Can a Divided America Deter China and Russia?
The United States now confronts graver threats to its security than it has in decades, perhaps ever. Never before has it faced four allied antagonists at the same time—Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran—whose collective nuclear arsenal could within a few years be nearly double the size of its own. Not since the Korean War has the United States had to contend with powerful military rivals in both Europe and Asia. And no one alive can remember a time when an adversary had as much economic, scientific, technological, and military power as China does today.
The problem, however, is that at the very moment that events demand a strong and coherent response from the United States, the country cannot provide one. Its fractured political leadership—Republican and Democratic, in the White House and in Congress—has failed to convince enough Americans that developments in China and Russia matter. Political leaders have failed to explain how the threats posed by these countries are interconnected. They have failed to articulate a long-term strategy to ensure that the United States, and democratic values more broadly, will prevail.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have much in common, but two shared convictions stand out. First, each is convinced that his personal destiny is to restore the glory days of his country’s imperial past. For Xi, this means reclaiming imperial China’s once dominant role in Asia while harboring even greater ambitions for global influence. For Putin, it means pursuing an awkward mixture of reviving the Russian Empire and recapturing the deference that was accorded the Soviet Union. Second, both leaders are convinced that the developed democracies—above all, the United States—are past their prime and have entered an irreversible decline. This decline, they believe, is evident in these democracies’ growing isolationism, political polarization, and domestic disarray.
Taken together, Xi’s and Putin’s convictions portend a dangerous period ahead for the United States. The problem is not merely China’s and Russia’s military strength and aggressiveness. It is also that both leaders have already made major miscalculations at home and abroad and seem likely to make even bigger ones in the future. Their decisions could well lead to catastrophic consequences for themselves—and for the United States. Washington must therefore change Xi’s and Putin’s calculus and reduce the chances of disaster, an effort that will require strategic vision and bold action. The United States prevailed in the Cold War thanks to a consistent strategy pursued by both political parties through nine successive presidencies. It needs a similar bipartisan approach today. Therein lies the rub.
The United States finds itself in a uniquely treacherous position: facing aggressive adversaries with a propensity to miscalculate yet incapable of mustering the unity and strength necessary to dissuade them. Successfully deterring leaders such as Xi and Putin depends on the certainty of commitments and constancy of response. Yet instead, dysfunction has made American power erratic and unreliable, practically inviting risk-prone autocrats to place dangerous bets—with potentially catastrophic effects.
Xi’s call for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is shorthand for China becoming the dominant world power by 2049, the centenary of the Communists’ victory in the Chinese Civil War. That objective includes bringing Taiwan back under the control of Beijing. In his words, “The complete unification of the motherland must be realized, and it will be realized.” To that end, Xi has directed the Chinese military to be ready by 2027 to successfully invade Taiwan, and he has pledged to modernize the Chinese military by 2035 and turn it into a “world-class” force. Xi seems to believe that only by taking Taiwan can he secure for himself status comparable to Mao Zedong’s in the pantheon of Chinese Communist Party legends.
Xi’s aspirations and sense of personal destiny entail significant risk of war. Just as Putin has disastrously miscalculated in Ukraine, there is a considerable danger Xi will do so in Taiwan. He has already dramatically miscalculated at least three times. First, by departing from the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s maxim of “hide your strength, bide your time,” Xi has provoked exactly the response Deng feared: the United States has mobilized its economic power to slow China’s growth, begun strengthening and modernizing its military, and bolstered its alliances and military partnerships in Asia. A second major miscalculation was Xi’s leftward swing in economic policies, an ideological shift that began in 2015 and was reinforced at the 2022 National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. His policies, from inserting the party into the management of companies to increasingly relying on state-owned enterprises, have profoundly harmed China’s economy. Third, Xi’s “zero COVID” policy, as the economist Adam Posen has written in these pages, “made visible and tangible the CCP’s arbitrary power over everyone’s commercial activities, including those of the smallest players.” The resulting uncertainty, accentuated by his sudden reversal of that policy, has reduced Chinese consumer spending and thus further damaged the entire economy.
If preserving the power of the party is Xi’s first priority, taking Taiwan is his second. If China relies on measures short of war to pressure Taiwan to preemptively surrender, that effort will likely fail. And so Xi would be left with the option of risking war by imposing a full-scale naval blockade or even launching an all-out invasion to conquer the island. He may think he would be fulfilling his destiny by trying, but win or lose, the economic and military costs of provoking a war over Taiwan would be catastrophic for China, not to mention for everyone else involved. Xi would be making a monumental mistake.
Despite Xi’s miscalculations and his country’s many internal difficulties, China will continue to pose a formidable challenge to the United States. Its military is stronger than ever. China now boasts more warships than the United States (although they are of poorer quality). It has modernized and restructured both its conventional forces and its nuclear forces—and is nearly doubling its deployed strategic nuclear forces—and upgraded its command-and-control system. It is in the process of strengthening its capabilities in space and cyberspace, as well.
Xi’s sense of personal destiny entails significant risk of war.
Beyond its military moves, China has pursued a comprehensive strategy aimed at increasing its power and influence globally. China is now the top trading partner of more than 120 countries, including nearly all of those in South America. More than 140 countries have signed up as participants in the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s sprawling infrastructure development program, and China now owns, manages, or has invested in more than 100 ports in some 60 countries.
Complementing these widening economic relationships is a pervasive propaganda and media network. No country on earth is beyond the reach of at least one Chinese radio station, television channel, or online news site. Through these and other outlets, Beijing attacks American actions and motives, erodes faith in the international institutions the United States created after World War II, and trumpets the supposed superiority of its development and governance model—all while advancing the theme of Western decline.
There are at least two concepts invoked by those who think the United States and China are destined for conflict. One is “the Thucydides trap.” According to this theory, war is inevitable when a rising power confronts an established power, as when Athens confronted Sparta in antiquity or when Germany confronted the United Kingdom before World War I. Another is “peak China,” the idea that the country’s economic and military power is or will soon be at its strongest, while ambitious initiatives to strengthen the U.S. military will take years to bear fruit. Thus, China might well invade Taiwan before the military disparity in Asia changes China’s disadvantage.
But neither theory is convincing. There was nothing inevitable about World War I; it happened because of the stupidity and arrogance of Europe’s leaders. And the Chinese military itself is far from ready for a major conflict. Thus, a direct Chinese attack on or invasion of Taiwan, if it happens at all, is some years in the future. Unless, of course, Xi grievously miscalculates—again.
“Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, the political scientist and former U.S. national security adviser, once observed. Putin certainly shares that view. In pursuit of Russia’s lost empire, he invaded Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022—with the latter adventure turning out to be a catastrophic miscalculation with devastating long-term consequences for his country. Rather than dividing and weakening NATO, Russia’s actions have given the alliance new purpose (and, in Finland and, soon, Sweden, powerful new members). Strategically, Russia is far worse off now than it was before the invasion.
Economically, oil sales to China, India, and other states have offset much of the financial impact of sanctions, and consumer goods and technology from China, Turkey, and other countries in Central Asia and the Middle East have partly replaced those once imported from the West. Still, Russia has been subjected to extraordinary sanctions by virtually all developed democracies. Countless Western firms have pulled their investments and abandoned the country, including the oil and gas companies whose technology is essential to sustain Russia’s primary source of income. Thousands of young tech experts and entrepreneurs have fled. In invading Ukraine, Putin has mortgaged his country’s future.
As for Russia’s military, even though the war has significantly degraded its conventional forces, Moscow retains the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Thanks to arms control agreements, that arsenal includes only a few more deployed strategic nuclear weapons than what the United States has. But Russia has ten times as many tactical nuclear weapons—about 1,900.
This large nuclear arsenal notwithstanding, the prospects for Putin seem grim. With his hopes for a quick conquest of Ukraine dashed, he appears to be counting on a rough military stalemate to exhaust the Ukrainians, betting that by next spring or summer, the public in Europe and the United States will tire of sustaining them. As a temporary alternative to a conquered Ukraine, he may be willing to consider a crippled Ukraine—a rump state that lies in ruins, its exports slashed and its foreign aid dramatically reduced. Putin wanted Ukraine as part of a reconstituted Russian Empire; he also feared a democratic, modern, and prosperous Ukraine as an alternative model for Russians next door. He will not get the former, but he may believe he can prevent the latter.
As long as Putin is in power, Russia will remain an adversary of the United States and NATO. Through arms sales, security assistance, and discounted oil and gas, he is cultivating new relationships in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. He will continue to use all means at his disposal to sow division in the United States and Europe and undermine U.S. influence in the global South. Emboldened by his partnership with Xi and confident that his modernized nuclear arsenal will deter military action against Russia, he will continue to aggressively challenge the United States. Putin has already made one historic miscalculation; no one can be sure he will not make another.
For now, the United States would seem to be in a strong position vis-à-vis both China and Russia. Above all, the U.S. economy is doing well. Business investment in new manufacturing facilities, some of it subsidized by new government infrastructure and technology programs, is booming. New investments by both government and business in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics, and bioengineering promise to widen the technological and economic gap between the United States and every other country for years to come.
Diplomatically, the war in Ukraine has handed the United States new opportunities. The early warning that Washington gave its friends and allies about Russia’s intention to invade Ukraine restored their faith in U.S. intelligence capabilities. Renewed fears of Russia have allowed the United States to strengthen and expand NATO, and the military aid it has given Ukraine has provided clear evidence that it can be trusted to fulfill its commitments. Meanwhile, China’s economic and diplomatic bullying in Asia and Europe has backfired, enabling the United States to strengthen its relationships in both regions.
The U.S. military has been healthily funded in recent years, and modernization programs are underway in all three legs of the nuclear triad—intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, and submarines. The Pentagon is buying new combat aircraft (F-35s, modernized F-15s, and a new, sixth-generation fighter), along with a new fleet of tanker aircraft for in-flight refueling. The army is procuring some two dozen new platforms and weapons, and the navy is building additional ships and submarines. The military continues to develop new kinds of weapons, such as hypersonic munitions, and strengthen its offensive and defensive cyber-capabilities. All told, the United States spends more on defense than the next ten countries combined, including Russia and China.
Sadly, however, America’s political dysfunction and policy failures are undermining its success. The U.S. economy is threatened by runaway federal government spending. Politicians from both parties have failed to address the spiraling cost of entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Perennial opposition to raising the debt ceiling has undermined confidence in the economy, causing investors to worry about what would happen if Washington actually defaulted. (In August 2023, the ratings agency Fitch downgraded the United States’ credit rating, raising borrowing costs for the government.) The appropriations process in Congress has been broken for years. Legislators have repeatedly failed to enact individual appropriations bills, passed gigantic “omnibus” laws that no one has read, and forced government shutdowns.
As long as Putin is in power, Russia will remain a U.S. adversary.
Diplomatically, former President Donald Trump’s disdain for U.S. allies, his fondness for authoritarian leaders, his willingness to sow doubt about the United States’ commitment to its NATO allies, and his generally erratic behavior undermined U.S. credibility and respect across the globe. But just seven months into the administration of President Joe Biden, the United States’ abrupt, disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan further damaged the rest of the world’s confidence in Washington.
For years, U.S. diplomacy has neglected much of the global South, the central front for nonmilitary competition with China and Russia. The United States’ ambassadorships are disproportionately left vacant in this part of the world. Beginning in 2022, after years of neglect, the United States scrambled to revive its relationships with Pacific island nations—but only after China had taken advantage of Washington’s absence to sign security and economic agreements with these countries. The competition with China and even Russia for markets and influence is global. The United States cannot afford to be absent anywhere.
The military also pays a price for American political dysfunction—particularly in Congress. Every year since 2010, Congress has failed to approve appropriations bills for the military before the start of the next fiscal year. Instead, legislators have passed a “continuing resolution,” which allows the Pentagon to spend no more money than it did the previous year and prohibits it from starting anything new or increasing spending on existing programs. These continuing resolutions govern defense spending until a new appropriations bill can be passed, and they have lasted from a few weeks to an entire fiscal year. The result is that each year, imaginative new programs and initiatives go nowhere for an unpredictable period.
The Budget Control Act of 2011 put in place automatic spending cuts, known as “sequestration,” and reduced the federal budget by $1.2 trillion over ten years. The military, which then accounted for only about 15 percent of federal expenditures, was forced to absorb half that cut—$600 billion. With personnel costs exempted, the bulk of the reductions had to come from maintenance, operations, training, and investment accounts. The consequences were severe and long-lasting. And yet as of September 2023, Congress is headed toward making the same mistake again. A further example of Congress letting politics do real harm to the military is allowing one senator to block confirmation of hundreds of senior officers for months on end, not only seriously degrading readiness and leadership but also—by highlighting American governmental dysfunction in such a critical area—making the United States a laughingstock among its adversaries. The bottom line is that the United States needs more military power to meet the threats it faces, but both Congress and the Executive Branch are rife with obstacles to achieving that objective.
MEETING THE MOMENT
The epic contest between the United States and its allies on one side and China, Russia, and their fellow travelers on the other is well underway. To ensure that Washington is in the strongest possible position to deter its adversaries from making additional strategic miscalculations, U.S. leaders must first address the breakdown in the decades-long bipartisan agreement with respect to the United States’ role in the world. It is not surprising that after 20 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, many Americans wanted to turn inward, especially given the United States’ many problems at home. But it is the job of political leaders to counter that sentiment and explain how the country’s fate is inextricably bound up in what happens elsewhere. President Franklin Roosevelt once observed that “the greatest duty of a statesman is to educate.” But recent presidents, along with most members of Congress, have utterly failed in this essential responsibility.
Americans need to understand why U.S. global leadership, despite its costs, is vital to preserving peace and prosperity. They need to know why a successful Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion is crucial for deterring China from invading Taiwan. They need to know why Chinese domination of the Western Pacific endangers U.S. interests. They need to know why Chinese and Russian influence in the global South matters to American pocketbooks. They need to know why the United States’ dependability as an ally is so consequential for preserving peace. They need to know why a Chinese-Russian alliance threatens the United States. These are the kinds of connections that American political leaders need to be drawing every day.
It is not just one Oval Office address or speech on the floor of Congress that is needed. Rather, a drumbeat of repetition is required for the message to sink in. Beyond regularly communicating to the American people directly, and not through spokespersons, the president needs to spend time over drinks and dinners and in small meetings with members of Congress and the media making the case for the United States’ leadership role. Then, given the fragmented nature of modern-day communications, members of Congress need to carry the message to their constituents across the country.
What is that message? It is that American global leadership has provided 75 years of great-power peace—the longest stretch in centuries. Nothing in a nation’s life is costlier than war, nor does anything else represent a greater threat to its security and prosperity. And nothing makes war likelier than putting one’s head in the sand and pretending that the United States is not affected by events elsewhere, as the country learned before World War I, World War II, and 9/11. The military power the United States possesses, the alliances it has forged, and the international institutions it has designed are all essential to deterring aggression against it and its partners. As a century of evidence should make clear, failing to deal with aggressors only encourages more aggression. It is naive to believe that Russian success in Ukraine will not lead to further Russian aggression in Europe and possibly even a war between NATO and Russia. And it is equally naive to believe that Russian success in Ukraine will not significantly increase the likelihood of Chinese aggression against Taiwan and thus potentially a war between the United States and China.
A world without reliable U.S. leadership would be a world of authoritarian predators, with all other countries potential prey. If America is to safeguard its people, its security, and its liberty, it must continue to embrace its global leadership role. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of the United States in 1943, “The price of greatness is responsibility.”
Rebuilding support at home for that responsibility is essential to rebuilding trust among allies and awareness among adversaries that the United States will fulfill its commitments. Because of domestic divisions, mixed messages, and political leaders’ ambivalence about the United States’ role in the world, there is significant doubt abroad about American reliability. Both friends and adversaries wonder whether Biden’s engagement and alliance-building is a return to normal or whether Trump’s “America first” disdain for allies will be the dominant thread in American policy in the future. Even the closest of allies are hedging their bets about America. In a world where Russia and China are on the prowl, that is particularly dangerous.
Restoring public support for U.S. global leadership is the highest priority, but the United States must take other steps to actually exercise that role. First, it needs to go beyond “pivoting” to Asia. Strengthening relationships with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and other countries in the region is necessary but not sufficient. China and Russia are working together against U.S. interests on every continent. Washington needs a strategy for dealing with the entire world—particularly in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, where the Russians and the Chinese are fast outpacing the United States in developing security and economic relationships. This strategy ought not to divide the world into democracies and authoritarians. The United States must always advocate for democracy and human rights everywhere, but that commitment must not blind Washington to the reality that U.S. national interests sometimes require it to work with repressive, unrepresentative governments.
China and Russia think the future belongs to them.
Second, the United States’ strategy must incorporate all the instruments of its national power. Both Republicans and Democrats have grown hostile to trade agreements, and protectionist sentiment runs strong in Congress. This has left the field open for the Chinese in the global South, which offers huge markets and investment opportunities. Despite the Belt and Road Initiative’s flaws, such as the enormous debt it piles on recipient countries, Beijing has successfully used it to insinuate China’s influence, companies, and economic tentacles into scores of countries. Enshrined in the Chinese constitution in 2017, it is not going away. The United States and its allies need to figure out how to compete with the initiative in ways that play to their strengths—above all, their private sectors. U.S. development assistance programs add up to a small fraction of the Chinese effort. They are also fragmented and disconnected from larger U.S. geopolitical objectives. And even where U.S. aid programs are successful, the United States maintains a priestly silence about its accomplishments. It has said little, for example, about Plan Colombia, an aid program designed to combat the Colombian drug trade, or the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which saved millions of lives in Africa.
Public diplomacy is essential to promoting U.S. interests, but Washington has let this important instrument of power wither since the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile, China is spending billions of dollars around the world to advance its narrative. Russia also has an aggressive effort to spread its propaganda and disinformation, as well as incite discord in and among democracies. The United States needs a strategy for influencing foreign leaders and publics—especially in the global South. To succeed, this strategy would require the U.S. government not merely to spend more money but also to integrate and synchronize its many disparate communications activities.
Security assistance to foreign governments is another area in need of radical change. Although the U.S. military does a good job training foreign forces, it makes piecemeal decisions about where and how to do so without sufficiently considering regional strategies or how better to partner with allies. Russia has increasingly provided security assistance to governments in Africa, especially those with an authoritarian bent, but the United States has no effective strategy to counter this effort. Washington must also figure out a way to accelerate the delivery of military equipment to recipient states. There is now a roughly $19 billion backlog of weapons sales to Taiwan, with delays ranging from four to ten years. Although the holdup is the result of many factors, an important cause is the limited production capacity of the U.S. defense industry.
Third, the United States must rethink its nuclear strategy in the face of a Chinese-Russian alliance. Cooperation between Russia, which is modernizing its strategic nuclear force, and China, which is vastly expanding its once small force, tests the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent—as do North Korea’s expanding nuclear capabilities and Iran’s weapons potential. To reinforce its deterrent, the United States almost certainly needs to adapt its strategy and probably needs to expand the size of its nuclear forces, as well. The Chinese and Russian navies are increasingly exercising together, and it would be surprising if they were not also more closely coordinating their deployed strategic nuclear forces.
There is broad agreement in Washington that the U.S. Navy needs many more warships and submarines. Again, the contrast between politicians’ rhetoric and action is stark. For a number of years, the shipbuilding budget was basically flat, but in recent years, even as the budget has increased substantially, continuing resolutions and execution problems have prevented the navy’s expansion. The main obstacles to a bigger navy are budgetary: the lack of sustained higher funding to the navy itself and, more broadly, underinvestment in shipyards and in industries that support shipbuilding and ship maintenance. Even so, it is difficult to discern any sense of urgency among politicians for remedying these problems anytime soon. That is unacceptable.
Finally, Congress must change the way it appropriates money for the Defense Department, and the Defense Department must change the way it spends that money. Congress needs to act more quickly and efficiently when it comes to approving the defense budget. That means, above all, passing military appropriations bills before the start of the fiscal year, a change that would give the Defense Department badly needed predictability. The Pentagon, for its part, must fix its sclerotic, parochial, and bureaucratic acquisition processes, which are especially anachronistic in an era when agility, flexibility, and speed matter more than ever. Leaders in the Defense Department have said the right things about these defects and announced many initiatives to correct them. Effective and urgent execution is the challenge.
LESS TALK, MORE ACTION
China and Russia think the future belongs to them. For all the tough rhetoric coming from the U.S. Congress and the Executive Branch about pushing back against these adversaries, there is surprisingly little action. Too often, new initiatives are announced, only for funding and actual implementation to move slowly or fail to materialize altogether. Talk is cheap, and no one in Washington seems ready to make the urgent changes needed. That is especially puzzling, since at a time of bitter partisanship and polarization in Washington, Xi and Putin have managed to forge impressive, if fragile, bipartisan support among policymakers for a strong U.S. response to their aggression. The Executive Branch and Congress have a rare opportunity to work together to back up their rhetoric about countering China and Russia with far-reaching actions that make the United States a significantly more formidable adversary and might help deter war.
Xi and Putin, cocooned by yes men, have already made serious errors that have cost their countries dearly. In the long run, they have damaged their countries. For the foreseeable future, however, they remain a danger that the United States must deal with. Even in the best of worlds—one in which the U.S. government had a supportive public, energized leaders, and a coherent strategy—these adversaries would pose a formidable challenge. But the domestic scene today is far from orderly: the American public has turned inward; Congress has descended into bickering, incivility, and brinkmanship; and successive presidents have either disavowed or done a poor job explaining America’s global role. To contend with such powerful, risk-prone adversaries, the United States needs to up its game in every dimension. Only then can it hope to deter Xi and Putin from making more bad bets. The peril is real.