Statecraft in the Shadow of the U.S.-Chinese Rivalry

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Russian aggression in Ukraine and competition between China and the United States have made the world more uncertain and dangerous. The Ukraine war is likely to be prolonged, and the U.S.-Chinese rivalry seems set to become the defining feature of international relations in the twenty-first century. Policymakers and analysts worry that the future will be riven with divisions, with countries separated into hostile, competitive blocs and geopolitics becoming a zero-sum game.

But as officials around the world grapple with these complex developments, it is crucial that they keep them in proper perspective. States have competed as long as there have been states. They have collaborated, too, but the harsh reality is that competition all too often turns into conflict. The last century was punctuated by periodic spasms of major interstate violence: World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, several wars between Israel and Arab states, China’s invasions of India and Vietnam, and numerous wars in the global South. During the Cold War, the risk of nuclear destruction made direct confrontation between Moscow and Washington too dangerous, but their rivalry sparked many hot conflicts in proxy wars around the world. Even the so-called unipolar moment, when the United States reigned supreme, was not free of conflict; vicious genocidal wars erupted in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.

The dangers of these times are real but hardly novel. Arguably, the world is returning to its natural state. The war in Ukraine and U.S.-Chinese rivalry conform to established patterns of state behavior. The uncertainties and risks they pose—the possibility of accidents getting out of hand and nuclear escalation, among others—are what U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld termed “known unknowns.” Most countries successfully navigated previous phases of great-power competition, and many of them even grew and prospered under those harsh conditions. If they remain calm and exercise reasonable prudence, there is no reason they cannot do so again.

Source: Foreign Affairs