.
E

arly on in my graduate studies, I was in a seminar with Dr. Peter Neumann. The topic of discussion was whether or not the conflict in Iraq was an insurgency. In typical graduate seminar fashion, Neumann pressed us on how we defined an insurgency and how it differed from other conflicts. Rather petulantly, I’ll admit, I became frustrated with the lexical discussion, being more interested in focusing on what should be done to address the violence in question rather than crafting a suitable definition.

In hindsight I can say that I appreciate Neumann’s prodding and persistence. What we label things and how we define or categorize them matters. This is not solely the subject of graduate student seminars, but shapes our foundational worldview and approach to geopolitical challenges.

Perhaps there is no clearer illustration of this than our present era of “great power competition,” “strategic competition,” or the pick your poison du jour of geopolitical framing concepts. It is decidedly unclear what this means beyond some form of security, diplomatic, political, and economic contest with Russia and China. It is one of those ideas that means all things to all people. Ali Wyne masterfully dissects this lexical debate and its implications in his forthcoming book “America’s Great-Power Opportunity,” a copy of which was kindly provided by the publisher.

America’s Great-Power Opportunity | Ali Wyne | Polity

Wyne opens by addressing the challenge of defining the present era. He shows that previous framing concepts—such as the 1930s or the Cold War—are insufficient, despite the near continuous reversion to the latter as a model for looking at the world. Then taking China and Russia in turn, Wyne offers up his take on the challenges posed by Beijing and Moscow before offering a multi-principle approach that resembles a non-populist America-first model for the new era. Here he focuses on national revitalization as both the goal and means of competing with China and Russia.

The disaggregation Wyne suggests of China and Russia is a smart approach. They are immensely different, with the former being an existential challenge to the international order and the latter being an existential threat only on account of its nuclear weapons. To be sure, Russia is a regional challenge and potential systemic disruptor. One need look no further than Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and its second and third order global effects (food shortages, energy price rises etc…). 

It becomes quite clear, as Wyne writes, that strategic competition as a concept has been rather horridly used and abused, becoming justification for nearly every policy. The absence of consensus allows for it to mean all things to all people, all of the time. Wyne’s collection of statements and policy propositions on strategic competition ensures that his book will remain close at hand as a reference for my own future writing.

Wyne lands, by design, on a long-running undercurrent in policy discussions: the inability to label the present situation and, in the absence of a suitable label, the tendency to fall back on old models. Post-Cold War, New Cold War, hybrid war, gray zone conflict— these are far less illuminating than one would hope and often introduce far more confusion than clarity. They certainly do provide endless fodder for academics and think tanks alike, but as I found it my graduate studies, it often matters less what something is called and matters more how you approach the challenge. 

He is not wrong that the concepts are insufficient to frame the current dynamic and is certainly right that distinct policies are needed for addressing Russia and China. The problem is that his erudite diagnosis underestimates the tendency in American discourse to regress to the mean when trying to convey complex policy issues. This regression creates—by design or consequence—breathing room in which nearly every policy solution, every budgetary line item, every program of record, or any initiative can fit. It’s the policy equivalent of Will Farrell in “Blade of Glory” saying “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative.” This is most endemic in the military-industrial complex whereby tools that were in vogue during counterinsurgency operations are merely dusted off, repainted in a suitable jungle camouflage pattern, and reframed as critical to the warfighter to compete and win in the Indo-Pacific. 

It is far easier to say that America is in the midst of strategic competition, than to say we are “confronting a systemic challenge from Beijing that necessitates both cooperation and competition” while “seeking to manage a revanchist Russia that is demanding recognition as a great power, whilst disrupting European security.” Neither of which make for pithy bumper stickers.

It is interesting, and notable, that Wyne largely omits what Russia and China have to say on the subject—focusing instead on secondary and tertiary analyses proffered by Western observers. His analysis, excellent as it is, would have been even richer had he included more from China’s and Russia’s leadership. There are detailed analyses of these primary source documents: on China, Rush Doshi’s excellent “Long Game” offers deep insights into what China believes while Andrew Monaghan’s “Russian Grand Strategy” offers a rich look at what Moscow aims to achieve. That absence is particularly notable as it matters less how the West sees the actions of Beijing and Moscow and more how they see themselves and the world. 

On reflection, it is worth considering the fact that while both the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai may overestimate their capabilities, both Russia and China appear to have a plan, or at least a vision, for this era. It may not be constructive in the case of the former and is certainly hegemonic in the latter, but there is an outline nonetheless. By contrast, as Wyne notes, the United States, nor the West more broadly, does not have a plan and seems more interested in arguing over taxonomy. 

Wyne provides a brief, but cogent exploration of China and Russia’s unique geostrategic challenges. Both chapters are welcome, but Wyne’s prescription for change is far more interesting. In removing the ideological strait-jacket of “strategic competition” and suggesting that Beijing and Moscow be treated as unique challenges, Wyne created space for an alternative set of priorities and emphasis which, were it not for a former president, could easily have been called “America-First.” This isn’t in the sense of jingoism or misplaced nationalism. Rather, it is a focusing on America’s strengths and a reinvigoration of America’s body-politic as a vehicle to enhance geostrategic interests. His eight policy propositions are markedly measured, with an emphasis on linking the geostrategic and domestic political realms. 

It is a unique approach and one that others have hinted at, but few have blended so well into a policy proscription. To be sure, there is the cliché of “getting one’s house in order,” but Wyne puts it forward a compelling way that grounds the ideologically optimistic with the geopolitically pragmatic. In some ways it is an evolution of the linkage of domestic security with foreign policy—America’s internal renewal should be an explicit foreign policy objective, not merely a beneficial byproduct. Equally, he suggests that the United States should be wary the limits of unilateral power and work to offset the effects of strategic competition by partnering with allies—conventional propositions, to be sure, but well-grounded in his overall framework. 

Wyne’s deconstruction of the ideological and lexical frameworks is supremely welcome. I fear that his efforts to interject more sensibility and pragmatism into the debate on geostrategic competition will not be heard. The present environment demands a maturity and nuance that simply is not found in the halls of Congress or on social media—the former where it is most certainly needed. It unfortunately seems we are destined to see pith and snark as a stand-in for substantive policy.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Escaping Strategic Competition’s Straitjacket

Photo via Pixabay.

June 18, 2022

In “America’s Great-Power Opportunity,” Ali Wyne explains why labeling Russia and China in the same way is misleading. In his latest book review, Joshua Huminski details how distinguishing between these countries can improve U.S. foreign policy.

E

arly on in my graduate studies, I was in a seminar with Dr. Peter Neumann. The topic of discussion was whether or not the conflict in Iraq was an insurgency. In typical graduate seminar fashion, Neumann pressed us on how we defined an insurgency and how it differed from other conflicts. Rather petulantly, I’ll admit, I became frustrated with the lexical discussion, being more interested in focusing on what should be done to address the violence in question rather than crafting a suitable definition.

In hindsight I can say that I appreciate Neumann’s prodding and persistence. What we label things and how we define or categorize them matters. This is not solely the subject of graduate student seminars, but shapes our foundational worldview and approach to geopolitical challenges.

Perhaps there is no clearer illustration of this than our present era of “great power competition,” “strategic competition,” or the pick your poison du jour of geopolitical framing concepts. It is decidedly unclear what this means beyond some form of security, diplomatic, political, and economic contest with Russia and China. It is one of those ideas that means all things to all people. Ali Wyne masterfully dissects this lexical debate and its implications in his forthcoming book “America’s Great-Power Opportunity,” a copy of which was kindly provided by the publisher.

America’s Great-Power Opportunity | Ali Wyne | Polity

Wyne opens by addressing the challenge of defining the present era. He shows that previous framing concepts—such as the 1930s or the Cold War—are insufficient, despite the near continuous reversion to the latter as a model for looking at the world. Then taking China and Russia in turn, Wyne offers up his take on the challenges posed by Beijing and Moscow before offering a multi-principle approach that resembles a non-populist America-first model for the new era. Here he focuses on national revitalization as both the goal and means of competing with China and Russia.

The disaggregation Wyne suggests of China and Russia is a smart approach. They are immensely different, with the former being an existential challenge to the international order and the latter being an existential threat only on account of its nuclear weapons. To be sure, Russia is a regional challenge and potential systemic disruptor. One need look no further than Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and its second and third order global effects (food shortages, energy price rises etc…). 

It becomes quite clear, as Wyne writes, that strategic competition as a concept has been rather horridly used and abused, becoming justification for nearly every policy. The absence of consensus allows for it to mean all things to all people, all of the time. Wyne’s collection of statements and policy propositions on strategic competition ensures that his book will remain close at hand as a reference for my own future writing.

Wyne lands, by design, on a long-running undercurrent in policy discussions: the inability to label the present situation and, in the absence of a suitable label, the tendency to fall back on old models. Post-Cold War, New Cold War, hybrid war, gray zone conflict— these are far less illuminating than one would hope and often introduce far more confusion than clarity. They certainly do provide endless fodder for academics and think tanks alike, but as I found it my graduate studies, it often matters less what something is called and matters more how you approach the challenge. 

He is not wrong that the concepts are insufficient to frame the current dynamic and is certainly right that distinct policies are needed for addressing Russia and China. The problem is that his erudite diagnosis underestimates the tendency in American discourse to regress to the mean when trying to convey complex policy issues. This regression creates—by design or consequence—breathing room in which nearly every policy solution, every budgetary line item, every program of record, or any initiative can fit. It’s the policy equivalent of Will Farrell in “Blade of Glory” saying “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative.” This is most endemic in the military-industrial complex whereby tools that were in vogue during counterinsurgency operations are merely dusted off, repainted in a suitable jungle camouflage pattern, and reframed as critical to the warfighter to compete and win in the Indo-Pacific. 

It is far easier to say that America is in the midst of strategic competition, than to say we are “confronting a systemic challenge from Beijing that necessitates both cooperation and competition” while “seeking to manage a revanchist Russia that is demanding recognition as a great power, whilst disrupting European security.” Neither of which make for pithy bumper stickers.

It is interesting, and notable, that Wyne largely omits what Russia and China have to say on the subject—focusing instead on secondary and tertiary analyses proffered by Western observers. His analysis, excellent as it is, would have been even richer had he included more from China’s and Russia’s leadership. There are detailed analyses of these primary source documents: on China, Rush Doshi’s excellent “Long Game” offers deep insights into what China believes while Andrew Monaghan’s “Russian Grand Strategy” offers a rich look at what Moscow aims to achieve. That absence is particularly notable as it matters less how the West sees the actions of Beijing and Moscow and more how they see themselves and the world. 

On reflection, it is worth considering the fact that while both the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai may overestimate their capabilities, both Russia and China appear to have a plan, or at least a vision, for this era. It may not be constructive in the case of the former and is certainly hegemonic in the latter, but there is an outline nonetheless. By contrast, as Wyne notes, the United States, nor the West more broadly, does not have a plan and seems more interested in arguing over taxonomy. 

Wyne provides a brief, but cogent exploration of China and Russia’s unique geostrategic challenges. Both chapters are welcome, but Wyne’s prescription for change is far more interesting. In removing the ideological strait-jacket of “strategic competition” and suggesting that Beijing and Moscow be treated as unique challenges, Wyne created space for an alternative set of priorities and emphasis which, were it not for a former president, could easily have been called “America-First.” This isn’t in the sense of jingoism or misplaced nationalism. Rather, it is a focusing on America’s strengths and a reinvigoration of America’s body-politic as a vehicle to enhance geostrategic interests. His eight policy propositions are markedly measured, with an emphasis on linking the geostrategic and domestic political realms. 

It is a unique approach and one that others have hinted at, but few have blended so well into a policy proscription. To be sure, there is the cliché of “getting one’s house in order,” but Wyne puts it forward a compelling way that grounds the ideologically optimistic with the geopolitically pragmatic. In some ways it is an evolution of the linkage of domestic security with foreign policy—America’s internal renewal should be an explicit foreign policy objective, not merely a beneficial byproduct. Equally, he suggests that the United States should be wary the limits of unilateral power and work to offset the effects of strategic competition by partnering with allies—conventional propositions, to be sure, but well-grounded in his overall framework. 

Wyne’s deconstruction of the ideological and lexical frameworks is supremely welcome. I fear that his efforts to interject more sensibility and pragmatism into the debate on geostrategic competition will not be heard. The present environment demands a maturity and nuance that simply is not found in the halls of Congress or on social media—the former where it is most certainly needed. It unfortunately seems we are destined to see pith and snark as a stand-in for substantive policy.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.