Major Power Competition Devastating to International System

October 17, 2022

About the author:

Susan Thornton; Senior Fellow of the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School; Former Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs of the U.S. Department of State 


I would like to talk a little bit about the international system and great power competition, because although I am very also disheartened by the low level of US-China relations at the moment, I think that there may be an even bigger problem, which is the effect that major power competition is having on the international system.


The current international system was set up 70 years ago in the wake of World War II. And the idea was to prevent the onset of another disastrous major power war. Until now, it has done this job, although not without frictions and tensions in some areas of grave danger. But today, I think we face the very real prospect of a major power conflict. I think most immediately, we face it in Europe. There we have Russia’s military invasion of a smaller, neighboring sovereign state. No matter what state, no matter what the history, no matter what concerns Russia may have, the invasion, on those terms is indefensible. And it is even more so because Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons, left to it by the Soviet Union on the understanding explicitly that it would be protected from such an attack by the major powers.


So, the fighting in Ukraine, in my view, is a huge danger to the international system. I think the fighting should end immediately. I think Russian troops should withdraw, and I think a diplomatic process should be begun to get a settlement in that conflict. 


The idea in the 21st century that a major power like Russia or any other major power can be made more secure by taking territory from other states, I think, is just an anachronism in our modern, globalized world. Russian security has not been enhanced. It has been diminished by the war. And the future for the Russian people, I think, looks more insecure than before, no matter what the outcome of this war is. So, I hope that this situation that we’re facing in Europe will be a lesson for all of us and allow us to remember so much was done at the end of World War II, because people remembered how terrible conflict was. They made great efforts to share sovereignty, put aside sovereignty, created institutions and gave up a certain amount of national say, for the sake of trying to prevent another horrible war. We need to remember those experiences today. 


We also face the prospect of conflict in Asia. The major powers faced off against one another directly in the 1950s in Korea, where US and Chinese soldiers last fought each other. And that conflict remains unsettled today with the potential to re-erupt, including with the use of nuclear weapons, as DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) continues to develop its nuclear program. The U.S., China, Russia and others should work to try to prevent this and to produce, finally, after 70 years, a durable peace on the Korean Peninsula. I think that it’s long overdue. 


And we also must prevent conflict across the Taiwan Strait. It’s been alluded to a couple of times tonight. This would certainly benefit no one and would bring tragedy to the entire Asia-Pacific region and beyond. President Biden and presidents before him have repeatedly stated that the United States government does not support Taiwan independence. As long as that is the case, this situation can and must be managed peacefully. And I believe we can do that. 


Alarmingly, though, we do not see any efforts in any of these conflicts to bring in diplomacy and to move tensions onto a diplomatic track. Instead, we see regional arms racing. We see bellicose and nationalistic rhetoric, blame games, and the heated pursuit of new ways of war. What has happened to diplomacy? Communication among great powers, it’s been pointed out tonight already, has been damaged by the coronavirus pandemic, of course. It’s very anemic and at a very low level. I think there’s less diplomatic communication today among major powers than there has been at any time in the last 40 years. Russia rejected efforts at diplomacy to prevent the outbreak of war in Ukraine, this last go-round. Major powers are not engaged with the DPRK to any great extent. Beijing is refusing to talk to Taipei. We have got to find a way to restore productive discourse and compromise among us and make that fashionable again. Governments in all countries are facing problems now adjusting to rapid changes in technology, in the complexity of our societies. And we see the failure to provide leadership that the world needs in this unstable time. People are very worried about uncertain futures in many countries. But these failures and problems can’t be blamed on others, no matter how convenient that might be.


While the major powers are focusing on great power competition, they are giving short shrift to major global problems, like climate change, economic development and inequality. These are the major concerns that most people in the world have.


The vision of the major powers in the current international system is too narrow. We see the erosion of authority of multilateral institutions with major powers refusing to make needed compromises in their interest to keep these institutions functioning effectively. These institutions badly need to be updated to keep up with modern technologies and with globalization, which, by the way, is not going to be rolled back. Globalization is here to stay, and we are going to need to find ways to adjust to it and deal with it. We should ask ourselves: how can we as scholars help generate more popular consensus to push leaders back toward diplomacy, and back toward institutions and respect for international law, to adapt this system for the change that is needed and avoid the scourge of militarism and nationalism? Hopefully, we can try to influence our governments to show the leadership we need them to show to face the future and not just worry about the past. 



This article is from the September issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the September issue, please click here:




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