Back to the Future: The Potential of Great-Power Conflict

    Gabriel Glickman

    Security, Asia

    Anti-tank missiles are displayed during the military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, in Beijing, China

    “We are facing global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order.”

    The world is going backwards into the future—the latest evidence being the new National Defense Strategy (NDS), which anticipates a possible great-power transition from the United States to China. There are two components of the new release: one is an unclassified synopsis that is eleven pages long and is available to the public, the other is a much longer (and presumably detail-oriented) report that will remain classified for the foreseeable future.

    What is most notable about the NDS is that it avoids the militant-like nationalism of the National Security Strategy (NSS) that was released in December (i.e., there is no mention of “America First”), and it states in very clear terms that the United States remains committed to maintaining “a free and open international order.”

    What does the DOD mean by “order?” In the field of international relations, the terms “revisionist state” and “status-quo state” are used to describe, respectively, countries that seek to change the current international system and those that uphold it. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the international system has been defined by American hegemony and the spread of Western liberal democracy rather than its challengers—notably, fascism and socialism. This is commonly referred to as the liberal world order.

    Under that world order, the United States is the most powerful country in the world. It often intervenes in international conflicts at a high cost, thus keeping dissatisfied nations from overturning the system. The NDS, however, refers to a recent shift in the current world order with an observation that, “We are facing global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order.”

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