Great power competition era between the U.S., China, and Russia

I think that the G7 Hiroshima Summit in May 2023 sent a clear message to Russia and China.

Especially when Ukraine’s President Zelensky was photographed side by side with U.S. President Biden and other world leaders, and Russia’s military invasion was thoroughly criticized in the joint statement, it gave the impression of the solidarity of countries sharing values with the G7 to the world.

Current international affairs show a picture in which Russia and China are challenging the liberal world order centering around the U.S.

The war in Ukraine became the first large-scale military confrontation in Europe since World War II. On the other hand, in the Asia Pacific area, we have to admit that China is expanding its influence backed by its power, and the possibility of an armed conflict in and around Taiwan is increasing every day.

Meanwhile, from documents that shows the global strategy in recent years of the U.S., which has held hegemony for a long time, we can see that there is a recognition that the great power competition time has already arrived again.

That is to say, the structure of the unilateral domination of the U.S. after the Cold War is finally about to end, after going through the failure of the war against terrorism by the G. W. Bush administration, the remark of the Obama administration saying “America is not the world’s policeman,” and the trade friction between the U.S. and China during the Trump administration.

In such a tough situation, how should Japan behave? Japan has received benefits from the liberal world order and is in a position to support it. Especially, how can it alleviate the rising tension around China.

This is not only an issue that can be solved by simply strengthening defense force, but also an issue of new conceptual power, concerning what kind of global order we should aim for. In that sense, the containment scheme that was developed by the U.S. during the Cold War period may give us some historical lessons with which to think.

Containment is a U.S. strategy against the Soviet and global strategy, which was derived from the theory advocated just after the end of World War II by the American diplomat George F. Kennan (1904-2005).

In the end, this scheme resulted in the greatest success among the U.S. global strategies in the 20th century, which was the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

The U.S. global strategy of containment

Kennan joined the U.S. Department of State in 1926, and after being trained in the Baltic countries and Germany, and staying in the Soviet Union, he became an expert in Russian affairs. Around the time when World War II ended, he worked as an acting ambassador at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

In February 1946, the following year after the end of the war, Kennan sent secret diplomacy telegrams of more than 5,000 words from Moscow to the Department of State. Furthermore, in the following year, he anonymously published an article entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in the Foreign Affairs magazine specialized in U.S. foreign policy and international politics.

The term “containment,” which Kennan used in the article, formed a framework of thoughts of then top elites in the U.S. government, and it became the basic principle of U.S. Cold War policy which has lasted for more than 40 years.

The key to the containment scheme is an approach whereby if the U.S. builds cooperative relationships with geopolitically important countries, and balances power by surrounding Eurasia, in the end the Soviet Union will become more moderate and the communist force will decline progressively.

Although Kennan did not entirely deny war as a means, he did not proactively approve it. He focused on maintaining the balanced status based on the logic of realpolitik (political realism) instead of crushing the Soviet Union by military power.

In fact, in the early days of the scheme, the idea of five power centers including the U.S., the U.K., Germany (and Central Europe), the Soviet Union, and Japan was proposed. This was an ideal form to share the burden of containment of the Soviet Union between the U.S., Germany, and Japan. Kennan was thinking that if both Germany and Japan achieved economic recovery and were democratized, the U.S. would not necessarily have to conclude a military alliance with them.

However, in reality, it was difficult to build out only by economic support such as the Marshall Plan. Especially, Western Europe could not deal with the advancement of the Soviet Union alone. Therefore, as its foreign policy, the U.S. concluded military alliances, including North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with Europe, and the Security Treaty with Japan.

Moreover, Kennan was consistently negative towards nuclear weapons, considering them an excessive deterrent. However, in fact, the U.S. adopted the strategy of nuclear deterrence, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union forged ahead with nuclear development competition. Overkill situation, in which possessing nuclear weapons that can exterminate humankind multiple times, is obviously extraordinary from the perspective of a power balance.

Thus, not all strategy schemes by Kennan matched the U.S. cold war policy. However, as he predicted in 1947, by forming and maintaining the global order with the balanced power of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union dissolved and the West won the Cold War in the end. The fact itself seems to prove the effectiveness of the containment.

Then, what kind of lesson can we learn from the East-West Cold War and Kennan’s scheme, now that we are faced with the Russian invasion and the rise of China?

Global order will be generated by the new concept

Interestingly enough, Kennan was strongly opposed to the NATO expansion policy of the Clinton administration in the 1990s.

For example, he contributed to the New York Times in February 1997, and concluded that the eastward expansion of NATO “would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era,” and expected it to inflame “the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion,” and “restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations,” and claimed that it will “impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

One of the factors which caused President Putin to decide on the invasion is thought to be the eastward expansion of NATO and Ukraine’s wish to join it. Thus, Kennan’s prediction proved to be correct. Was the U.S. global strategy over a declining Russia after the Cold War appropriate? That point needs to be reexamined from now on.

Having said that, in the first place, Eastern European countries have been cautious against Russia because of their historical background. Therefore, it is natural that they hope to join NATO. In order to combine the enhancement of the defense force of each country, including right to collective self-defense, with the regional power balance, careful diplomatic attention is necessary, while respecting each country’s sovereignty.

The same can be said for Japan, which is geographically facing China. After losing a war, Japan took a path towards pacifism based on the new postwar constitution, as a result of the U.S. policy against Japan. There are many challenges, including dependence of the defense force on the U.S. and demarcation of foreign activities of the Self-Defense Force. However, the way Japan stands since the war, whereby it tries to resolve conflicts with means other than war, should be appraised to some extent.

However, present China is domestically enhancing control by power concentration, information control, and suppression of protests, and externally it is engaged in tough diplomacy, including military intimidation for its own state benefit. Thus, it is in an extremely dangerous situation. Moreover, the non-existence of a treaty concerning the control of nuclear weapons between the U.S. and China is also a very worrisome factor.

Therefore, Japan also cannot help but going in the direction of enhancing its realistic military posture. Depending on the situation, the necessity to act together with NATO may also increase in the future. Would that mean virtual military cooperation with Europe, or would a NATO-style right to collective self-defense regime be arranged in Asia and Oceania? We have reached the phase where we need to think about it together through consistency with the constitution.

I think that the biggest lesson we learned from Kennan was actually the creation of a new concept. Because Kennan introduced a strategic concept called containment, which did not exist before, the U.S. was able to build a global strategy which drew a line between traditional isolationism.

Nowadays, in the mass media, we often see the expression, a New Cold War between the U.S. and China. It is my view that at the point when the conflict of ideologies receded, the current situation seems different from the Cold War era. However, in any case, to respond to the unprecedented situation, we will need a new concept which will serve as the foundation of a new strategy.

What should that be? I am thinking about it now. Enhancement of the defense force is necessary. However, it does not mean the more equipment the better. It is not as simple as that. In order to form an inclusive global order to prevent military conflicts, we all need to think hard.

* The information contained herein is current as of September 2023.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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