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The Line Between Conflict and Stability in Great Power Competition

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The Line Between Conflict and Stability in Great Power Competition

 

Jeff Goodson

 

Originally published by Stratfor. Re-posted here under a SWJ sharing  agreement with Stratfor.

 

One of the most consequential policy shifts of the Trump administration followed its reappraisal of U.S. national security threats in December 2017. The administration's National Security Strategy lays out a vision for protecting the country and advancing American influence. The 2018 National Defense Strategy — mostly classified — provides guidance to the Department of Defense on how to execute it. The rogue regimes of Iran and North Korea, as well as jihadist terrorism, are identified as high priorities. But the biggest threat is seen as strategic competition with China and Russia.

 

Great power competition isn't new, of course. It's an axiom of global geopolitics that small countries act like small countries, and big countries act like big countries. The great powers have always competed globally for power, influence, markets and resources. What's new are greatly accelerated Chinese hegemony and Russia's growing reengagement — 25 years after the end of the Cold War — in the affairs of developing nations.

 

The new era of great power competition may not feature direct warfare among the United States, China and Russia. Reliance on the use of proxies in the theaters of conflict will militate against that scenario. But conflict will arise in countries where it didn't exist before, and conflict will deepen in some where it already exists. In both cases, instability will grow.

 

A Short History of the U.S. Footprint

 

Through diplomatic and other elements of national power, the United States has long had a presence in almost every country in the world. The depth of that engagement, however, has oscillated significantly since World War II.

 

During the Cold War, the U.S. overseas footprint expanded to global proportions. As one illustration of this, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Agency for International Development had operations in 23 of the 24 countries in Central and West Africa. Five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union (1990-1991), USAID's presence there had dropped to just eight countries in which the United States had more enduring strategic objectives — cobalt, for example, in what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 

The decline was partially offset by new U.S. engagement in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states. As the Soviet Union dissolved, the United States seeded the newly independent states with funding to promote democracy and market economics. While that assistance remained limited in most of Central Asia, the United States became more deeply involved in Eastern European countries like Ukraine.

 

After 9/11, the configuration of the footprint again changed dramatically. Within three months, the United States and its Afghan allies had overthrown the Taliban regime, and within 18 months, the United States was deeply invested in Iraq. By 2017, U.S. special operations forces were deployed to 149 countries.

 

Now, with the U.S. strategic emphasis pivoting from counterterrorism back to great power competition, the nature of U.S. engagement is changing again. As the United States, Russia and China increasingly compete, confrontation in countries like Venezuela will deepen. Many other countries will become theaters of competition, and some will slide into conflict. In almost all cases, for cost, deniability and other reasons, the great powers will rely on proxies to wage conflict short of war.

 

Future Contested Geographies

 

The National Defense Strategy identifies four primary regions where great power competition will play out: the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and the Western Hemisphere. In these regions, especially, conflict will grow.

 

More recently, China's objectives have grown more strategic. They now focus on locking up natural resources, controlling marine transportation routes and either establishing or controlling strategic — especially coastal — infrastructure. It pursues these objectives through multiple instruments of national power, including arms sales and the trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative. The massive connectivity project already covers around two-thirds of the world's population and involves three-quarters of the world's known energy resources.

 

The primary regions where China's influence is emergent are South, Central and Southwest Asia, the South China Sea, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa. China is also targeting resource-rich or otherwise strategic countries in Europe, like Greece and Italy, as well as in the Western Hemisphere. These include Greenland to the north and Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Bolivia, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, Venezuela and Mexico to the south of the United States.

 

With respect to Russia, the National Defense Strategy cites Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine as regions of particular concern. But Russia is increasingly engaged with many other countries, in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, North Africa, the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa. In Latin America, theaters of competition include Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

 

As the United States strengthens its hand in Eastern Europe through the European Reassurance Initiative, considers an expanded footprint in Poland and moves to end the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Russia will likely reciprocate closer to the U.S. mainland. Already, Russia is planning a military base on Venezuela's La Orchila Island.

 

Great Power Competition and the Stability of Nations

 

Great power conflict has profound implications for the stability of nations. Often an end in itself, stability is characterized by constancy, persistence, absence of turbulence and resistance to change.

 

Political systems vary in how stable they are. Totalitarian governments are arguably the most stable, followed by established democracies, dictatorships, new regimes and failed states. In economics, stability makes social and economic development possible by attracting the critical mass of foreign direct investment required to pay for national development. In terms of war, stability is important because stable countries are more resistant to the kinds of influence that lead to war, and stability makes military progress more sustainable.

 

Until countries stabilize, they typically require help from a wide range of military, civilian, government, bilateral, multilateral, nongovernmental and private sector actors. In practice, this assistance focuses on three basic elements: security, governance and economics. All three are deeply co-dependent.

 

Security is the sine qua non. Without strong national and internal security, neither good governance nor economic fundamentals can evolve sustainably. Stable governance — not to be conflated with democracy — requires countries to manage their political, military, policing, economic, social, legal, regulatory and judicial affairs. Economic elements of stability include economic infrastructure, and the legal, regulatory and policy environments required for economic growth.

 

In the era of great power competition, the number of countries in the gray zone between war and peace will grow as new countries become theaters of competition. This will require stronger engagement in gray-zone stability operations, both before and after conflicts. Fewer U.S. resources will likely be allocated to long-term stabilization, however, because of U.S. budget limitations, domestic funding needs, donor fatigue and widespread public aversion to anything that walks, talks or looks like nation-building.

 

Even as stability operations are increasingly funded by other donors, the most likely scenario is less stability in countries where stability needs are unmet. Where the United States does engage, like in Syria and Iraq, it will play a declining hands-on role as the scope and extent of direct intervention narrows. This assistance will mostly be executed through grants to the host country, and to international organizations like the World Bank, the regional development banks and the United Nations.

 

Upshots

 

In the future, more countries are likely to serve as theaters of great power competition. Conflict will arise in those countries where it didn't exist before, and will deepen in those where it already exists. In both cases, instability will grow. The use of proxies will mitigate the potential for direct great power conflict, but tensions will rise as the world becomes smaller and opportunities for conflict grow.

 

 

About the Author(s)

Jeff Goodson is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer.  In twenty-nine years with the U.S. Agency for International Development, he worked on the ground in 49 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  He was Chief of Staff at USAID/Afghanistan from 2006-2007, and Director of Development at ISAF HQ in Kabul from 2010-2012 under General David Petraeus and General John Allen.  The opinions expressed are his alone.

Comments

Bill, 

I agree with what May said, and I certainly agree with Trump’s articulation.  As for Putin, well, keeping clients in the fold means keeping their leaders in the fold, and that means reconstruction when you’ve busted their country.  

Regardless of whether you’re a quasi-free market western country, a socialist European country, the Chicomms or an unreconstructed Soviet like Putin, stabilizing a place still comes down to the three basic fundamentals: security (internal and external), governance (basic service delivery) and economic fundamentals (economic infrastructure and economic policy).

That said, it looks like on our side the evolving approach to certain wars is heading towards a sharper division of labor and finance:  We’ll pay for breaking a place like Syria, but Syria’s neighbors and friends need to pay for putting it back together.  With the US $20 trillion or so in debt, there’s a lot to be said for that.  Even if we weren’t in debt, there’s a compelling financial inequity there that needs to be balanced—Powell’s famous Pottery Barn analogy notwithstanding.  Just sayin’.

Cheers.

Bill C.

Fri, 04/26/2019 - 11:50am

Thanks Jeff. 

A very interesting discussion -- which I have very much enjoyed.  A last thought:

The U.S., of late, seems to have recognized that -- both with regard to our relations with other great powers -- and with regard to our relations with lesser states and societies also --

a.  The pursuit of our "revolutionary"/"transformative" (more along modern western lines only) agenda/goals/requirements post-the Old Cold War

b.  Re: the other states and societies of the world

c.  This such significantly threatening activities may have, unnecessarily and counterproductively,

1.  "Poisoned the waters," so-to-speak, as to what, otherwise, may have been achieved.  And:

2.   Placed the U.S diplomatic, business and investment communities -- and their interests -- (in comparison to other entities, great powers or no, who make no such significant "cultural change" demands") in a "competitively disadvantaged" position. 

Based on this such understanding -- that our "revolutionary"/"transformative" agenda/goals/requirements have (a) indeed harmed our own needs and interests, (b) placed us in less-competitive position vis-a-vis our competitors and, more generally, (c) placed us on something of a "war" footing with virtually everyone who is "not like us,"

Based on this such understanding, we now seem to have done a complete "about face" -- for example -- as noted here:

First, from Theresa May: 

"This cannot mean a return to the failed policies of the past. The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.”

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/theresa-may-donald-trump-us-uk-no-longer-foreign-intervention-iraq-afghanistan-a7548551.html

Next, from President Trump himself (speaking here): 

“We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government, but we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”

“Strong sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect.”

https://qz.com/1081499/unga-2017-trump-mentioned-sovereignty-21-times-in-a-speech-heralding-a-new-american-view-of-the-world/ 

Thus, possibly, it will not be so much that:

a.  The U.S. will significantly "withdraw from the field" when it comes to "development"/"stability"/"nation-building"/"peace-building activities, etc. (And with regard to improving great power relations also.) But will, instead, 

b.  Simply modify our approach thereto -- by eliminating the (self-defeating?) "transformative " requirements -- this, so as to:

c.  Gain/regain good relations with [and, thus, regain "stability" in?) much of the world?

(With regard to, for example, Russia's less-"culturally threatening" [and, thus, more-competitive/more-successful?] "development"/"stability/"nation-building"/"peace-building" model [which the U.S./the West now seeks to emulate using the May and Trump "non-transformative" criteria outlined above?] to consider the following re: Chechnya? 

"Rebuilding the Republic:

In spite of the destruction caused by the Russians, Putin appears to have adopted Colin Powell’s famous Pottery Barn rule - ‘you break it, you buy it’. Between 2000 and 2010 the Russian government has spent 27 billion dollars on reconstruction in Chechnya , with a further $80 billion pledged to the North Caucasus region as a whole by 2025. When Ramzan became President of Chechnya in 2007 significant funds were given over to the republic and Grozny was rebuilt quickly. Kadyrov has undertaken a campaign of ‘Islamization’, building the largest mosque in Europe, enforcing the wearing of headscarves and limiting alcohol sales. Whether this was a genuine drive to make Chechnya more pious, or simply a ploy to steal ground from the radicals, Kadyrov has consolidated control. After years of devastating war, peace is a high priority for many in Chechnya."

https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-other-side-of-the-coin-the-russians-in-chechnya)

Bill,

I’m on the road right now, and will have to get back to this next week if there’s anything further for you and I to discuss on the subject.  But I doubt there is.  

The short answer to your question: Everyone isn’t required to do it that way, and everyone isn’t doing it that way.  What “everyone” is doing is focusing on the three basic elements of stabilization—security, improving the government’s ability to deliver basic services to its people, and economic fundamentals including economics infrastructure and economic policy.  

“Everyone” by the way, goes way beyond the U.S. to the scores of other bilateral, multilateral, U.N., host country, private sector, military, PVO, NGO, institutional and non-institutional players working in these three core stabilization areas.  We racked up a list of over 150 of them in Afghanistan back in 2010-2012, for example.  While each did it differently, their objectives were largely congruent.

What’s changed on stability ops in the last five years is U.S fatigue and drawback from engagement to the extent we engaged before.  And, of course, the same fatigue among many other donors for this very expensive kind of work.  The upshot is that the impact of less US funding and engagement is very likely to be less stability in those countries that would have otherwise been the recipients of our largesse.  Some of that may be made up by other donors, but overall aid budgets are going down not up.

You can argue otherwise if you like—that less stabilization assistance will increase stability and decrease conflict.   To that I can only say, good luck with that argument.  Time will tell who’s right, and it likely won’t take long.  

Signing off on this.  

Jeff:  Above you said:

"The article isn't making a value judgment or an argument for or against anything, and certainly not for or against the idea that "stability" should be the objective of foreign policy.  It just observes that stability is often the objective."

Jeff: 

Likewise, my thoughts in my comments below, these are not intended to make a value judgement -- or to make an argument for or against anything -- or to suggest the idea that "stability" should be the objective of foreign policy.  Rather, my argument, I believe, simply observes that (a) stability often IS NOT the objective of foreign policy and that (b) when it is not -- and, for example, when such things as "transformation" is considered to be the more important goal -- then, obviously,

a.  "The line between stability and conflict" often has been -- and/or will be -- crossed.  And, accordingly, 

b.  Such phenomenon as the "fight by and for the status quo" -- and/or the "fight by and for a return to the status quo ante" (which, interestingly enough, we are seeing in both the Global South and in the Global North today?) -- these may (1) become manifest and (2) compromise/destroy "stability."  (Both at home and/or abroad.)

Next, let us consider your thoughts here:

"This specific article was written for one purpose: to identify three major impacts of increased great power competition on conflict and stability.  They are: 

(1)  There will be more countries that become new theaters of great power competition, that were not theaters of great power competition before (e.g., Micronesia and many others)

(2)   In countries that are already theaters of great power competition (e.g., Venezuela), conflict will in some cases deepen. 

(3)  Because of current U.S. policy drawing back from stability operations (happy to cite evidence for this, although there wasn't room for it in the original article), instability in both sets of countries is likely to grow. 

Jeff:

In your item (3) above, you suggest (and I agree) that the U.S. is drawing back from stability operations (or, might we say, "transformative operations?").  As for the reasons for this such "drawing back," might we consider that this is because:

a.  The manner in which we do "stability operations" (for example, by attempting to transform other states and societies more along modern western lines), this often causes "instability" rather than "stability?"  Because: 

b.  Our great power competitors often make no/less such (often destabilizing) "transformative" demands on other states and societies?  And because, accordingly,

c.  These factors (see "a" and "b" immediately above) have placed the U.S. in a position of, shall we say, "competitive disadvantage;" this, vis-a-vis our great power competitors?

Question:  If everyone, of necessity now it would seem, is required to do "development"/"stability" in a less-instrusive/less-transformative/more local/indigenous-friendly and respectful manner, then might this lead -- in terms of both great power competition and in terms of conflicts within lesser states and societies themselves -- to less rather than more conflict and instability?

 

Azor, 

I wish I could take credit for that simple stratification of governance types vis-a-vis stability but, sadly, I cannot.  The statement evolved from here:   https://www.quora.com/What-is-political-stability  I mostly agree with it though, if the metric for stability is persistence of the national government and its resistence to change. 

That said, I get your point.  Many if not most totalitarian governments "work" in terms of persistence and resistance to change because they preside with an iron hand over what are very often deeply fractious, typically ethnic, populations.  So conflating the persistence of those governments with internal instability would of course be a mistake.    

A deeper dive into this issue would be useful and, I believe, instructional--not just the simplified model mentioned in the article, but also other models such as that you propose.  The original venue for this article (Stratfor) is not the place to do it, but perhaps SWJ would be if someone were so inclined.   

I disagree with Jeff that totalitarian states "are arguably the most stable" ones.  On the contrary, most totalitarian states - certainly the exemplars of totalitarianism - were rather unstable.  I think that a better discriminator would be whether a state's governance is more personal or more institutional, and this can apply to democracies and non-democracies alike. 

 

 

Of course, North Korea is an outlier here in terms of exhibiting both long-term stability as well as vulnerability to instability.   

Bill, 

With all due respect, the short answer is "no."  

The article isn't making a value judgment or an argument for or against anything, and certainly not for or against the idea that "stability" should be the objective of foreign policy.  It just observes that stability is often the objective. 

This specific article was written for one purpose: to identify three major impacts of increased great power competition on conflict and stability.  They are: 

(1)  There will be more countries that become new theaters of great power competition, that were not theaters of great power competition before (e.g., Micronesia and many others)

(2)   In countries that are already theaters of great power competition (e.g., Venezuela), conflict will in some cases deepen. 

(3)  Because of current U.S. policy drawing back from stability operations (happy to cite evidence for this, although there wasn't room for it in the original article), instability in both sets of countries is likely to grow. 

That's it.  The article's not that complicated--or at least it wasn't written to be. 

Jeff: 

Possibly the following will prove helpful.  Here goes:

"Stability," one should clearly understand, is not the objective. 

Rather achieving/maintaining "national security" -- understood, yesterday as today, more in terms of achieving/maintaining economic competitiveness -- THIS is the requirement/the objective/the goal.  

Herein today, and re: this such "economic competitiveness=national security" imperative (much was the case in the age of the Industrial Revolution?):

a.  The altering of states and societies "status quo" ways of life, ways of governance and values, attitudes and belief becomes necessary.  As does: 

b.  Overcoming of the objections and rebellions of the "old orders." (Whose superior status, place, privilege, protection and profits have been provided for by the currrent -- and/or the recently present -- "status quo.")  

Thus, in circumstances such as these -- when both the "old orders" and the ways of life, ways of governance and values, attitudes and beliefs upon which these such "old orders" are based and depend -- when BOTH of  these become threatened by necessary "change" -- then it becomes easy to see how:

a.  Such things as "development" (political, economic, social and/or value "change?")

b.  And "foreign"/"alien" involvement in these such processes

c.  Can so easily lead to such things as (a) "instability" and (b) "return to the status quo ante" movements.  And, these,

d.  In both the Global North and the Global South. 

(For instance as exemplified, today, by such things as the "Caliphate"/"return to the Golden Age" movement in the areas of the Global South -- and by such things as the "Make America Great Again"/"return to the Golden Age" movement in areas of the Global North.)

In essense, then, govenments today, much as in the past -- and in both the Global South and in the Global North also  -- are forced by circumstances to choose between:

a.  "Stability" (often best represented by the status quo and/or status quo ante?) and:

b.  The need to "transform."  (For example, so as to achieve, and/or to maintain, "economic competitiveness" -- as is required for such things as "national security?")

As we know from our own history, when (a) governments choose "transformation," then this often leads to (b) massive instability -- and indeed formal internal war -- this, as this often "two steps forward/one step back" means of achieving "progress" takes place; for example, as identified below:

BEGIN QUOTE 

Jacksonians drew support from Northern Laborers and yeoman farmers in the South and West.  These groups, which Jackson dubbed the "bone and sinew" of America, worried that the market economy would force them into the dependent class.  The Jacksonians told farmers and laborers that they would do everything in their power to prevent this from taking place.  In essence, the men and their rank and file voting allies, along with Jackson, fought a rear-guard action against encroaching industrialization and market economy. Although they won the pivotal battles, they lost the war, because their notion of a pre-capitalist agrarian society succumbed to the industrial economy after the Civil War.

END QUOTE 

https://books.google.com/books?id=8H-iCQAAQBAJ&pg=RA1-PA194&lpg=RA1-PA19..

(Jeff:  Does this help/better explain my "line between conflict and stability" and "development, obviously,  causes instability" thoughts below?)  

 

 

Azor, 

Not really.  I was referring to the dramatic growth of foreign direct investment (FDI) since the 1980s, and how the role of FDI has come to far overshadow traditional aid funding as the major engine for economic growth.  See an earlier piece I did on this specific topic here:  https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/how-development-finance-changing-geopolitics

Today, except in some of the true economic basket cases in the world, it's FDI which is overwheliming driving economic development.  That includes especially the industrialized countries, where most FDI flows, but also almost every other country in the world.  Except in the basket cases (e.g., Afghanistan), where traditional donor assistance is pushing security, governance and ecconomic fundamentals to create the stability required to attract FDI.  

Of direct relevance to this is what a seminal World Bank study found about what corporations really want before they make foreign investment decisions.  I won't go into it here, but would refer you to this benchmark 2017-2018 survey:  http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/651751510251223013/GIC-execsum.pdf

First and foremost, in a list of ten major factors affecting their investment decisions, they want "political stability and security." 

Bill C.,

 

Jeff describes stability as: "characterized by constancy, persistence, absence of turbulence and resistance to change."

 

His discussion of attracting foreign capital would apply more to newer and/or smaller states, although both Hitler and Stalin made extensive use of foreign capital initially.  

Bill C.

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 12:50pm

Jeff: 

In the section of your paper above, entitiled Great Power Competition and the Stability of Nations, you seem to associate the idea of "stability" with:

a.  Such things as exceptional economic, social and value "development" or "change;" these brought about, for example,

b.  By massive and continuous foreign interference and "investment." 

" ... In economics, stability makes social and economic development possible by attracting the critical mass of foreign direct investment required to pay for national development. ... Until countries stabilize, they typically require help from a wide range of military, civilian, government, bilateral, multilateral, nongovernmental and private sector actors. In practice, this assistance focuses on three basic elements: security, governance and economics. All three are deeply co-dependent."

Whereas, in seeming contradition to this such idea, and at the very beginning of this section of your paper above, you suggest that "stability" is "characterized by constancy, persistence, absence of turbulence and resistance to change."

Thus, as to "the line between conflict and stability" today -- whether we are talking about "great power competition" or no -- as to this such "line," should we not:

a.  Given such things as the recent Brexit and election of President Trump in the Global North

b.  Now, finally, come to understand such things as "stability:"

1.  Less in "development"/"change"/"foreign investment/foreign involvement/foreign consideration" terms.  And:

2.  More in, shall we say, "local," "traditional" and "status quo" terms? 

(Or, indeed, more in "status quo ante" terms?  This, if the populations believe that too much unwanted "development," "change" and/or "foreign involvement" has already taken place.  In this regard, consider the [similar?] example -- and the [common?] appeal -- of such things as the "Caliphate" and the "Make America Great Again" movements.  Similar "resistance to unwanted development/unwanted change"/"foreign involvement" movements which -- now obviously -- are not limited to the Global South?)