Global Governance
America’s Evolving Approach to Great Power Competition

The incoming Biden administration has declared its intent to reverse many Trump-era policies, such as Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change and his ban on travel by foreign nationals from several Middle East countries to the United States. Nevertheless, few expect the new U.S. president to change the Trump administration’s assessment that long-term strategic competition with China and Russia is America’s “central challenge.” How the Biden administration pursues this competition will contribute substantially to defining the emerging international system. 

While the Trump administration formalized “great power competition” as an organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy, the shift away from combating international terrorism and toward great power competition had been underway for quite some time. The process began with Barack Obama’s 2008 election in part due to public rejection of his predecessor George W. Bush’s continuing efforts to occupy and transform Iraq and Afghanistan. Then-President Obama sought to scale back the U.S. role in both countries and succeeded in withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq; his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call for a “pivot” to Asia provided a useful justification for this. Nevertheless, many Republicans who supported this change in focus complained that Obama did not the pivot, soon called a “rebalancing,” did not include meaningful changes in the deployment of U.S. troops, aircraft or ships. Mr. Obama—who wanted to concentrate on domestic policy—seems to have considered the policy an excuse to get out of the Middle East and little more.

The Arab Spring significantly complicated the Obama administration’s efforts to disengage from the Middle East, however. On one hand, the administration struggled to manage cascading crises that were as unexpected in Washington as anywhere else, notwithstanding fears in some foreign capitals that the United States government had deliberately orchestrated popular uprisings across the region. On the other hand, U.S. officials faced punishing domestic criticism over the withdrawal from Iraq, which some saw as enabling the rise of the Islamic State in that country and in Syria. Ultimately, U.S. policy responses would fail in both Syria and Libya, in no small part because President Obama appeared torn between a personal desire to avoid entanglement and political pressure to take decisive action. 

The transition from a foreign policy focused on combating terrorism and stabilizing the Middle East to one oriented toward competition with China and Russia was not only a result of lessons learned from unsuccessful policies and U.S. domestic politics. It was also to a large degree a consequence of Chinese and Russian policy decisions. In China’s case, Beijing became increasingly assertive in East Asia following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, something that many have attributed to Chinese leaders’ sense that the crisis was an indicator of American decline. China’s regular confrontations with U.S. allies and others in the South China Sea, rapidly expanding military expenditures, territorial claims, and heavy-handed diplomacy in dealing with other governments in the region persuaded much of Washington’s foreign policy establishment that Beijing was determined to eject the United States from East Asia. China also personally snubbed Obama at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit and, some believe, deliberately obstructed agreement while trying to shift blame to Washington.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-Russia “reset” slowed and stalled amid tension surrounding former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s status in Russia, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he would return to the presidency, and Russian concerns that the United States had fomented protests in the country after State Duma elections. By 2014, the U.S.-Russia relationship would essentially collapse following Russia’s seizure of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. For the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Russia’s intervention to prevent the ouster of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad only confirmed Moscow’s reemergence as a military power hostile to U.S. interests. 

Looking ahead, the Biden administration will have to make fundamental decisions in pursuing competition with Beijing and Moscow. The first and most important such decision is whether to compete equally and simultaneously with each or, alternatively, to continue strong competition with one while seeking less a tense form of competition with the other. Former President Donald Trump and some of his advisors initially seemed to hope that the United States could improve its relationship with Russia to alter dynamics in the U.S.-China-Russia triangle, though Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and political backlash in the United States quickly made this approach impractical. Though the Biden administration will seek an extension of the New START arms control treaty—which Trump sought to make contingent on China’s participation—the new U.S. leadership has also signaled disinterest in a new “reset” and a preference to ensure that Moscow is “accountable for their reckless and aggressive actions.”

Most in Washington view China as a greater long-term threat—since it is closer to being an American peer—so there is an argument for giving priority to competition with Beijing. That said, many also see China as a more important and more plausible partner on global issues like climate change, which Mr. Biden has identified as a top U.S. concern. Perhaps more important, despite Donald Trump’s trade war, the U.S.-China economic relationship remains in many respects the spine of the global economy; this is a strong argument for caution, perhaps even more so as the Biden team concentrates on tackling the pandemic and building a post-COVID-19 economic recovery . Indeed, many have argued that the single most important step the United States could take in competing with China is to get its own house in order. 

As it decides how to proceed with dealing with its two great power rivals, Biden administration will simultaneously engage U.S. allies in Asia and Europe. From this perspective, it seems likely that U.S. allies will make greater efforts to preserve the U.S.-China relationship, and their own relations with Beijing, than they will make in defense of U.S.-Russia relations or their ties to Moscow. There are several reasons for this, including the realities that Asia’s geography limits China’s military threat to U.S. allies—Beijing’s ground forces cannot swiftly invade allied countries—and that China is often the number one or number two trade partner for U.S. allies in Asia and Europe, while Russia plays a smaller role in trade and especially in investment, particularly in Asia.
On top of this, America’s allies are generally united in wanting the United States to stabilize its relations with China; a similar consensus among U.S. allies does not exist with respect to Russia.

Some NATO allies—notably in Central Europe—have consistently pressed for a more confrontational American approach to Russia.

Finally, while Washington does not trust Beijing, notably in living up to its trade and intellectual property commitments and in pursuing high-tech espionage, America’s elites strongly distrust Moscow. This is in part due to the Russian government’s many implausible denials, such as the long-standing denial that Russian troops are in eastern Ukraine and denials of political interference in the United States, and Russia’s use of force in Ukraine and Syria. However, it is also a consequence of the more personalized U.S.-Russia relationship, which has focused the anger of the U.S. political and media establishment on President Vladimir Putin rather than “Russia.” As a result, it is difficult for many in the U.S. foreign policy community to envision improvement in U.S.-Russia relations until Putin leaves office, whenever that may be.

Whether or not the Biden administration makes a conscious strategic choice, U.S. relations with China seem set to improve somewhat—if Beijing is prepared to reciprocate—even as ties to Russia remain adversarial in tone and content. In geometry, it is impossible to change two angles in a triangle without altering the third. Whether this holds true in international affairs remains to be seen.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.