Strength Through Peace

CFR experts explore how the United States can avoid war, stay strong, and keep the peace.

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Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta stands at the Nairobi Terminus, which operated the Standard Gauge Railway line constructed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation and financed by the Chinese government, on October 16, 2019.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta stands at the Nairobi Terminus, which operated the Standard Gauge Railway line constructed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation and financed by the Chinese government, on October 16, 2019. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

In Africa, Major Power Rivalry Is Not the Whole Story

Any doubts about the bipartisan consensus in Washington around the need to compete with China in Africa were erased in the early months of 2021, when senior Biden administration appointees like U.S. Read More

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament
United States Should Rethink Its Approach to Strategic Arms Control
The United States has a strong interest in avoiding a costly and potentially destabilizing strategic arms race among the major powers. Painstakingly negotiated arms control agreements of the kind pursued during the Cold War may seem like the way to accomplish this goal but there are formidable challenges to pursuing this approach. The next wave of arms control will occur amidst profound geopolitical flux, as the world adjusts to the end of U.S. primacy and rebuilds in the wake of COVID-19. Triangular asymmetries in the U.S., Chinese, and Russian nuclear postures and strategies exist within a multipolar nuclear order that also includes states such as India, North Korea, and Pakistan. Progressive military modernization and technological innovation demonstrates that a strategic arms control regime that focuses exclusively on nuclear forces will prove progressively less stabilizing over time. The development and military deployment of cyber, artificial intelligence (AI), hypersonics, and space-based capabilities by the United States, China, and Russia, may destabilize arms control efforts. Within the United States, partisan polarization hampers foreign policy and forecasts difficulties for future arms control agreements. Diverging partisan views on the nature of U.S. interests and the best methods to achieve national security objectives presents barriers to treaty ratification. Political polarization and inconsistency inject greater volatility into U.S. foreign policy and undermines the United States’ credibility as a counterparty in arms control negotiations. For all of these reasons, the traditional model of bilateral, treaty-based nuclear arms control will be hard, if not impossible, to enact and pursue. Trilateral stability requires constructing a regime of reciprocal restraints and incremental measures that will benefit immediate strategic stability, while also laying the groundwork for more dramatic future progress. A new paper for the series on series on managing global disorder argues that the United States should expand its conception of nuclear arms control to include a broader array of reciprocal restraints. In particular, the Biden administration should regulate intensifying rivalry through a series of incremental steps, including beginning negotiations to shore up the U.S.-Russia strategic arms control regime, building new habits of cooperation on strategic stability issues, establishing dialogues that can foster the development of norms and guardrails to prevent destabilizing applications of emerging technologies, and considering unilateral measures to enhance strategic stability.
The Strategic Consequences of India’s COVID-19 Crisis
The geopolitical implications of India’s tragedy won't be lost on the Biden administration
Conflict Prevention Should Shape Policy Responses to Intensifying U.S.-China Competition
What idea—or set of ideas—will drive national security policy under the Biden administration? The Trump administration defined great power competition as the organizing principle of U.S. national security policy, framing U.S.-China in terms of strategic competition. The Biden administration’s early statements and actions indicate it has accepted this frame—but that policies toward China will differ substantially from its predecessors. Even if the Biden administration adopts a less overtly confrontational approach toward China, the risks of conflict are real and growing. The U.S.-China relationship is currently precarious, and competition is intensifying: in particular, it is assuming an overtly ideological dimension, which will only accentuate distrust and deepen the interest-based competition on both sides. Several immediate conflicts—including Taiwan and maritime disputes—could also escalate. These issues exist against the background of an accelerating arms race between the U.S. and Chinese militaries in the western Pacific. The United States' core challenge is to deter a range of Chinese behaviors but also avoid catastrophic conflict—while still advancing U.S. economic interests. Conflict prevention is only becoming more essential to U.S.-China relations as competition becomes the defining frame for U.S. policy. In a new paper for the series on series on managing global disorder, Evan S. Medeiros—Penner Family Chair in Asian Studies at Georgetown University—dives into how Washington might revitalize existing tools and build new ones in light of intensifying strategic competition and growing risks of conflict with China. Policymakers and analysts need to devote more energy and time to identifying and weighing risks of strategic competition-- bilaterally, regionally and globally—then determine how the United States and its allies can deter China without provoking armed conflict. This should include U.S. efforts to strengthen deterrence—both generally and in specific sensitive areas—bolster military cooperation among U.S. allies and security partners in Asia, and calibrate U.S. security commitments to mitigate the risk of unintended escalation of tensions during potential crises.
  • Conflict Prevention
    Major Power Rivalry in the Middle East
    In a new paper, Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR, discusses how great power competition is altering the prospects for managing conflicts in the Middle East, and how Washington should avoid the kind of strategic errors that have provided opportunities for other major powers, notably Russia and China, to undermine U.S. policy. These actors—and to a lesser extent India and the European Union—have sought greater influence in the region. While competition among major powers has not led to direct confrontation yet, powerful actors have still sought to establish, extend, and reinforce influence and prestige at each other's expense. Meanwhile, cooperation remains episodic and circumstantial. Although the United States remains an important—even the most important—external actor in the region, American leaders and the foreign policy community are debating whether Washington should be the primary provider of security in the region. This debate, coupled with actual American disengagement in certain places, has had three significant effects: regional powers have taken matters into their own hands, external actors have seized opportunities to exercise power, and major powers and their allies have either refused or failed to compel regional powers to resolve existing conflicts. Developments in places as far as Europe or the South China Sea could also sharpen competition or pave the way for greater cooperation. Given the unpredictability and uncertainty of events, however, one development is clear: the American moment of regional supremacy—when no state or combination of states could hope to challenge U.S. power and influence—is over. The Middle East is now up for grabs among a variety of regional powers and external actors, including the United States. This power vacuum has made the region less secure and competition has affected the trajectory of conflicts in the region. In this new paper—part of a larger series on managing global disorder—Cook takes a deep dive into how great power competition is affecting the prospects for regional peace. For all the challenges the United States faces in the Middle East, it remains the region's most important, powerful, and influential actor, so it is essential to understand how the trajectory of great power competition is shaping the potential for the United States to cooperate with other major powers and mitigate conflict.
  • Taiwan
    Top Conflicts to Watch in 2021: The Danger of U.S.-China Confrontation Over Taiwan
    Yun Sun is a senior fellow, codirector of the East Asia program, and director of the China program at the Stimson Center. 2020 witnessed tension across the Taiwan Strait unseen since the 1996 missile crisis. Feeling challenged by the popular Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government and the Trump administration’s measures to enhance ties with Taiwan, the mainland China escalated its military posturing and coercive approach significantly. “Unification by force” became a buzzword among the Chinese public, and the public sentiment strengthens Beijing’s justification for intensified military actions. Although China may not seek a preemptive military campaign for unification, it is increasingly tolerant, or even neutral toward the military risk over Taiwan.    While people appear to believe that the Biden administration will strive to avoid acute crisis with China over Taiwan, U.S. policy toward Taiwan only reflects half of the story. The other, and more important half is from China. At least three factors contribute to China’s increasingly destabilizing stance: the belief that DPP is seeking “Taiwan independence”; the indispensability of unification for China’s rise and for Xi’s glory. In this sense, the trajectory of China’s coercion will only intensify rather than subside.   China prefers peaceful unification over use of force. However, in the Chinese lexicon, coercion is not unpeaceful. China’s confidence in unification lies the belief that there will be a day that the United States is exhausted by the security commitment to an island so far away as power balance continues to tilt in China’s favor, therefore, for Beijing, when and only when the United States withdraws, will Taiwan’s political will to negotiate peaceful unification with China begin to emerge. The calculation dictates that China must respond militarily to Taiwan’s “moves” toward independence before that day comes. The growing confidence in the shifting power balance also fosters growing Chinese tolerance, or even neutrality toward military risk.   China’s calculations pose serious danger for miscalculation and inadvertent escalation of tension with the United States. Neither side seems to believe the other side wants a conflict, and consequently could put themselves in a game of chicken and collision course given the stakes at hand. Regardless of who prevails, both will suffer tremendous human and financial costs, and Taiwan will be the first to bear the dire result of such a war. To avoid such a scenario will require the United States to balance its adamant support of Taiwan with a clear strategy for conflict prevention and to find the optimal combination of military deterrence and smart diplomatic strategies. View the full results of the Preventive Priorities Survey to see which other contingencies were deemed top tier priorities for 2021.