Opinion

We overestimated Russia's military. Is China our real rival?

Even our best intelligence often leaves us wanting

We in the United States have a terrible track record of judging our foes.

Yes, Mitt Romney was sort of right when he described Russia as "without question, our number one geopolitical foe," during a 2012 presidential debate with President Barack Obama. Obama, of course, replied with what at the time seemed like a mic-drop zinger: "The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War's been over for 20 years." 

Now the war in Ukraine, the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II, even has some democrats conceding Romney was right.

But how right was Romney — now a Republican senator from Utah — really? And how wrong was Obama? Yes, Putin's Russia has been a terrible troublemaker in recent years, including its Syria intervention and its "sweeping and systematic" interference in the 2016 U.S. election, as described in the Mueller Report. Russia also spent big money attempting to upgrade its military might. Definite "geopolitical foe" behavior. That bit of Romney's characterization was dead-on correct, and Obama's snippy, hand-wavy response looks embarrassing in retrospect.

By the eve of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, plenty of foreign policy experts had joined Romney in making the "Russia is back!" case. Andrew Latham, a professor of international relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote the following for The Hill last December: "Russia is not the geopolitical basket-case it was in the immediate post-Soviet era… Russia is unambiguously a 'great power' — a country possessing both substantial instruments of national power and the will to use these instruments to influence political outcomes around the world."

And when Putin launched his unprovoked attack on Ukraine, much of elite opinion confidently predicted that a quick Russian battlefield victory would provide final confirmation of the great power thesis. But a month in, Russia hardly looks like a great power possessing "substantial instruments of national power." Not only has its modernized military gotten bogged down, it looks to be slowly disintegrating. Russia's vaunted financial firepower isn't doing much better with a good chunk of some $600 billion in international currency reserves frozen by America, Canada, and Europe. The Russian economy may be imploding almost as fast as the Russian army.

What did the experts miss about this supposed great power? Well, as far as the military goes, intelligence gathering is always difficult, and it appears even Putin overestimated the capabilities of his "new look" military. Similarly, both Putin and Western experts underestimated the will of the West to impose economy-crippling sanctions — as well as the willingness of NATO nations to supply massive amounts of weaponry to Ukraine.

But this isn't the first time America has thought too highly of Russian capabilities. It's now believed that during the "missile gap" of the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. drastically overestimated the number of Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles. And there's still controversy about the CIA overestimating the strength of the Soviet Cold War economy.

What's more certain is that it was only months before Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev officially dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991 that the CIA's Soviet experts "told U.S. leaders explicitly that the Soviet Union was in a state of crisis, offered a poor prognosis, and spelled out specific scenarios in which the regime could implode," according to a 2008 analysis of the agency's performance in forecasting the end of the U.S.S.R.

So, perhaps not much has changed since Winston Churchill defined Russia as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Yet what the past month of conflict has seemingly proven, at minimum, is that while Russia is a geopolitical rival, it's a real stretch to describe it as a "great power" beyond its 6,000-warhead nuclear arsenal.

But if we've been so wrong and in so many ways about Russia, how do we judge China's potential threat? If Russia is a great power, how do you rank China, which has an economy and population 10 times that of Russia's? A "grand power," or something?

That said, I'm concerned we are making the same mistake with China as we have with Russia. Many American policymakers are wildly impressed with China's rapid economic rise, and if China can annually grow its economy at 4 percent or 5 percent indefinitely, as some experts forecast, that awe would be well-founded.

That forecast, along with China's decades of rapid growth, is why Washington wants to invest in its own version of China's state-directed industrial policy where government favors certain industries as strategic sectors. One example of that strategy is the domestic chipmaking sector. And while Democrats have typically been more willing than the GOP to intervene in the private sector, more Republicans are joining them, such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida who now argues for an industrial policy "targeted to urgent national needs." 

If China continues to grow at that 4 percent or 5 percent rate, as Australia's Lowy Institute points out, it would make China the world's undisputed economic and technological superpower by mid-century. Maybe the leading military, too. Welcome to the Chinese Century.

But Lowy offers good reason for skepticism (as do the China experts at the American Enterprise Institute where I work). It notes the weakening productivity capacity of the Chinese economy as it retreats from the economic openness and market orientation that once turbocharged growth.

One big example of that is President Xi Jinping's "common prosperity" push to tighten the state's grip over the private sector. If China only grows around 2 percent to 3 percent a year, then the country's future looks very different. From the Lowy report: "China would still likely become the world's largest economy. But it would never establish a meaningful lead over the United States and would remain far less prosperous and productive per person than America, even by mid-century."

Even so, China would hold the top position as America's premier geopolitical competitor, as it does today. Washington should plan accordingly. Compete but do not copy.

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