After almost two decades of conflicted hesitancy, the United States finally acknowledged that it is involved in a long-term strategic competition with China. This rivalry, almost by definition, is not merely a wrangle between two major states. Rather, it involves a struggle for dominance in the international system, even if China as the rising power disavows any such ambition. China’s very ascendancy—if sustained—could over time threaten the U.S. hegemony that has been in place since the end of World War II. It is this reality of unequal growth—which has nourished China’s expanding influence and military capabilities—that lies at the root of the evolving rivalry.
Although the term sometimes has unsettling connotations, the United States is a genuine hegemon, understood in the original Greek sense as a leader in the competitive international system. This hegemony derives from the fact that the United States is the world’s single most powerful state. First, it remains the largest economy in real terms, a foundation that underwrites its capacity to project military power globally in ways unmatched by any peers. Second, it possesses a sufficiently effective state that presides over a remarkably productive society. And, third, in partnership with strong allies in North America, Western Europe, East Asia, and Oceania, who share both values and interests, the United States has created an international order that buttresses its primacy materially, institutionally, and ideationally, thereby allowing it to advance diverse interests while economizing on its use of force. Although these foundations have been stressed in recent times, the Covid-19 pandemic now threatens them in deadly ways.