One of the most consequential policy shifts of the Trump administration followed its reappraisal of U.S. national security threats in December 2017. The administration's National Security Strategy lays out a vision for protecting the country and advancing American influence. The 2018 National Defense Strategy — mostly classified — provides guidance to the Department of Defense on how to execute it. The rogue regimes of Iran and North Korea, as well as jihadist terrorism, are identified as high priorities. But the biggest threat is seen as strategic competition with China and Russia.
Great power competition isn't new, of course. It's an axiom of global geopolitics that small countries act like small countries, and big countries act like big countries. The great powers have always competed globally for power, influence, markets and resources. What's new are greatly accelerated Chinese hegemony and Russia's growing reengagement — 25 years after the end of the Cold War — in the affairs of developing nations.
The new era of great power competition may not feature direct warfare among the United States, China and Russia. Reliance on the use of proxies in the theaters of conflict will militate against that scenario. But conflict will arise in countries where it didn't exist before, and conflict will deepen in some where it already exists. In both cases, instability will grow.
A Short History of the U.S. Footprint
Through diplomatic and other elements of national power, the United States has long had a presence in almost every country in the world. The depth of that engagement, however, has oscillated significantly since World War II.
During the Cold War, the U.S. overseas footprint expanded to global proportions. As one illustration of this, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Agency for International Development had operations in 23 of the 24 countries in Central and West Africa. Five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union (1990-1991), USAID's presence there had dropped to just eight countries in which the United States had more enduring strategic objectives — cobalt, for example, in what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The decline was partially offset by new U.S. engagement in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states. As the Soviet Union dissolved, the United States seeded the newly independent states with funding to promote democracy and market economics. While that assistance remained limited in most of Central Asia, the United States became more deeply involved in Eastern European countries like Ukraine.
After 9/11, the configuration of the footprint again changed dramatically. Within three months, the United States and its Afghan allies had overthrown the Taliban regime, and within 18 months, the United States was deeply invested in Iraq. By 2017, U.S. special operations forces were deployed to 149 countries.
Now, with the U.S. strategic emphasis pivoting from counterterrorism back to great power competition, the nature of U.S. engagement is changing again. As the United States, Russia and China increasingly compete, confrontation in countries like Venezuela will deepen. Many other countries will become theaters of competition, and some will slide into conflict. In almost all cases, for cost, deniability and other reasons, the great powers will rely on proxies to wage conflict short of war.
Future Contested Geographies
The National Defense Strategy identifies four primary regions where great power competition will play out: the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and the Western Hemisphere. In these regions, especially, conflict will grow.
Most great power competition will occur between the United States and China, which is in a period of economic and military ascendancy. For decades, China has built infrastructure overseas for the multilateral development banks, growing its foreign reserves, developing markets and exporting excess Chinese labor.
More recently, China's objectives have grown more strategic. They now focus on locking up natural resources, controlling marine transportation routes and either establishing or controlling strategic — especially coastal — infrastructure. It pursues these objectives through multiple instruments of national power, including arms sales and the trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative. The massive connectivity project already covers around two-thirds of the world's population and involves three-quarters of the world's known energy resources.
Most great power competition will occur between the United States and China, which is in a period of economic and military ascendancy.
The primary regions where China's influence is emergent are South, Central and Southwest Asia, the South China Sea, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa. China is also targeting resource-rich or otherwise strategic countries in Europe, like Greece and Italy, as well as in the Western Hemisphere. These include Greenland to the north and Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Bolivia, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, Venezuela and Mexico to the south of the United States.
With respect to Russia, the National Defense Strategy cites Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine as regions of particular concern. But Russia is increasingly engaged with many other countries, in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, North Africa, the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa. In Latin America, theaters of competition include Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia.
As the United States strengthens its hand in Eastern Europe through the European Reassurance Initiative, considers an expanded footprint in Poland and moves to end the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Russia will likely reciprocate closer to the U.S. mainland. Already, Russia is planning a military base on Venezuela's La Orchila Island.
Great Power Competition and the Stability of Nations
Great power conflict has profound implications for the stability of nations. Often an end in itself, stability is characterized by constancy, persistence, absence of turbulence and resistance to change.
Political systems vary in how stable they are. Totalitarian governments are arguably the most stable, followed by established democracies, dictatorships, new regimes and failed states. In economics, stability makes social and economic development possible by attracting the critical mass of foreign direct investment required to pay for national development. In terms of war, stability is important because stable countries are more resistant to the kinds of influence that lead to war, and stability makes military progress more sustainable.
Until countries stabilize, they typically require help from a wide range of military, civilian, government, bilateral, multilateral, nongovernmental and private sector actors. In practice, this assistance focuses on three basic elements: security, governance and economics. All three are deeply co-dependent.
Security is the sine qua non. Without strong national and internal security, neither good governance nor economic fundamentals can evolve sustainably. Stable governance — not to be conflated with democracy — requires countries to manage their political, military, policing, economic, social, legal, regulatory and judicial affairs. Economic elements of stability include economic infrastructure, and the legal, regulatory and policy environments required for economic growth.
In the era of great power competition, the number of countries in the gray zone between war and peace will grow as new countries become theaters of competition. This will require stronger engagement in gray-zone stability operations, both before and after conflicts. Fewer U.S. resources will likely be allocated to long-term stabilization, however, because of U.S. budget limitations, domestic funding needs, donor fatigue and widespread public aversion to anything that walks, talks or looks like nation-building.
Even as stability operations are increasingly funded by other donors, the most likely scenario is less stability in countries where stability needs are unmet. Where the United States does engage, like in Syria and Iraq, it will play a declining hands-on role as the scope and extent of direct intervention narrows. This assistance will mostly be executed through grants to the host country, and to international organizations like the World Bank, the regional development banks and the United Nations.
In the future, more countries are likely to serve as theaters of great power competition. Conflict will arise in those countries where it didn't exist before, and will deepen in those where it already exists. In both cases, instability will grow. The use of proxies will mitigate the potential for direct great power conflict, but tensions will rise as the world becomes smaller and opportunities for conflict grow.