere of influence system that is fairly unstable. The contest is between two very different visions of regional order: the continuation of the U.S.-led liberal order or a Chinese spheres-of-influence system.
Let’s talk about the nature of today’s revisionism. It is no longer, or not yet, the revolutionary revisionism on the scale that we’ve seen in the inter-war period. It is more calibrated, measured, a version that is more oriented towards salami-slicing tactics. The contemporary revisionism operates more insidious, under the threshold. What are the common denominators and differences in the ways that Russia and China practice revisionism?
What we see in revisionist behavior today is pretty consistent with revisionist behavior in 19th and early 20th century. In this case the common sort of characteristic is that they tend to go out after the non-vital, peripheral interests of a major power because doing so generally doesn’t provoke the retaliatory strike that would come from attacking a vital interest. They send the message that it is not really worth quarrelling over some small villages in Eastern Europe or something that is marginal. It is, in effect, a salami slicing strategy. Such acts appear to be of limited strategic importance, until, in the aggregate, they acquire a much greater value generating sizable regional gains that simply disrupt the status quo. Today we see the return of this behavior in both Europe and East Asia.
At the same time, we need to keep in mind the differences. Russia is a declining power while Russia is a rising power. China is a maritime power while Russia is primarily land power centered. Russia used its hard power in very aggressive ways to achieve its objective where China has pursued a more softer, insidious recipe through civilian fleets and economic leverage. China is generally more supportive of some parts of the international order while Russia tends to be a more robust ideological critic of the liberal order. But both are trying to create their own sphere of influence in the region.
What does “responsible competition” mean when applied to the European theater?
It is basically a deepening of U.S. engagement in order to strengthen the European order and push back against Russia. With the Trump Administration to start is important to go back to basics. The U.S. should support the European Union. It should seek a strong partnership with the EU and not try to undermine it. The U.S. administration should reinforce NATO and article 5. The president should give a speech on article 5. U.S. should downplay the role of burden-sharing, revive and broaden TTIP and make it more ambitious than it was under the Obama Administration. It is also important to bolster democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, strengthening deterrence of Russian aggression, countering Russian efforts to interfere in Western politics. The Europe does need to take into account the competitive nature of the world. The European do need to adopt a strategy that recognizes the challenges that Russia poses and treat Russia as a competitor. In general Russia is taking advantages of a lot of the divisions inside Europe and some of the fears the people have. Particularly the return of nationalism creates a rich environment to exploit. Putin’s number one objective is not the destruction of NATO but the weakening of the European Union. I worry not about a multi-speed Europe (which existed for a long time) but of a multi-tier Europe where you have different classes of countries. If we create a Europe where certain countries are disadvantaged that will work to Putin’s advantage.
What would have been the consequence of not expanding the liberal order after the Cold War? It is a scenario highly desired by realists and offshore balancers. Even George Kennan was a supporter of this perspective. To me the age of the gray-zone interference could have come much earlier.
It would have been catastrophic if NATO would not have expanded and included the Central and Eastern Europe. If NATO would not have expanded to include the Baltic states we might be looking at Ukraine style conflict in Baltic and other parts of Eastern Europe. The fact that they are in NATO has made very difficult for Russia to pursue revisionist goals in those countries. Sometime we look to Ukraine as an example of expansion that was too close to Russia. The flip side of that is that if NATO would not have expanded at all then Europe would be a lot less stable, even than it is today. It was really the NATO expansion that insured the spread of democracy and stability.
The 1990s and 2000s were pretty permissive environments for the rise of democracies. You had a growing global economy, growing multilateral forum (EU and NATO) and that caused countries to evolve in a liberal direction and become more democratic. Now we’ve seen the reverse: a financial crisis followed by a great recession and a very slow recovery, the return of geopolitical competition and this environment helps the authoritarian forces. They project a narrative of decline and immigration that reinforces their influence. Spreading democracy will be difficult, but bolstering democracy is vital.
The danger today, to many, is that the old Palmerstonian, transactionalist mindset is becoming the new normal. In the second half of the 2000s, there was a growing support for advancing the creation of a Concert of Democracies or an Alliance of Democracies. Isn’t this idea more necessary today in an environment where you need a mobilization of like-minded stakeholders to defend the rules-based liberal international ecosystem? Has the time come to dust off/revive the 2007 idea of a Concert of Democracies/Alliance of Democracies?
I do think that there is scope for democracies to work together. But it might be a challenge to have a global concert now, especially given the attitude of the president of U.S. Democracies share certain values and interests and should cooperate more together than they have in the past, even if the U.S. is absent.