America’s Great Power Opportunity, With Ali Wyne

James M. Lindsay sits down with Ali Wyne, senior analyst of Global Macro-Geopolitics at Eurasia Group, to discuss great power competition and the growing rivalry between the United States and China, and Russia.

August 9, 2022 — 37:26 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Ali Wyne

Senior Analyst, Global Macro-Geopolitics, Eurasia Group

Show Notes

James M. Lindsay sits down with Ali Wyne, senior analyst of Global Macro-Geopolitics at Eurasia Group, to discuss great power competition and the growing rivalry between the United States and China, and Russia.

 

Mentioned on the Podcast

 

Ali Wyne, America’s Great Power Opportunity, 2022

 

Gerald Segel, “Does China Matter?,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 1999

 

Nadège Rolland, “China’s Southern Strategy: Beijing Is Using the Global South to Constrain America,” Foreign Affairs, June 9, 2022

 

Bonny Lin and Jude Blanchette, “China on the Offensive: How the Ukraine War Has Changed Beijing’s Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, August 1, 2022

 

Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Liberman, Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy, 2020

 

Suzanne Mettler, “Democracy Tested: Democratic Crises in U.S. History,” The President’s Inbox, August 3, 2022

 

 

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is America's great power opportunity.

With me to discuss whether great power competition is the right foreign policy framework to guide the United States in the current era is Ali Wyne. Ali is a senior analyst with Eurasia Group's Global Macro-Geopolitics practice. He focuses on US-China relations and great power competition. His new book, America's Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing US Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition, is out now. Ali, thanks for talking with me.

Ali Wyne:

Jim, thank you so much for having me. I'm an avid listener of the podcast, and it's a privilege to be here.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, it is an honor and privilege for me to have you.

Ali Wyne:

Thank you.

Jim Lindsay:

Ali, let's begin with an obvious observation, and that is ever since the Trump administration released its national security strategy back in December 2017, foreign policy discussions have been dominated by the concept of great power competition. Even though the concept was introduced under Donald Trump, it has continued under Joe Biden, who has made standing up to China foreign policy job one. Yet, you chose to title your book Great Power Opportunity. Why?

Ali Wyne:

Well, first, just a reflection on the endurance of the concept. And I hasten to note, since the book does set forth a critique of great power competition as a foreign policy framework, the growing bipartisan convergence around great power competition as a foreign policy framework. It's eminently understandable, and it's rooted in clear reality. So, two realities in particular. One, the United States, relatively, is not as influential as it was at the end of the Cold War, or even at the turn of the century. And trend number two, it's two principal nation state competitors, namely a resurgent China and a revanchist Russia, they are more able and they are more willing to challenge US influence and to push back against certain aspects of the post-war order than they were 30 or 20 years ago. So, the convergence is reflected in clear realities, and I think few observers would dispute those.

            I try to posit a distinction in the book between thinking about great power competition descriptively, which is what I was trying to do now, and thinking about it prescriptively. So, why, did I call the book Great Power Opportunity? I think that for a long time, I mean, you could even go back to, say, the late 1930s. From the late 1930s, even to the present, a US foreign policy, not exclusively, but I think it in substantial measure has been predicated upon, or at least oriented around meeting significant external challengers. So if you think about imperialist Japan, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and now of course, China and Russia. And the argument that I try to set forth is, what if the United States could formulate a foreign policy grounded in renewing its competitive advantages at home and abroad, that wasn't so closely tethered to or predicated upon the decisions of its competitors? I think that kind of foreign policy would be much more freeing for the United States. It would enable Washington to be more creative, more proactive.

            And the reason that I think that there's an opportunity, it sounds rather counterintuitive to talk about an opportunity, given the geopolitical turbulence in which we find ourselves. But I think that China and Russia, they are, despite being formidable competitors and multifaceted competitors, I think that they're increasingly proving to be self-limiting ones. You look at China's pandemic-era diplomacy, increasingly coercive, really alienating, by the day it seems, many advanced industrial democracies. You look at Russia, obviously, with its invasion of Ukraine, which I think is a remarkable act of strategic self-sabotage. And so, the argument that I make is that on the one hand, the United States has a range of unique, competitive advantages at home and abroad that it can renew and repurpose to meet the challenges of our time. And on the other side, China and Russia, I don't think that they're primed for a dramatic Soviet-style disintegration. I think that they will endure, but I think that their competitive missteps give the United States a little bit more breathing room to think about, without invoking our competitors, what is it that we affirmatively seek to accomplish in the world?

Jim Lindsay:

Okay, Ali, you put a lot on the table there. Let's dive in and break it up into some smaller, more digestible parts. And let me begin with the question of how we got to where we are today. As you well know, going back to the early 1990s, the world we currently have is not the one we were promised. We were promised after the end of the Cold War, the United States was a dominant power, great competition, interstate competition had faded away. We had, in the words of Frank Fukuyama, reached the end of history. Democracy had triumphed. Globalization was going to be sort of the golden handcuffs that led everybody to come together. There were no alternatives to it. The internet was going to be liberating for democracy and individual expression. Bill Clinton famously said that trying to run the internet is like nailing Jell-O to a wall. Good luck with it. But things have turned out differently. Is that because that vision was always wrong? Is it because we made the wrong choices? Something else?

Ali Wyne:

So, I think that there are a number of factors at work. I'll just identify, and I'm spitballing here a little bit, but maybe a couple of factors that I think are at work. I do think that there was undeniably an element of triumphalism, and you can understand why there was a certain triumphalism that suffused much US commentary during the 1990s. It's interesting, actually, that in the 1990s, the United States relatively was so preeminent, and the thought that China and/or Russia might one day challenge it in serious ways, that idea seems so remote. But in the 1990s, it's interesting, a lot of policy makers and scholars debated, what exactly should we do with this extraordinary inheritance of power that has been bequeathed to the United States with the dissolution of the Soviet Union?

            So, I think that the United States, it did succumb to a certain triumphalism after the end of the Cold War, but you can understand. It was perhaps naive even retrospect, but you to keep in mind that again, the United States, it had faced down, as I mentioned earlier, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, this nearly half-century-long struggle with the Soviet Union, and I think that you can forgive the United States for thinking that, having faced down these three serious competitors, the last of which preoccupied its foreign policy for the better part of half a century, there was a feeling that the United States had finally dealt a blow, a death blow, to the various isms. Authoritarianism, fascism, communism, totalitarianism. But obviously, I think that there's a tendency, and I think a misguided one, it's projection bias. That the environment that prevails today will endure indefinitely, if not in perpetuity.

            So, one mistake I think was projection bias, borne of a certain exhaustion/triumphalism, and I do think that certainly in the early 1990s, it was reasonable. Misguided in retrospect, but it was reasonable to think that democracy would be maybe not inexorably ascendant, but confidently ascendant, that capitalism would be confidently ascendant. And again, the two competitors that now preoccupy the United States substantially, China and Russia, they really were not significant players geopolitically. One of the most, just by way of a brief digression, but it goes to show you, I think, how psychologically challenging geopolitical competition is today for the United States. Go back to 1999, and in your August Journal of Foreign Affairs in 1999, there was a famous essay entitled, Does China Matter?

            Now, in 2022, we might look at that essay and say, "Well, what a preposterous suggestion. How could anyone suggest that China doesn't matter?" But in 1999, the author, he was a very distinguished, strategic thinker. He made a very compelling case. He very carefully surveyed China's military power, its economic power, its diplomatic stature. And he said that China, it looms much larger in the imagination of the United States than it does in geopolitical reality. So, triumphalism is perhaps factor one, perhaps and an inability and/or unwillingness to acknowledge that countries that were allegedly on the wrong side of history could indeed articulate a different conception of modernity and promulgate that conception of modernity.

            But one last point that I'll make, and then I'll stop. I think that there's also a very important temporal dimension to the difficulties of competition. I think that if China and Russia, if they were to have presented their challenges to the United States in a serious way, perhaps 30 years hence, or 50 years hence, or a century hence, perhaps the United States would've had more time, psychologically, to adjust. But if you look at where China and Russia were in the early 1990s, I think that the idea, given how decisively the Soviet Union had collapsed, the idea that 30 years later they would be presenting the kinds of challenges that they are, I think that it would've really strained credulity. So, I think what we're seeing right now is not just a reaction to the fact of a resurgent China and the fact of revanchist Russia, but the speed with which two countries allegedly on the wrong side of history are presenting those challenges.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, clearly in the case of China, its rise has been remarkable. Nobody, even people who were skeptical of the China doesn't matter argument anticipated that China was going to grow at double digit rates for a couple of decades. We have not seen, in prior world history, anything quite like that. But be as it may, we're now in this situation, in which I understand you accept, of greater interstate competition, particularly among the great powers. The question is, what do you do about that? And as I understand it, your argument is we need to avoid a reflexive foreign policy that is defined largely in terms of reacting to what China or Russia do. We need one that is more selective, and one that is more affirmative. That sounds nice at the 40,000-foot level. What does it actually mean in practice?

Ali Wyne:

And I should say, just in response to your question, it's a question that I really struggled with when I was writing the book, and it's a question that I struggle with now, as I had these conversations subsequent to the publication of the book. Because, as you say, it's much easier said than done. And when you actually try to operationalize, concretize this prescription, it is much more difficult in practice. So, at the risk of giving an impoverished answer, but I don't want to evade the question, so I'll try to give an answer, however impoverished it may be. I think in practice, I would offer a couple of thoughts. I think the first is that it's important for the United States, as best as possible, to kind of, right-size the competitive challenges. So, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, as we were discussing just a few minutes ago, I think that the United States perhaps veered too far in the direction of complacence, understating the potential for China and Russia, and others, and other authoritarian challenges, to challenge US influence in due course. But there's a risk that the pendulum over corrects and that now, instead of yielding to complacency, the United States might yield to consternation.

            So, step one is right-sizing the competitive challenge. You don't want to be sanguine, but you don't want to be alarmist either. The concern is that if you discount China and Russia's competitive liabilities, and you focus only on their competitive strengths, or their seeming competitive strengths, if you ascribe much-vaunted strategic vision to virtually everything that China and Russia do, if you believe that their entente is just proceeding from strength to strength, then naturally you are going to have a foreign policy that is more oriented around and predicated upon responding to their maneuvers. So, the first step that I would recommend in the service of operationalizing that prescription is right-sizing the competitive challenges. So, I try to make the argument in the book that these are likely to prove enduring challenges. We're going to have to contend with them in perpetuity, but they're manageable, I think by virtue of being self-limiting.

            So, I think that if China had been more strategic, I think that China, particularly in the early months of the pandemic, you remember the narratives in, let's say, May 2020, June 2020. What were the narratives that were very prevalent, not only inside China, but in the United States as well? The narratives were that China had successfully contained the coronavirus pandemic at home. It had contained the economic fallout, and now, having done so, it was training its sites outwards, and it was going to help the rest of the world that was still in distress. And the other narrative immediately juxtaposed to that one was that the United States was floundering. This was the portrait of a superpower in terminal decline. It was dealing with this fast-moving pandemic, a fast-moving recession. It was contending with protests against racial injustice.

            And given that juxtaposition of narratives, I think that China, had it been more strategic, I think that it would've taken steps to stabilize its relations with its major power neighbors. So, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea. I think that it would've worked harder to get the comprehensive agreement on investment across the finish line with the European Union. I think it had a really exceptional opportunity there. I think that it would've also pressed pause. Maybe not indefinitely, given the significance that China attaches to Hong Kong and Taiwan, but at least temporarily, as a display of goodwill, even if disingenuous. It could have temporarily pressed pause on intimidating Taiwan. It could have temporarily pressed pause on cracking down on Hong Kong. It could have also, I think it could have relieved, partially, perhaps even fully, some of the debt that was owed to it by Belt and Road initiative recipient countries. I think that if China had taken any of those steps, I think that we would've been having a very different conversation today than we are now.

Jim Lindsay:

But I think the point is China did take those steps. We got a lot of history in a very short period of time. And now, the United States looks relatively better off in terms of handling COVID-19 and its consequences, economic and otherwise.

Ali Wyne:

Absolutely.

Jim Lindsay:

And China is struggling. Growth is down. Cities are under lockdown, because Xi continues to pursue his zero tolerance policy. But where does that leave an administration like the Biden administration? Because the fact is the Chinese are doing things in Hong Kong and toward Taiwan and elsewhere that hardly qualify as being cooperative or collaborative. Should the United States ignore these provocations on the grounds that eventually the Chinese are going to snap out of it? Because I would imagine the counter-argument is that now is exactly the time you need to visit Taipei if you're Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, because you need to send the signal that the United States is standing up to China, and not going to continence its coercion, economic and otherwise.

Ali Wyne:

No, and I think that, exactly to your point, the argument that I was making about China's pandemic-era diplomacy is that it belies this narrative that one sometimes encounters about China's much-vaunted strategic acumen. So, what I was suggesting with that hypothetical is if China had taken some more constructive steps, given that juxtaposition of narratives, I think that, strategically, its position would be much better than it is today. I think its external environment would be far less challenged.

Jim Lindsay:

I don't think you could get President Xi to believe that, since he seems to be doubling down.

Ali Wyne:

And Jim, to your point, there's a real question as to what's driving him, because some observers might say, and I think that all of these hypotheses have some merits. I think it's interesting to, just in response to your question. One hypothesis is that Xi Jinping, he, during the course of the pandemic, he hasn't been traveling that much. He's been purging political opponents. His circle of really trusted advisors has been shrinking. And so, he just hasn't been getting very good advice about both economic management and also foreign policy management. And there's a parallel argument that, of course, applies to Russian President Vladimir Putin. That he didn't travel much during the course of the pandemic, he got poor advice from his military and intelligence apparatuses prior to invading Ukraine.

            So, one argument is that Xi is doubling down on these, what we might believe to be counterproductive policies at home and abroad, because the quality of advice that he's been getting from his trusted advisors is diminishing. So, there's that hypothesis. Another hypothesis is anxiety. Maybe China feels anxious about its external environment. It feels anxious about certain trends at home, and it wants to wrest greater control or to perceive greater control over its situation. There's another hypothesis that says that China feels confident, perhaps hubristic, maybe even arrogant. There's one hypothesis that says-

Jim Lindsay:

Americans are not the only ones who can fall prey to being hubristic.

Ali Wyne:

And I think it's interesting. If you look at hubris, we often talk about differences between authoritarian regimes, democratic regimes. But I think that there's a fair argument to be made that hubris, it transcends ideology, and hubris, it may manifest differently in different systems, but hubris transcends ideology. So, there's one hypothesis that says, look, Xi isn't unaware of the consequences that he's incurring and the consequences that he will likely continue incurring if he doubles down this path, but he feels that time and momentum are on China's side. He believes that the United States is in terminal decline, and he believes that even the-

Jim Lindsay:

As does Vladimir Putin.

Ali Wyne:

Right, right. And so, if that hypothesis is correct, if one believes that the United States is in decline, in terminal decline, maybe you take steps that we might in the United States or in the West broadly might feel to be counterproductive, but you feel you are acting from a position of confidence. You feel that, again, the time and momentum are on your side. And I also think one, I don't know if I would call it strategy, but one approach that we're starting to see is, if you're China and/or Russia, I know we're just talking about China right now, but I think that China and Russia, both, to some extent, are engaging in this kind of counterbalancing effort. They see that advanced industrial democracies. No, they're not necessarily forming a unified coalition. There isn't some necessarily, you don't see European and Asian democracies acting in full concert, but they are increasingly coming together on a number of issues, on an issue-specific basis to push back against China and Russia. So, I think that China and Russia in response are both looking to cultivate their ties in what one might call, broadly, the Global South.

            I was really, really influenced in this regard by two recent pieces, also, again, in your illustrious journal. One by Nadège Rolland in which she talks about China's Global South strategy. And she says China is perceiving greater resistance from advanced industrial democracies and so, to countervail that trend, or offset that trend, it's looking to cultivate greater ties in the global south. And I think that Russia, similarly, so long as Putin is at the helm of Russia, it's difficult to see what the basis for a detente with the West would look like. And even many of Russia's key relationships in Asia have been strained. You look at its relationships with Japan, with South Korea. So, I think that Russia as well is thinking, "How do I cultivate my presence in the Global South?" So, it's difficult to know exactly what... We went over a few hypotheses. It's difficult to know what exactly is motivating President Xi and his advisors. And if you look at the essay by Bonnie Lin and Jude Blanchett, I promise that I'm not just going to cite essays from Foreign Affairs.

Jim Lindsay:

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, who's the editor of Foreign Affairs is happy to have you plug articles in Foreign Affairs, and on foreignaffairs.com.

Ali Wyne:

They're fantastic pieces. I found two propositions from, and especially since Bonnie and Jude published their essay in Foreign Affairs quite recently, I think it's interesting to discuss. There are two propositions from their piece that really jumped out at me, and that I think are apropos for our conversation today. So, the first proposition is that even though contra to some hypothesizing in the initial aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine that perhaps China was on its back foot, that perhaps this sign of Russian autonomy was becoming more of a strategic liability for China, they say that China is adjusting. China's adjusting, so it's deepening its footprint in the Global South. It's promulgating alternative concepts of order, such as a global security initiative. And so, China, it's finding a way to regain its strategic momentum. So, that proposition really jumped out at me, and it demonstrates that even though China has been acting in ways that I think have undercut its national interests, China learns as well. Look at the way, for example, that China's recalibrating its Belt and Road initiative. So, China does adapt. China does learn.

            There's a second proposition in their essay, which they include near the very end of their piece, and it also jumps out at me. They said that the single biggest inhibitor of Chinese foreign policy and Chinese grant strategy, it's been China's own goals. It's been Chinese overreach. And it really is striking to me that even though, yes, China certainly is making greater inroads in the Global South, by virtue, in large part, just because of its enormous economic heft, its technological capacity. But it is striking. If you look at China's relationships with other major powers, I would say that with the exception of Russia, and we can talk about, is the sign of Russian entente for China, is it on balance a strategic liability or a strategic asset? But leaving inside its relationship with Russia, I would venture that virtually all of China's major power relationships are either stagnating or deteriorating. So, just a quick inventory.

Jim Lindsay:

Let me interrupt you there because I'm just curious what all this means for the Biden administration.

Ali Wyne:

Sure.

Jim Lindsay:

President Biden came in and said quite clearly, "China is the one potential peer competitor that can threaten American interest." Tony Blinken set down the marker for how the Biden administration intended to approach China. He said, "Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, adversarial when it must be." Which leads me to two questions. Is that the right framing? And if it is, what issues fall in which buckets?

Ali Wyne:

So I think that three-part framing, it's just a reflection of reality. If you look at the US-China relationship, right now, I think that the competitive dynamics of the relationship are increasingly predominant, but I think that three-part conception is a reflection of both the current state of the relationship and also the likely trajectory. And I appreciate not only the three-part conception, but also, in his speech at George Washington University, Secretary Blinken, under that framework, he enumerated specific, clear areas where the United States and China not only could cooperate, but indeed must cooperate to advance their shared vital national interests. And so, I guess I would make here a broad point. Even though, right now, the cooperative opportunities between the United States and China, they probably right now are far and few in between. They may appear to be slim pickings. But I would make two points. One, if there are slim pickings, I think that it behooves the United States to avail itself of those.

Jim Lindsay:

Where do you think there might be even a few pickings?

Ali Wyne:

It looks as though the Biden administration is leaning towards some kind of scaling back of tariffs, not on so-called strategic goods, but on Chinese consumer goods. And I think primarily not so much as a concession to China, but perhaps as one tool of a large tool kit for dealing with inflationary pressures. I think that type of step, if, and it looks like China might be contemplating similarly, some kind of scaling back of tariffs on, again, not strategic US goods, but on consumer goods. That type of reciprocal activity, it might seem small potatoes, but I think that we have to assess slim pickings against the broader trajectory of the relationship. Given how strained the relationship is, I think that even those seemingly inconsequential or partially consequential victories are significant.

            It's for a similar reason that, very often, when President Biden and President Xi have spoken, you very often will hear readouts of their video conversations, saying that these conversations between the leaders of the United States and China only serve to underscore the number of disagreements between the countries, the intensity of disagreements between the countries. And it's true, no doubt about it, that those video calls do underscore the difficulties of the relationship, but, one, they send an important signal that, at a leader level, there is a commitment to having a dialogue. There is a commitment to sustaining the dialogue. There is a commitment to empowering working groups to address seemingly intractable issues. We talk a lot about guardrails in the relationship, if absent at leader level. So, when observers say that the dialogues aren't accomplishing much, I think that the rejoinder would be, sure, the dialogues, they might not produce triumph in victories that make for compelling headlines, but I worry far more about the absence of dialogue between the two leaders than I do about the existence of dialogue.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, that's the situation we have right now with Russia, which is, relations have gotten so bad that we're not talking to one another. And you can understand the dynamics that have gotten to this place, but also, at the end of the day, there's a great risk when, in essence, dialogue falls off. But how do you square that circle, Ali?

Ali Wyne:

I would be remiss if I were to pretend that I have any good answers, because, I mean, the only answer I would offer right now, and it's a very impoverished one. I guess I would begin with the proposition, we've been talking about the United States and China, but I think it applies to the United States and Russia as well, is the absence of any dialogue, and leaving aside Russia, just focusing on vital US national interest, is the absence of any dialogue more or less advantageous for the purposes of safeguarding vital US national interest than the existence of unsatisfactory dialogue? And I think that I would say that even, or perhaps especially between competitors/adversaries in very challenging circumstances, dialogue becomes all the more important. During the Cold War, obviously, the United States and the Soviet Union, they were existential adversaries, and it was because they were existential nuclear armed adversaries that they, particularly when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, they realized the imperative of deescalation mechanisms.

Jim Lindsay:

But at that point, we had gone a dozen years with very little communication.

Ali Wyne:

With very little. And this is why.

Jim Lindsay:

Because the great fear was that, certainly here in the United States, that if you were to negotiate with the Soviets, you were being soft.

Ali Wyne:

Exactly.

Jim Lindsay:

And the Soviets in turn thought that they were winning, so why should they talk to the Americans?

Ali Wyne:

Exactly. And during the Cold War, the exact demarcation of the period of greatest danger, I think historians very slightly here and there, but generally, I would say that there's a general agreement among historians that during the Cold War, the period between, let's say, maybe 1947, let's say, roughly. I wouldn't say 1945. Let's say 1947 through the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was a moment of great danger. I shouldn't say a moment, it was a period of great danger, because, it was precisely because those hotlines, those deescalation protocols didn't exist, that the United States and the Soviet Union, during that roughly 15-year period, they were much more prone to probe each other's red lines, test each other's resolve, push each other to the brink, and the Cuban Missile Crisis serves as this wake up call that, look, the consequences of this kind of brinkmanship, the consequences of this reciprocal testing of boundaries can be really, really dangerous, potentially apocalyptic.

            And so, I guess I would make the argument that, even between and perhaps especially between competitors or adversaries, having a baseline of diplomacy is essential. But, obviously for domestic political purposes, I think that right now, having a public dialogue between say, President Biden and President Putin, it would probably be difficult, if not impossible, but it certainly doesn't mean that discussions can't happen quietly, privately. It doesn't mean that discussions can't happen anonymously. And I would argue that right now, the stakes are so high that, to not have any kind of even quiet dialogue going on would be very detrimental.

            So, you look right now, and I think that the assessment of Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Haines, is an assessment that is now basically widely shared, which is that the Russia-Ukraine war, it increasingly appears to be a war attrition that could endure for a very, very long time. And so, that raises the spectre of, at some point, I hope we never get there, but it raises a specter of, potentially, direct armed confrontation between Russian forces and NATO forces, which would be a very, very sober outcome. And of course, the externalities of this war are only going to grow more pronounced. And so, having some kind of dialogue is essential.

            I'll just make one last point on dialogue, because it gets to your point that, during the Cold War, one of the initial reasons for hesitation for engaging in dialogue was a fear of being perceived as weak. When I think of the words dialogue, diplomacy, engagement, those, to me, are not pejoratives. They're value-neutral. To me, dialogue, diplomacy, engagement. To me, they simply mean that we are interacting with other countries because we have to, in order to advance our own national interest. And dialogue can be unsatisfactory, it can be unpalatable, it can be unpleasant. But I think that having some kind of modicum of interaction is going to be increasingly essential, because great power competition, it is playing out, it is intensifying. And, the most solemn obligation, before we even talk about great power opportunities, the title of my book, before we talk about great power opportunities or great power cooperation, the most sacrosanct foundational obligation of great power interactions is to avoid great power war.

            If the great powers cannot avoid war, then a lot of the other considerations become moot. So, objective number one has to be the avoidance of great power war. It's the foundation. It's not the aspiration for great power relations. It's the foundation. And that foundation is going to require the strengthening of military to military communications. It's going to require the strengthening of diplomacy, albeit perhaps quiet, given domestic political challenges. So, as these great power frictions intensify, I think that it's important for us to think about diplomacy not as a value-laden term, but just as a value-agnostic term. We talk with other countries, not because we necessarily want to, but because we have to.

Jim Lindsay:

I accept all of that, Ali, but obviously, as you know, when communication is most needed, it can be most difficult to produce because of the political wins that are prevailing. Listen, I want to get back to this issue of great power opportunity, and you argue for the United States to put forward a positive vision of the world it wants to create, in that we should recognize that we have the promise of our democratic example and that our vision really needs to contribute to a global order that can better withstand the stresses of globalization. That resonates with me, but I have to ask you, do you think there is the public will and support for doing just that? Because, again, the American democracy looks to be suffering and struggling. January 6th hangs over everything. And when it gets down to the issue of globalization, there are a lot of Americans who believe that globalization has impoverished them and their communities. So, our saying, "Let's get a better, more friendly globalization," is not seen as a solution, but as a threat.

Ali Wyne:

And Jim, your question gets to one of my, I shouldn't say one of my, it gets to my foundational concern, by answering your question by way of telling you a little bit about just the narrative arc of the book, and just my own writing process. So, I began writing the book in earnest in late 2019, and really started making more progress on it in early 2020. And of course, the book itself, most of it is devoted to external challenges. So, thinking about a resurgent China, a revanchist Russia, and thinking about the contours of their deepening entente. So, when I started off the writing process, I was much more concerned about external challenges. And I certainly would not want to convey the impression that I'm no longer concerned about those external challenges. I absolutely am, and we see ample grounds for concern. We look at this grinding war of attrition between Russia and Ukraine and the externalities it's producing. We look at a sharp uptick in cross-strait tension.

            So, there's ample grounds for concern about Russia's activity, about China's activity. But for reasons that we discussed earlier, I think I look at some of their competitive missteps and I think that their much-vaunted strategic acumen is perhaps not as pronounced as some narratives might suggest. But as the book progressed, I became more and more concerned about what was going on and what was not going on here at home internally in the United States. And candidly, I'll be very blunt, and it gets to your question. If the United States is not able to restore the promise of its democratic example, if the United States is not able to, I shouldn't say overcome, but at least mitigate, in some measure, its political polarization. If Americans who harbor different political beliefs are not able to get to a point where they, once again, see each other as fellow travelers, as opposed to moral adversaries, then a lot of what I've been proposing in the book becomes moot.

            So, questions about how the United States can right-size competitive challenges posed by China and Russia. How the United States can seize this great power opportunity. And I make the point in the book that internal renewal is not ancillary to external competitiveness. Internal renewal is a precondition for external competitiveness. And so, I've grown steadily more concerned about the state of affairs in the United States. You mentioned January 6th. Look at growing income and wealth inequality. Look at the ravages that COVID-19 has inflicted and continues to inflict upon the American public.

            I think that a lot of countries watching the state of play in the United States, and not just China and Russia, which of course are prone to schadenfreude whenever the United States is experiencing difficulties. But even many of America's, and I would say especially importantly for our purposes, even many of America's well-wishers. They look at the United States and they say, "Look, the United States, we want you to be deeply engaged in world affairs. We recognize that you have an unrivaled diplomatic network. We recognize that you have an unrivaled capacity to mobilize coalition," so on and so forth. "But will you be able to sustain some semblance of a political cohesion at home that will be necessary to ensuring a somewhat consistent US foreign policy, a somewhat consistent American role in the world?" I think that there are real questions on that front. And also, I think that a lot of America's well-wishers, they say, "Look, until and unless the United States can demonstrate anew its capacity to manage its own internal challenges, how can it credibly harbor pretensions to articulating a new vision of global order?"

            So, it's all long-winded way of saying, Jim, that your question really gets to my foundational concern, which is that, absent a renewed sense of national purpose, absent a renewed sense of political cohesion, it isn't clear to me that the United States can seize that great power opportunity. I will, though, because, and I'll betray here my disposition as a congenital optimist, I do think that the United States has a storied tradition of not only weathering very different kinds of periods of domestic political upheaval, social upheaval, but I think that it has a very storied tradition of using that painful reckoning in the service of internal renewal.

            To take an example from the Cold War, so between 1945 and 1960, you have, I think roughly on the order of about three dozen countries that become newly independent, comprising predominantly non-Caucasian populations. And the Soviet Union discerns an opportunity, its own great power opportunity if you will, albeit, I think, a much more disingenuous and self-interested one. But the Soviet Union begins launching these narrative broadsides against the United States and says, "The United States claims to stand for equality. It claims to stand for justice, but look at how it treats African Americans. And so, newly independent populations, given how the United States treats racial and ethnic minorities inside its own borders, do you really think that you can trust the United States to treat you any differently?" And so, concern about propaganda from the Soviet Union, importantly, combined with activism within the United States, compelled the United States to render Supreme Court decisions such as Brown versus Board of Education, compelled the United States Congress to pass legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

            So, my optimistic note is that the United States, it has a historical ability to use painful reckoning in the service of internal renewal, but there's no law, there's no constitutional amendment that says that because the United States has healed itself before, has overcome before, that it will do so again, and there is a compelling case. I'm reading right now, and I believe I quote this book in my own, by Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman, and they identify four crises that have historic–

Jim Lindsay:

I actually had Suzanne on as a guest of The President's Inbox.

Ali Wyne:

She's, I think, one of the most persuasive voices on this front that yes, the United States has a capacity to regenerate, but that unlike in previous periods of American upheaval, that these four crises are now all converging at the same time to test US democracy uniquely. And so, yes, we've regenerated before. No, that history doesn't mean that we will do so again. There's a lot of hard work that has to be done, and I think that seizing America's great power opportunity as I conceptualize it, it's predicated upon our being able to renew ourselves at home. So, I think really appreciating that inextricable linkage between internal renewal on the one hand, external competitiveness, not thinking about them in silos, but thinking about them as two sides of the same coin.

Jim Lindsay:

On that note, I'll close up The President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Ali Wyne, Senior Analyst with Eurasia Group's Global Macro-Geopolitics practice. Ali's new book, America's Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing US Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition, is out now. Ali, I want to thank you for joining me. Dan Kurtz-Phelan, the editor of Foreign Affairs, also wants to thank you for joining me.

Ali Wyne:

Jim, thank you so much. As I said at the outset, I'm an avid listener of your program. A real, real honor and privilege to be with you, and excited to continue our conversation.

Jim Lindsay:

Thank you for being a listener, Ali. Please subscribe to The President's Inbox on Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen, and leave us a review. We love the feedback. You can find the books and podcasts mentioned in this episode, as well as a transcript of our conversation on the podcast page for The President's Inbox on cfr.org. As always, opinions expressed in The President's Inbox are solely those of the host or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Rafaela Siewert, the senior podcast producer. Gabriel Sierra. Rafaela was also our recording engineer. Thank you, Raf. Special thanks brought to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay, thanks for listening.

 

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