Long before prominent European realist thinkers such as Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli emerged, Kautiliya in his famous work Arashastra, argued that a conqueror shall always seek to add to his own power and increase his own happiness. For modern realist scholars, too, power is a means to survive in the brutal arena of international politics.
The end of the Cold War, and the ascendency of liberal hegemony meant to bring the “end of history,” and an end to the “cynical calculus of power” as former President Bill Clinton observed. However, evidence suggests that the United States, under President Donald Trump, is increasingly acting like an old-fashioned realist, primarily concerned with the balance of power calculations, acting unilaterally to preserve and enhance its own national interests.
The rise of China has been a looming threat to the U.S. primacy on the world stage, as Beijing increasingly seeks to push the United States out of its immediate periphery and ultimately Asia. Facing an increasingly powerful China, Obama initiated the strategic rebalancing of U.S. interests from the Middle East to East Asia. The “pivot to Asia” aimed to slow down the rise of China as a great power, and also to free the United States from the shackles of the Middle East wars. In this context, Obama’s successor, Trump, in his 2019 State of the Union address noted that “great nations do not fight endless wars.” For that matter, the Trump administration has followed its predecessor’s overall strategy to pull the United States out of the Middle East and refocus on its attention on the looming threat of rising China.
Trump, for his turn, has upped the ante by waging a trade war against China and has increased the U.S. military presence in its vicinity. In April and May 2020, the U.S. Navy deployed several warships to the South China Sea, including Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Montgomery to counter Beijing’s “bullying.” Meanwhile, three of the eleven U.S. Navy aircraft carriers are currently patrolling the Pacific, sending a powerful signal to China. Washington has also resorted to economic sanctions to counter Beijing and is considering the deployment of ballistic missiles to Asia pacific; a move that could shift the balance of power in favor of the United States.
The recent outbreak of the deadly coronavirus has also enabled the U.S. administration to increase its diplomatic attacks against China, blaming Beijing for hiding the truth about the spread of the deadly virus. It is interesting to note that U.S. officials in reference to China are increasingly using the word “communist,” a reminiscent of the Cold War great-power rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Washington’s efforts to slow down and hinder China’s rise, as a potential peer-competitor are in line with the realist predictions that great powers seek to ensure that no other power can challenge them.
Over the years, the United States has also increased its defense spending, which is projected to reach a historic record of $740.5 billion for the year 2021. Meanwhile, some analysts have even argued that the U.S. defense budget exceeds $1 trillion. Furthermore, the United States is investing in new military technologies, including missile defense systems to counter China’s “[development of] missile capabilities intended to deny the United States the capability and freedom of action to protect U.S. allies and partners in Asia.” In the same context, as China unveiled its own “game-changer” DF-17 hypersonic missile, the United States is pressing for its own “super-duper” missiles—as Trump calls them—to take the lead in the emerging arms race for hypersonic missiles. Russia, for its part, has also deployed Avangard hypersonic missiles, claiming that it can reach twenty times the speed of sound.
With respect to nuclear weapons, the Trump administration has also called for the expansion of the role, and capabilities of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) observes the “need” for replacement, sustainment and modernization of the U.S. nuclear triad. Following the NPR, the United States has deployed low-yield nuclear warheads, which in turn could lower the threshold of the use of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, some reports suggest that the United States, after decades of a moratorium, may conduct its first nuclear test.
The new changes in the U.S. nuclear policies are reflective of the recent developments in great power rivalry with Russia and China and are in line with realist predictions that great powers go into a great length to maintain a credible nuclear deterrence against other nuclear states. In this vein, Russian president Vladimir Putin recently signed Russia’s nuclear deterrent policy, announcing that Russia, in response to conventional attacks, would use nuclear weapons. Ironically, Putin’s move echoes President Dwight Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” policy, which implicitly threatened nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union in response to any conventional aggression against America’s allies.
Although much smaller in size compared to the United States and Russia, China for its own part, has embarked on modernizing its nuclear arsenal, fielding a greater number of warheads. A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies indicates that the number of Chinese nuclear warheads between 2012 and 2019 grew from 240 to 290, suggesting a 21 percent increase. From Beijing’s perspective, however, “rising strategic threats” emerging from Washington, mandates the country to increase the number of its warheads, and complete its nuclear triad.
The Trump administration has also set on the path of abandoning international arms control agreements, unshackling the U.S. military from previous limitations. In the latest case, the Trump administration, citing Russia’s violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), withdrew from the four-decade arms control agreement in August 2019, allowing the U.S. military to develop and test previously banned intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Notwithstanding the official reasoning however, the decision to abandon the INF treaty has more to do with concerns over China’s growing intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which is not bound to any restrictions.
As the expiration date for another arms control treaty, the New START is approaching, the Trump administration is pressing China to join any future agreement between Washington and Moscow; a demand that seems to be unlikely given China’s own insecurities, and small nuclear arsenal. In the case of INF for example, reports indicate that China could lose up to 95 percent of its ballistic missiles capability, should it join an agreement similar to INF. These developments are consistent with Realist dictums that states are concerned with their relative gains when joining international regimes, such as arms control agreements.
After more than three decades of primacy on the world stage, the United States is facing serious challenges emerging from Asia. To counter them, the United States has sought to increase its relative power and simultaneously contain its closest competitor, Beijing, which after two centuries of absence from the world stage, is bent on upending the current ordering of the international system. In any case, the current U.S. approach to increasing military spending, nuclear modernization and unilaterally abrogating multilateral agreements are consistent with realist predictions of great-power rivalry. In this context, under the likely scenario of a second Trump term, one should expect the United States to continue abrogating international regimes, and to further increase military expenditure, which in turn could trigger another arms race, reminiscent of the Cold War era.
Sina Azodi is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and a foreign policy advisor at Gulf State Analytics. He is also a PhD candidate in international relations at the University of South Florida. Follow him on Twitter @Azodiac83.