IRI President Highlights the Importance of Values in the Great Power Competition for The Texas National Security Review
Dr. Daniel Twining
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s book Battlegrounds lays out a hard-nosed, realist case for why an effective U.S. strategy of great-power competition demands policies that recognize the political domain as a central arena of contestation. Grand strategists in the United States today too often argue that the way America should manage competition with China and Russia is to be more like them — practicing forms of machtpolitik that emphasize competition in the military and technological domains. For these self-styled “realists,” there is no place in the most competitive geopolitical landscape in 40 years for values-based policies that emphasize freedom, pluralism, and human rights. In short, scholars who have never served in uniform argue that soft power is for sissies.
McMaster, whose excellent book opens with a riveting tank battle in the Iraqi desert and is informed by his 34 years in uniform, including commands in combat, begs to differ. China and Russia are pursuing strategies to weaken and ultimately dismantle the free and open world that American leadership built and has sustained since 1945. To do so, they are pursuing state-directed policies designed to subvert democratic practice. In different ways, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and the Kremlin understand some things that too many U.S. foreign policy practitioners do not: that democracies are America’s greatest allies; that much of America’s standing in the world stems from its support for human rights and political freedom beyond its shores; that strong democratic institutions make nations more resilient to Chinese and Russian efforts to entrap them in illiberal spheres of influence; and that leaders in Beijing and Moscow are pursuing state strategies to discredit democratic values globally so as to make the world safe for autocracy. McMaster argues that a free and open world of democratic societies is worth defending because it offers the United States geopolitical advantages the country’s adversaries cannot match.
Why Defending Democracy Is Strategic
From an American perspective, a more democratic world is not simply desirable in terms of morality — it is the surest source of American security. As McMaster writes, “The existence of free and open societies abroad benefits security because such societies are natural defenses against hostile, aggressive, authoritarian powers … Support for democracy and the rule of law is the best means of promoting peace and competing with those who promote authoritarian, closed systems.” Democracies do not fight each other. They do not produce the uncontrolled mass migration that kleptocratic misrule in nations like Venezuela or state-generated conflict in places like Syria produce. They do not seed the violent extremism — with a global reach — that has emanated from what McMaster terms the “terrorist ecosystem” in ungoverned regions of the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands. Dangers to American security are far less likely to germinate in nations that are ruled justly and inclusively. Instead, the greatest dangers to American security emanate from either autocratic control or the absence of accountable and effective state institutions. Supporting democratic governance abroad is, therefore, a form of self-defense.
For America’s great-power competitors, abuse of the rights of citizens at home is a corollary of aggressive revisionism abroad. Nations like China and Russia, where power is unbound by law and institutions at home, are more likely to exercise unbridled power abroad in ways that are deeply destabilizing to the international system and dangerously detrimental to American national security interests. These include political strategies coming out of Beijing and Moscow that aim to corrupt, coerce, or co-opt America-friendly countries. A goal of U.S. statecraft must be to compete directly in the political domain against America’s great-power competitors and their efforts to neuter democratic institutions in nations of strategic importance, including America’s neighbors in Latin American as well as Asian nations situated along vital sea lanes. As McMaster puts it, “[S]upport for democratic institutions and processes is not just an exercise in altruism. Democracy is a practical means of competing effectively with China and other adversaries who attempt to promote their interests at the expense of other nations through corrupt practices.” From the perspective of American national security interests, defending democracy is strategic.
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