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Re-learning a Competitive Mindset in Great-Power Competition


Below are the remarks Assistant Secretary Ford delivered at the 2019 conference on "Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century: The New Dynamics of Strategic Conflict and Competition," in Washington, D.C., on March 14, 2019.  They may also be found on the website of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

Good afternoon, everyone. It’s always a pleasure to attend this important conference, so thanks for having me back – and thanks especially to the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories for hosting all of us here today.

It’s been more than one year now since the U.S. National Security Strategy called out “the contest for power” as a “central continuity in history,” warning its readers that “the revisionist powers of China and Russia” are “actively competing against the United States and our allies and partners.” It has also been more than a year since the National Defense Strategy made it explicit that “[i]nter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is the primary concern in U.S. national security,” because “[t]he central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security” today is “the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition.”

For that reason, it makes good sense that the overall focus for this year’s conference is upon “new dynamics of strategic conflict and competition” vis-à-vis Russia and China – and I’m pleased to have been asked to speak today about the challenges of having an appropriately “competitive mindset” as we try to meet the challenges of this new era.

I. Mindset and Strategy

That question of “mindset” is, I believe, a critical one. Many of the specific details of national security planning will always vary in response to the changing circumstances one faces in the security environment. As German Field Marshal von Moltke so memorably pointed out, after all, no plan entirely survives first contact with the enemy. For him, strategy was the development of an original leading thought in accordance with ever-changing circumstances.

I think this is an important insight. It helps us understand that developing an effective strategy is not about finding some Holy Grail of a detailed plan that will miraculously solve one’s problems. Rather, it involves establishing sets of understandings and objectives that are clear enough to provide “commander’s intent” – a sort of “compass direction” for policy development, coupled with a basic accounting of the policy resources that can be marshalled in its pursuit – while avoiding ossification, and permitting adaptive improvisation within its general parameters.

In this endeavor, I would argue, “competitive mindset” is crucial. Mindset is not an end in itself, of course, nor an answer to the problem of strategy – but it is an indispensable first step. Mindset is the spark that catalyzes engagement in the business of competitive strategy development, and it is the fuel that sustains strategy implementation.

II. Competition vis-à-vis Russia and China

When it comes to the present-day challenges of competition with Russia and China, I think the case of U.S. China policy is the most interesting and demanding one. Americans may have spent a generation after 1991 trying to forget what it feels like to exist in a competitive relationship with Moscow, but there is a long 20th-century history upon which we can draw in rekindling our competitive energies. There is also a great deal of recent, unambiguous evidence that inexorably focuses us upon the problem: Russia’s repeated invasions of and aggressions against its neighbors since 2008; its use of illegal chemical weapons on NATO soil in 2018; its violation and destruction of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; its development of a dangerously destabilizing new arsenal of nuclear delivery systems; its provocative intervention in Syria and continuing efforts to protect the Assad regime there from accountability for chemical weapons atrocities; its dangerous attacks on democratic institutions and processes; and its ongoing diplomatic campaign to undermine global norms and institutions for accountability and transparency in controlling weapons of mass destruction at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the United Nations. On one level, all of this experience makes rekindling of a competitive mindset vis-à-vis Russia pretty easy.

On another level, however, there is arguably not that much real long-term “competition” with Moscow to be had at all. In economic, demographic, and political terms, Russia is clearly a declining power, though it remains enormously dangerous due to its infatuation with rectifying historical grievances associated with that decline, its penchant for aggressive and even exuberant geopolitical risk-taking, and its continued possession of military and technological tools capable of causing hideous mayhem. The Kremlin needs to be deterred from undertaking this dangerous and destabilizing activity, but over the long term it is not clear that Russia will pose a first-order “competitive” challenge to the still-thriving economies and polities of the Western democracies.

Not so China. Competition with Beijing presents us with much more interesting and difficult challenges. First, of course, this is a result of its sheer size and economic dynamism. Beijing’s modern dangers to international peace and security result from its increasing interest in converting raw demographic weight and its impressive economic rise into a power-political currency that will allow it to right what it sees as the deep wrong and humiliation inflicted upon it when Western imperialism eclipsed the Middle Kingdom and robbed it of its self-perceived traditional role as the guiding light and geopolitical center of human civilization. China is no declining state, but rather a formidable competitive adversary with far more to draw upon in a competition than the Russians have – as well as much more likely geopolitical staying power.

Precisely because the rise of Chinese economic power has been so dramatic, however – and because this rise was driven by export-led growth and occurred in the context of the liberal, open economic order that United States power and policy has sustained in the Indo-Pacific for many decades – competition with China creates additional challenges for us, because the deep economic connections between it and the United States preclude an entirely competitive approach. Indeed, in some ways, our biggest challenge in dealing with China is that our relationship with Beijing has both competitive and cooperative aspects – aspects that we somehow have to manage at the same time, and for which our more purely adversarial Cold War experiences with the Soviet Union do not provide a very useful conceptual template. Our competitive mindset needs to keep us focused upon competing vigorously and effectively, but never without consideration of our two countries’ mutual economic entanglement and the dangers and opportunities that this creates in the Sino-American relationship. Doing this well will be far from easy.

III. A Sea Change in America’s Competitive Mindset

As someone who has watched and participated in U.S. China policy debates for quite a few years now, however, I would venture to say that the most important hurdle to developing a competitive strategy against China is one that we are already doing well in overcoming. That obstacle was the refusal of our own China policy community to acknowledge the need for a competitive approach at all.

As I have been arguing for years, the “competitive” side of the Sino-American relationship is the one which much of our China policy community has traditionally ignored or downplayed, enthralled by the self-flattering assumption – which Richard Madsen once called the “Liberal Myth” of China – that China both wished to be and was likely eventually to become an open democracy like our own. Deng Xiaoping’s opening of China to the world was mistaken as a departure from the Communist Party’s Marxist-Leninist roots, mistaken for abandonment of (Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology, rather than recognized as a tactical change designed to better achieve the same strategic end of a return to great power status. Though this confidence may have been briefly shaken by the butchery the CCP committed against the Chinese people on Tiananmen Square in June 1989, for the most part a near-consensus in post-Cold War U.S. China policy held for years that we should embrace Beijing’s rise, or even help facilitate it, underpinned by an assumption that China was accepting of, and integrating into, the international system as we had designed it after World War II. Indeed, this long-entrenched view – encouraged, not surprisingly, by the Communist Party’s blandly reassuring global propaganda tropes about “win-win” cooperative outcomes and the inevitably benign benevolence of rising Chinese power – led many U.S. China-watchers to resist any U.S. effort to develop a competitive strategy on the grounds that it would be a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Beijing wasn’t a competitive threat, it was claimed, but it might be transformed into one if our officials had the temerity to start describing it as such.

Well, that was then … and this is now. Few serious observers now think that the Chinese regime wishes or is in any way likely to become “like us.” China watchers today also appear increasingly and understandably concerned with the ways in which China’s growing power is giving it opportunities to act with increasingly aggressive self-assertion in the world. This self-assertion is increasingly obvious and problematic not just in terms of territorial self-aggrandizement in the South China Sea, but also in support of an agenda clearly now focused upon undermining and displacing U.S. power and influence in the Indo-Pacific region and on the world stage more broadly – a goal the CCP has held since President Truman intervened in the Taiwan Strait in 1950, foiling Mao’s plans to finish off the KMT and regain control of Taiwan, and indeed one that Chinese nationalists have cherished since the scholar and reformer Liang Qichao visited the United States and reached similar conclusions in 1903. If there remains any clear sense in which the Communist Party wants China to be “like us,” it is merely that Beijing covets the United States’ stature and position at the hub of the global community, and wishes to acquire something like that for itself.

Hence, of course, our need for competitive strategy. Indeed, the challenge from China may be even deeper than that, for in some sense it is developing not only at the somewhat prosaic, realpolitik level of power and influence, but also at the more profound level of what one might call socio-political “operating systems.” As observed in the National Defense Strategy, “[i]t is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” China, in particular, has become notably interested in exporting its state-capitalist, high-technology police state model of government to other countries – what I believe the journalist Nicolas Kristof once called “Market Leninism” – even while ensnaring ever-greater portions of the developing world in manipulated debt dependencies and “neo-neocolonial” economic relationships. The global competition, in other words, is becoming ideological. Increasingly, it seems to be not just about who will dominate the 21st century world, but also about what the operating system of that world will be, and the predominant mode of governance within it. Clearly, this is serious stuff.

But this is where competitive mindset comes in. For a long time, our mindset was part of the problem. As I have noted elsewhere, after the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War, our country and its democratic and capitalist “operating system” stood seemingly unchallenged, feeling happily vindicated after decades of struggle against ideologized tyrannies of both the Right and the Left. Concluding that the world’s most important ideological and Great Power conflicts had all just resolved themselves conclusively in our favor, our policy community basically went on a complacent vacation from Great Power competitive strategy – even while China took our post-Cold War ascendancy as a compelling reason to improve its competitive game, and Beijing has spent the last quarter-century implementing a strategy dedicated to challenging and undermining our power and influence in the world.

But “mindset” is also now helping show us the way back into the game, for I think the center of gravity in the U.S. policy community – alarmed by aspects of what modern China is unfortunately becoming – has crossed its intellectual Rubicon and, irrespective of which political party holds sway in Washington, will never again return to the fallacies and competitive unpreparedness of our uncritically rise-embracing past. America’s strategic holiday is over, and while I would wager we aren’t going to get all the answers right as we try to devise a competitive strategy appropriate to this new era, we at least finally admit that we need one, and we are now working hard to meet the challenge. That, I believe, represents a sea change in U.S. foreign and national security policy, and “mindset” is leading the way.

IV. Crafting Our Responses

So what are we doing to get back into the competition business? It’s too early to say too much about the various forms our new approach will take, but you’re already seeing some of them. In my little corner of the U.S. State Department, for instance, we are exploring ways in which to use our existing skills and experience – for example, in sanctions implementation and enforcement, interdiction, technology-transfer controls, and multilateral diplomacy – to support U.S. competitive strategy. We are doing new work, for instance, in drawing attention to and mobilizing diplomatic coalitions against Chinese technology theft and against Beijing’s diversion of foreign-acquired technology to military purposes, and we are developing ways to use civil-nuclear cooperation and related diplomacy more effectively, to boost the competitiveness of key U.S. national security-related sectors against predatory foreign counterparts.

This has already helped lead to a major revision in U.S. export control policy with respect to civil-nuclear cooperation with China, which we announced last October. We are exploring further innovations, especially as we work with international partners to develop coordinated approaches to the China-related technology-transfer problems that affect many nations, not just the United States. We are also accelerating work to cut the continuing ties between Chinese suppliers and missile development efforts in places such as Iran – including by stepping up pressure on Beijing to finally shut down the activities of the infamous missile technology broker for Iran and fugitive from justice Li Fangwei (a.k.a. Karl Lee), who has a $5 million price tag on his head from the U.S. Rewards for Justice program. Li continues to shelter in China while serving as the most important overseas supplier of items and materiel for Iran’s missile program. That is entirely unacceptable.

With respect to Russia, we are using sanctions tools – most prominently the mandatory arms trade sanctions of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA) – and our diplomatic skills to undermine the strategically and financially lucrative relationships that the Kremlin seeks to build with foreign clients through arms sales and intelligence ties. And we have been implementing statutory sanctions to punish Russian chemical and biological weapons use – while in our diplomatic engagements, we have been encouraging U.S. arms sales to friends and allies in ways that both help them and preserve the integrity of the nonproliferation regimes upon which international peace and security depend.

And that’s only what we’re doing in my own bureau, the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. Beginning at the start of this administration and now picking up speed, analogous efforts to improve U.S. competitive posture vis-à-vis Russia and China are underway across the State Department, and in the interagency more broadly. Congress is not standing idly by either, for it has helped considerably with new legislation empowering the Executive Branch to close loopholes in our foreign investment screening system that Chinese entities had been using to obtain sensitive technologies that we would never permit them to acquire by traditional means.

V. Conclusion

This reorientation of U.S. foreign and national security policy around the imperatives of competition with China and Russia is far from completed, and we have much still to do if we are to meet the challenges set us in this regard by the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy. But our mindset has indeed now come firmly around – and the ship of state, as it were, is beginning to align itself with these new objectives.

To be sure, strategic competition can be grim and taxing work, and this new era of Great Power competition is an unwelcome one. I am sure we would all have preferred to live in the comparatively idyllic world that U.S. leaders for a time thought they had inherited after the Cold War ended. But such a world was never truly available, and our competitors wasted no time in taking advantage of the West’s infatuation with the illusion that we inhabited an enduringly benign strategic environment. Unwelcome as this competition is, therefore, it was for that reason unavoidable – and I am very pleased, at least, that we now recognize things for what they are, and that we are now resolutely committed to meeting the challenge.

The topic you have picked for this conference today is thus an extraordinarily important one. I look forward to our discussions.

Thank you.

-- Christopher Ford


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