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News | July 14, 2021

The Three-Body Problem; The U.S., China, and Russia

By Michele Flournoy INSS/PRISM Speaker Series


The Cold War was the first time in over a century that the United States faced a truly existential threat, the threat of all-out, strategic, nuclear war. The strategic response designed to avoid such a catastrophe was mutual assured destruction, a deliberate reciprocal deterrence. Today the United States faces two near peer competitors, Russia and China. In this strategic triangle each needs one of the others to deter the third, resulting in a constant state of dynamic tension. The challenge for the United States is to counter China without driving it toward Russia, and to counter Russia without driving it toward China.


On July 14, 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) program hosted a speaker session with Ms. Michèle Flournoy (Co-Founder & Managing Partner, WestExec Advisors) as a part of its SMA INSS/PRISM Speaker Series.

In a conversation with Mr. Michael Miklaucic (NDU), Ms. Flournoy emphasized that China is a major economic competitor and an emerging military threat to the United States. If China were to become the global political leader, it would create a global ideological shift by enabling other autocracies to maintain their own surveillance societies. As the United States and China continue to compete, a miscalculation of actions by either side could lead to military conflict. However, the United States must continue to show that there would be an international military response if China acts out aggressively, especially against Taiwan. Even though China represents an economic and security threat, the United States will need to allow for cooperation with China on certain issues that cannot be addressed without cooperation, including climate change, proliferation, and the next global pandemic.

The conversation continued about US public-private sector partnership and if the United States can take an active role in countering Russian aggression in its former sphere of Soviet Era influence. Increasing communication and transparency between the US government and private sector is crucial to protecting US national interests. Members of Congress must understand how important revenue from China’s large market is for US corporations, and private corporations must understand what data it can and cannot give to Chinese officials. Ms. Flournoy said that even though Russia and China do not look at each other as close allies, the United States must avoid pushing them closer together. She argued that applying economic sanctions to Russia was the appropriate response to Russia’s aggressive actions in Crimea and Ukraine. She concluded by stating that she does not consider the United States’ binary view of conflict as a weakness. Instead, she commented that Russia and China underestimate the United States’ resolve to fight a conflict and its readiness to defend against and respond to cyber-attacks.

Speaker Bio

The Three-body-Problem; The U.S., China, and Russia
The Three-Body Problem; The U.S., China, and Russia
The Three-Body Problem; The U.S., China, and Russia with Michele Flournoy
Photo By: INSS Speaker Series
VIRIN: 211220-D-BD104-1015

Michèle Flournoy is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of WestExec Advisors, and former Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where she currently serves on the board. Michèle served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from February 2009 to February 2012. In 2017, she co-founded WestExec Advisors, a strategic advisory firm.