Thank you for the chance to speak today. Since INSS is a scholarly institution devoted to the study of strategic security issues, I thought it might be interesting to offer you my thoughts on the politics behind the geopolitics, as it were, of some of the state-on-state competition challenges we see in the world today. In particular, I’d like to discuss the emergence of what I call “grievance states” as key players on the global stage, and some of the implications of this emergence for nonproliferation policy.
I serve in a U.S. administration that, while in no way letting up in our efforts to fight terrorism, is now giving special — and long overdue — emphasis in U.S. foreign and national security policy to the challenge presented by state competitors. The U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) of 2017, for instance, calls out “the revisionist powers of China and Russia” as working against us in a new “competition for power unfolding in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific.” It also flags “Iran” as a “rogue state” whose depredations must also be resisted, and whose efforts to arm itself with first-rate modern weaponry must be stopped.
Though the NSS speaks of them virtually in the same breath, most observers seem to assume that these three regimes represent three entirely different and separate sets of problems. After all, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, and Iran are indeed very different places, with hugely varied cultures, backgrounds, and individual histories. One should naturally be careful in generalizing about them, and policies for dealing with them will surely require considerable “tailoring” to the specific circumstances and dynamics of each state.
Yet when it comes to the core challenge they present for international order, one can for certain purposes usefully speak of them together. For one thing, U.S. policy toward these three states is not structurally oppositional. We desire friendship with all of them, though we feel that such friendship requires that they behave like “normal” states. This means such things as the PRC giving us fair and equitable treatment in economic affairs, Russia not violating treaties and other international legal obligations, Iran not sponsoring terrorism, and all three of them observing the rule of law, respecting the rights and liberties of their own people, and not bullying, invading, or destabilizing their neighbors. That’s what normal states do.
Analytically, one can also speak of them together in at least one sense, for the three can usefully be understood, on one level, as individual variations on the same problem: they are all examples of what one might call a modern ideologized “grievance state.” This is hardly the only relevant thing about them, of course, and one could not defend a rigidly reductionist analysis that pretended it were. Nevertheless, I would argue that one can still learn useful things by analyzing them together, for they share some intriguing commonalities and present some analogous problems for national security and foreign policymakers.
In the broadest sense, these three ambitious and increasingly self-assertive autocratic regimes all conceive it to be their mission to upend the global order in the service of their own embittered geopolitical identity politics. This sense of purpose is driven in part by “grievance ideologies” that encourage belligerent revisionism buoyed by dreams of restoring some lost glory of which they claim themselves to have been deprived by malign foreign forces — specifically, emanating from “The West,” and especially the United States.
- What is a “Grievance State”?
Grievance polities share four basic characteristics: (1) a sense of self-identity powerfully rooted in affronted grandeur; (2) oppositional postures to what is said to be malevolent foreign influences; (3) a need for foreign enemies to justify domestic authoritarianism; and (4) a revisionist sense of geopolitical mission in the world. I think there are important causal and reinforcing linkages between these factors, so let me unpack them a bit.
To begin with, the PRC, Russia, and Iran all have powerful senses of geopolitical self-identity that are closely tied, in the modern world, to a perceived history of grievous wrongs suffered at the hands of malevolent Western forces: an innocent and blameless “Self” is seen as being relentlessly menaced by an evil, external “Other.” In effect, each of these three states ascribes to its own civilization a special, almost mystical essence that is declared to be unique and of inestimable value, but which is threatened and must be preserved against Western corruption.
Second, all three regimes articulate a sense that malign foreign influence has been at the root of their own country’s civilizational decline from some apogee of world-historical status, glory, and respectability into weakness at some prior point in the modern era. The specific time frames vary, but this feeling of loss — and the longing associated with a desire for recovery, repair, and return — is the core grievance felt by these “grievance states.”
In all three cases, the feeling of grievance is notably exaggerated, with genuine historical challenges having been nursed over the years by regime propaganda and self-justificatory political mobilization strategies into world-historical travesties of great, even central, importance to each nation’s sense of self. Nevertheless, artificially inflated though it may be, this sense of past humiliation is to a great extent sincerely felt. It has also left in all three polities a legacy of self-doubt that can seldom be admitted, but which also helps condition interactions with the outside world, encouraging endless, if negational, fascination with and self-comparisons to the oppositional Western “Other.”
Third, all three of these “grievance states” under consideration need enemies to justify their autocratic systems, in the sense that their ruling regimes lack democratic legitimacy. Responding to this legitimacy deficit, all three conjure the specter of malevolent outside threats and ideational subversion as a tool of domestic political mobilization to consolidate and maintain their own authoritarian control. Through this lens, domestic dissenters are also cast as the pawns of wicked foreign puppet-masters and obstacles to the great collective project of national restoration. “Grievance regimes” cultivate domestic acceptance of authority in the present day first by comparing traditional glories to some litany of collective national humiliation in the recent past, and then by depicting their own authoritarianism as the only path forward to finally escaping such degradations in the future.
Fourth, all of these factors combine to give all three of these “grievance states” a sense of “mission” in the world: that of rectifying those perceived past wrongs and restoring each civilization-state to something akin to the past glory it cherishes in its imagination, and the lack of which it has felt so painfully in its recent history. Because of the connection between this collective teleology and each regime’s domestic legitimacy narrative, this is also a sense of geopolitical purpose that demands results: without being able to claim some degree of success in producing victories against the foreign “Other,” each autocracy might be unable to justify its existence.
It is this self-ascribed sense of mission in willfully changing the existing global order to their advantage — and their inherent distaste for the prevailing international rule set and willingness to use coercion and potentially force to effect change — that make these “grievance states” inherently and inescapably revisionist, and their modern approach to international relations so problematic and destabilizing. The “grievance” aspects of their political personality are thus causally linked to their geopolitical self-assertion, and thus also to some of the more problematically ambivalent ways that these three states have approached nonproliferation.
All of this deserves a treatment far more detailed than I can provide here, but having sketched the basic outlines of what I am describing as a “grievance state,” it should not be hard to see how the PRC, Russia, and Iran all fit the bill.
- The Three Revisionists
I won’t belabor the point about the PRC here, because I’ve outlined elsewhere in great detail some of the elements that combine to make modern China a “grievance state”: its sense of historical loss in suffering both real and perceived humiliations at Western and Japanese hands in the 19th and first half of the 20th Century; its mission of recovery or return to some vague position of first-order global status; its increasing willingness to act aggressively to this end; the degree to which its ruling regime has grounded its legitimacy narrative in being able to demonstrate results in this “national rejuvenation;” and the regime’s resulting fixation upon zero-sum relative positioning vis-à-vis an essentialized foreign “Other” in the form of the United States.
Today – as its growing wealth and power give it ever more options and encourage its leaders to believe that national “return” is nearly within their grasp – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime carries a chip on its shoulder as the self-promoted embodiment of a wounded and humiliated civilization. Beijing harbors a longstanding strategic agenda of “returning” to something akin to primacy, it justifies domestic repression with rhetoric of foreign subversion, and it now has resources with which to act upon its dreams of restored glory on a world-historical scale. Modern China is thus a “grievance state” indeed, and one dedicated in profound ways to geopolitical revisionism.
The PRC’s self-perceived mission to right wrongs suffered in its loss of preeminent global status have given its revisionist agenda shape and focus, not least by encouraging it not merely to seek greater power and influence vis-a-vis other countries — and especially the United States — but indeed to promote the export of its authoritarian model and to demand that the rest of the world endorse and validate the CCP’s own narrative of the PRC and its role in the world. As Secretary Pompeo pointed out recently in a speech at Hudson Institute, Beijing is now globally promoting a model of governance entirely different from our own and hostile to our values, supporting this model with predatory economic practices worldwide and a military buildup far in excess of what the PRC would need for self-defense, and threatening the freedoms of peoples everywhere by demanding that the rest of the world censor what is said or expressed about China.
As for Russia, it is also a “grievance state,” its political iconography filled with notions of special status and historical mission, coupled with bitterness toward a hostile outside world that has conspired to corrupt Russia’s unique essence and keep the country down (or even destroy it). The Russian vision of the world is darker and uglier than the Chinese one — more inclined toward assumptions of perpetual threat and cyclic foreign depredation than toward the Chinese regime’s ambition of finally and conclusively righting historical wrongs and restoring the natural order of things by reclaiming Beijing’s global preeminence and living in self-satisfied glory thereafter — but Moscow is no less obsessed with perceived grievance than Beijing, and perhaps even more so given Russia’s continuing demographic and socio-economic weakness and dysfunction.
To judge from the pronouncements of leaders such as President Vladimir Putin, the writings of regime propagandists such as Vladislav Surkov, and insightful analyses by foreign scholarly observers, Russia has developed its own “myth of exceptionalism” that revolves around the idea of a recurring “salvational role” in the international community won through defiant resistance and stoic martyrdom against endless waves of foreign enemies determined to subjugate and humiliate it. In its modern form as, in effect, the official ideology of the Putin regime, such thinking draws heavily upon the early 20th Century writings of Ivan Ilyin, a White Russian emigre writer and intellectual who saw Russia’s salvation lying in Christianized fascism — and whose name and work have been repeatedly invoked, referenced, and praised in recent years by many senior Russian officials and politicians, including Putin himself.
In this conception, Russia is a distinct civilization having a unique essence and spirit that is constantly under threat from evil foreign forces, both physically and ideologically. These are threats against which Russians must always be vigilant, and in response to which it is necessary to organize politics along authoritarian lines not accountable to democratic or legal check. The current regime has also entered into a close and mutually-supportive symbiosis with the Russian Orthodox Church in trying to weave a fabric of state-centered, authoritarian, patriotic nationalism that draws upon Orthodox mysticism and spirituality.
This narrative involves, and indeed requires, finger-pointing at alleged outside threats. It also asserts linkages between those outside threats and those within Russia who have the temerity to disagree with Putin — or, more specifically, the effrontery to suggest that Russians should be offered choices other than his regime. Putin’s narrative has come to paint a disturbingly dark, dehumanizing narrative of his domestic opposition, which he describes as a “fifth column” in league with foreign saboteurs and an unnatural and infectious bacterium of which Mother Russia must be cleansed.
As this vision pertains to foreign policy behavior, it is particularly significant that the regime’s dark and somewhat paranoid vision of the world is also powerfully bound up with a sort of imperial nostalgia, a longing for the status and sense of historical self-importance that Russia felt during the tsarist period and during its decades of Soviet global reach. Not for nothing, for instance, has Putin himself declared that if something had gone wrong in Russian history, it was the collapse of the USSR: the 20th Century’s “greatest global catastrophe.” The modern Russian regime thus promotes a kind of global restoration narrative, in which its self-assertive authoritarianism provides the vehicle for national or even civilizational resurrection.
It is critical to the regime’s ideology that Russia deserves to be a great power and to exert its influence widely abroad, and it is central to Putin’s agenda – as he has proclaimed ever since his so-called “Millennium Message” manifesto of December 1999 – that Moscow must put behind it the weakness and humiliations of the 1990s and reclaim its birthright of great power status. This hunger for a return to lost glory lies at the heart of the geopolitically revisionist agenda of the modern Russian “grievance state.”
Thus are key themes of modern Russia’s ideologized self-perception entwined: a sense of identity obsessed by endless cycles of existential foreign threat; a feeling of mission and a taste for martyrdom in resisting or even saving humanity from such evils; a mystical conception of civilizational purity that must be preserved against malign external forces and values, including by the maintenance of strongman rule at home (which in turn sustains itself by pointing to such threats); and a nostalgia for lost glory that can be regained through heroic effort and a willingness to take dramatic risks. Having defined itself on this conceptual terrain, it is easy to see both how the Putin regime falls into the category of a “grievance state” and how modern Russia’s toxic blend of grievance and self-ascribed mission make its geopolitics dangerously revanchist and destabilizing.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is the weakest of the three “grievance states,” but it still follows a broadly similar ideological pattern. Political Islamism is a reaction to modernity, an ideology constructed in recent generations and that has accelerated both in reaction to perceptions of Muslim weakness and backwardness vis-a-vis the West and in reaction to the intellectual and political attractions of the 20th Century’s major secular ideologies.
Within the broader universe of political Islamism, the specifically Shi’ite Islamist ideology of the Iranian regime was formed in a dialectical conversation with, and in opposition to, “the West” – making it, in Hamid Dabashi’s excellent phrase, a “theology of discontent” that culminated in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s success in deploying the “imagination of collective shame” as a political tool to justify a recombination of pre-existing political and juridical elements into a new ideology of clerical rule for a new revolutionary republic. In its aspiration to fight back against the perceived threat of foreign corruptions and to achieve a theocratic and nationalist restoration of idealized past glory, power, status, and self-worth, his revolutionary Islamic ideology has made Iran into a conspicuous “grievance state.”
Nor was this a worldview that stopped at Iran’s borders in the first place, even in theory. To the contrary, the Iranian regime exhibited a world-historically messianic strain from the outset, its ideology bound up with a longing to be accepted as a great civilization and a major power that deserved to be paid back what it is “owed” by a malevolent outside world that has consistently wronged it. Iran’s political Islam has also long aspired to having Iran be seen as a superlative civilization-state, remembering its sometime historical role as one of the world’s superpowers and combining such nationalist recollections with Shi’ite themes of religious redemption to evoke dreams of becoming – as Abolhasan Bani-Sadr once put it – “a role model for the freedom of humanity on a universal level.” Ayatollah Khomeini himself made few bones about this universalist ambition, declaring that his system of Shi’ite clerical rule would ensure the integrity and independence of “the Islamic umma” as a whole.
III. Policy Implications of Grievance
The existence of such “grievance states” no doubt has many implications for international affairs beyond what I came to explore here. Nonetheless, I’d like to outline some of them from the perspective of the global nonproliferation regime.
The basic problem stems from the fact that revisionist “grievance states” tend to be opposed to the international status quo in important ways. This is one of their defining characteristics: their geopolitics tend to be deeply revisionist. This certainly does not necessarily mean that “grievance states” will always support proliferation. Depending upon the circumstances, such states may well still find it in their interest to uphold nonproliferation norms. (Most obviously, of course, no regime that looks upon its geopolitical environment with hungrily revisionist eyes would want a regional rival to develop nuclear weaponry.) Nevertheless, as it applies to them, the historical track record for China, Russia, and Iran is pretty clear: nonproliferation and disarmament are merely conditional values, which must not be permitted to stand in the way of these regimes’ overriding mission of acquiring the power and status they feel the world owes them.
- The People’s Republic of China
One hopes that the PRC has put forever behind it Mao Zedong’s ideological opposition to the very idea of nonproliferation. Yet the PRC remains frequently ambivalent about nonproliferation and disarmament when it is not confronted with a strategic reason to observe these norms. As documented through a wide range of open-source reporting for decades, the Chinese government clearly supported proliferation for many years, not merely through secret sales of nuclear reactors and ballistic missiles, but even including the transfer of nuclear weapons design information.
The scale of such activities — at least with respect to nuclear weapons-related technology — dropped after the PRC joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1992. Nevertheless, even in more recent years, Beijing still appears to feel itself to have reasons to support or at least condone proliferation to the degree that the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-related and missile capabilities to particular recipients can be relied upon to complicate the strategy and undermine the security of those whom the PRC considers to be regional or global adversaries. One does not see Chinese entities needing to be sanctioned for providing sensitive materials or components to India’s nuclear program or Taiwan’s missile program, for instance, nor to the United States itself. Despite the CCP regime’s powerful and pervasive modern mechanisms of socio-political surveillance and control, however, it is still not uncommon for Chinese entities to ship such things to the Iranian missile program that threatens U.S. interests and regional stability in the Middle East or to Pakistani efforts that target the PRC’s regional rival India. It is hard to see either of these phenomena as a complete coincidence.
All in all, as I have myself previously made clear, the PRC “still remains the supplier of choice for many of the world’s proliferators, especially with respect to missile technology. U.S. diplomats have repeatedly and insistently raised numerous proliferation cases with Chinese officials, but the response is uneven at best. Often, very little action is taken.” Beijing’s reluctance to end all such activities “suggests [that] China chooses not to resolve this problem, calling into question its commitment to nonproliferation. China’s inability or unwillingness to curtail such activities is of ongoing, and increasing, concern — and it represents one of the key challenges in the counterproliferation business today.”
The Chinese “grievance state’s” fundamental ambivalence about such matters is also visible in its approach to nuclear disarmament, about which the CCP regime claims to care deeply even as it refuses to accept a moratorium on fissile material production for nuclear weaponry and is currently on track to double the size of its nuclear arsenal over the next decade as part of what the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency describes as “the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in Chinese history.” Beijing also disdains to insist upon nonproliferation assurances as a condition of supply in the civil-nuclear arena, as it continues to target western civil nuclear trade for illegal diversion to military programs under its military-civil fusion strategy. Similarly, Beijing has long supported a ban on “space weapons” that would prohibit the kind of weaponry it imagines the United States to want, but which would leave China free to continue to possess the sorts of ground-based anti-satellite weapons it has already developed.
Beijing’s massive military build-up and increasing self-assertiveness against its neighbors in the Indo-Pacific are worsening the incentives faced by others in the region to develop nuclear weapons as a means of deterring overwhelming Chinese military force. Beijing is not always a poor nonproliferation partner, but numerous and significant chronic problems remain unaddressed.
One can also see a marked ambivalence about proliferation in the modern Russian “grievance state.” Spurred on by its desire both to protect its chemical weapons-using Syrian proxy and to evade its own accountability for using a “novichok” military-grade nerve agent as well as the radioactive poison polonium-210 in assassination attempts on British soil, the Russian regime has now become the ringleader of a diplomatic campaign to undermine international mechanisms of WMD-related transparency and accountability at the United Nations, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
To be sure, Moscow probably still wishes to avoid the further proliferation at least of nuclear weapons. This has not, however, kept Moscow from such proliferation-problematic steps as agreeing as early as 1992 to build a nuclear reactor in Iran, at time when concerns were growing about Iran’s likely pursuit of nuclear weaponry. Indeed, in 2014 – a point at which Iran was building up its nuclear program and producing highly-enriched uranium in flagrant violation of legally-binding obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions – Russia agreed to provide Iran with as many as eight additional nuclear reactors.
This remarkably cavalier approach becomes easier to understand, however, in light of Moscow’s obvious prioritization of nonproliferation behind its own revisionist agenda in the Middle East. As Angela Stent has quoted a Russian diplomat making clear, “[a] pro-American Iran is far more dangerous for us than a nuclear Iran.” On the whole, Russia clearly approaches nonproliferation norms with a good deal of ambivalence. Such principles are, it would appear, important when they are useful to Russia in fulfilling its revisionist mission, but can be disregarded otherwise.
This is troubling enough, but at least this ambivalence is fairly clear from the public record. Less well known, however, is the degree to which the ideologized character of modern Russia as a “grievance state” has spread into Russia’s approach to its own nuclear weapons — though these developments surely bode ill for any hope for the kind of global nuclear disarmament to which Russia remains, in theory at least, committed through the NPT. Simply put, the Putin regime’s relentless focus upon the supposed need for mobilization against malevolent outside forces that threaten Russia and its civilizational “spirit” creates a powerful perceived incentive to retain and indeed to prize nuclear weaponry. Such weapons are felt to be the centerpiece of Moscow’s security strategy against the more advanced countries of the United States and China, and they remain the symbolic coinage of continued “superpower” status notwithstanding modern Russia’s demographic, economic, cultural, and political dysfunction and decline. These include such destabilizing novel weapons as the Burevestnik “flying Chernobyl” nuclear-powered cruise missile — the nuclear reactor of which recently experienced a criticality accident during the recovery of a missile that had been irresponsibly left on the floor of the White Sea, in close proximity to a major population center, for about a year after a failed test.
Nor is even hyperbolic to refer to this as a “holy mission.” As has now been painstakingly chronicled by Dmitry Adamsky, for example, the Russian nuclear weapons complex and the arms of Moscow’s nuclear “triad” have become deeply entangled with a Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy that has become outspoken in support of nuclear weapons and their supposed contribution to Russia’s security and mission in the world.
Remarkably – as Adamsky details in a recent book – Russia’s nuclear weapons industry, its strategic missile forces, its long-range nuclear bomber arm, its submarine-launched ballistic missile submarine fleet, and its nuclear forces high command have all now been provided with their own official patron saints. “Nuclear priests” sometimes actually accompany missile submarines on patrol, and individual nuclear bombers are often consecrated with an Orthodox rite specially developed for this purpose. A monk is apparently even permanently assigned to the Russian nuclear test site at Novaya Zemlya — where the United States assesses that Russia has not adhered to its testing moratorium in a manner consisted with the U.S. zero-yield standard. The U.S. government, including the Intelligence Community, has assessed that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons tests that have created nuclear yield.
Orthodox officials have thus built a symbiotic relationship with Putin’s authoritarian regime as champions of the regime’s great “grievance state” project of restoring Russian global power and influence, and have become cheerleaders for the role of nuclear weaponry and nuclear brinksmanship in this endeavor. Nuclear weapons seem to have become indissolubly linked to the revisionist geopolitical mission of the Russian “grievance state,” being seen as the critical means by which Russia preserved its identity in a time of weakness, and an indispensable part of its return to glory. This bodes ill for the disarmament enterprise.
And there is an additional problem, from a nonproliferation and disarmament perspective, that has been created by Russia’s modern revisionism – and in particular, its penchant for using force to re-litigate the territorial settlements of the post-Soviet era. Ukraine, as you’ll recall, inherited a large number of nuclear weapons and delivery systems upon the collapse of the USSR, but relinquished them on the strength of security assurances given it by Russia in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 – assurances that Putin betrayed with his assaults upon Ukraine and forcible attempted annexation of a large portion of that country. With these moves, Russia sent a deeply problematic signal about the importance of having nuclear weapons, and not relinquishing them. Russia’s interventions in Ukraine, therefore, threaten the global nonproliferation regime and the world’s hopes for eventual disarmament — potentially making Moscow, in effect, an exporter of its own nuclear-fetishizing approach to security.
With respect to the relationship between its own grievance ideology and nuclear nonproliferation, Iran has its own grim story to tell. Notwithstanding its status as a State Party to the NPT, the Iranian regime began seeking to develop nuclear weapons during its war with Iraq in the mid-1980s. Acquiring uranium enrichment technology from abroad, the Iranians began a secret nuclear weapons development program and a fissile material production capability that could ultimately provide it with weapons-usable uranium and plutonium. To be sure, Iran suspended its coordinated nuclear weapons program in 2003, but it secretly preserved detailed records of this work and its future trajectory remains highly uncertain today.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to behave just as one might expect a regime to behave if founded upon the sort of quasi-messianic revisionist legitimacy narrative discussed today. It continues to develop more sophisticated missiles with which to threaten its neighbors and continues to transfer missiles and missile technology to proxy forces across the Middle East, including non-state actors. Tehran also continues its role as the leading state sponsor of terrorism worldwide, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Qods Force remains very active as the sponsor, financier, arms provider, recruiter, trainer, and quartermaster of Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq and on the battlefields of Syria. And most recently, the IRGC had even taken to attacking or seizing foreign oil tankers and attacking its neighbors’ critical infrastructure facilities with missiles and drones.”
The key point here, from the perspective of our understanding of “grievance states,” is perhaps simply that such Iranian actions should not be particularly surprising. With an explicitly revolutionary geopolitical agenda and a legitimacy narrative grounded in oppositional stances to the physical and ideological power of both East and West — not to mention that of Israel and the Sunni monarchies of its neighborhood — the Iranian regime is profoundly revisionist, and its behaviors intentionally destabilizing.
Getting such a “grievance state” to accept nonproliferation-related norms of self-restraint may not be impossible. Indeed, the fact that Iran agreed to negotiate over its nuclear program in 2013 suggests economic pressure can work – and that if such pressure is combined with aggressive diplomacy, something better than the notably inadequate Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action can be achieved – something with permanent constraints that addresses the full spectrum of Iran’s malign activities.
The challenges presented by these “grievance states” are profound. Their behavior frequently tends to be intrinsically destabilizing, presenting potentially serious challenges to international peace and security as a result both of the often coercive means by which they seek to upend the established order, and of the likely grim implications for human flourishing to the degree that these regimes actually succeed in refashioning large swathes of the international system in their own autocratic, lawless, and militaristic image.
What precisely the rest of the international community needs to do in responding to these three states is a core challenge for U.S. competitive strategy. Their grievance-infused revisionist geopolitics helps drive them to exert themselves against U.S. interests — and against those of our friends and allies, and indeed against the structure and function of the present international system, which in differing ways they each wish to restructure to some degree in their own image. This requires robust counter-strategies from all of us in the rest of the world who recognize how horrific it would be if these states were to achieve their objectives.
At the same time, dealing with them cannot be wholly oppositional, since in various respects we still need to work with each of them. It is central to U.S. China policy, for instance, that we need to figure out how to be both competitive and cooperative with the regime in Beijing — pushing back against it strongly where we need to, but also working with it as a partner where we still find shared interests.
In his speech at Hudson, Secretary Pompeo made this point very clearly, noting that there are both challenges and opportunities in dealing with a strategic competitor such as China. We hope to engage Beijing in constructive ways, he said, and we want to see “a prosperous China that is at peace with its own people and with its neighbors.” For this reason, we will cooperate with China where “there is common ground to be had” — such as in the “Phase 1” trade deal that the United States is close to reaching with Beijing. As Vice President Pence has also noted, “‘[c]ompetition does not always mean hostility,’ nor does it have to. … [W]e want a constructive relationship with Beijing where our prosperity and security grow together, not apart.”
Yet the Secretary also made clear that we must engage with “China as it is, not as we wish it were” — and that this means confronting the problems that have arisen as the PRC has acted out in ways creating “challenges for the United States and the world.” It means pushing back against the aspects of China’s rise that have been, as he noted, “at the expense of American values, Western democracy, and security, and good common sense.”
Similar points can be made about Russia, which has also acted to carve out a new global role for itself in ways and with methods that are both deeply destabilizing and fundamentally at odds with the values that we hold dear — but with which we also must, for the sake of international peace and security, engage constructively where there is common ground. Indeed, in the nuclear weapons arena, we also seek to involve both of these great power competitors in trilateral arms control relationships that will forestall the new nuclear arms race that their respective nuclear and missile programs and military postures today threaten to create. As for Iran, we are presently focused upon maximizing pressure upon the regime in Tehran, but only in order to incentivize a diplomatic solution to the many problems between us.
How to build and maintain effective competitive strategies against these grievance-obsessed regional or global competitors is perhaps the key foreign policy and national security challenge of our era, and raises questions well beyond what I can address now. But I do think that more work needs to be done to understand the phenomenon of “grievance states” as such, and to develop — and build an international constituency for — responses to the threats they present. I hope, however, that we can learn useful things to this end by studying these states as representing, in important ways, individual variations upon a common theme. Perhaps think tank scholars such as yourselves can help us solve these problems.