Purpose and Great Power Competition

Great powers are coming into ever more active competition over the world order – however they define that and however they may want it to be.  But it seems that none have made clear why, or what anyone really is after in this contest.

Walter Russell Mead’s overview of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a growing association that started with China and Russia and some central Asian states, notes that its members “seek to disrupt the international system.  Yet they have no positive agenda to propose.”  It looks like an attempt to align countries together in opposition to the West, and little else.

As author Ali Wyne puts it, Russia and China have imposed limits on their own appeal.  They underestimated the democracies’ resolve and nimbleness, in sanctions and energy policy against Russia’s Ukraine war, or in AUKUS, the Quad, and other arrangements countering China’s aggressiveness.  At bottom, though, they limit themselves by their immersion in Realpolitik.  

The West has done well in these effective responses.  But to remain in this Realist game is to engage in competition for its own sake.  This stance only corroborates China’s and Russia’s underlying narrative, that the U.S., and its western allies, are simply another amoral power grouping, and that the rest of the world will benefit from a more “even” balance among blocs.  We would limit our own appeal just as they limit theirs.

Wyne poses a number of questions for Washington policy-makers, and number one is the United States competing?”  To take another step, we may note that Western democracy and rule of law offer stability and prosperity, but even that theme could fuel another competition for competition’s sake.  China has actually been trying to show its system as economically more effective, and current U.S. performance still leaves room for them to make their case.

America has an affirmative purpose, which makes democracy essential and which reaches to elemental human drives.  This nation conceived itself on the primacy of personal rights, and the premise that government exists to secure those rights.  Prosperity, stability, and security are means to that end.  Even democracy, as essential as it is to determine consent of the governed, is a crucial means, not our purpose in itself. 

We must prevail against Realist threats, if only to preserve the vessel of our founding creed.  Ignoring that creed as we compete risks forfeiting our reason for competing.  Competing in clear purpose of preserving and exhibiting our creedal ethos in action will not only validate our founding tenets.  It reaches into people’s yearnings.  We will compete more effectively, and will further the human condition, simply by doing what we must for our own sake.


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