The Giant Awakes: America Begins to Reclaim Top Spot

The superpower is striking back against Chinese and Russian challenges to its international system.

Xi Jinping Barack Obama
Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Barack Obama of the United States speak at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, June 8, 2013 (White House/Pete Souza)

Here now is the predictability of geopolitics coming to the top of the news cycle: when you are top dog, you don’t take kindly to anyone trying to tear you down.

In the last week the United States, an empire in all but name, has struck back against its chief rivals. The first occurred in the disputed South China Sea where Beijing has constructed whole islands right in the middle of heavily-trafficked and potentially resource-rich waves. China’s plan was to extend its sea claim outwards from these islands, but the United States thwarted that scheme by sending a warship directly into China’s no-gone zone.

Meanwhile, in Syria’s murderous civil war, Russia’s deployment of bombers and tanks has now begun to be matched with the public announcement America is sending forces to fight in Iraq and to train allies in Syria.

In other words, the empire is striking back. But it’s playing by some well-defined rules as it does.

And now, the cliff notes

  • No nation state in history has ever taken kindly to being brought down on the power ladder since doing so is often dangerous. Nation states with the means to resist do just that.
  • Despite naysayers, the United States remains the world’s lone superpower and to combat both the perception and the actuality of a geopolitical decline will invariably use its many methods to arrest that slide.
  • It didn’t have to happen under Barack Obama, who could have resisted the geopolitical necessity for the rest of his term, but the fact it did exemplifies the principle at play here.
  • Now the United States has begun a path out of its decade-long decline. The Chinese and the Russians, even united, are not favored.

So first, the principle at display: nobody ever likes sliding from #1

Nation states don’t often allow themselves to be overtaken by other nation states in any measure if they can help it. This is because it’s inevitable that strong states end up dominating weak ones. Even in institutions like the EU that are meant to end such rivalries, geopolitically strong states like Germany have come to dominate the policies of weaker states like Greece. So far, humanity hasn’t found a way to overcome this behavior.

Sometimes this kind of eclipsing can’t be stopped and wise states find ways to accommodate stronger ones, as Great Britain did with the rise of the US.

Other times, strong states possess the means to halt the growth of rivals. Rather than allow their enemies to rewrite the established order, the strong use their many means to slow or even halt the progress of their foes’ power.

And the United States will brook no revanchism from a resurgent Russia nor lip from an uppity China

This isn’t like past conflicts and it’s super important to remember that when thinking about how the world turns and burns.

It isn’t like World War II, which was about a genuine attempt by the Axis to conquer and dominate the world. Nor is it like the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union and its allies hoped to export their political ideology with an aim to a hegemonic domination.

No, this is a new kind of conflict over command of the international system. Who gets to decide what are war crimes? Whose central bank gets to set the tone for global fiscal policy? Who sets the terms for international trade and whose currency is the world’s reserve?

In these spheres the competition is fierce. The winner will benefit from being the writer of the world’s rules: it can turn the system to its advantage. The losers will play second fiddle.

And he who writes the rules is always the strongest

After World War II, the US, in conjunction with the still-formidable British and French empires, wrote many of the rules governing the international sphere. Virtually all these rules benefited America and when they stopped helping America, Washington changed them at its pleasure. (The Bretton Woods agreement on currency is a fine example; once gold was no longer useful as a currency anchor in the United States, it was dropped.)

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the American-written international system surged into the former communist sphere. Many of these rules threatened the remaining elites of the collapsed communist regimes. New human rights rules meant elites who had been kept in power through corruption or force could well be jailed for practices they considered par for the course in politics. New economic policies meant people who had been rich through connections or corruption could no longer compete as well. Naturally, these folks didn’t like that idea one bit.

Which is the primary reason why the elites of Beijing and Moscow push back against the encroachment of the United States, knowing full well the values of Washington could land many of them in prison

This isn’t to imply America’s international system is better or even moral. (For the record, it is better than communism but one must always keep in mind that old Churchill quote.) It merely exists and those who don’t abide by its rules are swept aside by its tentacles.

In order to arrest the growth of American influence, elites in both Beijing and Moscow have concluded they must directly challenge America’s ability to govern the international realm. To that end, they’ve both seized upon small disputes.

And small those disputes are

Nobody should be under the illusion that China will become a superpower should it conquer the largely empty South China Sea. Nor should anyone think that even if Vladimir Putin miraculously defeats the Islamic State and restores Bashar Assad to all of Syria that he’ll suddenly be the next Joseph Stalin. These are baby steps at best. But they matter because they both challenge the United States without threatening nuclear war.

China is challenging the American right to patrol and control the Pacific. It can’t openly conquer new coastlines because to do so could well spiral into a nuclear war with the United States. So instead it’s trying to build them, thereby manipulating the Law of the Sea America itself wrote. Should China succeed, it would establish waters the United States would have to admit it couldn’t sail through, proving China could push America out of large swathes of the Pacific.

That would kick open a door to Chinese influence all across the Pacific Rim. If America could no longer protect the waves fully, nation states would start to accommodate China as the guarantor of large swathes of the Pacific.

Meanwhile, in the embers of Syria, Putin is sending a clear and direct challenge to American power. After fifteen years of the War on Terror, he seeks to prove that Moscow has what it takes to destroy jihadism while also showing America is not an ally anyone wants or needs.

For both to succeed extends the lives of their regimes and their political systems. It means both citizens and elites worldwide will question the need to play by the rules of Washington’s influence proxies like the International Monetary Fund or pretend that upsetting the US Navy is the same thing as goading a blockade.

But both are biting off more than they can chew

Russia is already desperately outmatched by the United States. China is less so but remains a regional rather than a global power. Nuclear weapons mean that no power can try to change the balance by wiping out their rival’s navy or defeating an army on the field. Instead, they must manipulate the rules as they are and hope the other side blinks first.

Doubtless both Russia and China believed they saw an American president ready to blink. They were almost right; unfortunately, that short-term calculation misread America as a geopolitical entity. The president’s personality doesn’t matter in the long run. They are eventually and predictably replaced. The errors of one are resolved by the next. That’s one reason America is so formidable: to have a disastrous president only strengthens the ability of the next to act.

The system isn’t dependent on a single person but the office they hold. China’s Politburo can function in a similar fashion, replacing bad leaders with new ones, but its closed process means loyalty is more important than efficiency. That’s always a dangerous tradeoff.

Russia, on the other hand, is much worse off. Its current geopolitical strategy is the result of a single personality. For him to have a heart attack could well be fatal not just to Putin but to the entire scheme to reverse Russia’s many losses. While Russia can and will replace its president, Putin is threading a very fine needle geopolitically, acting on narrow issues that aren’t vital to the survival of the Russian state.

For example, it will always remain vital for Russia to retain control of Chechnya; to lose it could unravel its many ethnic republics. One can reasonably expect the next Russian president to do everything in their power to continue Russia’s control of that region.

But Syria is not as vital. To lose that sole Russian naval base at Tartus would simply be a nail in the coffin of the already near-dead Russian navy in the Mediterranean. It would prove Russia’s not that great of an ally but Russia has few allies anyway. Putting boots on the ground in Syria is a Putin-only move, one that is unlikely to be repeated by his successor.

And that’s not the case with the Americans who must respond, regardless of who’s president

Even had Obama sat these challenges out, his successor, Republican or Democrat, would be under enormous pressure to act. Such pressure would derail their domestic policies: a Congress full of complaints about China’s rise or Russian advances in the Middle East would be unlikely to pass sympathetic legislation. Moreover, the electorate, realizing in a groping sort of way that their own status as a superpower was under threat, would be deeply unlikely to elect a president without a plan to reverse the perception of America’s decline.

But that’s now all moot. Obama is setting the tone for the next president. American forces will fight again in Iraq; they will fight for the first time in Syria. While Obama may do as he so often has and keep the battles small, wars, once begun, are easy to escalate. The next president will have the leisure to expand combat operations using America’s formidable tool kit.

Meanwhile, the deployment of the US Navy through China’s claimed waters will simply prove that Beijing’s island-building strategy is an expensive and ostentatious failure. The Chinese hold few cards to stop them; the Chinese don’t own enough American debt to derail the American economy and with a Chinese slowdown in the works Beijing needs America as an export market to keep growth going.

To use hard power to stop the Americans — by, saying, intercepting American warships — is beyond dangerous and unlikely to succeed. The US Navy is still more advanced than anything China fields; in a shooting match the Chinese visit the bottom of the ocean. That leaves only the nuclear option for victory which in reality means no one wins.

And what of a Sino-Russian alliance?

The odds of such a thing are better than ever. Their mutual challenge to the United States didn’t unite them; as neighbors and competitors over influence and resources in Asia, they aren’t natural allies. But the United States will drive them together as it now organizes its response.

It won’t matter. The Chinese will find the weakened Russian state a liability; since Russia is so commodity heavy and its economy isn’t very diverse, they’ll have to foot the bill to modernize Russia. (Ironically, this is precisely what the Soviets did for Mao’s China and they too eventually got sick of keeping his lights on.) Russia won’t like Chinese encroachment upon Siberia’s plentiful resources, nor Beijing’s inroads into Central Asia.

Worse, both have inherited imperial borders and imperial hangovers. Many minorities within both countries agitate for autonomy or even independence. The cost of maintaining such order is pricey.

Meanwhile, bursts of economic growth have led to deeply uneven societies, with rich getting richer and poor getting poor. Neither of them have straightforward political mechanisms to fix such problems: instead, the poor must take to the streets and challenge the state.

Finally, this likely Moscow-Beijing axis will still be unable to cope with America’s global alliance. While it might pick up a few malcontents like Venezuela, Iran, Syria and even Iraq, large prizes like Europe, India and most of Latin America will remain firmly out of its reach. Instead of dividing such regions from the United States, a Moscow-Beijing axis will alarm all of their neighbors, driving states like Mongolia, Vietnam, Finland and Sweden into America’s alliance system. Ironically, their unity could well provoke much of the rest of the globe to unite against them under the American banner.

That kind of pressure will be impossible to resist. Competition could give way to sanctions; sanctions to unrest; unrest to revolution; revolution to new elites who accommodate the United States, leaving it the sole global victor.

The empire is striking back and, unlike the Galactic Empire, it will fight by attrition

Remember that in Star Wars the Galactic Empire foolishly consolidated its power in two places: the Death Star and the emperor. To destroy both destroyed it. But America doesn’t function that way. It will retaliate against the rise of China and Russia through attrition: attrition it can afford and its enemies cannot.

As all things do, the dominance of the United States must end. But that is much farther off than many will admit. Whatever replaces the United States as global superpower is probably not yet on the map. But whoever succeeds the United States, it will not be Russia or China.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, November 2, 2015.