The United States is finding itself in a role once played by the United Kingdom vis-à-vis continental Europe: it now must create and maintain a global balance of power.
Since it became a world power around 1900, the United States has had one permanent strategic goal: to prevent a single power from controlling the whole of Eurasia. Interestingly, during the first half of the 20th century, the danger came from Europe. American grand strategy came into its own when the US acted to prevent European powers from annexing China. Brooks Adams, a grandson of US President John Quincy Adams, warned at the time: “Were the Russians and Germans to coalesce to dominate Northern China, and were the country to be administered by Germans with German funds, a strain of a very serious nature might be put upon America.” Later, that same America allied itself with the Soviet Union to prevent Nazi Germany from controlling Ukraine, the Caucasus and, ultimately, India.
For most of the second half of the 20th century, the danger was Russia. Predictably, the US built up Europe and China as bulwarks against the Soviet Union. Now, in the 21st century, the circle is closing. This time, the danger is China. One might have expected the US to use Europe, Russia and India to balance China’s ambitions. But so far the iron logic of the process has been obscured by American triumphalism, itself a predictable consequence of the victory in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which bred the hope that the whole world might be unified under US leadership.
With the Belt and Road Initiative, China has placed the Eurasian question front and center of every geopolitical discussion. In its essence, the initiative is a plan to extend Chinese influence and power over the whole of Eurasia, obtaining access to energy sources from Russia and the Middle East, technology from Europe and large markets in Europe, India and Southeast Asia. Were the Belt and Road Initiative to achieve all its goals, the United States would become an island on the shores of Eurasia—still very prosperous and protected from direct interference in its affairs, but peripheral and absent from all global questions. It would become the blockaded party.
Faced with this nightmare scenario, the US has reacted on a number of fronts. The main one is the ongoing trade and technology wars. Washington has dealt a severe blow to China’s most successful global company. Running Huawei out of markets and suppliers may well doom the company’s ambitious plans. The US has also adopted wide-ranging tariffs against Chinese imports.
A Cold War Model
For a while, it seemed that, in its negotiations with China, the US meant to impose a number of onerous conditions on Chinese economic growth and technological development, preserving American primacy in these critical areas. But recent reports paint a different picture. When negotiations failed in May, the main difficulty turned out to have been Washington’s attempt to force Beijing into making fundamental changes to its economic constitution. It was trying to bring it closer to a liberal, Western model and get these changes carved into its domestic laws. There are two ways the US could think about the trade war with China: to limit or constrain Chinese economic power—and keeping the new tariffs in place might achieve this—or to convert China to a Western economic model. It seems that the Trump administration—but arguably not Trump himself, who regards ideological missions with scorn—chose the latter.
Ultimately, decision-makers in the US will have to ask themselves how this can be achieved. Does the Cold War model offer a solution? Can one imagine a scenario where the Chinese economy would not only slow down but effectively deindustrialize and enter a protracted technological winter? And would one then expect the country to fragment politically as the Soviet Union did? These are fanciful projections. If the United States is to adopt a strategy of maximum pressure against Beijing, it needs to have maximum clarity about the endgame.Does it expect China to change, perhaps after the collapse of the Communist Party? Surely, more modest experiments in regime change have failed dramatically, which would suggest some caution on this matter. If, by contrast, the goal is to decouple from China and create two separate economic spheres in the hope that the Chinese economy will quickly fold when left to its own devices, two questions must first be answered.
The first is about the extent of economic damage that such a strategy would inflict on the world economy. Many of the economic gains from globalization in the last few decades resulted from the creation of intricate global value chains. These gains would evaporate if value chains were to be repatriated. The process might well be highly disordered. It might also be conflictual, as both sides would blame the other for the economic pain being inflicted. Which takes us to a second question: can the two economic giants decouple their economies without heading towards conflict?
Most commentators will easily see where the logic of these questions leads us. If the United States ever finds itself in a new Cold War, this time with China as its global foe, it must be aware that it will not be facing the ghost of the Soviet Union but an immeasurably more obdurate and resourceful power.
So let us return to the nightmare scenario and see how it can best be avoided. The unification of the whole of Eurasia under a single power is so far from inevitable that it has in fact never been achieved. Consider the sheer diversity of political models now existing side by side across the supercontinent, the imperial traditions of many of the major powers in Eurasia, and the gradual spread of technology and economic growth to all its corners. These are critical factors suggesting that Eurasian political integration remains unlikely—economic integration is a different matter—and therefore there is no immediate need for Washington to renew its plans of a Eurasia whole and free, united according to a liberal, Western model and under American leadership.
The main counterargument can be answered with a creative reconstruction of the classical concept of balance of power. The US cannot be satisfied with a passive understanding of the concept. Balance of power rarely if ever comes about naturally. If we take the current distribution of power in Eurasia, there is reasonable cause to doubt that the balance will be naturally maintained. Combining economic and military power, China remains unmatched by either the European Union or Russia. The former is an economic superpower but a political and military minion. The latter is no rival to China on the economic plane. India and Japan remain too inward looking to be decisive factors in the Eurasian game.
When it comes to Europe, the strategy seems clear. It is one of the areas where the Trump administration has made progress. The United States was of course instrumental in rebuilding the European economy and prompting European nations to build the common institutions that have placed it on a stable footing. The task now is much more complicated because pushing Europe to become a major global political and military power will involve some brinkmanship. It may well be the case that Europeans will not move farther in this direction unless faced with a major crisis. And the US will have to sacrifice some of its immediate interests: the European Union will not create a common defense and security policy without diminishing the inordinate weight of the American defense industry in Europe in the process.
Find a Place for Russia
Russia poses a much more delicate question. The country has been moving decisively away from the West, and tensions with the US are now at the highest level since the end of the Cold War. Any rapprochement would have to come from the Kremlin, and that will not happen, at least not while Vladimir Putin is in charge. At the same time, the US risks bringing about an informal alliance between China and Russia. If the approach in Washington is to lump them together as the two major threats to the existing global order, they will act accordingly. Even if naturally inclined to develop as independent powers, China and Russia may well feel that the time for disagreements will have to wait while the task at hand is to overturn American hegemony. How does one square the circle? How can the US keep its distance from Russia’s geopolitical ambitions while simultaneously preventing a Eurasian entente between its two great rivals?
Within the confines of American power, the puzzle cannot be solved, but some possibilities open up if we enlarge the sphere to the full Eurasian chessboard. Every measure the US might adopt to strengthen Russia as an independent pole in Eurasia could be used by the Kremlin against its unwitting benefactor, but that should not be a reason to keep Russia isolated. The United States may feel that Putin’s Russia is an abomination. It may want to limit its engagement with the Kremlin. But it should not close Russia’s door to the West, to Europe and Turkey, leaving it entirely dependent on China. The goal is to find a place for Russia in the Eurasian balance of power—an independent pole between Europe and Asia—while preserving the ability to keep it in check and, when necessary, force it to respect that balance.
As for India and Japan, the strategic goal should be clear: to allow the two countries to grow more confident and outward looking, capable of marshaling their abundant resources to play an active global role. And why should the US fear or regret such an outcome? To keep them inside its chain of command, useful only when acting under US leadership, is profoundly self-defeating from the point of view of long-term American interests. Only as fully sovereign and autonomous actors can India and Japan contribute to a lasting balance of power in Eurasia.
The World as Literature
Were all these steps to be adopted and a coherent strategy developed, the United States would slowly emerge as a great balancer. Its role would remind one of the role played by Great Britain in 19th-century Europe: with one foot in the continent and the other one outside, perpetually balancing every European power against each other, determined to avoid a future where Europe fell under the domination of a single power. Its strategists knew that Great Britain would remain more powerful than each of the individual European states, but inferior to their combined strength.
The US must become in relation to the Eurasian supercontinent what Great Britain was in relation to Europe, but with a number of important revisions. First, the new version of Britain’s splendid isolation—the ability to influence the Eurasian chessboard while remaining sheltered from its affairs—will not come naturally, or in a fit of absentmindedness. The US will not be able to rely on its insular geography and control of the seas. Borders are more diffuse, and technology has eliminated distance to a great extent, so a form of forward deployment has become necessary, if only to preempt terrorist threats and face cyberattacks and nuclear-armed rogue states.
Second, the US does not have a ready-made world of competing great powers at its disposal. The trend is to return to such a world—the building blocks are available—but some construction work is still necessary. More than a great balancer, America must become a great creator. China has to be cut down to size—a hard-edged negotiation on the terms of trade and the temporary imposition of tariffs may well prove necessary—and other pieces must be built up if an equilibrium is to be the final product. But is this such a great transformation in terms of general psychology? The United States already regards the future of the world order as a great narrative whose main plot lines are written in Washington. What I am advocating is to replace the epic with the novel: world history is not coming to an end, and it does not follow a single line of development. It is open-ended and polyphonic. It contains multitudes. Every character and way of life can find its place in the great narrative.
The chief characteristic of the modern novel is the plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own perspective, the organized coexistence and interaction of spiritual diversity, not stages in the evolution of a unified spirit. The narrator should not pick sides, and that is why the narrator and not the characters are ultimately in control. For America, the age of nation building is over. The age of world building has begun.