SAIS faculty discuss Great Power politics in panel

By SABRINA ABRAMS | October 3, 2019

Faculty members of the School of American Studies (SAIS) came to speak on the Homewood Campus on Wednesday. Robert Work, a ‘93 SAIS alum and the former deputy secretary of defense, and Richard Fontaine, a ‘02 SAIS alum and the CEO of the Center for New American Security, gave a panel about the future of war and America’s relationships with China and Russia. 

This panel was sponsored by the International Studies Leadership Council (ISLC) as part of SAIS in Baltimore Day. The panel consisted of a conversation between Work and Fontaine and also left time for questions and answers at the end. 

Work characterized the present-day relationship between the U.S. and China and Russia as a strategic competition, contextualizing it within this history of Great Power competition. He discussed the way U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration have approached this competition in contrast with the U.S. government’s approach to the Cold War.

“The United States has simply forgotten how to do a long-term strategic competition. We were quite good at it in the Cold War, it was a whole government effort, led out of the White House and the National Security Council,” Work said. “Everyone was focused on the long-term competition.”

In contrast to the mobilization of the U.S. government during the Cold War, Work believes the Trump administration, and his predecessor Obama’s administration, have failed to marshal power in a comprehensive fashion to engage in strategic competition due to a lack of widespread concern.

“If you went back into the Trump administration, and if you went back into the Obama administration, and you said, ‘Do you think China is a strategic competitor we really need to worry about,’ I’m not sure even 50 percent would say yes,” Work said. “Even though the policy documents diagnose the problem correctly, I don’t see any major changes in the way the U.S. is approaching the competition.”

Fontaine disagreed with Work that there has been little done to marshal U.S. governmental support towards this strategic competition. He emphasized that the Trump administration has re-articulated the relationship between the U.S., Russia and China and noted that this refocusing has held significant consequences for the shape of U.S. foreign policy. 

“Changing the publicly articulated strategic framework is not nothing,” Fontaine said. “The Trump administration is actually the first mover in finally saying Russia and Trump are strategic competitors.”

He also offered counter-evidence to an allegation of Work’s, which was that the Trump administration is not entirely engaged in this conflict throughout their different departments. 

“Look within the Defense Department,” Fontaine said. “[They are] starting to go after what Bob [Work] is talking about, make sure we can actually maintain the advantage in technology, particularly in artificial intelligence, and they have done some things on protection of elections, and things like that.” 

Fontaine also explored the relationships with other countries that the U.S., Russia and China can rely on. He stated that the U.S. had much more support in terms of constructive allies. 

However, Fontaine expressed concerns about the way the U.S. treats some of its allies.

“One of the key advantages to the U.S. in Great Power competition is we have lots of allies and the other two guys do not,” Fontaine said. “Yet our disposition towards those allies right now, today, is one of ‘what have you done for me lately.’ I don’t think they’re going to flip and be China allies or flip and be Russian allies, but it’s not about flipping. The nature of this competition is not whether they’re going to flip between one and the other, it is just that they are less likely to be able to fulfill their positions on some of these things, and that undermines our overall position in the competition.”

Avi Kirpekar, the social chair of the ISLC, stated that the speakers offered extended insight into the balance of power politics he has learned about in the classroom.

“Both had extremely in depth knowledge and experience with China’s and Russia’s threat,“ Kirpekar said. “The insight they could offer into the complexities of the issue were definitely unparalleled. As far as coursework, in Contemporary International Politics with Professor Steven David, we talk about alliance systems and the balance of power and how this shifts as nations grow in power, so that was definitely relevant to our discussions about these ideas.”

Work explored the possibility of extending olive branches with respect to various initiatives, in particular as a test to see how serious the other countries are about competition as opposed to cooperation. 

He cited the example of the U.S. offering to collaborate with China and Russia in order to further outer-space travel.

“You show us all yours, we will use the best technologies and we’ll go to Mars together,” Work said. “Now if China and Russia said, very interesting America, we’ll go to Mars alone, that’s telling you that this is a zero-sum competition for them. This isn’t that they want to be cooperative, they want to win on a national level.”

Work saw cooperation on issues such as climate change as a possibility, nothing that the great power countries might be able to work with each other to benefit the world and consequently reducing the chances of a war between the U.S., Russia and China. 

However, he still emphasized that people should be wary of the likelihood of a great power war.

“Make no mistake, it’s growing,” Work said. “It is not substantial right now, but the treadlines are concerning.”

SAIS in Baltimore Day also included a lunchtime talk by SAIS faculty members Hal Brands, Andrew Mertha, Adria Lawrence and Matthias Matthijs, who spoke about American foreign policy under Trump and its potential future direction.

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