In this first article in his new series on the emerging global order, Tarek Osman looks at America’s objectives, calculus, and new way of operations as it enters the most challenging confrontation in its entire history, to retain its primacy against a rising and increasingly assertive China.
America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was messy, and for some, embarrassing. But it was deliberate – going out now, irrespective of consequences, even at the cost of abandoning what was invested in Afghanistan in a twenty years war. The message was clear. Wars for no clear reasons and that have no clear ends are in the past.
And it is not only in Afghanistan. American military bases across Europe are getting smaller, and some are disappearing. In the Middle East, decades-long navy and airforce presences in different parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf are being reduced, and local partners are strongly encouraged to assume much greater defence responsibilities. Even in Latin America which was always seen in Washington as America’s backwater, America is disengaging from most dossiers that do not have international implications.
These withdrawals and disengagements have nothing to do with lessons drawn from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or from disappointments in allies’ commitments and positions. They are about the future.
For over a decade now, America has been transforming its strategic positioning in the world to amass the most important of its capabilities in East Asia, the theatre that will witness the first phase of its strategic confrontation with China.
Strategic confrontation does not mean war, although military clashes are scenarios both America and China have in their calculuses. At heart, however, strategic confrontation means competition in political, economic, cultural, and technological domains so as to secure one side’s objectives.
The key issue now is that the two sides’ objectives are clashing. America wants to perpetuate its primacy as by far the most powerful, advanced, and richest country in the world. China’s objectives have changed in the past few years. In the past two decades, China was trying to carve for itself a sphere outside the dominion of the US. Now China strives to significantly widen that sphere and impose on it its own rules (which are vastly different from America’s, as we’ll discuss in the next article in this series).
Views differ within America on how to engage with China. Some call for a measured approach that acknowledges that China’s rise necessitates some form of Chinese dominion, primarily over large parts of East Asia. This view is supported, and often championed, by a rich lobby whose financial interests are in an open Chinese market, integrated supply chains between American and Chinese manufacturing and technology companies, and in a meshed American and Chinese financial systems.
But there is another view. In it, this highly integrated American and Chinese economies and financial systems is acquiescence to China’s rise to become an equal of America, which in this view tantamount to defeat – something America has never accepted, from its earliest days of rebelling against the British empire to the last days of the Cold War when Reagan was challenging the Soviet Union.
In this view, America must work to secure its decades-long primacy, which means halting or at least slowing down China’s rise. In America’s serious decision-making circles, this translates into three work streams.
First: external concentration. This is the idea of disengaging from all that is not a priority for America’s major military and economic interests. This is the thinking that has led America to majorly lessen its positioning and commitments in Europe and the Middle East and the Gulf, and to actively deepen its alliances in the entire Pacific region.
Second: agenda reorganisation. This means putting an end to the American practice, from the end of the Cold War, of engaging separately yet simultaneously in realpolitik, state building, human rights promotion, international development, and free global trade. The past three decades have made it clear that opposing objectives are not conducive to coherent strategy - something has to give. This is why America is increasingly reorganising its agendas by region. Already some voices are warning of potential inconsistencies. But where strategic choices are being made, inconsistency is seen as discretion and prioritisation.
Third: internal reconstruction. There is a view, within and without America, that American politics has fallen into fantasy which is leading to failure. This means, many see that American politics have become shows where populism, marketing gimmicks, hollow rhetoric, and sensationalisms of all sorts, dominate over serious debates and reflections. In this view, the result is a descent in both: real representation and judgement in decision-making. For some, this is an acute decline in American democracy. For others, it is also a threat to American national security, because it opens the legislative and executive powers to external influence, obsession with the short-term, and pushes both of them into mediocrity. And these are hardly the requirements of a superpower embarking on a strategic confrontation to secure its primacy against a highly organised rising behemoth (China).
This is why there are efforts in America to significantly improve competitive dynamics in key industries, to curb the excesses of major concentrations of capital, to widen the common ground in politics so as to reduce the alarming social polarisations, and to pour hundreds of billions of Dollars into new infrastructure.
The thinking behind these three factors (concentration, reorganisation, and reconstruction) focuses on the long term. It follows the most memorable words of Bill Donovan, the founder of the Office of Strategic Services, out of which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) emerged: “establish and nurture”.
America is establishing a new base on which to stand as it exits the three decades in which it was the world’s sole superpower, and as it enters its new strategic confrontation with China. “Nurturing” entails discipline and determination, which are needed, because many in America are doubtful that America can win this confrontation. This is new in American history, and is vastly different from anything America witnessed throughout the Cold War with the Soviet Union. America has always seen itself as with much more superior intellectual foundations, resources, capabilities, and capacities at mobilisation, than any of its opponents in the past two hundred years – from the Spanish empire to Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia. Today, the decay inside America has left some wondering. This is why there are voices strongly advising against entering that strategic confrontation.
But that train has already left the station. The three work streams already put in action are seen as the pillars of the strategy to secure American primacy.
The key principals of American decision-making – in the two big political parties as well as in the most powerful state institutions – are indeed after winning, not merely perpetual engagement. This is important, because whereas perpetual engagement with China would have aimed at maintaining the status quo, winning means curbing some of the successes that China has already secured – for example in asserting its influence in large parts of the Pacific.
This is why America’s current strong move towards Asia is much more than signalling. It is direct action exactly on the borders of the area China already considers its immediate sphere of influence.
We will not see a Bay of Pigs soon – that dangerous 1961 moment when America and the Soviet Union seemed seriously close to a nuclear war. But the world has already entered a new phase. The post-Cold War order has ended, and a new order is emerging. America is leaning forward – partly anxious, partly relishing the challenge, and certainly taking an assertive posture. The level of intensity of this strategic confrontation – and of the first stage of the nascent global order - will depend on China’s calculus and way of operations, which we will examine in the next article of this series.