Since the Cold War’s end, Americans have lived largely cushioned from global affairs. Despite serious sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Great Recession’s trauma, the United States has experienced a nearly unprecedented holiday from state-based threats these past twenty-five years. As the sole superpower, the United States was free to deploy a wide array of tools of statecraft in pursuit of its aims with marginal concern that retaliation would reach the home front. Today, however, the gap in power between Washington and the world is narrowing, and those same geopolitical tools used on others already are reaching US shores. Americans must prepare for a future where the impacts of geopolitical competition are felt in everyday life. While no policy can prevent this coming reality, American strategic choices will determine how well the nation weathers it, and an America First outlook puts the country at a decided disadvantage from the beginning.
Foreign actors, whether states or non-state, “catching up” to the United States in certain domains is hardly new. From the Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons to more recent warnings around the proliferation of unmanned vehicles (drones), the United States has had to respond to challengers gaining capacities America previously monopolized. Yet, in most cases these issues have lingered in background and their minimal impact on daily life has resulted in little need for consideration.
Nevertheless, resurgent geopolitical tensions are unfolding in a world deeply interconnected via globalization; as states turn to all measures short of war to achieve their strategic aims, the effects of those tactics likely will be felt across the American population. By expanding a liberal international order after 1991, the Western powers brought potential rivals into the international system to a far greater degree than the Soviet Union ever was. The integration of states such as China into the global economy resulted in significant positive developments, but also created points of strategic leverage from interconnections.
Unlike the Cold War, these vulnerabilities extend beyond the pure security realm, presaging greater opportunities for geopolitical competition to creep into daily life. This seepage is already apparent; consider the United States’ deployment of cyber tools against states such as Iran and North Korea, and now Russia’s use of cyber capacity to influence the 2016 US presidential election.
Nor will such external interventions be limited to broad attacks on US society, where the impact is diffuse and difficult to capture on the individual level. Already Americans have experienced the brunt of a cyber-attack for geopolitical reasons—whether targeted, as in the 2014 Sony hack, or through bulk collection, as is suspected with the 2014 Yahoo and 2015 Anthem breaches. These incidents only presage the growing potential of foreign powers to inflict harm on individuals or groups of individuals based on their national security considerations.
For non-Americans, such a reality is unsurprising; the long reach of the US military, law enforcement, and markets has enabled the United States to pursue its policy aims vis-à-vis individuals or organizations around the globe. However, in the coming years Americans will find themselves more susceptible to similar forces.
As the capacity of rising powers grows, so will the number of available tools for wielding influence. For decades, the United States has utilized sanctions against malignant actors. Whether broad in scope, such as those intended to drive Iran to negotiations over its nuclear program, or targeted, such as those against Russia in response to developments in Ukraine, sanctions enabled Washington to coerce without resorting to force of arms. The size of the American economy and centrality of its markets allow the United States to employ this instrument, cognizant that a sufficient number of states will abide by the sanctions rather than lose US economic and financial access.
The future, however, looks different. China’s economy has already overtaken that of the United States in 2014 (in terms of purchasing power parity) and is projected to be the largest market before mid-century. Against this rebalancing of economic power, now is the time to consider a day when Beijing could use its economic clout to levy its own threat of sanctions or trade restrictions, in the short-run on US allies and partners and, in the longer-term, even on American firms and individuals in response to disagreeable US policy.
Though the United States cannot prevent this geopolitically charged world’s arrival, Washington’s decisions today will matter greatly in charting a course for this turbulent period. Even in these early days it is evident that an America First outlook sets the United States on a poor path to manage these challenges. In response to its rivals’ growing capacity, the United States should be tightening bonds with allies and partners to offset this shift in power.
As Bruce Jones argues, the US ability to mobilize a network of allies that, collectively, overshadow any military or economic challenger remains a key advantage. Even if this coalition cannot remain predominant over time, these nations can bring more power and resources to bear together—whether using intelligence sharing to attribute a cyber-attack or combined market power to deter sanctions.
Consequently, the Trump administration’s embrace of transactional diplomacy—eschewing the notion that the United States and its allies have consistent shared interests derived from common values—is ill-suited for maintaining and strengthening the requisite allied bonds. Crafting a successful strategy for this competitive world will be no easy task; nonetheless, America First can only fail to provide security for Americans as geopolitics come home.
About the author: Will Moreland is the International Order Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He also works at a leading Washington DC think tank on issues of American strategy and the liberal international order. Will earned his MSFS from Georgetown University.