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Work: ‘Great Power Competition’ Has Returned

11/22/2015
By Yasmin Tadjdeh

HALIFAX, Canada — The United States must come to grips with a new security environment as surging powers like Russia and China challenge American power, said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work.

“Great power competition has returned,” he said Nov. 20 during a panel discussion at the Halifax International Security Forum.

“Russia is now a resurgent great power and I would argue that its long term prospects are unclear. China is a rising great power. Well, that requires us to start thinking more globally and more in terms of competition than we have in the past 25 years,” Work said 

During the 1990s and the early 2000s, the United States enjoyed a period of dominance that gave it an “enormous freedom of action,” Work said. “I would argue that over that period of time … our strategic muscles atrophied.”

Work defined a great power as one that can engage with conventional forces and that has a nuclear deterrent that can survive a first strike.

Both Russia and China are challenging the order that has been prevalent since the end of World War II, he said. The United States will have to compete and cooperate with them.

“I believe what is happening in the United States is we’re now trying to rebuild up our strategic muscles and to rethink in terms of global competitions and I believe the next 25 years will see a lot of give and take between the great powers,” he said.

The United States’ strategy to deal with Russia is “strong but balanced,” he said. The United States must respond, though not necessarily militarily, to Russia’s incursions. The United States must also “build up ... [the] resilience of our allies and partners so that they can respond to aggression from Russia.”

“Whenever great powers can cooperate on big problems good things can happen. The Russians help immeasurably in getting the deal with Iran to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Russia since the late 1990s has built up its military extensively, Work said. “The Russians decided in the late ‘90s that the way their path back to being a great power was to a put lot of money into their military capabilities. And between 1999 and about 2009, primarily because of the oil prices and their being able to divert a lot of money into their military power, they were able to rebuild a lot of the pieces.”

He said that the Pentagon is not overhyping the threat posed by Russia. Up until 2010 the Defense Department believed that Russia would want to have a better relationship with the West but “that clearly is no longer the case right now,” he said.

Gen. Petr Pavel, chairman of the military committee at NATO, said Russia’s aggression is already resulting in some NATO member countries investing more heavily in their militaries, he told National Defense during a private meeting at the forum.

During last year’s NATO Summit in Wales, leaders launched an effort known as the defense investment plan that sought to reverse a trend of declining military budgets. NATO nations agreed to bolster their spending over the next decade.

“Several countries have already reversed the trend to growing budgets. Several countries have already achieved ... 2 percent GDP and several allies are still struggling with their budgets, but overall in NATO the trend has been reversed for growth,” he said. “Of course Russian annexation of Crimea [is] speeding up the process.”
Pavel declined to say which countries have increased their spending, but said that 12 nations are expected to raise their defense budget this year. NATO nations have a  goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. Only five countries — the United States, Great Britain, Poland, Greece and Estonia — have reached that target.

Still that metric might not always tell the full story, he said. Germany investing 1 percent of its GDP toward defense would make a larger difference then if the Czech Republic did.
Threats from the Islamic State are also fueling increased spending by NATO countries, he said.

"Threats from ISIL and especially recent events will have certainly an impact on the nations' spending on security both external and internal," he said. "Many nations especially in Europe will have to spend more on border protection, internal security, police forces [and] intelligence."

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, International

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