In April 2012, a Philippine surveillance vessel interdicted eight Chinese fishing ships sailing toward Scarborough Reef, an outcropping in the South China Sea claimed by both China and the Philippines (as well as Taiwan). Incensed, China dispatched its own surveillance vessels to block the Philippines from arresting the fishermen. It then worked in tandem with private Chinese fishermen to trap Filipino fishermen inside the reef and block any exit or re-entry. Meanwhile, Chinese military ships loomed in the distance. The United States mediated a settlement, but once Philippine forces withdrew, China broke the agreement and took Scarborough for its own.
In All Measures Short of War, Tom Wright argues that Scarborough-like conflicts will define great-power rivalry in the 21st century. A scholar at the Brookings Institution, he takes his book’s title from President Franklin Roosevelt’s strategy before Pearl Harbor to help Britain defeat Germany without entering the war or provoking a Nazi response. Wright believes that the United States faces similar circumstances today. Its adversaries are using aggressive but calibrated tactics to “gain an upper hand in ways short of a major war.” These confrontations often amount to an accumulation of ambiguities and nuisances—harrying, cyberattacks, and on-again-off-again conflict—all meant to blur red lines rather than cut through them. The country and its leadership, Wright contends, is “ill prepared.” He sets out “to explain why great-power rivalry has returned, how to think about it, and how the United States can respond.”
Wright accurately diagnoses the problem’s cause: the demise of the idea of “convergence”—the notion that “as countries embraced globalization” following the collapse of the Soviet Union, “they would become more ‘responsible’ members of the liberal international order” and liberalize domestically as well. Powers great and small, the theory went, would collaborate on shared challenges and “recognize that their interests were best served” by joining the U.S.-led order. This was only possible, Wright points out, because “the defining and unique feature of world politics after the Cold War was the absence” of geopolitical competition against the United States. This unipolarity meant that “there were limits to how [countries] would express” their opposition to U.S. policies. For example, Wright notes, “when Russia opposed the United States over Iraq in 2003, it did not arm Saddam Hussein, intervene on his behalf, or place military advisers in Iraq.” By 2015, it would do all three for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
In the intervening dozen years, convergence gave way to chaos. Wright embarks on a sweeping tour across three continents. Europe, he writes, “is an ugly picture.” A Brexit-beset EU teeters “on the brink of a breakup,” while Russia menaces European security and sows confusion, the refugee crisis festers, and terrorists strike major European cities. In Asia, China has engaged in territorial disputes in the South China Sea by bullying (as in the Scarborough episode) and bulldozing (dredging to create thousands of acres of land where before there was only water). In the Middle East, the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia threatens to “deteriorate to the point that it endangers key U. S. interests.” At nearly 100 pages, Wright’s survey stretches on too long, but it does usefully synthesize many seemingly disparate trends and incidents.
One of Wright’s major themes is “the problem of revisionism.” Some nation-states like the world order as it is; they might try to better their geopolitical or economic positions, but they do so “through the legitimate processes of the international order.” By contrast, revisionist states, in their pursuit of power, territory, and influence over other countries, happily break those bounds. Although that description of countries might seem to evoke Nazi Germany and its ambitions for global domination, present-day revisionist states often seek merely regional disruption.
In that more modest goal lies the paradox and the predicament of revisionism. Revisionist states tend to target local gains or the nonvital interests of their great-power rivals. They aim for the sweet spot, maximizing advantage while stopping short of provoking retaliation. Doing so, Wright explains, “leaves the status quo power torn over how to respond, debating whether it’s worth it to commit the blood and treasure.” Revisionists pose what we might call a “too early, too early, too late” problem: One island grab in the South China Sea isn’t worth risking war, but dozens of islands and thousands of acres later, it’s too late to roll back the gains.
The problem comes in different shapes and sizes. Russia wants to restore great-power rule to Europe. Isolated and opportunistic, Wright argues, Moscow “is willing to consider limited war in order to achieve its objectives” and sees its stomach for hybrid warfare “as a strategic advantage that could give it escalation dominance.” China, by contrast, poses a subtler test. It’s a rising power with a stake in the U. S.-led order that also hopes to carve out a sphere of influence in East Asia. Wright argues that Beijing not only wants to avoid war with Washington—it must, lest it lose its spoils and expose its regime to instability. To preserve the bluff, China “maintain[s] the illusion” that inadvertent conflict could break out suddenly to induce “an abundance of caution among American policymakers.”
Wright sees the post-Cold War period as an interregnum: Moscow, Beijing, and other revisionists were bound eventually to defy Washington, once they had “accumulated enough power to push back.” But Moscow and Beijing were effective in pushing back, Wright carefully acknowledges, at least in part because of the shortcomings of the Obama administration. At first, the administration could not bring itself to believe that Russia and China—which, after all, faced the shared threats of terrorism and climate change—“would have interests that conflicted directly with those of the United States.” Even after subsequent events shattered that misconception, President Obama nonetheless feared overextension. Anxious, above all, to avoid war, he shied away from steps that could increase the risk of one. Such an approach, Wright recognizes, “leave[s] very few options for responding to revisionism.”
If the menu of options available to American foreign-policy officials is to be expanded, Wright correctly observes, they (and presumably also the country they serve) will need an increased tolerance for risk and ambiguity. But Wright’s strategy for combating revisionism, which he dubs “responsible competition,” tends to ignore that insight. Russia, he concedes, “has a key strategic advantage . . . it is more willing to fight for its sphere of influence than is the United States or Western Europe.” By accepting that premise, Wright relegates himself to the identical “very few options” countenanced by Obama—nonlethal assistance and more sanctions. The options he offers for grappling with China are only slightly more creative: The United States should, he says, consider “expanding and sustaining” operations to protect freedom of navigation, and equipping regional partners with dredging tools and missile defense technology. Even as Wright commendably calls for an injection of will into U. S. foreign policy, his suggestions would do little to get beyond the paralyzing dichotomy (“do nothing” or “war”) that eliminated so many responses to revisionism during the Obama years.
Wright also insufficiently explores the source of Obama’s attitudes toward geopolitics—attitudes shared by a bipartisan segment of the foreign-policy establishment—and thus misses the true reason it is so difficult for the United States to cope with some countries’ revisionist ambitions. It has to do with a mindset that arose during the Cold War. For all its complexities, the Cold War eventually offered a familiar set of patterns and players. In the State Department, in the Pentagon, in the intelligence community, various sciences sprang up to calculate the variables of foreign policy, gaming out every scenario. These techniques survived the collapse of the USSR, evolving with the times but retaining their bias for predictability. The current international environment, however, is defined by its unpredictability. The United States hasn’t confronted such an unstable climate since before World War II. It’s not so much that competition has returned—it is ever present—but that confusion, surprise, and, most of all, fortune have. Washington doesn’t just need will; it needs to relearn the role of chance.
For a wider range of answers, and for insight into the challenges that the United States faces, Wright might have turned to the man whose policies inspired his book’s title. Far from a technocrat, President Roosevelt navigated the United States through a time of stormy disorder, in which statesmen were more familiar with geopolitical turmoil. He not only aided Great Britain but also rebuilt U. S. forces and sent patrols deep into the Atlantic to ward off German encroachment. With Churchill, Roosevelt issued the Atlantic Charter, establishing the political aims of the Allies in the struggle against fascism. In the current era of revisionism, when China has its bulldozers and Russia sends its “little green men” (soldiers without official state insignia) into Ukraine, the United States brings its own advantages into the arena: not just wealth and technology and military strength, but also moral clarity.
Both in his analysis and by his example, Wright makes the case for grand strategy—as opposed to siloed specialization—to confront the dangers of the present moment and those we can anticipate. With a grand strategic vision, experts of both parties can begin to design the policies needed to beat back revisionism and adjust to a world in constant flux.
Jordan Chandler Hirsch is a visiting fellow at the Columbia Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard