More “Great Power” Competition!

Near-Peers? Peers? Competitors? Great Powers?

W.J. Astore

A colleague who teaches at one of America’s many war schools tells me that great power competition is trendy again, the U.S., it goes without saying, being the greatest power of all, and China and Russia being the main “near-peer” rivals to greatness.  The competition, of course, is defined primarily in military terms and is measured, at least at the Pentagon, by the amount of money Congress allocates to each year’s defense budget.  Thus the U.S. military, in (falsely) arguing that it’s falling behind the Chinese navy in ships, for example, establishes the quick-fix solution as lots more money for the U.S. Navy to build more ships.  Similarly, the Air Force wants more F-35 jet fighters, B-21 nuclear bombers, and new land-based ICBMs, also measures of “greatness,” and the Army wants 500,000 troops on active duty, presumably because it’s a nice round number, even as it’s failing miserably to meet yearly recruiting goals, forcing it to settle on a force of roughly 450,000 (more or less) effectives.

Naturally, the solution is never to downsize the mission given a somewhat smaller force; it’s to do whatever is possible to expand the pool of recruits, even if that means “fat camps” and remedial teaching to help potential soldiers reach weight goals and test scores so that they qualify for basic training.  Too fat or too dumb?  Join the pre-Army!  Lose weight fast and get smart quick so that you too can eventually enlist and be sent to foreign lands to kill people.

Recruitment shortfalls is a micro issue garnering attention in Congress even as the macro issue of China and Russia as great power competitors serves as a welcome change of subject from colossal military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And there’s the rub: the U.S. military has learned nothing from those failures except, as Barack Obama might say, to look forward, not backward, and to inflate China and Russia from regional powers to near-pears or even to peers.  As my war school colleague put it to me, somewhat ambiguously, “they” have big battalions and lots of nukes and have shown the will to use them, so America must be ready to respond in kind.  Yet the only country to have used nukes against cities is the United States at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the U.S. continues to outspend China on weapons and war roughly by a factor of three and Russia by a factor of ten. 

So, which country is really driving all this militarized “competition” among the so-called great powers?