Over the last three decades, America’s share of the international economy has stabilized at around 25%. This figure has remained steady even as the European Union has become a solid economic rival and partner, and as China and Russia have risen to compete with the U.S. for international predominance. These powers look set to fade in the coming decade, leaving the U.S. to continue as the world’s sole superpower.
What will this future look like though? One near-term prognostication is quite pessimistic and reflects the theorizing of realist international relations theorist Jack Levy, who in his 1983 article Declining Power and the Preventive Motivation for War identified preventive war as an action that declining great powers generally take.
Levy used Prussian diplomat and realpolitik practitioner Otto von Bismarck to make his case. Bismarck once argued that “no government, if it regards war as inevitable even if it does not want it, would be so foolish as to leave the enemy the choice of time and occasion and to wait for the moment that is most convenient for the enemy.”
Levy tried to apply his ideas to the U.S. during its relative economic and military decline in the early 1980s. However, his thoughts more presciently explain the actions of present-day Russia and China, who fearfully grab whatever territory and resources they can. Beijing and Moscow seek to increase their prestige and physical security, and to soothe their revisionist hunger, before they lose the material power to do so.
The Origins of a Disastrous War
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the type of preventive war that Levy theorized is a possibility for a peaking power. Russia rapidly rebuilt its material strength and geopolitical power after Putin came to power. Moscow fueled its rise largely by using the leverage it earns through the export of hydrocarbons. Putin has used this windfall to reinvigorate Russia’s military-industrial complex and to solidify his power over Russia’s domestic political scene by doling out hydrocarbon largesse to willing clients (i.e. oligarchs). However, the world is slowly moving away from hydrocarbons. As Russia’s demographic time bomb erupts, leaving a country marked by a low fertility rate and poor public health, Putin finds himself in a precarious position. He has a small window of opportunity to give Russia the security and prestige that he believes great power status conferred upon it during the Cold War.
In essence, Putin sees himself as cornered. He is trying to swing his way out of trouble before a knockout blow lands on Russia’s weakening body. Like Putin’s previous invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, he is engaged in a calculated, if extremely risky, preventive war.
These types of wars demonstrate Russia’s resolve. They are designed to deter former Soviet states from moving toward closer union with the West, while growing Moscow’s control of the flat, open plains that Napoleon and Hitler used to invade Russia. Control of Ukraine would give Russia a dominant position in international wheat markets and even greater control over Eurasia’s energy grid. Moreover, Russia’s recent invasions are also designed to unite its citizenry around Putin’s regime and distract them from the internal rot and centrifugal ethnic forces that plague Russia again.
Unfortunately for Putin, his invasion of Ukraine is likely to be as disastrous as Pearl Harbor was to the peaking power of Japan in World War II. Again, Levy uses Bismarck to highlight the logic behind preventive wars, and the damage they can wreak. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suggests that, “preventive war is like suicide from fear of death,” as Levy described it on p. 103. Putin, like Gorbachev before him, certainly had the opportunity to withdraw from the ring before being knocked out. But the logic of preventive wars made it appear to Putin that offense was a better option than capitulation – something that Russia’s disastrous and rapid decline after the Cold War likely taught him.
China’s Pacific Prospects
What can Russia’s aggression in Ukraine tell us about China? In many ways, the two countries are similar. Like Putin, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has used China’s economic prosperity to entrench his control over his nation by establishing patron-client relationships. He also has expanded China’s territorial buffer from potential adversaries, especially through aggressive actions to claim and control territory in the South and East China Seas. These actions have soothed a national psyche deeply wounded by its “Century of Humiliation.” However, like Russia, China’s power is peaking, and its more aggressive international stance reflects Levy’s theorized actions of a declining power.
While China’s economic power now rivals America’s, it has built its prosperity on the back of a one-child policy and the issuance of debt that makes future prospects look relatively bleak. Who will pay for this debt as workers age and more working-aged people are required to take care of their parents and grandparents, instead of working to propel China’s economy and military forward? Xi probably feels cornered, with time running out on China’s ambitions.
This feeling expresses itself through action, including China’s “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” its violent domestic crackdowns in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet, and aggressive threats to its neighbors in the South and East China Seas. These actions are supported by the logic of preventive war. Specifically they suggest that China will make a play to envelop Taiwan while it still has the chance. Doing so would satiate Chinese nationalists even as their economic prospects decline. It would also provide China a military bastion within the Pacific’s first island chain, and it would give Beijing control over the area’s resources and the trillions of dollars of trade that annually transit through the South China Sea.
However, taking Taiwan is probably no more realistic for China than Ukraine has proven to be for Russia. Invasions over water are difficult to successfully undertake, and Taiwan is much more militarized than Ukraine was before Russia invaded. Hopefully, Xi realizes this and reasons that the tactics, techniques, procedures, and military hardware that China has largely adopted from Russia will not be a match for Taiwan’s Western-backed military capabilities. However, Levy also suggests that logic can be warped when a powerful state sees an impending decline in its material strength. The state’s actions will sometimes violently hasten that decline.
Ultimately, Levy is right that preventive wars are often suicidal. But the logic behind them also supports Neil Young’s idiom: Statesmen would rather burn out than fade away.
Josh Caldon is a 20 year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from SUNY Albany in 2020 and focuses on geopolitics and national security. He is a father, husband, adjunct professor for the Air University, small business owner, and corporate pilot. Josh can be reached through LinkedIn.