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What sparks could ignite the next great-power conflagration?

Posted By Administration, Sunday, July 15, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Craig Perry has written his seventh installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece asks about what might ignite the next great-power conflagration. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

America’s great-power rivals are increasingly pursuing strategic ends through nonmilitary means, betting that competition short of conflict will advance their interests without risking nuclear annihilation. Yet they are also gearing up to project military force abroad, and defend themselves should the United States intervene to defend its interests and allies. This raises the very real possibility that Russian or Chinese adventurism—and miscalculations over American willingness or ability to respond militarily—could inadvertently trigger the next great-power war. Unfortunately, growing doubts about longstanding U.S. commitments to its allies and international norms are making this tragic outcome far more likely.

Russia has reemerged in the past decade as a formidable military power, capable of defeating neighboring states such as Georgia and Ukraine while seizing the initiative farther afield in Syria. Its theater ballistic missiles and sophisticated air and coastal defense systems dominate the Black Sea and Baltic regions, posing a worrying threat to America’s NATO allies. Similarly, the People’s Republic of China has vastly improved its offensive capabilities in recent years, projecting naval power far beyond its littoral areas while holding its renegade offshore province, Taiwan, at ever-greater risk.

These developments have substantially increased the likelihood of American forces coming into conflict with their great-power counterparts. For example, not long after Russian mercenaries launched an ill-fated attack on a U.S. outpost in Syria earlier this year, the United States and Russia nearly come to blows over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Just a month later, China deployed a nuclear-capable bomber to the disputed Paracel Islands, then dispatched warships to challenge the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation in the region. As such brinkmanship becomes more common, the likelihood of a serious—and potentially escalatory—military confrontation will only grow.

This problem is particularly acute wherever the United States maintains alliances within its rivals’ historical spheres of influence. In Europe, Moscow could quickly defeat the meager NATO forces forward-deployed to the Baltic States—former Soviet republics sandwiched between mainland Russia and its Kaliningrad exclave—while making it exceedingly difficult for the United States and its allies to retake this territory without triggering nuclear war. Meanwhile in Asia, Beijing has set a mid-century deadline for national reunification, with the People’s Liberation Army reportedly planning to accomplish this goal as early as 2020. The PLA is already poised to overwhelm Taiwanese defenses with little warning, and disrupt U.S. carrier and airbase operations as far away as Okinawa and Guam through a combination of kinetic, cyber, and electronic warfare. In both cases, America’s near-peer adversaries are positioned to seize the initiative in their own backyards while severely complicating Washington’s ability to come to the aid of its allies.

All of this presupposes, of course, that the United States remains fully committed to its far-flung network of alliances, which have been a cornerstone of its foreign policy success since World War II. The 2016 election of a U.S. commander-in-chief who repeatedly questions the value of NATO and other foreign entanglements, however, has fundamentally challenged assumptions of American resolve. President Trump’s pronouncements naturally undermine confidence in U.S. security guarantees, and this growing uncertainty may eventually embolden Russia or China to call America’s bluff. The ramifications of such a gamble would be catastrophic: if the U.S. military responds as promised, it would plunge the world into the next great-power war; if it does not, the international system that has underpinned global peace and prosperity for the better part of a century would come to an ignominious end. Either way, the future is shaping up to be a much different place than the “Pax Americana” of yesteryear.


© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  NATO  politics  war 

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What’s So Great About the Great Powers?

Posted By Administration, Monday, February 5, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Craig Perry is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his second article for the program. As you can see from the title, he has a few points to make about the great powers.

Before we can answer the question of whether another great-power war is inevitable, we should first clarify what constitutes greatness in the context of international relations. Scholars have debated this issue over the years, focusing primarily on military strength underpinned by economic vitality—which in turn are functions of population, resource endowment, and territorial expanse. A state’s political system can also contribute to its great-power rank, especially when it mobilizes its potential in pursuit of global interests. And of course, a state’s ability to shape the preferences of others through diplomacy, culture, and values—its soft power—augments its military and economic instruments of national power.

Given all that, the number of prospective great powers will remain quite small through the middle of the 21st century—with the world’s sole remaining superpower continuing to top the list. Although China and India will likely overtake the United States as the world’s largest economies by 2050, America’s steadily growing population should compensate for lackluster growth. Washington shows no sign of retreating into isolationism as it did after the First World War, and it will almost certainly continue investing in formidable military forces to defend its expansive interests around the globe, as well as exercising a significant—if increasingly contested—role in institutions ranging from the United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

By mid-century, however, America will no longer be the world’s unrivaled hegemon. The People’s Republic of China has already surpassed the United States in the gross domestic product at purchasing power parity, and this lead will only widen in the coming decades regardless of the Middle Kingdom’s impending demographic decline. The People’s Liberation Army is emerging as a near-peer competitor to the U.S. military, bolstering China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy ambitions in Asia and around the world. Frustrated by U.S.-dominated international institutions, China is developing a rival framework to advance its foreign-policy ambitions.

If China is slowly reemerging as a great power after a century and a half of foreign domination, the Russian Federation clings to delusions of Soviet grandeur despite the collapse of its empire, economy, and political system within the past three decades. Russia retains an enormous landmass and a wealth of natural resources, but it has less than half the population of the USSR—and it is expected to shrink further in the coming decades. Nevertheless, Russia is projected to remain the world’s sixth largest economy through mid-century—its overreliance on oil and gas exploitation notwithstanding—and Moscow will remain capable of fielding ever-more sophisticated military forces and projecting power across much of the globe. Moreover, unlike the Chinese, Russians can recall what it was like to be a superpower within living memory, and their leaders are determined to restore the Eurasian bear to (what they believe is) its rightful place in the international community.

While China and Russia are revisionist states challenging the U.S.-dominated international order, several other former great powers are less likely to disturb the status quo. Japan’s demographic decline and meager economic growth do not bode well for its future influence in a region increasingly dominated by its archrival, China. While Germany’s trajectory is similar to Japan, its influence is amplified by its membership in the European Union, whose combined population and economic output will continue to surpass America’s even after Britain exits the bloc. If Germany, France, and other EU member states were to renew their quest for an ever closer union by further pooling sovereignty in the foreign and security policy domains, it is not farfetched to imagine a European super-state could one day emerge as a great power alongside the United States—or even its rival, should America’s NATO commitments waver.

Of the remaining states whose economic and demographic growth ought to inspire great power aspirations, none are likely to overcome their internal weaknesses or emerge from the shadow of powerful neighbors anytime soon. India, for example, will boast the world’s largest population and second-largest economy by mid-century, but its unwieldy political system and China’s regional dominance will limit its great-power prospects.

Ultimately, what makes great powers great depends not only on what they bring to the table but also on which other states have already claimed a seat. The United States, China, Russia, and (perhaps) the EU will continue to crowd out most regional rivals through a combination of economic strength, military prowess, and soft-power appeal while leveraging their privileged positions in international institutions like the UN Security Council to advance their interests. Rogue regimes, terrorist and criminal networks, and transnational corporations and other nongovernmental organizations will undoubtedly nudge international relations this way or that, but it is the great powers who will continue writing the rules of the game.


© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  NATO  politics  power 

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