The Return of Great Power Competition

“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” – Lord Palmerston, March 1, 1848

The citizens of the United States are unique in that their sense of national identity is derived from ideas rather than an ethnic or language base. To the extent that there is an American “culture,” it is tied to this sense, which can be briefly described, as Tocqueville did, as American individualism. This idea separates each person from their past and empowers them to pursue happiness as they see fit so long as their actions do not impinge upon the liberty and lives of their fellow citizens.

Rather than limiting itself to the domestic sphere, however, this public philosophy has foreign policy implications, or even complications. Within the international arena, Americans lack a deep sense of cultural history. They believe that they can make the world anew, and what’s more, they believe that they have been called to create an “empire of liberty,” a Jeffersonian concept that summons Americans to spread their sense of individual liberty and national self-determination across the world.

Lord Palmerston said that any nation’s interests are “eternal and perpetual,” but the philosophic edge to those of the United States means hers are often at odds with those of other states and cultures which don’t assign the same value to the individual and their human rights. This is the primary complication facing US foreign policy as we complete our transition from the post-Cold War unipolar moment to multipolar great power competition.

The United States returns to great power competition with a generation of leaders who lack personal experience, or even an intellectual grounding, to deal with the emerging challenges. While the United States, as a historic entity, has existed in previous periods of vibrant global competition, its current generation of leaders has matured during a unipolar moment in which the United States was the only major player on the world’s stage, when it could write the rules and fully expect that they would be followed. Furthermore, this generation’s education and exposure to theories of international relations were heavily influenced by the first Cold War’s competition between the United States and the communist Soviet Union. While not unprecedented, such bipolar competitions are relatively rare across the span of human history. Today the nation faces an emerging multipolar environment with centers of power rising to challenge American hegemony on the Russian steppes and China’s “Middle Kingdom,” and perhaps in other locales as well. Additionally, Europe, which has been long aligned in support of the United States in a closely allied Western bloc of nations, has begun to diverge from American interests in terms of its defined “eternal and perpetual” political, economic, diplomatic, and military interests. So, suffice it to say, the challenges of the new great power competition have rocked the United States back to a position very much on an unaccustomed back foot.

All That Was Shall Be Again

However, there are lessons from previous generations, as well as factors within the international environment that rebound to America’s favor. Prior to World War II, international relations were based upon a multi-polar great power architecture. At various stages of Western history Great Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Austria and its successor, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, the Netherlands, the Swedes, and of course Russia all emerged as great power players on the European continent. China, which today is treated as a coherent political whole, experienced its own warring states period two millennia ago when seven states vied against each other politically and militarily for over 250 years. Eventually, the Qin region emerged supreme and began a series of expansionistic campaigns that continued up to the 1950s when Tibet was annexed into the Chinese state as its last, so far, buffer state to ensure its “internal security.” Even the American Revolution and subsequent westward expansion were very much an extension of Europe’s ongoing great power competition with Britain, France, Spain, and even Portugal all having equities in the western hemisphere.

Most modern standards of international law are based around an assumption of great power competition. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) established the modern principles of territorial security and state sovereignty. The Congress of Vienna (1814–15) not only reestablished peace on the European continent following a quarter century of war, but also attempted to establish some form of European great power stability on a global scale. More recently, the United Nations Charter created a security council with five permanent members, the United States, the Soviet Union (now Russia), Nationalist China (now Communist China), Great Britain, and France.

Because our nation was founded upon an idea rather than a geographic location, a language, or a culture, it is the idea that is perpetually and eternally important to us.

Thus, multi-polarity and its attendant, great power competition, is historically a norm in American foreign policy. George Washington understood this and warned against “entangl[ing] our peace and prosperity in the toils of European Ambition” in his Farewell Address. James Monroe and his able Secretary of State John Quincy Adams attempted to bind the competition with their doctrine warning European powers to leave the western hemisphere alone, and Theodore Roosevelt skillfully played an initially weak hand with a series of strong diplomatic and coercive military moves. The onset of a Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union not only signaled the advent of an age of bipolar competition during Harry Truman’s presidency, but with the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949, a rising consensus that a nuclear-equipped world could no longer risk a multipolar great power competition.

So long as the international environment was bipolar or unipolar, American national security was grounded within a degree of predictability in international relations. Multipolar environments, which often experience seismic moments when major actors shift sides depending on their perceived interests, are inherently unstable. Historically, multi-polar environments generate wars that last for years or even decades on a generational basis. While historians accord the two major conflicts of the twentieth century the title of “world wars,” the fact is that at least one conflagration in each of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries reached a “global” scale. However, since the end of World War II and the introduction of nuclear weapons into the arsenals of leading nations, there have been no “world wars,” which is fortunate given the destructive potential and long-lasting effects of nuclear weapons.

Challenges of Our Own Making

In many ways, the challenges that the United States faces today are of its own making. The overall dominance of its position at the end of the Cold War can only be compared to the Roman and Chinese empires at the height of their development. The values of the West—democracy, individual liberty, and capitalism—had triumphed over the values of authoritarian, state-controlled communism. Economically, diplomatically, scientifically, and yes, militarily, the West was ascendant. It was “the end of history.” All the great questions were answered.

Regarding the military, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the West commenced a war of reprisal against the territorial expansionism of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq into Kuwait. Hussein’s annexation attempt was reversed in a campaign that lasted a mere 100 hours and revealed a new arsenal characterized by stealth aircraft and precision-guided weapons. The US Army jokingly asserted “We do windows,” implying that they could place a projectile against a specific person, in a specific room of a building, avoiding significant collateral damage, and they demonstrated that they could. The Navy moved from a focus on sea control to power projection, operating with impunity from a free sea in which no credible threat to its fleet existed. The Air Force, equipped with the most advanced fighters and bombers in the world, manifested a state of “air dominance” that previously had been only perceived as theoretical.

However, because of a near-term concern with budget deficits, the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton enacted deep defense budget cuts and accompanying decreases of standing forces in the name of “peace dividends.” What’s more, across the next decade, the West pursued a series of diplomatic and economic initiatives that created and then expanded free trade agreements, growing and strengthening its alliance system by offering NATO membership to former members of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, and finally practicing a policy of “nation-building,” or the support of political, economic, and social structures in developing countries that would allow them to pursue democratic self-determination and capitalism. In short, the United States was aggressively pursuing the Jeffersonian “empire of liberty” on a truly global scale, cutting its hard power budgets and transferring those funds to soft power foreign policy instruments. There was a consensus that through the pursuit of these policy initiatives, the rest of the world would seek to move towards the American vision of governing, but that was not how much of the world viewed the situation.

The 1991 Desert Storm campaign carried out by the United States and its allies and partners was seen as an attempt at imposing “regime change” by many nations. Regime change is defined as an attempt not to just replace one government with another, but to replace one form of government with another. In particular, to replace an authoritarian government with a self-determined, democratically elected, form of government. States and nations whose history and culture emphasized state control over individual liberty were both shocked and intimidated by the ease with which the United States dealt with Iraq, then the fourth largest Army in the world, and considered to be a modern one at that. There was a rising concern amongst nations with long-standing authoritarian or autocratic governing traditions that they may well be next on the United States’ target list for “nation-building” efforts around the world, so they began to not only invest in new weapons that could hold American power at a distance from their shores, but also to work more closely together.

China and Russia have a long history of cultural animosity. When the Russians consider the marauding Mongols who threatened them repeatedly across their history as a people, they equate those hoards to modern Chinese. When the Chinese conjure up images of the barbarians against whom they built successive Great Walls to defend themselves, today they think of the Russians who live on the great steppes of Asia. Since the seventeenth century when Russian settlers began to establish large communities in Siberia, there have been frequent skirmishes between the two peoples. The last major conflict between the militaries of communist China and the Soviet Union occurred in 1969. It was this conflict and the tensions that followed it that allowed Nixon to pursue a policy that deftly balanced Chinese communism against the Soviet Union. However, since 1991, the two nations have begun to work more closely together diplomatically, economically, and militarily as they, as authoritarian, autocratic states, have come to see the United States, and its foreign policies, as being averse to their permanent interests. Thus, as the United States comes to grips with the fact that it is entering a new era of great power competition, it must also accept that by its decision to slash its military power while simultaneously pursuing a policy of democratic expansionism, it invited the current competition.

A Strategy Going Forward

To succeed in the emerging multipolar environment, the United States must return to basics. Sophistication and nuance have never been America’s strongest characteristics. When considering our “eternal and perpetual” interests, they are not the same as other nations. Because our nation was founded upon an idea rather than a geographic location, a language, or a culture, it is the idea that is perpetually and eternally important to us. Other nations may look at alliances and partnerships as relationships that can be reassessed, started, or abolished as events and geostrategic events unfold. Certainly, the ongoing debate within our national life regarding our support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (a treaty alliance) or Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan (not treaty allies) is robust. The questions of whether our allies and partners are “paying their fair share” or whether continued support for them makes sense in the rapidly changing security environment would be appropriate to the mind of Lord Palmerston, who recognized no eternal allies or perpetual enemies, but such an approach ignores the essential philosophical undergirding of the United States that Alexis de Tocqueville recognized over two centuries ago. Security guarantees are not the eternal interest of the United States. A broad alliance structure made up of self-determined democracies pursuing free market economies, Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty,” is.

To be sure some relationships do not make sense. To the extent that an ally or partner changes in its internal character or form of government, a decision must be made to alter the nature of our relationship with them. Certainly, there are treaty allies today who fall short of our national expectations, and it is both right and just to consider excluding them from our confidences. Europe, as a whole, has progressed significantly since the destruction of World War II, and to the extent that Russia and China present separate adversarial poles in the new great power competition, Europe presents a new geostrategic center of gravity in and of itself. Taken together, the twenty-seven member nations of the European Union have a gross domestic product that is about three-quarters of that of the United States. Combined as trading partners, they easily outpace the economic potential of the China-Russia partnership. Additionally, combining all the military power of NATO creates an aggregated force that also exceeds that of the new authoritarian bloc.

Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty” is more real today than at any other point in our history.

There are also other opportunities, other “poles,” to be explored. China has made deep investments through its “Belt and Road” initiative into Africa. Many Africans have quickly discovered, however, that those investments overwhelmingly benefit China, which brings its own workforce and extracts resources while building little to no usable permanent infrastructure for the local citizenry. There will be opportunities in the future to re-engage with Africa, whose geostrategic land and resources will play an important role in the future.

Additionally, the United States, focused on the wars of Europe and Asia during the twentieth century, largely ignored its own hemisphere. Certainly, our history of iterative military interventions in the internal affairs of most of the nations that make up Central and South America is not viewed as credit in our favor, but the multiple failures of centrally controlled governments and economies across the region suggest that a new window of democratic and economic reform may be in the offing, and much closer to our own shores. If for no other reason than the economic potential of the region, Central and South America should be considered in the aggregate as a potential future great power and be considered accordingly.

The world is moving inexorably towards a multipolar structure. There will be competing interests and most certainly instability soon. China and Russia currently represent an opposing block to US interests, but Europe can largely offset their power. Additionally, it is almost assured that China and Russia will drift apart relatively soon. Their historic animosity for each other and Russian resentment of China’s rise will cause the Slavic peoples to pivot once again from the East to find a place in the West. Perhaps it will be better prepared to eschew its autocratic past by that point.

Lastly, India, the most non-aligned of peoples and nations, will serve as a useful counterbalance to aggressive Chinese policies as it continues to grow both in terms of overall population and economic power. India represents a very ancient and diverse culture. It will choose a side only when forced to do so by outside events but given its proximity to China and its expansionist interests, those events may come sooner than later.


Palmerston said, Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow. As stated previously, We must face the sad fact that the current generation of foreign policy leaders is ill-equipped to address the strategic challenges facing our nation. Yet, it is our duty as a nation to shift our foreign policy to better defend our interests. First, however, we must understand the true nature of those interests. As Americans, those interests cannot be defined purely in terms of economic, political, or even military power. Our power as a nation does not emerge from these traditional factors but rather from the force of our founding ideals.

While some may suggest that we need a generation of realists who will make the hard decisions about where our nation’s interests lay, perhaps by pulling our nation away from NATO or limiting our participation in free trade agreements, I would caution that calculations that diminish the value of alliance and trade relationships are as unwise as our earlier decisions to slash our military out of a desire for a short term “peace dividend.” We derive great power and prestige from the network of associations that we have worked so hard and for so long to create. Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty” is more real today than at any other point in our history.

If we must become adept again at maneuvering within a multipolar system amongst other great powers, so be it. We should, however, not seek to emulate the sophistication and nuance of classic practitioners of great power politics such as Palmerston, Bismarck, or Metternich. Kissinger, while adept at diplomacy, never quite adapted to America’s foreign policy. We find more common cause with the likes of George Kennan, Dwight Eisenhower, or Ronald Reagan, men from Wisconsin, Kansas, and Illinois, who understood what their nation stood for, and where it sat within the global geostrategic system. Additionally, they each had the skill of saying what they meant and meaning what they said. Such typical midwestern bluntness will once again have a place as the United States moves forward with the current multipolar great power competition.