Robert D. Kaplan is a senior adviser at Eurasia Group and the author of “The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian,” forthcoming in September.
China and Russia are set to emerge from the covid-19 pandemic with comparative advantages over the United States. China’s state companies can bear the brunt of the economic shock, and its authoritarian system has allowed it to enact draconian quarantine policies. Russia, because of years of sanctions, has built some self-sufficiency into its economic model, with hundreds of billions of dollars of gold and hard currency reserves to help offset the decline in energy prices.
By contrast, the United States, immersed in the global free market, has been severely damaged. The system of global order it constructed and maintained under every president from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama lies in near-ruins, with the Group of Seven and other Western-led institutions unable to coordinate action because of lack of guidance from the White House.
Meanwhile, the U.S. defense budget will likely contract for many years to come, thanks to the vast amounts of debt Congress and the Federal Reserve have piled up to stimulate the economy. Yet this obscures the real problem, which is that China and Russia — low-birth-rate societies afraid of casualties as much as we are — view war through a much broader lens than that of traditional military operations. They also see it in the context of economics, cyberwar, propaganda and intelligence. And covid-19 — while not intentionally spread by China, as President Trump insinuates — nevertheless constitutes a tactical victory, however accidental, for the two authoritarian powers.
In his new book, “The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West,” David Kilcullen, an Australian academic and military strategist, labels what the Chinese and Russians have been doing as “conceptual envelopment,” noting “by the time we realize we are at war, we have already lost.” While we are not at that point yet, the pandemic — a history-altering global security crisis that is not military, and which has exposed the vulnerability of the Western world — has demonstrated how a purely military approach to great-power rivalry will henceforth undermine the United States in its struggle with China and Russia.
The ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, who sanctioned every manner of deceit to gain strategic advantage, believed that to engage in bloodshed was itself a sign of miscalculation. Beijing has taken such advice to heart. Whereas we continue to think of the Western way of war — whether in large conventional units or in smaller special operations forces — as a strategy, it is, in fact, merely a battle concept.
Our strategy must embrace a genuinely whole-of-government approach, involving the State Department, the Commerce Department and other agencies. But it can’t stop there. It must also link government security policy more closely to the activities of industry, and especially to high technology firms, so that they all work in loose coordination to advance U.S. and Western goals.
This will become easier as supply chains become less dependent on China, and Silicon Valley is forced to assemble its products in countries that are de facto U.S. allies — placing Silicon Valley’s self-interest more in line with Washington’s. We are headed for a more fractured world, favoring public-private cooperation regarding each great power — as opposed to the globalized world we are gradually leaving behind, where American companies were on their way to being denationalized.
This is something that the Chinese and Russians — with more tightly controlled bureaucracies and state-controlled companies — have mastered. Whether it is Gazprom, Rosneft or the China National Offshore Oil Corp. acting abroad as arms of their respective governments — or whether it is Russia seeking to entrap Western Europe further into buying Siberian natural gas, or China subtly coercing countries into joining its Belt and Road Initiative and its 5G network — this is the new face of war.
The answer is not merely a tighter public-private embrace coupled with more interagency coordination; rather, it is to recover the American brand so that the private sector feels comfortable working with the public one in the first place. Internationalism and the promotion of human rights are no longer options but necessities in this regard. They play to our advantages by allowing us to rejuvenate alliances — even as we put Russia and China on a back foot.
Despite the battering that our institutions have taken, we are still in a comparatively strong position. The Chinese and Russians, by declaring their respective leaders virtually presidents for life, are inadvertently revealing their weakness, highlighting a deepening institutional void as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin grow old.
The ultimate victor in this new great power struggle will be the one that captures the evolving spirit of the age. The fact that all of humanity — on an increasingly crowded and interconnected planet — is experiencing the same traumas means that a global consciousness must eventually emerge in an epoch of planetary demons that includes climate change as well as pandemics. In this media-driven world, there will be a constant fight for status among the great powers. To compete only in the military sphere under such circumstances will render us defenseless.