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Bipartisan Competitive Strategy: The “New Normal”?

Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford, Assistant SecretaryBureau of International Security and Nonproliferation

University of Pennsylvania, Perry World House / Brookings Institution

“A Strategic Roadmap for Reentry in 2021 and Beyond: Advancing Institutional Commitments in a New Geostrategic Environment” Conference

As Prepared Good day, and thanks for inviting me.  My fellow paneling Lady Catherine , of course, needs no introduction, but if I might introduce myself, I presently serve as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, and additionally perform the duties of the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security here at the State Department.  I very much appreciate the chance to say a few words from an American perspective.

As we approach the end of 2020, the United States finds itself at a critical juncture, confronting great-power geopolitical threats of a magnitude unprecedented at least since the end of the Cold War, and in key respects quite different from anything previously faced.  These threats have arisen, moreover, at a time in which our country finds itself internally divided into bitterly oppositional political tribes in ways not seen in generations.

Some might despair at this.  In a polarized and divided Washington, what chance could our foreign policy and national security community have to implement consistent and effective approaches to the new environment of great power competition into which we have been thrust by decades of revisionist strategy in Beijing and Moscow?

But things may not be as bad as they might seem.  Not because those threats are not real, for alas they are.  Rather, because I think there is more underlying consensus in Washington on the existence of these threats — and hence the need for resolute and sustained competitive strategy in response to them — than often meets the eye in a time of polarized tribalisms.

This is a point of which the policy community needs to be reminded, so that we can still work with each other.  It is also a message that our competitors need to hear so that they will know that an increasingly robust U.S. and broader Western competitive posture is the “new normal” with which they will have to live unless and until they act in ways that are less provocative, abusive, and destabilizing.

The challenge today derives not simply from the fact that the dictatorial regimes controlling China and Russia came to focus, years ago, upon competitive strategies designed to destabilize the long-established “operating system” of the international community, undermine our role and influence in it, and reorient that system in various ways increasingly around themselves.  The challenge also stems from the fact that while they turned to ambitious geopolitical competition in the post-Cold War era, we turned away.

But I think we’re now coming out of that strategic slumber.  There is bipartisan Congressional support for firm measures against the PRC for abuses against the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, repression in Hong Kong, and technology theft, for example, while both U.S. domestic and foreign press coverage suggest that the two major U.S. presidential candidates both profess a notably “tough on China” approach.  One recent headline, in fact, proclaimed that “Biden rushes to join Trump in taking hard line on China: Both parties talk tough as American voters sour on Beijing.”

But it is not just a question of headlines.  Some of our most effective work against great power competitors, furthermore — such as in fighting technology theft and deterring foreign transactions with the Russian arms industry — owe its successes to bipartisan legislation that has given us more powerful tools with which to work.

And it is not hard to see why this would be so.  Under Xi Jingping, the PRC has thrown off the cloak it previously tried to wrap around its revisionist ambitions, and now openly seeks to restructure the global order around itself, even while committing ever more horrific and egregious human rights violations at home.  Similarly, Russia’s provocations have also gone too far for anyone to ignore.  The West may have been napping, but it’s not stupid, and it is now increasingly clear-eyed about great power competition.

Once one makes allowances for rhetorical tone and flavor, therefore, it seems clear that a considerable degree of policy consensus has actually developed around some core points of strategy.  There will likely now be no going back to the era of dismissive sneers disparaging about the need for any kind of great power competitive posture at all, no more thoughtless facilitation of a competitor’s geopolitical rise, and no more grand illusions about how we should embrace and facilitate the muscularity and empowerment of those who wish us ill.

Our political system, of course, will inevitably produce some degree of policy adjustment every time control shifts periodically back and forth between parties, and factions within them.  Nevertheless, it is all but impossible to imagine a return, in U.S. approaches to the PRC and to Russia, to the strategic complacency and lazy hubris of the earlier post-Cold War years.  Competitive strategy, in some form or another, is here to stay — and I think there is a very good chance that our otherwise so painfully divided policy community will find common ground to ensure that our geopolitical competitors don’t run the global board.

So let me wrap up these initial remarks by offering a slightly different take on the questions that were framed for consideration at this conference.  This conference seeks to explore two powerful trends that are said to be “reshaping U.S. international legal and institutional commitments: 1) a new U.S. turn toward inward …, and 2) the rise of China in the multilateral system.”

The casual reader might be inclined to see that framing as indicating that the United States is somehow running pell-mell away from involvement in international affairs and creating a global power vacuum that leaves the world at China’s feet.  That most certainly isn’t the case, and indeed as I’ve noted, it is striking the degree to which both camps in our otherwise divided political culture have now finally awakened to the importance of adopting a resolute competitive posture that pushes back against PRC revisionist hegemonism.

I’d say that the better way to think of things is not in terms of “retreat,” but rather in terms of “reprioriziation.”  The President has made no secret of his hope to extract U.S. service members from protracted wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.  At the same time, however, we are today finally taking great power competitive strategy vis-à-vis China with the seriousness that it deserves.  As I suggested earlier this year, “It may be … that our successors will look back on the United States’ years of terrorist-hunting in the Middle East much like some later observers looked back on Britain’s far-flung Victorian wars – that is, as fascinating and picturesque, if controversial, endeavors that yet turned out to be, in geopolitical terms, merely a sideshow to and even a distraction from the dynamics that shaped the epochal geopolitical contests of the generations that followed.”

To turn away from those wars to broader challenges, however, is not “retreat,” but instead engagement, where the need is greatest.  That’s called strategy.

Anyway, thank you for having me.  I look forward to our discussion.


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