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Speech: Rivalry as a Struggle Against Order
Tony Blinken, the Secretary of State, just gave a speech at SAIS in Washington on “American leadership.” As unplanned counter-programming, it happens that I gave a speech at the exact same time as part of a large anniversary celebration for New Zealand’s Centre for Strategic Studies in Wellington. We had very different messages.
I’ve included the full text of my remarks, titled “US Primacy or Regional Peace: Rivalry as a Struggle Against Order” below. I’ve dispensed with some of the preamble and ad-libbing.
The first is that America’s current approach to Asia is closer to a primacist grand strategy than to any alternative strategy—and that’s a big deal because the requirements of primacy and the requirements of sustaining peace in this region are incompatible.
The second point is that it’s not useful and is in fact dangerous for the US to think of great-power competition as a struggle for hegemony or domination.
Primacy or Peace
So on the first point--the ongoing American bid to sustain regional primacy is at odds with regional stability. Primacy is actually a source of regional instability because of how it encourages others—like China—to react.
Now Washington policy elites and even US allies prefer not to talk openly about primacy—they say “liberal hegemony,” “favorable balance of power,” or “rules-based order.” But I was once a strategist in the Obama administration.
I can tell you because I have the receipts—by definition in America’s own strategy documents under Trump, under Biden, and actually going back to George HW Bush, the US seeks preeminence in military, economic, and political life—and that comes closer to a grand strategy that we call primacy than it does any other kind of strategy.
And because primacy is structural domination as an end and means of strategy, it’s the worst imaginable way of trying to uphold peace or stability.
Peace requires regional cohesion, a level of interdependence and mutuality, and above all it requires military restraint. A child would understand that.
And yet primacy right now requires the opposite of all that—regional fracture and bloc politics, techno-containment and sectoral decoupling, it requires military superiority, which in turn requires arms-racing. Primacy is a zero-sum, relative gains outlook that requires keeping others down. And you can only do primacy in a contested world at the expense of peace.
And for those of us who take our image of America from the long unipolar moment—the late ‘80s through maybe the Obama years—this is hard to come to terms with because we’ve taken for granted that American primacy is always in the background and not especially onerous or dangerous. There’s a way in which it’s all we’ve ever known.
But 1) that’s an inaccurate way to view the effects and consequences of primacy, and 2) whether a strategy is good is contingent on context. What primacy causes the US to do depends on the circumstances. At the end of the Cold War, we inherited an extremely lopsided balance of power. Primacy was the default, it was not especially costly for the US, and it was not especially risky at the level of global stability.
But times change. Technology changes. Distributions of power shift. Political economy has shifted. And Asia has radically changed since the ‘80s—so much so that now Washington doesn’t even want to call it Asia anymore!
It was easy to believe that primacy was a global public good when Uncle Sugar had all the power and there were no meaningful alternatives. But that’s not the world we live in.
Smaller powers are actively going their own way, sometimes without much of a blueprint—but they’re bucking the conceit of “great-power competition” as much as possible.
So there’s a way in which America’s insistence on primacy is now everybody’s problem because it orients US power toward the region and toward China in a way that only worsens the many problems that we see when we look at China. But it also narrows the trade-space for smaller nations to look after their own interests.
Rivalry Doesn’t Mean Struggle for Hegemony
The second point I wanted to make is that it’s wrong to think of Sino-US rivalry as a struggle for hegemony or domination. The US is approaching rivalry that way, but it’s far from clear that that’s China’s game.
The reason policymakers in Washington think the primacy toolkit is so essential is because they have this view that America writes rules or China writes the rules. Obama used to say that all the time and we just read it innocently in that moment, but it hits differently now.
That’s great-power narcissism for one, but it’s also a massive category error. Why? Because China’s material power comes from the privileged position it occupies within the capitalist world system. China cannot airbrush out the United States without undercutting its own power because the Core of our world system is the US. And even in relative decline, the US still has unique advantages. It’s the first among unequals in a more multipolar world.
So imagining that China could take over the world or displace the US is to imagine China defying the realities of how power is structured.
But think about it. China’s ability to economically coerce others. Its ability to pour resources into the PLA. Its ability to finance infrastructure development in other countries—all of this is dependent on it occupying a particular position in Asian political economy and global production networks. To some extent it even depends on continuing access to the US market.
What I’m getting at is there’s a way in which China’s fate is Asia’s fate, and Asia’s fate is America’s fate. Pretending otherwise is dangerous but it’s also kind of wooly-headed—because it ignores a lot of inconvenient facts.
So I’m not saying that we don’t have conflicts of interest with China—we do. But primacy only makes sense if you assume world order has to be run by a single great power and it’s either us or them. And that’s just not true. That’s actually what neofascists like Steve Bannon have been trying to make a self-fulfilling prophecy.
China is a problem within a world system that favors us—it’s not some free-floating bad guy who stands outside of world order threatening civilization as we know it.
And I don’t want blow anyone’s mind here, but there are growing signs that both China and the US are in relative decline—and we don’t have a convenient policy narrative for that alternative future, but it sure as hell isn’t “American hegemony or Chinese hegemony.”
And even if Sino-US rivalry was about who rules or who dominates, the only sane response to that would be to denaturalize it—take it apart, challenge the premise. Because otherwise that’s a story that won’t end well for most of us.
Now, some of you might say, well what about China? Isn’t China a threat etc etc?
If we want to have a conversation about China specifically, I’m happy to do that because I have a lot to say about the nature of the China problem and it follows from taking a relational and world-historical perspective.
One, I was asked to speak about the US.
Two, it’s analytically troubling that every conversation drifts toward China—that’s a pathology, that creates an America blind spot, but also a rest-of-world blind spot.
Three, the challenges China poses to democracy are bound up with—not separate from—America’s exercise of power in the world.
The US obviously needs to abandon the pursuit of primacy, and I make that case to American audiences every chance I get.
But for the rest of us, my analysis should give you pause. Because the priority for any small trading nation should be stability, and primacy is as much a threat to that as Chinese revanchism.
If stability is what you value, then rivalry itself is what you must oppose.
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