Contemporary US defense policy has a common theme rippling through it. “Great-power competition” is the latest watchword of the defense enterprise. What was an “arcane term” just a few years ago is now firmly entrenched in conventional defense thinking, in large part due to its appearance in the 2017 National Security Strategy. Trickling downward, the 2018 National Defense Strategy mentions this concept (which it calls “long-term strategic competition”) fourteen times. Past this, the 2018 National Military Strategy specifically makes mention of great-power competition three times. In fact, there has been a recent flurry of analysis about the nexus of great-power competition and the COVID-19 pandemic—a sign of the remarkable extent to which the concept is linked to virtually every aspect of defense, strategy, and security.
And yet there is an unfortunate problem that, collectively, the defense establishment (or more accurately, the broader national-security and foreign-policy establishment) seems to have decided to ignore: none of these strategy documents truly define what this phrase means.
Even a cursory search yields a multitude of answers across a variety of sources. This inevitably leads to differing views on how to carry out the broad directives in the keystone defense policy documents. Some observers also note that the headlong charge into great-power competition without clearly defining the term risks triggering unforeseen consequences, including, but by no means limited to, new geopolitical challenges and, possibly, hindering American defense readiness.
Given the vast scale of the US national-security and foreign-policy enterprise, there are a multitude of stakeholders in this problem of definition. In looking at that long list, four main groups emerge. The American military is one of the prime stakeholders, in that it must train to fight with a clear understanding of the strategic environment. The disarray caused by the failure to explicitly conceptualize great-power competition is most clearly evident here. The defense industry is another key stakeholder. Looking beyond current contracts, where should it focus its long-term research and development investments? Elements of the diplomatic arm of the United States also need a clear idea of the environment they are supposed to be shaping. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, US policymakers must have a clear idea of how the United States expects to adopt any national-security posture in order to effectively legislate. Each of these four groups naturally looks at the world through a different lens, which means that—without a single definition—they will inevitably develop different, and possibly competing, interpretations of great-power competition, with consequent effects for US national security and foreign policy.
So, what options are available to begin to work toward a definition? Three alternatives present themselves as worthy of discussion (although others also exist; this is not an exhaustive examination but an effort to frame the problem). First, the status quo could simply be maintained, allowing each individual agency or governmental arm to continue to refine its own definitions of great-power competition. This, of course, is plagued by the challenges discussed above—yet it remains worth mentioning if for no other reason than the fact that it’s the course we’re currently on.
Second, policymakers could look to history to define the term. After all, America’s “unipolar moment” was called such because it was precisely that—a moment, noteworthy as an exception to the more frequent periods in which multiple rivals vied for power and influence. Using history as a guide, US policy would accept that national alliances and coalitions could shift, sometimes coercively or for convenience’s sake, and take shape around the poles of power—the United States and its competitors. This might also see proxy wars fought along buffer territories or for influence in undeclared states. Looking to the Crimean War gives an example of what this type of great-power competition might look like. Going to war over the interests of third-party countries in far-off lands is not a very attractive option.
Third, a hybrid approach could be applied to defining great-power competition, one that learns the lessons of history but also charts a new path where appropriate based on the characteristics of the contemporary strategic landscape. This might, for example, seek to mobilize democratically aligned states around the world as a force against authoritarian regimes, and aim to produce a truly whole-of-government policy that unites various agencies’ and departments’ respective agendas into a cohesive strategy. This, of course, sounds good. It includes the right buzzwords and comports with our values. That is in part why this option appears to be gaining a consensus in the defense policy community.
Ideally, a definition of great-power competition must (1) realistically reflect the current geopolitical environment, (2) be aligned with the ideals of the American public, and (3) enable strategic guidance at all levels of government. Retaining the status quo of allowing various stakeholders to refine their own interpretations of a question that has broad-reaching strategic implications is problematic, since it violates this third requirement. Modeling policy for a new era of competition on historical cases is incongruous to varying degrees with both the first and second requirements. Thus we’re left with the third alternative as the best option with which to understand great-power competition as it applies to each component of government.
The struggle begins, though, with this solution’s implementation across government. Adopting policies surrounding a definition of great-power competition that both acknowledges the lessons of history and accepts the unique characteristics—political, social, technological, environmental, and more—of today’s strategic landscape would absolutely require a mobilization of a wide array of entities within the US government to achieve, which raises a number of questions. What agencies, departments, or offices that traditionally have little to no involvement in national security or foreign policy should be incorporated? Would the potential scale require some form of coordinator at the national level who can manage and facilitate this strategy? Is there a risk that the US competition strategy could shift with elections and turnover of key officials? And would such a shift between extreme policy approaches be more dangerous than a strategy that enjoys widespread political support but is consequently less ambitious?
Unfortunately, there is no single correct definition among a set of clearly incorrect ones. There is a risk of getting it “wrong,” but that does not obviate the need for a basic, simple, and understandable definition of great-power competition than will help move the US government toward a clear strategy. What all stakeholders involved should be seeking is to get it as “right” as possible, and to do so collectively with a whole-of-government approach that sheds the status quo of letting everybody develop their own sense of just what great-power competition is.
Capt. Alexander Boroff is serving as an Army Joint Chiefs of Staff Intern. His previous publications include topics such as general organizational leadership in public and private sectors, as well as Army reconnaissance training. He tweets at @UnsolicitedArmy.
Image credit: kremlin.ru
A very underappreciated aspect of "great power competition" is that each power has a sphere of influence (to fall back on an equally arcane term). Within that sphere – the interests of that power are significantly greater than any competitor. A very simple example is how dimly the U.S. would view Russian or Chinese military alignment with say Mexico; that would be an unacceptable intrusion into our sphere. The Baltics or North Korea would represent the mirror image in terms of who's sphere and who's intrusion. This is generally the point where competition as metaphor fails – because there is no corner of this planet that the U.S. will currently allow as being outside of our area of interest, despite the historical or immediate geo-political realities. Until the civilian establishment comes to terms with that (and they aren't likely to), the military will be over-stretched planning contingencies in places they probably shouldn't. Instead we will invent interests, rationales and justifications for meddling anywhere we damn well please. When you see the Administration and Senate in consensus that some particular area is out of bounds, then we can say we are in fact recognizing competition and the interests (presumably legitimate) of another great power.
Those are some great thoughts. You are, in my opinion, 100% correct about how overstretched we could conceivably become in extending our "sphere of influence" to encompass the globe. The Chinese canal in Nicaragua, the entire arctic debate, and even Latin America trade are definitely areas where the U.S. sphere extends to that we don't outwardly project as much influence as perhaps we should. Again, my opinion. Great final point too, I really think that would be an interesting signal to both the international community (who may or may not rely upon certain aspects of the U.S. DoD for their own security) but also our own population who could find such a signal as a disturbing regression of the U.S. on the world stage.
Thanks for the read, and I really appreciate your feedback, it will definitely give me something to think about!
Well written my man! What a great framework to offer and continue (I hope) an important conversation.
Thanks for the read, and I appreciate the comment! Definitely Go Buffs!
With is also part of the trend of shifting the center of world trade to the East. Russia has allieged itself with the east to serve as a transit hub and a guarantor of security/diplomacy for the One Belt One Road Initiative. Although Western Europe is willing to go along with this global shift, the US isn't keen on the idea.
The implications of the dollar no longer being the world reserve currency (a system established since Bretton Woods) mean the end of "the American way of life".
Thanks for the read and the comment. The One Belt One Road is certainly a whole of government approach for foreign policy. The United States must come up with a whole of government solution to attempt to "compete" with it.
'No matter how clearly one thinks, it is impossible to anticipate precisely the character of future conflict. The key is to not be so far off the mark that it becomes impossible to ad}ust once that character is revealed.'
– Sir Michael Howard, FM 3-0
One of the challenges in making operational words, phrases, and definitions (aside from common English) that serve the world well is to understand what you want it to do. Does defining 'it' help? I say 'world' because not only governance structures, but all humans must be able to understand its meaning – adversary, neutral, and friendly alike. The distinguishing feature of 'GPC (.n)' is that those entities have a great portion of their own language, culture, interests, and monetary ability to globally project power, and shape or influence the world order of others through lethal or non-lethal, and through competition and conflict means. GPC (.v) is used below the threshold of armed conflict, but is continual and mutually supporting in both.
Thanks for your article.
Rather than define "Great Power Competition", a better question is how to define "Great Power" given how states today employ the elements of national power. "Competition" doesn't require a definition in this context. Not to sound too simplistic, but "Great Power Competition" is how "Great Powers" compete internationally. It's not intended to be a strategy so much as a descriptor of reality from which a state should derive strategy. That "Great Power Competition" was not relevant during America's unipolar moment is clear: if there is no great power to compete with then there is no need to develop a strategy based on "Great Power Competition." That the reality of the world has shifted with the rise of "near-peer competitors" means that the U.S. should shift focus to addressing this rise with a policies and strategies appropriate for long-term strategic benefit. There is nothing new about "Great Power Competition;" it has always existed as a reality through history, as pointed out by Robert Kaplan and John Mearsheimer following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2014.