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How should America respond to Russia and China? Foreign policy expert Ali Wyne explains why geopolitics is about to get much messier

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In this episode of Hub Dialogues, The Hub’s executive director Rudyard Griffiths is in conversation with Ali Wyne, who is a senior analyst at Eurasia Group, a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a David Rockefeller fellow with the Trilateral Commission. They discuss his new book, America’s Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing U.S. Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition, and the importance of treating China and Russia seriously without aggrandizing them.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Hello Hub listeners. Rudyard Griffiths here, your executive director. Normally, you’d hear Sean Speer’s voice leading these Hub Dialogues, but, from time to time, I like to dip into the role of the interviewer when I come across a book, an author, an idea that I find particularly compelling and I think demands our attention. We have that occasion today with an important new work released by my friend Ali Wyne. It’s called America’s Great-Power Opportunity.

You might know Ali Wyne as a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group—founded by Ian Bremmer who is someone we’ve had regularly on here at the Munk Debates, at the Munk Dialogues—he’s a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a David Rockefeller fellow with the Trilateral Commission, and a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project. Ali Wyne writes regularly for the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, you name it. We’ve got him here to talk about his new book. Ali, great to be in conversation with you.

ALI WYNE: Thank you so much for having me on. It’s a real privilege. And really, actually, I should say not only to be on the Hub but also of a privilege to engage after so many years. I think that we first interacted in the context of the Munk Debates. As we were just talking about a couple of minutes ago, I really just have unyielding admiration for the Munk Debates and also the work that you’ve done to ensure that there is still a prominent forum in which luminaries come together and they engage one another, in a vigorous way, but in a civil way. They really enliven the public square. It’s great to reconnect and a real privilege to be on with you this morning.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Great. Well, thanks, Ali. Thanks for those kind words. Well, let’s dig into America’s Great-Power Opportunity. As you write, it has become axiomatic. I think especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent fallout for the broader foreign policy community to talk about and think about international relations in terms of a renewed era of great-power competition. You think there are some problems with this and potentially some real costs. Why don’t you begin this conversation with me by just unpacking your core argument?

ALI WYNE: So, one of the distinctions that I posit in the book is between great-power competition descriptively and great-power competition prescriptively. That is to say great-power competition as a distillation of a very important element of contemporary geopolitics and great-power competition as a blueprint for U.S. foreign policy. So, turning to the former, and I hope that I make this argument clearly in the book, in thinking about great-power competition descriptively, I have no objection whatsoever to the construct. And I don’t know that any observers would really object to great-power competition as distilling an important aspect of contemporary geopolitics.

So, the United States relatively and undoubtedly is not as influential as it was at the end of the Cold War or even two decades ago. China and Russia, America’s two principal nation-state competitors are undoubtedly more able and more willing to challenge U.S. national interests, to undercut U.S. influence. So, descriptively, a great-power competition, it doesn’t capture the totality of geopolitics. I think that a more panoramic description would also have to take into account the role of non-state actors, the growing role of frontier technologies, and the growing number and complexity of transnational challenges. But nonetheless, a great-power competition captures an important element of geopolitics.

The concerns that I try to articulate in the book have to do with turning a description into a prescription. And when you conflate the two, when you conflate description and prescription, I think you run a number of risks. The first risk is that of a reactive defence of U.S. foreign policy. So, if U.S. foreign policy is substantially, if not entirely, predicated upon responding to the decisions and the provocations of China and of Russia—particularly as we’re seeing now with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—a U.S. foreign policy that’s substantially predicated on responding to their decisions, it’s going to be reactive. It’s going to cede a competitive advantage to China and Russia. I think that it’s important that the United States, as it competes, that it competes selectively, not ubiquitously, and that it’s competing importantly on its own terms, not on the terms defined by its competitors. So, the first concern is that of a reactive foreign policy as opposed to an affirmative foreign policy. 

The second concern—and it’s a paradoxical concern because I think it actually is cause for a quiet confidence on the part of the United States—I fear that making great-power competition, treating it as a policy framework, I fear that it risks aggrandizing the competitive acumen of our, in this case America’s, principal nation-state competitors. 

Now, China and Russia are serious competitors. They are multi-faceted competitors. I suspect that they’re likely to endure as competitors. But I think that if, in the aftermath of the Cold War the United States perhaps veered too far in the direction of complacency, I think that there’s a fear now, this is an inevitable concern whenever you have a pendulum that swings—unlike in the realm of physics, in the realm of policy, the pendulum, they’re susceptible to overcorrection—and I fear that the United States may run the risk of overcorrecting in the direction of consternation. We want to treat China and Russia seriously, but not aggrandize them. Take a look at China and then I’ll turn to Russia in a little bit. 

Look at China. So, China has this much-vaunted, and I think substantially overstated, ability to engage in very very long-term strategic thinking. So, we’re told that it peers decades into the future, that it is outclassing the United States strategically, that the United States can only think in two-year increments or four-year increments. I think that particularly the developments we’ve seen over the course of the pandemic have really given the lie to that narrative substantially. 

Let’s rewind the clock just to say, March of 2020, or April of 2020. And you all remember the narratives at the time. The narratives at the time were, turning to China, that China had successfully contained the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic at home. It had contained the initial economic fallout from COVID-19 and, having demonstrated its bureaucratic competence, it was now training its sights outwards and it was helping the rest of the world recover, in terms of in health terms and economic terms. That was the depiction of China. The depiction of the United States was of this flailing floundering hapless superpower that couldn’t contain the pandemic, couldn’t contain a fast-moving recession, couldn’t deal with protests against racial injustice. And so given that juxtaposition and narratives in the first quarter of 2020, China had an extraordinary opportunity to consolidate its diplomatic stature and to bring its diplomatic stature into greater alignment with its economic heft.

It could have, decided that “Hey, we have the United States where we want it. We’re going to press pause on intimidating Taiwan. We’re going to press pause on cracking down on Hong Kong. We’re going to stabilize our relations as best as possible with our powerful democratic neighbours, Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea. We’re going to try to get this comprehensive agreement on investment across the finish line with the European Union. And we’re going to try to take some steps to stabilize our relations with the United States, which are deteriorating on a bipartisan basis.”

China took none of those steps. And as a result of its so-called rule of four-year diplomacy which it seems intent on continuing, even though China today is more integral to the global economy than it was prior to the onset of the pandemic, its diplomatic position is substantially worse. And I would argue that with the exception of its relationship with Russia, which we’ll talk about I imagine in a little while, I would argue that China’s relationships with virtually every other major power are either stagnant or deteriorating. So that’s China.

Russia, obviously with its invasion of Ukraine has committed an extraordinary act of strategic self-sabotage. It has given NATO a new lease on life. It has reinvigorated the transatlantic project. It has rendered itself yet more beholden to China. It has hemorrhaged substantial military assets, economic assets, we can go on and on. But the point is that China and Russia have proven themselves to be—well, China has proven itself to be a self-constraining competitor, Russia has proven itself to be a self-sabotaging competitor. I think that their competitive missteps give the United States a little bit more breathing room than we sometimes give ourselves credit for, or that we think that we have to pursue a more affirmative foreign policy.

So just to summarize. The first concern is a great power competition may incline the United States to pursue, I think, a needlessly reactive defensive foreign policy. The second risk is that it inclines the United States, perhaps again needlessly, to aggrandize the competitive acumen of China and Russia rather than placing it in proper perspective. And then the third and final critique that I’ll set forth and then I’ll stop is that, and this critique is difficult for me to articulate, as I try to make clear in the book, in light of the cruelty and the really the barbary that Russia is loosing upon Ukraine in light of the deteriorating human rights landscape in China, I don’t think that the United States will be able to advance its vital national interest solely in alignment with like-minded countries.

China and Russia, they’re simply too large militarily and economically. They are too deeply interwoven into the fabric of global politics for the United States to believe they can essentially lock them away in a strategic lockbox, take away the key and say, “We don’t have to engage with China and Russia.” I don’t see a tenable or plausible scenario in which the United States can think seriously about mitigating climate change, mitigating macroeconomic instability, mitigating nuclear proliferation, and so on and so forth, without some baseline of cooperative space with China and Russia. So, those are three broad critiques, but again, just to summarize, great-power competition is a description. I think it’s absolutely it gets at an essential element of contemporary geopolitics, but let’s not make description into prescription.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Got it. Well, let’s talk about some of these shared goals, or certainly interests, between the United States and Canada. It’s interesting you just mentioned climate because I think that’s one of the issues that we’ve seen really suffer in the context of this year. The war in Ukraine, the responses that governments have had to take all of a sudden to meet unexpected energy needs and soaring energy costs. So, within your framework, how does the United States go about pursuing these kinds of larger international public goods when the very interlocutors that you acknowledge are critical to the solution of a lot of these problems probably are making great-power competition exceedingly prescriptive in their own interactions with the U.S. and the rest of the world?

I guess it’s one thing to say, yes, the United States could look beyond this, understand its unique position, and not engage in policies that explicitly either amplify or reflect a great power lens on global affairs. But what happens when all of its interlocutors, especially its main interlocutor, China, seems to have bought in hook, line, and sinker to that view? 

ALI WYNE: Maybe if I write another book I’ll try to come up with a halfway decent answer to that question because your question is one, I’ll be candid, it’s one that I struggled with when I wrote the book and it’s one that I continue to struggle with now. So leaving aside Russia for a little bit, but just talking about China, which you mentioned just now, I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine near the end of the Obama administration and during the second term of the Obama administration, the U.S.-China relationship, it was certainly deteriorating, perhaps not at the clip that it is now, but it wasn’t going in the right direction. I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine and we were talking about the state of the relationship.

She said to me, “Well the good news is that whatever else is going wrong in the relationship, at least the United States and China, they can always cooperate on global public health and they can always cooperate on climate change.” I recently spoke with her, this would be weeks ago and I said, “Well, how about now?” She said, “Well now of course the United States and China, it seems that they can’t even cooperate on those issues.” It’s a way of saying I don’t have a good answer to that question. One of the concerns that I have is that the United States and China, because I think both for domestic political reasons and for strategic reasons, there just isn’t that much of an incentive for bilateral cooperation. 

So, there are two thoughts. One is that will there have to be some kind of forcing function? Will it take another pandemic? Will it take a particularly egregious manifestation of climate change? Will it take some other systemic shock to occasion bilateral cooperation, emergency cooperation between the United States and China? So, one of my concerns is that it’s not clear to me that the United States and China of their own volition, given domestic politics, given strategic constraints, will willingly engage in that kind of cooperation. So, one, do you need some forcing mechanism, and one shudders to think at what that type of forcing mechanism might be. I think that many observers, certainly myself included, thought that COVID-19 might be that forcing mechanism, in much the same way that if you go back to 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers occasioned that bilateral cooperation. One thought is that perhaps there will be a need for a forcing mechanism.

Another thought is that perhaps in due course if the United States and China come to believe, as I hope that they will, that neither one of them can dominate the other, that they will have to improvise their way over the long-term towards some form of competitive coexistence, some form of durable cohabitation. I think that the sooner they internalize that realization—I think the sooner they internalize the unlikelihood of a discrete power transition in which either the United States regains the primacy that it enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War or China comes to overtake the United States as the world’s preeminent power—I think that the sooner they internalize those kinds of realizations, the more that they can actually begin to get about the hard work of carving out space, however limited and however begrudging, to cooperate on these transnational challenges. 

One last thought, and then I’ll stop. I do think that there is going to be an increasingly critical role for subnational actors, because I think that at the national level, again, I think that the incentives for cooperation are also far and few in between, but I think that there’s a recognition that states, cities, the towns, they will increasingly have to be agents of diplomacy so that even if they’re respective governments, even if subnational actors in the United States and China, that even if their governments perhaps aren’t willing or able or willing to engage in cooperation, that perhaps they can pick up the baton a little bit.

It’s a long way of saying that I wasn’t able to come up with a good answer in the book. I remain unable to come up with a convincing answer now. I only hope that the United States and China don’t wait for some real systemic shock from which it may prove difficult to recover in order to get about the cooperation that’s going to be indispensable for each of them. 

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Thank you, Ali, always appreciate people who acknowledge the scope of their intellectual endeavor and who express those known unknowns because those are obviously things that we’re all focusing on. You’re listening to Ali Wayne, talk about his new book, America’s Great-Power Opportunity with me Rudyard Griffiths. Ali, since writing the book, and with the war in Ukraine, another thesis that is out there, that’s building on great-power competition, but almost taking it further, is this idea of two hegemonic blocks emerging. A kind of Sino-Russian block that is both mutually supporting, and obviously with Russia in the junior role, but also around those two so-called great powers constellation of not insignificant nations that seem to have, at least this far in the conflict, aligned themselves with Russia and China. And I think of Brazil and India—significant economies, arguably nations that will have a growing influence in their own regions in the 21st century.

Then the other block, obviously, a Western bloc, a reignited, reaffirmed transatlantic relationship between Europe and the United States with security, economic, and energy dimensions. What is your thinking about the accuracy of that kind of model, of great-power competition on steroids, so to speak, and what is the extent to which your own writing and thinking might want us to challenge the hegemony that this thinking increasingly has and a lot of ways that people think the world’s going to unfold in the decades to come?

ALI WYNE: There’s no question. I think I would introduce a temporal dimension into my answer, and that is to say, I think that some of the alignments or the realignments that we are seeing are the product of the shock resulting from Russia’s invasion. But I think that the unity or the coalescence or alignment that is born of reactive shock doesn’t necessarily translate into perpetuity into the kind of unity that’s born of shared affirmative purposes. 

What I mean is that, so first take the constellation of advanced industrial democracies. Unquestionably they’ve mobilized an unprecedented response to Russian aggression, particularly on the economic side in imposing very swift sanctions, very punishing. And yet, even within the constellation of advanced industrial democracies, and you mentioned India, but even within that bloc, you’re seeing incipient signs of duress in that coalition. I imagine that we’ll see some of those incipient tensions on display at the upcoming G7 summit as the externalities of this war between Russia and Ukraine grow more pronounced. So, disruptions to global energy markets, disruptions to global food markets. I think that there is some unease about how does this war end, when will it end, and what will be the parameters of the resolution?

So, even within, I would say, Western democracies, it’s not clear that the short-term extraordinary coalesce that we saw, galvanized in response to Russian aggression, it’s not clear that it can be sustained in perpetuity, particularly as these externalities go more pronounced, number one. Number two, Europe by sheer dint of geography, doesn’t have the choice. It has to focus more on Russia than it does on China. The United States, of course, wants to resume its focus on China and it wants to accord singular strategic priority to the Indo-Pacific. There is a certain misalignment of strategic priorities.

But having talked a little bit about some of the signs of duress perhaps among this coalition of advanced industrial democracies, I think that turning to the sign of Russian entente, I think paradoxically, it’s simultaneously stronger, but also more strained. It’s stronger I think by default because Russia, by virtue of this catastrophic blunder in which it’s engaged, it’s rendered itself more beholden to China. So, Russia is now it’s clinging even more tightly to China’s coattails. China also recognizes that because Russia is in a more compromised position that it can extract greater concessions from Russia on the provision of say energy or the provision of weapons.

And it’s true undoubtedly, that if you look particularly at China’s public rhetoric, that China is increasingly expressing its diplomatic support for Russia. China and Russia, they routinely inveigh against the postwar order. They inveigh against the norms, the arrangements, the laws that underpin that system. And yet I think it’s strained and it’s strained because, my sense, and again only Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin know the exact details of their conversation, my suspicion though is that before Russia invaded Ukraine, my sense is that China either genuinely believed that Russia would indeed just engage in a so-called special military operation, or that if Russia did launch a full-fledged invasion, that Ukraine would capitulate so quickly that it would be a bloodless affair and that the West wouldn’t even have time to mobilize a response.

But I think that four months in, as this recognition is setting in that we now are really hunkering down for a war of attrition, the economic costs to China are becoming clearer and more importantly, the diplomatic costs are becoming clearer. And even though China and Russia on February 4th of this year they avowed that their relationship has no limits, I would have to imagine that President Xi, despite his public pronouncements, that he and his top advisors internally are saying to themselves that this relationship does have some acute limits. In particular, that Russia is becoming a reputational albatross around our neck.

And so, China is trying to strike a very, very difficult balance. It doesn’t want to abandon Russia. It wants to, at least in theory, uphold its commitment to territorial integrity and sovereignty, but it also recognizes that in terms of its own long-term strategic prospects that its relationship with the West is a far greater consequence than its relationship with Russia. And so, squaring that policy trilemma —that’s Evan Manderosses’ phrase, not mine—squaring that policy trilemma is going to be very difficult. I think that the degree of unity among advanced industrial democracies is not as great or as enduring as some commentary might suggest. I would also say that perhaps the unity and the strength of the Sino-Russian entente may not be as great as some commentary suggest. 

Then one last point, and you mentioned India, I think it’s very, very important to note that the vast majority of the world’s countries, I think that they will continue to hedge. They will continue to deal with different countries on an as-needed basis. I think India is an exemplar in this regard. So, India is drawing much closer to the United States to contest China, but India is also saying that it’s not going to abandon Russia. And so, I think that many other countries, I suspect, are going to follow India’s lead in interacting with the great powers, the United States, China, and Russia, as befits their national interests and that means that as opposed to rigid ideological blocs, I think that we’re going to be entering a period of much more fluid, much messier geopolitics.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Thanks, Ali. Final question: if there’s one insight, one takeaway that you want your reader to leave from having spent time with your book, what would that be? What’s the thing that’s going to contribute most to our thinking right now about international relations?

ALI WYNE: The key takeaway is that the United States should try as hard as possible to pursue a foreign policy that isn’t tethered to, or beholden to, the decisions of its principal competitors. For quite some time, I think that U.S. foreign policy has been predicated upon mobilizing in the face of external competitors. 

If you go back to say the 1930s and the 1940s, so obviously thinking about America’s confrontations with Japan, with Germany, and then for the better part of half the century, of course, America’s confrontation with the Soviet Union. George Kennan Warren, I think in a very farsighted way, George Kennan Warren, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, he warned that because he was foreign policy had spent so much time dealing with external competitors, he warned that without this external mobilizer, this external competitor to galvanize the U.S. foreign policymaking apparatus that the United States would be at risk of strategic disorientation. 

And so, what I try to argue in the book is that the United States should really seize this what I call a great-power opportunity to formulate a foreign policy that is predicated less upon the decisions of its competitors and more upon the renewal of its own unique competitive advantages, so that it positions itself to compete effectively no matter what China does, no matter what Russia does. And while I don’t want to come across as sanguine, as I said at the outset of the podcast, this is not 1991 where the United States is in a far less auspicious geopolitical environment today, but the United States I think that its geopolitical position on balance remains enviable. It retains a wide panoply of competitive advantages, some of which I would argue are singular. And China and Russia, I think, face far more severe strategic predicaments than is often conveyed. 

I think that the United States should focus more on investing anew in its unique competitive advantages, thinking about how it can position itself for the long haul, and thinking about how it can articulate a vision for international order that speaks at least as much to its aspirations as to its anxieties.

And I think that if you can do so, I think that it can proceed with quiet confidence. It can manage China and Russia’s respective competitive challenges with equanimity. And even though it’s not going to be able to avoid geopolitical turbulence, I think that it will be able to sail through in a much more tempered, much more sensible, and durable fashion.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Ali Wyne, thank you for spending some time with The Hub and Hub listeners. Really enjoyed our conversation today about your new book, America’s Great‑Power Opportunity. You can get it at amazon.com, search this book out. It’s an important look at some of the big geopolitical building blocks of the current international world order. And hey, I like those kind of books. Ali, have a great rest of your summer, and let’s do this again soon.

ALI WYNE: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed the conversation.

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