The decline of Great Power war thesis advanced by the NIC analysis pivots on an important empirical fact: there haven’t been any since World War II. The cause, or causes, of the “Long Peace” is less transparent and widely debated.
I advance two arguments here. First, U.S. power is the principal cause of stability in international politics but is likely to weaken in the timeframe considered by the NIC report. As the relative power of the U.S. declines, the likelihood of great power conflict rises. Second, the NIC study underplays the probability of intense security competition with China. As a consequence, I am doubtful the world has seen the end of great power war.
In addition to ensuring the security of the U.S. and its allies, American primacy provides four benefits for the world. The first has been a more peaceful world. During the Cold War, U.S. leadership reduced friction among many states that were frequent antagonists. Today, American primacy reduces nuclear proliferation incentives and helps keep a number of historically dicey relationships peaceful—such as between Greece and Turkey.
Second, American power gives the United States the ability to spread the positive norms and values the NIC document identifies. Doing so is a source of much good for the countries concerned as well as the United States. This is because liberal democracies are more likely to align with the United States and be sympathetic to the American worldview.
Third, along with the growth in the number of democratic states around the world has been the growth of the global economy, as the NIC analysis recognizes. With its allies, the United States has toiled to create a globalized trade regime defined by free trade and commerce, respect for international property rights, mobility of capital and labor markets. The prosperity that flows from this liberal order is a global good.
Fourth, the United States has been willing to use its power not only to advance its interests but also to promote the welfare of people all over the globe. The U.S. military has participated in scores of humanitarian operations since the end of the Cold War. Given these great benefits, we may be confident of one prediction: Many people around the world will miss U.S. primacy when it’s gone.
Without U.S. power, the liberal order is likely to end, and this alone is liable to exacerbate tensions. But the waning of U.S. power, at least in relative terms, introduces additional problems concerning the future prospects for great power war. Declining hegemons have a choice. They may labor to reverse their decline, perhaps through innovation or greater competition with the challenger, which may lead to conflict. Or they may accept it, and watch their influence wither and allies drift away, which also introduces avenues of conflict. There is no reason to believe that the United States will escape this difficult decision, either of which holds the prospect of conflict with China.
On the other side of the coin, China’s rise in relative power contains great risks of conflict and intense security competition.
Briefly, here are three major reasons for pessimism when we consider the likelihood of a Sino-American conflict. First, China has numerous border disputes in the South and East China Seas, India, and, of course, Taiwan. Each of these conflicts is dangerous, particularly those in the South China Sea, due to the national security interest of Beijing, Washington and its allies, and the risk of intentional or inadvertent escalation.
Second, we must consider Beijing’s and Washington’s conflicting grand strategic interests. The report underplays how belligerent, revisionist, and risk accepting China may be in the future. The world has witnessed China’s abandonment of Deng’s 24-Character Strategy and talk of a “Peaceful Rise” in favor of rapid military expansion and what can only be described as a strategic autism or tone deafness that has alarmed Japan, India, and the ASEAN states, to the benefit of the U.S. Unfortunately, unless Beijing’s trajectory changes, it is on a collision course with Washington.
Third, the systemic problems of alliances, mutual concerns over credibility, buck-passing, “chain ganging” and abandonment, confront the United States in its explicit or de facto alliances with Japan, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam. These alliances provide prodigious benefits but also introduce pathways to conflict with China. Friends are great to have but they can get you into trouble. To this, we must add the dangers well identified by theories of hegemonic war and power transition concerning the incentives, held by the declining hegemon or challenger, or both, for arms racing and other forms of intense security competition.
In sum, there are significant reasons to doubt the decline of Great Power war thesis in the context of China’s relations with other Great Powers.
Bradley A. Thayer is a Professor of Political Science at Baylor University and Consultant to DoD.