Whether we like it or not, the world has entered an era of multipolar struggle. A mix of structural pressures and self-fulfilling choices by key players have brought about this dangerous state of affairs. Today, the United States, Russia and China, as well as designated “rogue” regimes Iran and North Korea, are entering a state of protracted and intensifying security competition. The ever-evolving lesser menace of Islamist terrorism will persist, too, as a wild card that could also provoke exertions of power. In the medium term, this shift is probably irreversible. Washington’s experience of unipolar dominance, and decades of unrivalled hegemony, leave it ill-prepared to deal with this new reality. Given the high stakes, some counsel is due. To prevail in these conditions, it will need intellectual resources other than nostalgic appeals to a lost unipolar order.
This article is an effort in that direction. It proceeds in two parts. First, I demonstrate that cumulative offensive “moves” by major powers have brought about a state of competitive multipolarity. Second, I offer some advice, in four main parts, on how Washington should manage it: it should rank and divide adversaries, rebuild diplomatic capability, apply fresh discipline to its alliances, and beware of brushfire wars. While the age of competition is inescapably upon us, prudent choices can help make the difference between competition and catastrophe.
Published in The Washington Quarterly, Volume 42, 2019 - Issue 1.