To Counter China, the U.S. Needs a More Disciplined Grand Strategy
In 1948, George Kennan penned a report on "the political-strategic background of U.S. aid programs" for the State Department. Kennan, the architect of containment and author of the famous "Long Telegram," recognized that some regions of the globe were more vital to American interests than others, and his report emphasized the need to prioritize where the country committed its resources. Both Greece and Nationalist China, for instance, were receiving U.S. assistance; and though each government faced a communist insurgency, Kennan advocated increasing support for Greece while limiting involvement in China. His reasoning was clear. He wrote that Greece formed "an integral part of the defense of the Middle East;" its fall could lead to communist domination of the region's oil and advantageous strategic positions. On the other hand, China lacked the same military-industrial importance; moreover, both the costs of intervention and the likelihood of failure would be significantly higher. Subsequent developments would vindicate this judgment: Soviet penetration of the Eastern Mediterranean was halted, while the 'fall' of China failed to meaningfully alter the outcome of the Cold War.
As we navigate the most eventful and chaotic year in recent history, Washington would do well to recover this strategic clarity. Of course, things have changed since Kennan’s day: eighty-two years on, China now constitutes the single greatest international challenge facing the United States, threatening our economic prosperity, geopolitical influence, and, ultimately, the viability of our political model. Given the stakes and intensity of this contest—not to mention the domestic resource constraints—America cannot afford extraneous commitments. Therefore, a successful grand strategy must distinguish between core and peripheral interests, prioritizing the former and limiting investments in the latter.
If taken seriously, this would represent a significant departure from the last thirty years of U.S. statecraft. The 'lone superpower' mindset, which developed after the Cold War, has been difficult to shake; even in an acknowledged era of near-peer competition, we still want to have it all. With nearly 800 military bases and hundreds of thousands of troops deployed abroad, ongoing combat missions in war zones like Afghanistan and Somalia, and an ever-expanding list of countries we are obliged to protect, Washington remains addicted to a seemingly indiscriminate global presence. The most recent National Defense Strategy provides a clear picture of this overstretch??—despite paying lip-service to the need for a “more resource-sustainable approach,” the document is omnivorous in its aims, pledging to roll back Chinese and Russian aggression across all domains, energetically counter ‘rogue regimes’ like Iran and North Korea, “consolidate gains” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, fight terrorism in Africa, and re-invigorate NATO, among other commitments.
Despite this mentality's endurance, there have been a few encouraging signs that some policymakers, at least, recognize the need to prioritize. For one thing, there is an increasing and bipartisan acknowledgment of the primacy of the Chinese threat. This is particularly important after years of misplaced emphasis on Russia—although Moscow remains a geopolitical rival, the regional scope of its ambitions and limited nature of its power base (Russia, after all, has a smaller GDP than Italy and fewer people than Bangladesh) make it significantly more manageable. Steps have also been taken to dial back American engagement with peripheral areas. In December 2019, the New York Times reported that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was considering a significant reduction of the U.S. military presence in West Africa and the Sahel. And in February 2020, the Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban that, if it holds, would lead to the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by next summer.
Predictably, these efforts have met with resistance from the foreign policy establishment. When the potential drawdown in Africa was reported, for instance, it sparked congressional protests, critical op-eds, and general outrage from ‘the Blob.’ Any withdrawal would “result in a surge of violent extremist attacks,” Senators Lindsey Graham and Chris Coons charged, as well as “embolden both Russia and China.” In reality, military involvement in Africa has yielded negligible gains for U.S. security. The Islamist groups our counter-terrorism missions target lack the ability or intent to hit the homeland; it was grimly telling that, when four American servicemen were killed in Niger three years ago, senior lawmakers were unaware there were even troops in the country. In addition to putting our soldiers at risk, continued security assistance to inept governments creates dependence at best and enables abuses at worst. As for the notion that troops are needed to counter China and Russia, our resources are better spent supporting more vital missions. Reflexively mirroring competitors' moves is bad strategy, and if our rivals want to expend blood and treasure in less critical areas, why not let them?
Refocusing our grand strategy isn’t just about retrenchment. Cutting peripheral commitments will allow expanded investments in areas of core strategic importance. The U.S. should increase its support for and presence in key countries in the Indo-Pacific, to encompass both long-standing allies like Australia, Japan, and embattled Taiwan as well as newer partners like India. There are also non-military imperatives: American dependence on China for everything from medical supplies to smartphones has shown the need to ‘decouple’ from Beijing and re-invigorate the domestic industrial base. Our technological edge must be treated as a crucial strategic asset, particularly as Chinese firms' role in technological and communications infrastructure increases and commercial espionage intensifies.
As we enter the 2020s, much about the future contours and outcome of this rivalry remains uncertain. But unless we learn to distinguish the core from the peripheral—and act accordingly—the United States may find itself on the losing end of the century’s most important geopolitical contest.
Luke Nicastro is a defense analyst and writer based in Washington, DC. He has worked with clients including the Department of the Navy, Department of State, and the National Defense University.