Theoretical base

Strategic position of the US unipole in the great power triangle game

According to realism, the international political system is anarchic, where the structure is defined by the distribution of power. Waltz and Monteiro identify several key aspects of material capabilities forming a state power: size of territory including waterways and access to oceans; size, structure and quality of population; natural and other resources; economic robustness; industrial competence and capacity; military strength; political stability and strength of democratic institutions.

The great-power status is therefore based on relative power considerations. Because military power is the ultima ratio of international politics, great powers must possess military capabilities on a par with the most powerful state(s) in the system. The states can decide to convert economic power into military capabilities in order to transform the polarity of the system.

When assessing the great power position of the US and those two factors, distribution of power and grand strategy, the following conclusion can be made:

  • the key strategic assets of the US are
    • the size of GDP and its growth rate, total population,
    • total military expenditure and global military exposure (worldwide network of military bases)
  • the key strategic vulnerabilities
    • production globally outsourced, causing problems and failures in military-industrial complex  
    • dependence of REE and other key materials and products on importing abroad (from China and Russia)
    • fierce competition in AI with China and Russia 
    • national indebtedness
    • excessive military burden and overstressed military forces due to numerous long-lasting wars and armed conflicts

Likewise, when the unipolarity prevails in the world as it has been since 1991, the grand strategy of the unipole is the most important variable conditioning both the prospects for peace and the durability of a unipolar system. The grand strategy of the unipole is also significant factor mediating between the structure of international system and on the other hand conflict-producing and competition-inducing mechanisms.

The grand strategy covers both military and economic issues. Monteiro (2014) defines three broad military strategies and their sub-categories as well as two broad economic strategies:

  • military strategies: offensive dominance, defensive dominance, disengagement
  • economic strategies: accommodation, containment

Monteiro’s recommendation of the Grand Strategy for the US is “defensive accommodation”. This strategy combines a military strategy aimed at maintaining the international status quo (Monteiro’s defensive dominance) with an economic strategy that makes room for accommodating the interests of rising major powers. According to neorealism, the states are assumed to be rational and this recommendation is also based on the rationality assumption.

In the US, the incumbent president and his administration have published regularly the report National Security Strategy (NSS) during their presidency. This NSS and numerous other similar reportstell the overall threat perceptions of the US leadership.

When comparing these perceptions with the prevailing grand strategy, it is possible to assess the matching of these two key pictures.

Monteiro’s main argues regarding the unipole’s Grand Strategy:

  • “If the unipole implements a military strategy that either disengages from or tries to revise the status quo, or an economic strategy that attempts to contain rising powers’ economic growth, it gives the latter greater incentives to invest in additional military capabilities and put up a military challenge to the unipole. In other word, any strategy other than defensive accommodation will involve a competition cost.”
  • “The durability of unipolarity depends on the unipole’s implementing grand strategy of defensive accommodation towards rising powers, which is the only strategic option that will not entail a competition cost. In economic dimension, this requires that the unipole eschews any actions directed at containing major powers’ economic growth such as disrupting or limiting the flows of trade, investment, raw materials and so on.”
  • “In the military dimension, the unipole shall implement a strategy of defensive dominance in near regions by major powers maintaining the existing regional status quo.”
  • “Attempts by the preponderant power to contain the economic growth of major powers are likely to lead the latter to invest more of the current economic capacity in military capabilities. Therefore, economic containment of a major power is likely to undermine of the durability of a unipolar world. Putting differently, it is likely to fail before it has a chance to succeed.”

When analyzing the real foreign political behavior of the US during the last ten, fifteen years, the US has exercised completely opposite politics. The US has made its best to contain China and Russia both politically, economically and militarily. Trade wars and numerous political disputes are proofs of this.

In early 2010s and very clearly since 2014, the US chose “offensive containment” with extra stark sanctions policy.

Monteiro underlines especially that militarily the unipole “shall implement a strategy of defensive dominance in near regions by major powers maintaining the existing regional status quo.”

However, during last 20 years or so, expansion of NATO and the US military forces to eastward near the border of Russia has been striking and impressive. Similar “hard balancing” has taken place in South China Sea and other area near China. The whole atmosphere of international politics has become “toxic” and saturated with bitter and hardening great power competition.