For most of history, it has been easy to find your country’s real or potential enemies. All you needed was a map. Look for nearby countries that could threaten you or rising powers that want to take what you have. Your job is to weaken them and build your own strength. One nation’s loss is another’s gain. Countries compete in an eternal battle for dominance.
In today’s radically altered world, though, our greatest security threats no longer come from other states. Climate change, pandemics, and the erosion of our own society threaten the United States more than any foreign country does. Yet we remain caught in the power-competition paradigm of past centuries. President Biden and those around him insist that our greatest dangers — the forces that threaten our “way of life” — are military and emanate from Beijing and Moscow. They aren’t and don’t. The post-COVID world demands deep rethinking of what constitutes a security threat to the United States.
In a summary of his foreign policy views last year, Biden wrote that he planned to “get tough” with China and “counter Russian aggression.” He’s carrying out his pledge. Soon after he took office, the US-dominated NATO alliance issued a new assessment of threats facing the United States and its allies. It pays lip service to global challenges but is rooted in 20th-century dogma: The great danger we face is “competition from assertive and authoritarian powers.” Western democracies, according to NATO, are besieged by hostile forces coming at us “from all strategic directions.” The two greatest threats are drearily familiar: “China’s growing influence” and “Russia’s growing multi-domain military buildup.”
Our most dramatic recent step to escalate military confrontation with China was the announcement last month that Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States will form a new military partnership called AUKUS. It will be centered on a fleet of nuclear submarines that the United States will sell to Australia for tens of billions of dollars — along with supplies of highly enriched uranium that can be used to make nuclear weapons. The prospect of nuclear submarines patrolling near Chinese waters naturally upset China, which immediately warned that the move “gravely undermines regional peace and stability.” China will presumably react with a new generation of anti-submarine technology, requiring the United States to respond with our own new generation. It is a classic security dilemma: One side takes steps to defend itself, but the other side sees those steps as threatening and takes countermeasures. This fuels a cycle of escalation that benefits only arms makers and demagogic politicians. Sometimes it ends in war. That is especially dangerous today because the prospective combatants are nuclear-armed — and because it diverts us from true threats.
China does indeed pose an unprecedented challenge to the United States, but that challenge cannot be met militarily. Whether the United States or China is the leading power in the world a generation from now depends on which society is seen as providing better lives for its citizens. We cannot stop or appreciably slow China’s rise, but we can improve ourselves. That’s hard. It would require a society-wide focus on issues from education to income equality to high-tech research. It’s easier to blame our troubles on faraway countries and lash out against them.
The urgency of transnational challenges like climate change, pandemics, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism requires a new level of global cooperation. For the United States, that means curbing our campaigns against China and Russia and trying a more conciliatory approach. Opportunities abound. How about regulating the militarization of outer space? China and Russia have proposed a new treaty, but the United States is reluctant. “The US wants to dominate outer space,” a Chinese ambassador complained last month. Whether or not that is true, China and Russia think it is and will now feel compelled to accelerate their own space-warfare projects.
Deep cooperation with Russia and China would require compromises that some Americans would find distasteful. To win Russia’s trust, we would have to accept its quest for influence in its “near abroad” and at least tacitly recognize its annexation of Crimea. To work cooperatively with the Chinese, we should not be expected to offer Taiwan on a platter, but we might reframe our support for activists in Hong Kong so it sounds more like support for democracy and less like an attack on China’s national sovereignty. As for the repressed Uighur minority, we should recognize that as long as we stridently demand better treatment for Uighurs, the Chinese are likely to refuse, in order not to be seen as succumbing to foreign pressure. A quieter approach might bring better results.
The pain of choices like these pales beside the prospect of onrushing threats to humanity’s future. China, the United States, and Russia are all among the world’s top polluters and deploy more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Instead of joining to confront looming global catastrophes, all three devote immense resources to strengthening their armies and navies. Meanwhile, our planet broils.
Maintaining a friendly government in Ukraine or sending aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait will not improve American lives or secure our place in the world. We can do that in two ways: by building a more successful society at home, and by joining with other countries to fight the true security battles of our age. Power rivalries distract us from those battles. Even the pandemic seems not to have shaken us out of our outmoded view that America’s main security threats come from overseas aggressors. The world has changed dramatically. Our understanding of it, not so much.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.