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Time for Competitive Realism

U.S. foreign policy over the last decade has seen a tectonic shift toward trade, technology, and economic security issues. Whereas the Cold War with the Soviet Union was principally waged with military might, the new geopolitical competition with China is at its heart a contest of economic power, which in turn hinges on technology leadership. As Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated, “Technological innovation has become the main battleground of the global playing field, and competition for tech dominance will grow unprecedentedly fierce.”

Yet, as Rob Atkinson and Nigel Cory write in the winter 2023 edition of The International Economy, the tenets and practice of U.S. foreign policy itself have not caught up with this new reality. Instead of adopting a pragmatic focus on the economic and technology “battleground” that China has set out to dominate, it remains guided by two overriding and increasingly outdated principles: U.S. hegemony and foreign policy idealism. The U.S. government operates as if America is such an undisputed leader economically and technologically that it can wield hegemonic power unilaterally to accomplish its goals. It also operates on the assumption that America should use its power to advance broad moral goals such as promoting democracy, advocating for free speech, protecting human rights, and fighting climate change, and not pursue narrow, national-interest goals such as bolstering economic competitiveness. Indeed, U.S. foreign policy doctrine subordinates the goal of maintaining, let alone maximizing, America’s global power advantage.

That formula will not succeed against the new China challenge. The U.S. government must adopt a approach grounded in what can be termed “competitive realism.” Otherwise, America will continue to lose ground economically and technologically and fail to effectively limit the Chinese Communist Party’s strategic goals.

Read the article.

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