“America is back,” blared headlines following President Joe Biden’s speech to the Munich Security Conference in February, an address clearly designed to draw a line under the Donald Trump presidency and mark a new start in trans-Atlantic relations. “We are not looking backward,” Biden promised. “We are looking forward, together.” Yet one big plank of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is apparently sticking around: great-power competition. “We must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition,” Biden told conference attendees, adding that “competition with China is going to be stiff.”
Unfortunately, for all that great-power competition has been Washington’s favorite buzzword in recent years, it remains frustratingly poorly defined. Indeed, most commentators skip right past the big questions (Why are we competing? Competing over what?) and go straight to arguing about how to achieve victory. Since the possible answers to these questions range from the entirely reasonable (i.e., that Western states should engage in collective defense of liberal democracy) to the dangerous and utterly unrealistic (i.e., that Washington should be pursuing regime collapse in Beijing), it’s hardly something we should ignore.
It seems that once again—just as it did during the global war on terrorism in the mid-2000s or when styling the United States as the indispensable nation in the 1990s—Washington’s strategic community is again reorienting itself around a new, poorly theorized model of the world and of America’s place in it. Yet precisely because it is so ill-defined, great-power competition as a strategy—that is to say, competition for its own