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The strategist’s dilemma: Global dynamic density and the making of US ‘China policy’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 November 2017

Hugo Meijer*
European University Institute (EUI)
Benjamin Jensen
American University and Marine Corps University
*Correspondence to: Hugo Meijer, European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, Villino, Villa Schifanoia, Via Boccaccio 121, 50133, Firenze, Italy. Author’s email:


Combining the English School of International Relations and the study of grand strategy decision-making processes, this article investigates how dynamic density – growing volume, velocity, and diversity of interactions within international society – alters states’ strategy formation processes. By contrasting the perspectives of structural realism and the English School on the role of dynamic density in world politics, the piece illustrates the strategist’s dilemma: as global dynamic density in the international society increases, the ability of great powers to formulate coherent grand strategies and policies potentially decreases. Specifically, it contends that growing global dynamic density generates processual and substantive fragmentation in strategy formation. Building on a large body of elite interviews, US policy toward China – and the so-called US ‘rebalance’ to Asia – is used as a probability probe of the central idea of the strategist’s dilemma. In conclusion, we contrast our findings with complex interdependence theory and examine their implications for ‘great power management’ (GPM) as a primary institution of international society. We argue that, by generating processual and substantive fragmentation in strategy formation, global dynamic density complicates GPM by hindering the capacity of great powers to manage and calibrate the competitive and cooperative dynamics at play in a bilateral relationship.

Research Article
© British International Studies Association 2017 

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76 Glaser, ‘The diplomatic relationship’, in Shambaugh, Tangled Titans, p. 172.

77 This refers to the structure of dialogues under Obama, before President Trump’s recent change. It is still unclear which processes will remain under Trump and his push for more transactional, bilateral exchange.

78 Glaser, ‘The diplomatic relationship’, in Shambaugh, Tangled Titans, p. 158.

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90 Interview by Hugo Meijer, 13 February 2017.

91 The S&ED has been replaced by the US-China Comprehensive Dialogue by the Trump administration.

92 Ibid.

93 Interview by Hugo Meijer with a former Pentagon official, 14 February 2017.

94 Interview by Hugo Meijer, 17 February 2017.

95 Hal Brands, The Promise and Pitfals of Grand Strategy (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2012), p. 5.

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101 Hugo Meijer, ‘The reconfiguration of American primacy in world politics: Prospects and challenges for the US rebalance to Asia’, in Meijer (ed.), Origins and Evolution of the US Rebalance toward Asia. See also Philip Saunders, ‘Rebuttal: the US isn’t trying to contain China … and China’s neighbors don’t want it to anyway’, Foreign Policy (23 August 2013).

102 Bader, Jeffrey, Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2012), pp. 6, 11 Google Scholar; Lampton, David, ‘China and the United States: Beyond balance’, in James B. Steinberg, Thomas B. Fargo, Aaron L. Friedberg, J. Stapleton Roy, David M. Lampton, and Wallace Gregson (eds), Turning to the Pacific: US Strategic Rebalancing toward Asia, Asia Policy, 14 (2012), pp. 4044 Google Scholar; David Lampton, ‘Cooperative Balance in Asia’, testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (7 February 2013); Meijer (ed.), Origins and Evolution of the US Rebalance toward Asia.

103 Clinton, ‘America’s pacific century’.

104 Leon Panetta, ‘Shangri-La Security Dialogue’, speech delivered at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore (2 June 2012).

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112 Center for Strategic and International Studies, ‘Preparing for the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review’ (2013), available at: {} accessed 15 July 2014.

113 Interview by Hugo Meijer, 13 October 2017.

114 Interview by Hugo Meijer, 11 March 2010.

115 Evelyn Goh, ‘East Asia as regional international society: the problem of great power management’, in Buzan and Zhang (eds), Contesting International Society in East Asia, p. 169.

116 ‘International order’ is defined by Bull as a pattern of activity between and among states that sustain the basic goals of the society of states (or international society), which include: the goals of all social life (security from violence, the honouring of agreements and the stability of possessions); the preservation of state system of states; the maintaining independence of the separate units; and the preservation of peace. Bull, Hedley, The Anarchical Society (3rd edn, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), ch. 1 Google Scholar.

117 Ibid., pp. 200–1.

118 On ‘complex interdependence’ theory, see Keohane, Robert and Nye, Joseph, Power and Interdependence (Boston: Little Brown, 1977)Google Scholar and Keohane, Robert and Nye, Joseph, ‘Power and interdependence Revisited’, International Organization , 41:4 (1987), pp. 725753 Google Scholar.

119 See Bull, The Anarchical Society, p. 201.

120 Interview by Hugo Meijer, 17 February 2017.

121 On this point, see also Jisi, Wang and Lieberthal, Kenneth, ‘An overview of the US-China relationship’, in Nina Hachigian (ed.), Debating China: The US-China Relationship in Ten Conversations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 7 Google Scholar.

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The strategist’s dilemma: Global dynamic density and the making of US ‘China policy’
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The strategist’s dilemma: Global dynamic density and the making of US ‘China policy’
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