A Timely Call for “Responsible Competition”

A review of Thomas J. Wright’s new book All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the Twenty-First Century and the Future of American Power

By Ian Armstrong

When President Donald Trump put forth a “hard power” US budget in March that envisioned a $54 billion increase in defense spending while slashing diplomatic funding, it underscored — perhaps unwittingly — a difficult reality of our time. The long-standing geopolitical competition that had briefly appeared to decline following the Cold War has returned in full swing, and the most powerful country on Earth now needs to revise its global strategy in order to adapt.

Indeed, Trump, a critic of liberal institutions who lacks a reconcilable grand strategy, has ascended to the presidency at the most urgent moment for the international order since the fall of the Soviet Union. Eight years of overreaching US foreign intervention have been followed by eight subsequent years of an overly cautious Washington comfortable with retrenchment abroad. A rising China, an antagonistically resurgent Russia, and an empowered Iran threaten the US-led international order through destabilizing challenges to the status quo in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East respectively. In this era of fragility for the global framework that has, for all its flaws, staved off world wars and increased prosperity, what form must US grand strategy take to yield success against its increasingly fervent geopolitical competitors?

These quandaries are addressed wholeheartedly in All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the Twenty-First Century and the Future of American Power by Thomas J. Wright, Director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. Offering one of the first comprehensive analyses of great power competition in the Trump era, Wright asserts that the United States is best poised for success under a grand strategy of increased yet principled US engagement across the three pivotal geopolitical regions of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Coined as “responsible competition,” Wright’s grand strategy ultimately seeks to reinforce the liberal order that has afforded the United States a position of unrivaled strength, incentivized geopolitical rivals to cooperate, and ensured global stability. Upholding this proposal is a simple yet powerful assumption — that greater US disengagement abroad leads to greater international crises. At the same time, Wright is quick to acknowledge that an American re-commitment in key geopolitical domains must avoid “overreacting or jeopardizing cooperation” elsewhere.

The result is an optimistic yet clear-eyed strategy to navigating global affairs in a time of great division, both domestically and internationally. Wright balances the strategic visions of the preceding Presidents Bush and Obama, striking an approachable middle ground between the often unchecked interventionism of the former and the passivity of the latter. It is, recognizably, a centrist approach to foreign and security policy that is not dissimilar to the strategy that Hillary Clinton would have seemingly pursued in the event she became president.

Wright’s approach is also — through its embrace of globalism, emphasis on the importance of historical US allies, and advocacy for a large footprint overseas — a sharp departure from the neo-isolationist and highly transactional geostrategy espoused by President Donald Trump. The irony of these circumstances is not lost on Wright, who acknowledges flatly that “the United States is unlikely to pursue responsible competition under a Trump Presidency,” and it is this stark contrast with the new administration that makes Wright’s assessment of American power all the more appropriate for the prevailing era.

As timely as it is, however, All Measures Short of War was completed roughly a month before Trump officially assumed the Presidency. Thus, while Wright offers astute analysis of the various, often irreconcilable statements that comprised the confused grand strategy of Trump as candidate and president-elect, his assessment ends just prior to Trump’s actual strategic endeavors as the newly minted commander-in-chief.

Expanding Wright’s assessment to the initial foreign policy efforts of President Trump, it is clear that current US foreign policy is, as forecast, quite contrary to the strategy of responsible competition.

In Europe, where Wright’s core policy recommendations revolve around countering Russia through full engagement with the European Union and unquestionable commitment to European security, President Trump has failed to assure EU leaders on the nature of the Russian threat and weakened the credibility of the NATO security guarantee. In Asia, “responsible competition” requires deepening the liberal order as a hedge against Chinese efforts at regional dominance. Instead, President Trump has removed the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving Asian allies and partners without a US-led economic vision for the region and opening the door for China to expand its influence.

Finally, on global issues — where Wright argues is the greatest opportunity for cooperation between the competing powers of the United States, Russia, and China — the Trump Administration has now entirely withdrawn itself from the Paris Climate Accord, a near universal agreement to address climate change. Much like Wright’s assertion that the United States held a geopolitical “royal flush” after emerging victorious in the Cold War, there is now a serious question as to whether or not Washington is even dealt into the game.

Still, despite a passionate defense from Wright of the liberal international order and US engagement, the anti-globalist US president has nonetheless endorsed some tenets of the decidedly liberal “responsible competition” maxim. This is namely in the Middle East, where Trump appears to be following Wright’s cornerstone regional prescription of re-engagement with traditional Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. As Wright notes, this approach to balancing Iran has “obvious flaws” given the suppressive authoritarianism of nations like Riyadh and Cairo, but it is “far better” than the alternatives of retrenchment or appeasing Iran.

And yet, All Things Short of War perhaps more than anything stands as an affirmation that the United States cannot succeed in this renewed era of great power competition by pursuing foreign affairs in piecemeal fashion, nor by forgoing its values. To date, mixed signals from the Trump Administration on today’s central Middle Eastern crisis, the Syrian Civil War, suggests that coherent regional strategy is being substituted for disparate, ad hoc responses. More so, the president and his cabinet have clearly stated that the pivot to Arab allies will not be accompanied by conditions on economic reforms or progress on human rights. Through the world view eschewed by Wright, both of these indiscretions ultimately hurt the liberal international order in which the United States thrives and much of the world prospers.

Ian Armstrong is the Geostrategy & Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also a compliance contractor at the Department of Defense, as well as a Senior Analyst and Commissioning Editor at Global Risk Insights. Ian earned his BA in Political Science from Temple University.

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