By Jefferson Gasteier, Contributing Writer

Great power wars became irrelevant as soon as the Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Missouri on September 2nd, 1945. Consequently, great power conflicts were fought through proxy wars for the next forty-six years. Once the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the United States entered a period of unprecedented power in a unipolar world. As a new era of great power conflict emerges, the United States must push for an ambitious grand strategy to retain its status as a global hegemon. However, this strategy has become muddled with indecision and a lack of purpose.

Great power conflict will no longer take shape as a war between competing world powers. Rather, conflict will be much more subversive. In the case of China, the country currently has little interest in competing militarily with the United States. It is using economic initiatives to displace U.S. influence across the globe. The United States must respond with a more effective grand strategy than that of the past five presidential administrations.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a threat to U.S. hegemony. The Chinese frame the hazy policy plan as “strategic hedging,” granting them greater leverage over international affairs without the use of military force. China’s rhetoric is centered around altruism and harmony, yet its policies suggest aggressive economic sabotage. For instance, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is built upon the foundation of weakening India. China has been building ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, solidifying their intentions in the Indian Ocean Region. This strategy is often referred to as the “String of Pearls.” Additionally, China has no interest in serving as the world arbiter for international security. It is more than comfortable allowing the United States to overspend its way into a downward spiral. While the United States uses military funds to participate in costly wars, China plans on practicing economic coercion with its growing military buildup.

Democracy worldwide is in danger because of the Belt and Road Initiative. China invests in newly democratic nations, where the threat of corruption is constant. Predatory lending by the Chinese government enables corrupt leaders to maintain the status quo. For example, the financially struggling Sri Lankan government recently gifted China a seaport along with 15,000 acres of land. China applies the same principle to the United States where it is buying and undermining democracy by using American companies to parrot its propaganda. Through this strategy, Hollywood and the National Basketball Association have fallen prey to Chinese interests by prioritizing money over basic human rights. A single tweet from Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey – which has since been retracted-  supporting Hong Kong protests cost the franchise $20 million in sponsorship deals. Xi Jinping disguises this strategy as “soft power,” though it is rooted in a much more malignant reality.

America’s response to China’s strategy must be purposeful and bipartisan. Due to the new international order of great power conflict, geoeconomic power – unlike military – is imperative to preserving American hegemony. The United States must invest in domestic infrastructure, healthcare, and education. This will require leadership from political leaders and constituents. In addition, the United States must also relinquish nation-building and rid itself of unnecessary foreign expenditures such as by leaving Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in the United States reallocating those funds towards the domestic budget. Once that is accomplished, it can focus on multilateral policies and direct its efforts towards less threatening issues. From an American perspective, joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will benefit the U.S. strategy against China and provide a more reliable avenue of economic prosperity for surrounding Asian nations.

Furthermore, there are domestic challenges for U.S. geoeconomic power. Americans tend to be ambivalent towards the United States’ stance in foreign policy. According to Gallup’s opinion poll, forty-eight percent of Americans view themselves as hawks or status quo moderates. The same percentage of Americans believe U.S. military spending is either ‘too little’ or ‘about right.’ This ambivalence is mimicked in Congress, yet the polarization is more apparent. In order for the United States to project its geoeconomic power, it must restore its current reputation as a global hegemon.

In addition, the United States and its businesses need to better protect their intellectual property. On average, U.S. businesses lose $225 billion to $600 billion annually due to Chinese intellectual property theft. While interstate war is decreasing, conflict in the cyber realm is on the rise. Nonpartisan investment in cyber-defense is critical to U.S. national security. The race to geoeconomic superiority becomes more attainable for the United States if it can reduce Chinese intellectual property theft. 

Decreased military spending does not lead to military weakness. Under the framework proposed here, the United States would still boast the most powerful military in the world and remain above the two percent benchmark for NATO guidelines. Yet relaxing its aggressive tendencies and posturing will preserve American time, resources, and energy. Along with repairing the United States’ international image, the country will also prove its ability to adapt to the changing global order.

Great power conflict has changed drastically since 1945. As a new era of great power conflict emerges, the United States must push a purposeful grand strategy to retain its status as a global hegemon. The United States has long been the bastion of liberal democracy because of its ambition. When ambition intersects with altruistic ideology, leadership surfaces. When U.S. leadership is guiding the international order, the world flourishes.

Jefferson Gasteier is a first-year graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs majoring in security policy studies with a focus on United States national security.  Contact information: (p) 419-202-4091, (e) jgasteier@gwu.edu.