We often hear that America is weak, even impotent, in world affairs. The Middle East is disintegrating, Russia is challenging European stability, and China is increasing its sway over the South China Sea. The United States is a bystander to these developments, the argument goes, while China and Russia are outfoxing it and cementing a strategic alliance that threatens US preeminence.
That dissents from these propositions are so rare raises a basic question: How do we judge whether a country exhibits “strength” or “weakness” in world affairs? Even more fundamentally, how do we measure power? No less than Joseph Nye, one of the foremost theorists of that phenomenon, observes, “Power in international politics is like the weather. Everyone talks about it, but few understand it.”
The fact is that how we measure a country’s power is often subjective. As the lone superpower, the United States is often judged to be weak whenever anyone challenges the status quo order it has underwritten, while we judge China and Russia by less stringent criteria.
So it’s not that the United States is weak and China and Russia are strong, per se. It’s that the way we think about power in world affairs fundamentally disadvantages the United States, making it seem weaker than it is and its competitors appear stronger than they are.
The United States: A world power perpetually in decline
If a country’s strategic portfolio is essentially the entire world, almost any challenge to its position and interests — or to the order it underpins — can be construed as a sign of weakness. Diagnoses of US weakness often factor into developments that the United States cannot unilaterally control — whether the growing economic weight of non-Western countries, the decision of countries such as North Korea to expand their nuclear arsenals, or the rise of hackers who can penetrate government organizations and multinational corporations.
Perhaps more importantly, such assessments exaggerate the degree of US influence: If one sympathizes with what Walter Lippmann called the “delusion of American omnipotence,” then virtually every foreign policy problem — whether the carnage in Syria, Russian revanchism, or the latest missile test by North Korea — can be ascribed to US weakness, and could be solved, or at least substantially mitigated, if only the United States were to exert itself more forcefully.
Far from being new, this perception of US weakness dates back to at least the end of World War II. The 1940s witnessed the end of America’s nuclear monopoly and the “loss” of China to the communists. The 1950s brought a stalemate in the Korean War and the launch of Sputnik. The 1960s raised concerns about the (alleged) US-Soviet missile gap and America’s inability to extricate itself from the quagmire in Indochina. The 1970s saw stagflation and Soviet inroads across vast swaths of Africa and Asia. The 1980s sowed alarm about America’s declining economic competitiveness and a resurgent Japan. Even the 1990s, with their abundant talk of America’s “unipolar moment,” produced many commentaries warning that the country was strategically adrift.
It would take a Herculean effort to chronicle all the fatalistic missives that have been issued in the postwar era, but one of the most notable comes from Henry Kissinger, perhaps the best-known statesman-cum-strategist alive today. In a 1961 book, he warned that “the United States cannot afford another decline like that which has characterized the last decade and a half. Fifteen years more of a deterioration on our position in the world such as we have experienced since World War II would find us reduced to Fortress America in a world in which we had become largely irrelevant.”
And yet, despite having faced numerous strategic setbacks and endured multiple cycles of “declinism,” the United States today finds itself in an enviable position. As Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose puts it, the United States “may be richer, stronger, and safer than it has ever been; if not, it is certainly close to it.” Rose continues:
It has a defense budget equivalent to those of the next seven countries combined and together with its allies accounts for three-quarters of all global defense spending. It has unparalleled power-projection capabilities and a globe-spanning intelligence network. It has the world’s reserve currency, the world’s largest economy, and the highest growth rate of any major developed country. It has good demographics, manageable debt, and dynamic, innovating companies that are the envy of the world. And it is at the center of an ever-expanding liberal order that has outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted every rival for three-quarters of a century.
Paradoxically, the reflexiveness with which observers discern US weakness is a testament to both its preeminence and the inability of any other country (such as China) or coalition to replace it as the underwriter of world order.
China: a resurgent power chipping away at the current world order
China’s return may well be the defining geopolitical phenomenon of the past half-century, second only perhaps to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Using a combination of economic pressure and maritime assertiveness, it is challenging the alliance system that has long cemented America’s posture in the Asia-Pacific.
While China watchers focus intensely on its growing ability to challenge US Navy operations in the Western Pacific, the core of China’s strength is economic. It is the world’s largest exporter and trading country, and at roughly $3.2 trillion its stockpile of foreign exchange reserves is also the biggest. Finally, despite its slowing growth rate, its gross domestic product is on course to overtake America’s soon.
With its prodigious economic power, China is proactively deploying a range of initiatives to draw the Asia-Pacific more tightly into its strategic orbit and, in time, gain greater influence across Eurasia. In October 2013, it proposed the establishment of a $100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) “to promote interconnectivity and economic integration” in its backyard.
Although the United States lobbied vigorously against the AIIB, 57 countries — including many of America’s closest allies — signed up to be founding members. In December 2014, China unveiled a $40 billion Silk Road Fund to supplement the AIIB. Finally, it is negotiating a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with 15 other countries, an arrangement that would cover roughly a quarter of gross world product.
China is pursuing these initiatives under the auspices of the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project, which, in its most expansive conception, would cover 65 countries and approximately 40 percent of the world economy. The Chinese government says it has currently invested $890 billion in more than 900 OBOR projects across 60 countries, and it plans to invest a total of $4 trillion. The Economist contends that OBOR presents “a challenge to the United States and its traditional way of thinking about world trade” because it “treats Asia and Europe as a single space, and China, not the United States, is its focal point.”
Few observers would dispute that China is getting stronger, whatever criteria one uses. Tellingly, though, it is not asked to sustain the current world order or assume responsibility for its renewal — at least not to nearly the same extent as the United States.
Moreover, while it (properly) calls for a greater role within central international institutions and criticizes what it regards as the intrusiveness of today’s system, it is unprepared to offer an alternative. The chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, Fu Ying, observes that while China is “dissatisfied and ready to criticize,” it is “not ready to propose a new design.”
China can be seen as strong so long as it chips away at the foundations of the US-led international order — whether by establishing alternative institutions (such as the AIIB), conducting “transactional diplomacy” that pays little heed to countries’ internal politics, or simply highlighting the present economic underperformance and political dysfunction plaguing the United States, the European Union, and Japan.
On the flip side, it is rarely charged with weakness for setbacks that would likely render the United States vulnerable to that accusation: Its conduct in the East and South China Seas has alienated many of its neighbors; it has been unable to dissuade North Korea from increasingly brazen provocations; and it has had little success boosting its soft power around the world.
Russia: a power constrained on all sides
The case that China exhibits strength in world affairs is plausible, even though it has to clear a lower threshold than the United States. The argument that Russia does so, however, is perplexing. Its economy is performing poorly, its demographic outlook is bleak, and its behavior in recent years has given renewed purpose and momentum to NATO, the very organization whose expansion it resents most.
Further, its alleged strategic alliance with China is, in fact, an increasingly asymmetric relationship. While the two countries routinely hail their friendship and criticize the reach of Western power — witness the joint statement they released last month — China has exhibited little compunction over encroaching upon Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. It has eclipsed Russia as the preeminent economic power in Central Asia and exploited Russia’s economic frailty to extract significant concessions on energy imports.
Meanwhile, as China seeks to find productive uses for its surplus labor and accelerate its “March West” campaign, it discerns a compelling opportunity to resettle millions of Chinese in Russia’s sparsely populated Far East. Zbigniew Brzezinski argues that unless Russia “become[s] a major and influential nation-state that is part of a unifying Europe,” it will be progressively less capable of “withstand[ing] growing territorial-demographic pressure from China, which is increasingly inclined as its power grows to recall the ‘unequal’ treaties Moscow imposed on Beijing in times past.”
On balance, Russia’s eastward pivot is constrained by contradictory imperatives: strengthening its relationship with China, so as to sustain its major-power status, while simultaneously boosting ties with China’s neighbors, lest Chinese influence expand unchecked.
Declining internally, and increasingly encircled along both its eastern and western peripheries, Russia is far less capable of playing a constructive role in Eurasia’s evolution than it was prior to its annexation of Crimea in 2014. In the early years of this decade, Vladimir Putin often expressed his hope that Russia would function as a vibrant economic bridge between Western Europe and the Asia-Pacific.
Today, however, with the prospect of a rapprochement with the former becoming less likely, and the potential of its outreach to the latter inherently limited, it is far less capable of fulfilling that intermediary role. Instead, it has largely been reduced to demonstrating strength by destabilizing eastern Ukraine and contributing to the chaos that has engulfed Syria.
One Russia watcher told me the country has a strategic outlook bordering on “nihilistic”: It benefits more from disorder than from order and more from exploiting weakness than from strengthening its own role in Europe.
Power is relative
The bottom line is that comparisons of US, Chinese, and Russian strength in world affairs are misleading without taking into account the relevant benchmarks. The United States is asked to oversee a world order that withstands increasing shocks; recognizes the demands and grievances of newly confident blocs of power; and devises rules of the road for novel domains of interaction, such as cyberspace.
That task is more daunting than staking incremental, concerted challenges to said system (China), and far more demanding than poking occasional holes in it (Russia). While the United States faces significant challenges at home and abroad, it is better positioned to manage complexity in the 21st century than any other country.
Ali Wyne is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project.