What sparks could ignite the next great-power conflagration?

Craig Perry has written his seventh installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece asks about what might ignite the next great-power conflagration. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

America’s great-power rivals are increasingly pursuing strategic ends through nonmilitary means, betting that competition short of conflict will advance their interests without risking nuclear annihilation. Yet they are also gearing up to project military force abroad, and defend themselves should the United States intervene to defend its interests and allies. This raises the very real possibility that Russian or Chinese adventurism—and miscalculations over American willingness or ability to respond militarily—could inadvertently trigger the next great-power war. Unfortunately, growing doubts about longstanding U.S. commitments to its allies and international norms are making this tragic outcome far more likely.

Russia has reemerged in the past decade as a formidable military power, capable of defeating neighboring states such as Georgia and Ukraine while seizing the initiative farther afield in Syria. Its theater ballistic missiles and sophisticated air and coastal defense systems dominate the Black Sea and Baltic regions, posing a worrying threat to America’s NATO allies. Similarly, the People’s Republic of China has vastly improved its offensive capabilities in recent years, projecting naval power far beyond its littoral areas while holding its renegade offshore province, Taiwan, at ever-greater risk.

These developments have substantially increased the likelihood of American forces coming into conflict with their great-power counterparts. For example, not long after Russian mercenaries launched an ill-fated attack on a U.S. outpost in Syria earlier this year, the United States and Russia nearly come to blows over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Just a month later, China deployed a nuclear-capable bomber to the disputed Paracel Islands, then dispatched warships to challenge the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation in the region. As such brinkmanship becomes more common, the likelihood of a serious—and potentially escalatory—military confrontation will only grow.

This problem is particularly acute wherever the United States maintains alliances within its rivals’ historical spheres of influence. In Europe, Moscow could quickly defeat the meager NATO forces forward-deployed to the Baltic States—former Soviet republics sandwiched between mainland Russia and its Kaliningrad exclave—while making it exceedingly difficult for the United States and its allies to retake this territory without triggering nuclear war. Meanwhile in Asia, Beijing has set a mid-century deadline for national reunification, with the People’s Liberation Army reportedly planning to accomplish this goal as early as 2020. The PLA is already poised to overwhelm Taiwanese defenses with little warning, and disrupt U.S. carrier and airbase operations as far away as Okinawa and Guam through a combination of kinetic, cyber, and electronic warfare. In both cases, America’s near-peer adversaries are positioned to seize the initiative in their own backyards while severely complicating Washington’s ability to come to the aid of its allies.

All of this presupposes, of course, that the United States remains fully committed to its far-flung network of alliances, which have been a cornerstone of its foreign policy success since World War II. The 2016 election of a U.S. commander-in-chief who repeatedly questions the value of NATO and other foreign entanglements, however, has fundamentally challenged assumptions of American resolve. President Trump’s pronouncements naturally undermine confidence in U.S. security guarantees, and this growing uncertainty may eventually embolden Russia or China to call America’s bluff. The ramifications of such a gamble would be catastrophic: if the U.S. military responds as promised, it would plunge the world into the next great-power war; if it does not, the international system that has underpinned global peace and prosperity for the better part of a century would come to an ignominious end. Either way, the future is shaping up to be a much different place than the “Pax Americana” of yesteryear.

© Craig Perry 2018