June 14, 2019

Living on the Edge: Strengthening American Competitiveness

Opening remarks prepared for delivery at the CNAS 2019 National Security Conference

Good morning, and welcome to the Center for a New American Security’s 13th annual conference. I’m Richard Fontaine, the CEO here at CNAS, and we’re very pleased you’ve joined us today.

The theme of the conference this year, and the unifying theme of CNAS’ work, is sharpening America’s edge in a world of competition. And it’s a competitive world. Russia and China are threatening U.S. power and influence across several regions and multiple domains, even as the United States faces its array of more traditional national security challenges.

Today we are going to tackle this head on.

We’re at a critical moment right now, with many questions about America’s proper role in the world. The current administration, Democratic presidential candidates, the American people, foreign governments – they are all reassessing U.S. foreign policy.

We want to do the hard thinking. That means we will confront questions that we’d otherwise like to avoid, and maybe even produce answers that make us uncomfortable.

But to do that seriously, and to come up with the right approaches, requires the courage to ask the tough questions. That’s what we are going to do during our proceedings today. We are going to ask new, difficult questions and then explore the right answers.

At think tanks, and in government, the best questions are often nuanced ones, and the best answers complicated. We like to say that things are never black and white, it’s too early to be definitive, it’s a mixture of cooperation and competition, whatever. But this sometimes obscures the hard thinking we need to do.

Today we want to do the hard thinking. That means we will confront questions that we’d otherwise like to avoid, and maybe even produce answers that make us uncomfortable. If that happens, then today’s gathering is worth it.

I’ll start with four questions of my own, each related to strategic competition. I have my own answers to them, and I know many of you do as well. But for the moment, let me just pose them in the hopes that they will help frame today’s discussions.

The first question is this: Can we can safely end the so-called “forever wars?”

This is a hard question.

Of course we all want to end them. The question is whether we safely can – or whether we must fight them indefinitely.

Americans have fought in Afghanistan for 18 years. We invaded Iraq, withdrew all troops, and then sent them back in. They remain in Iraq, and in Syria, and in Libya. For many Americans, and for many strategic thinkers with Russia and China on the mind, it’s time to say goodbye to all that. Perhaps Middle East conflicts represent not much more than costly distractions from far more important challenges, like renewed great power competition.

And yet, the George W. Bush administration entered office wishing to focus on China, and this impulse was completely upended by the 9/11 attacks. Since then, we say we’ve learned some lessons about terrorism – that failed states and civil wars become terrorist safe havens; that terrorists in those safe havens grow in their ambition and eventually threaten the homeland; that without a presence on the ground it’s nearly impossible to keep up adequate pressure; and that in our open society we can defend only so many places, and so we must take the fight to the enemy.

It’s hard to imagine a focus on great power competition outlasting a large-scale attack at home. And it’s all too easy to envision our government reembracing counterterrorism as America’s top national security priority.

So, the question is, can we safely end these wars or not?

If the answer is yes, America can withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq, and reprioritize our forces and energies. We can reduce costs and casualties, and we can focus more directly on competing with China and Russia.

But if the answer is no, we have to engage in great power competition knowing that such wars will be an indefinite fact of life. And so our force structure, our diplomatic efforts and our spending decisions will all need to be designed toward that end.

We need to figure this out, because it cuts to the core of what our national security priorities should be.

The second question I’d like to pose is whether China and Russia are forming an axis.

The Director of National Intelligence this year said that Russia and China “are more aligned than at any point since the 1950s and the relationship is likely to strengthen.” China is the biggest purchaser of Russian oil. Russia is a source of military technology to China. Their navies have conducted joint exercises in the Baltic Sea and in the South China Sea. Last week, ahead of their 29th meeting, Xi Jinping referred to Vladimir Putin as his “best friend.”

But that’s friendliness, not necessarily an axis. Russia and China won’t defend each other if one is attacked. They certainly team up to oppose so-called American hegemony, and the spread of democracy. But beyond that it’s hard to see what interests the two really share. They are growing closer together, but they also have historical tensions and regional rivalries.

So, back to the question: are China and Russia forming an axis?

It’s easy to say there are indicators pointing in different directions, it’s too early to tell, etc. But we are all national security professionals – we know what an axis look like.

If they are forming one, then the United States faces a global competition of two great powers against one – and we’re the one. That, in turn, puts a premium on efforts to strip one of partners away, and drive wedges between them, and bolster our alliances to deal with a dual threat rather than just regional ones.

If they are not aligning in this way, it might be possible to engage in competition with both countries at the same time on some key issues, like allies, economics, military technology, and their tendencies toward expansionism. We might be able to find some areas of cooperation as well.

As we make strategic competition the central focus of American foreign policy, we need to know just who we are competing with.

The third question is: How do we get our allies to do more?

It’s often observed that great power competition is also a contest for allies, and that the more America has, the better we’re likely to do. We fare very well when you compare China’s alliance with North Korea, or Russia’s bond with Bashar Assad or Belarus. But in order to best leverage our allies, they should do more – spend more on defense, take on responsibilities the U.S. prefers to shed, stop free riding on our security guarantees. Among other things, that would allow America to focus on challenges smaller friends cannot, like strategic competition with Russia and China.

But how do we do this? In the past we’ve tried leading, not leading, leading from behind. . . no one has cracked the code so far.

President Trump’s approach is pressure, including threatening to reduce American commitments if the allies don’t step up. But in the absence of U.S. leadership, our allies watched while ISIS formed a Britain-sized sanctuary that plotted attacks against Europe. They did little while the Syrian civil war pushed millions of refugees toward the continent, destabilizing European politics. And when hundreds of thousands of African migrants crossed war-torn Libya to attempt a Mediterranean voyage north.

You could point out that out that the allies did get involved in these efforts – but only once the United States got directly involved. Perhaps, then, the lesson is that allies do more if America does more, rather than if America does less.

And the easy answer, of course, is to assume that Washington can encourage more allied activity without being as impolite and threatening as the commander in chief has been.


If it turns out that we get more from allies by leading ourselves, the United States should be more active in the world’s various hotspots, more reassuring, increasingly setting the agenda and discouraging our friends from freelancing.

But if we actually get more from allies by stepping back, we should be less reassuring, less active in certain areas, and increasingly urging our allies to take responsibility into their own hands.

If allies really critical to the international competition we perceive today, how to make the most of those relationships is a vital question.

The fourth and final question. This one is a little different from the others – it’s about the connection between the strategies and policies we develop in Washington and the things 325 million Americans care about every day.

The question is this: Does great power competition actually matter to Americans?

Then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, describing the new National Defense Strategy, put it clearly: “Great power competition,” he said, “not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”

But the American people see the priorities differently. A February Pew poll asked Americans to list the top threats to the United States. Cyberattacks came first, then ISIS. Then climate change. Then North Korea. Only after all these do Russia and China show up on the list.

It’s worth asking ourselves whether a Russia increasingly dominant in its near abroad, or a China projecting influence across Asia, really represents a more acute security threat to Americans than terrorist attacks – or illegal immigration or climate change or any of the other challenges you might imagine.

The policies of competition almost certainly cannot be sustained without the buy-in of the American people. So do they buy in?

Let me close by tipping my hand just a bit.

I believe that Russia poses the greatest near-term challenge to U.S. national security, mostly because of its ability and its willingness to undermine our democracy. We should prepare for military contingencies – an invasion of NATO territory, for instance – but focus far more than we do today on defending our democratic way of life.

I believe that China poses the greatest long-run challenge to U.S. national security, because it matches an illiberal, domineering vision of its rightful role with enormous military, technological and economic resources.

But here’s the tough part: I also believe that it’s wrong to say that great power competition has replaced more traditional national security challenges like terrorism, Iran, North Korea, or even climate change and humanitarian disasters. It hasn’t replaced them – it has added to them.

That’s what makes this next phase of global life so challenging for national security policymakers. It’s not this or that. It’s this and that.

So what do we do?

Navigating this new world requires not just doing more or acting differently, but thinking differently, thinking better, asking the tough questions and coming up with the best answers.

That is the mission of CNAS – to think better. It’s also why we are here today. For the next seven hours, we’re here to challenge our old assumptions, ask difficult questions, and debate new answers. If you leave feeling a little unsettled, that’s good. We, and the country, will be the better for it.

Learn more about the CNAS 2019 National Security Conference:

2019 National Security Conference: Sharpening America's Edge

Jun 14, 2019

Washington, DC

This year's CNAS National Security Conference explored the United States' efforts to sharpen its strategic edge in an era of heightened global competition....

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