Editor’s note: Last fall, Stanford University hosted a brand-new class—Technology, Innovation, and Modern War. This year, the course is once again being taught by Steve Blank, Joe Felter, and Raj Shah, but they have broadened the scope to examine how technology and innovation impact the whole-of-government approach necessary to successfully compete with great power rivals. Once again, Steve Blank is writing about each class session and offering MWI readers the opportunity to follow along with the new course.
We just had our first week of our new national security class at Stanford—Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition. Joe Felter, Raj Shah, and I designed the class to cover how technology will shape all the elements of national power (our influence and footprint on the world stage).
National power is the combination of a country’s diplomacy (soft power and alliances), information and intelligence, and its military and economic strength. The instruments of national power brought to bear in this whole-of-government approach were long known by the acronym DIME (diplomatic, information, military, and economic) and in recent years have expanded to include FIL (finance, intelligence, and law enforcement)—or DIME-FIL.
Last year, the class focused exclusively on the impact of new technology on the military. Given the broadened scope this year, we’ve tweaked the course content and title to Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition to better reflect the whole-of-government approach necessary for long-term strategic competition.
The course is cross-listed with Stanford’s master’s in international policy program and the Management Science and Engineering department. The students joining this fight come from a diverse range of disciplines at Stanford including computer science, political science, business, law, public policy, economics, and engineering. If the past is a prologue, they’ll go off to senior roles in defense and foreign policy and to the companies building new disruptive technologies. Our goals are to help them understand the complexity and urgency of the issues, offer them a model to understand the obstacles and path forward, and to inspire them to help lead how the United States leverages all instruments of national power to meet twenty-first-century challenges.
In this year’s class, we want to:
- Help our students understand how each component of our national security and instruments of national power are now inexorably intertwined with commercial technology. We will explore the complexity and urgency of the impact of the twenty-first-century onslaught of commercial technologies (AI, machine learning, autonomy, biotech, cyber, commercial access to space, etc.) in all parts of the government—from the Department of State to Defense to the Treasury and many more.
- Give them hands-on experience on how to deeply understand a problem at the intersection of DIME-FIL and dual-use technology: first by developing hypotheses about the problem; next by getting out of the classroom and talking to relevant stakeholders across government, industry, and academia to validate their assumptions; and finally taking what they learned to propose and prototype solutions to these problems.
Class One Required Readings
Overview of Great Power Competition
- Thomas F. Lynch III and Frank Hoffman, “Past Eras of Great Power Competition: Historical Insights and Implications,” in Strategic Assessment 2020: Into a New Era of Great Power Competition.
- Stephen Kotkin, “Realist World: The Players Change, but the Game Remains,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2018.
- Nadia Schadlow, “The End of American Illusion. Trump and the World as It Is,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2020.
- Elbridge A. Colby and A. Wess Mitchell, “The Age of Great-Power Competition: How the Trump Administration Refashioned American Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2020
- “Great Power Competition Timeline,” MITRE, 2020.
- “Should U.S. Foreign Policy Focus on Great-Power Competition? Foreign Affairs Asks the Experts,” Foreign Affairs, October 13, 2020.
- Michael J. Mazarr, “This Is Not a Great-Power Competition: Why the Term Doesn’t Capture Today’s Reality,” Foreign Affairs, May 29, 2019.
- Emma Ashford, “Great Power Competition is a Recipe for Disaster,” Foreign Policy, April 1, 2021.
- Matthew Kroenig, The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy versus Autocracy from the Ancient World to the U.S. and China, Oxford University Press, 2020.
US National Security Strategy
- Steven Heffington, Adam Oler, and David Tretler (eds.), A National Security Strategy Primer, National Defense University Press, 2019.
- National Security Strategy of the United States of America, Introduction, pp. 1–4.
- Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America.
- Joint Doctrine Note 1-18, Strategy, Joint Chiefs of Staff.
- Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.
Class One Discussion Questions
- Is great power competition an accurate way to describe the US relationship with China? With Russia? Is doing so productive for US interests? Why or why not?
- What are the risks of casting the US relationship with China or Russia as a whole-of-government competition? What are the risks of not viewing these relations as competitive?
Class One Guest Speaker
Our speaker for our first class was former Secretary of Defense and retired General Jim Mattis, who gave an inspiring talk about strategy, the Department of Defense’s pivot to great power competition that he led during his tenure as secretary, and the importance and rewards of service to the nation.
General Mattis joined the Marine Corps in 1969 and has led Marines and joint forces at every level from platoon commander as a lieutenant all the way up to combatant commander of US Central Command as a four-star general. He recently led the entire Department of Defense as our country’s twenty-sixth secretary of defense. We’re fortunate to now have him back here at Stanford at the Hoover Institution.
Class One Lecture
You can see the slides for this class by clicking here. Note: slides 1–19 introduce the teaching team and class logistics.
We set up the class with a discussion of the return of great power competition. This isn’t an issue of which nation comes in first, but about what the world order will look like for the rest of the century and beyond. Will it be a rules-based order where states cooperate to pursue a shared vision for free and open regions and where the sovereignty of all countries large and small is protected under international law? Or will an alternative vision for an autocratic and dystopian future be coerced and imposed by revisionist powers set on disrupting the US-led international order—an order that has brought the world unprecedented peace and prosperity since the end of World War II?
We then discussed the pivot in the US National Security Strategy (which outlines the major national security concerns of the United States and plans to deal with those challenges) and 2018 National Defense Strategy (which identifies the priorities and capabilities required by the warfighters to implement the National Security Strategy).
These documents reoriented the United States from its focus on counterterrorism to great power competition with Russia and China (slides 23–27). Slides 34–38 expanded on the three lines of effort in the National Defense Strategy: building a lethal force, strengthening alliances and building new partnerships, and reforming the Department of Defense. Slides 41–42 summarized the competing visions of the United States and China. The Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which emphasizes continuity in its assessment of the challenges posed by China and Russia and the anticipated enduring era of great power competition, was introduced next. (The White House is now referring to the approach toward China as “strategic competition” rather than great power competition.)
Slides 45–55 introduced seven instruments of national power and the concept of DIME-FIL. We discussed the ways in which the national power of a country (its influence and footprint on the world stage) is more than just its military strength. It’s the combination of a country’s diplomacy (soft power and alliances), information, and its military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement strength. We pointed out that in many of these areas we’re no longer the leader—a situation for which DoD has a polite euphemism, “we’re overmatched,” meaning we’re in second place.
Slides 57 and 58 reminded the students that this class is not just about the reading and lectures. Half of their grade is a group project at the intersection of DIME-FIL and dual-use technologies (AI and machine learning, quantum, semiconductors, access to space, cyber, biotech, etc.).
Class One Lessons Learned
- The United States is engaged in a great power competition—and in many areas we’re not winning.
- Multiple components, not just military strength, make up a nation’s power:
- Diplomacy, information, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement.
- Dual-use technology—that is, technology that has both commercial and military use—has changed the calculus for national power.
- AI and machine learning, autonomy, quantum, semiconductors, access to space, cyber, biotech, etc.
- Advances in these technologies are no longer driven by government directives but by consumer demand.
- Students will work on team national security projects focusing on challenges at the intersection of DIME-FIL and dual-use technology.
- We’re educating the next generation of leaders who will not just discuss policy but will create solutions.
We just had our second week of our new national security class at Stanford—Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition. Joe Felter, Raj Shah and I designed the class to cover how technology will shape all the elements of national power (our influence and footprint on the world stage).
A key focus of the class is the return of great power competition. This isn’t an issue of which nation comes in first, but rather about what the world order will look like for the rest of the century and beyond. Will it be a rules-based order where states cooperate to pursue a shared vision for a free and open region and where the sovereignty of all countries large and small is protected under international law? Or will an alternative vision for an autocratic and dystopian future be coerced and imposed by revisionist powers set on disrupting the US-led international order—an order that has brought the world unprecedented peace and prosperity since the end of World War II?
These questions lead to today’s topic: China.
Class Two Required Readings
- Matt Pottinger, “Beijing’s American Hustle: How Chinese Grand Strategy Exploits U.S. Power,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2021.
- Daniel Tobin, “How Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ Should have Ended the U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 8, 2020.
- Jeffrey Wasserstrom, “Why Are There No Biographies of Xi Jinping?” The Atlantic, January 30, 2021.
- Xi Jinping, “Uphold and Develop Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” (speech delivered on January 5, 2013).
- Nicholas Kristof, “Looking for a Jump-Start in China” New York Times, January 5, 2013. (Kristof wrote this on the same day of Xi’s speech, which was kept secret by the Chinese Communist Party until it was published in April 2019. Read these two documents side-by-side.)
- Central Committee of the Communist Party of China’s General Office, “Communique on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” April 22, 2013 (translated by ChinaFile and published November 8, 2013).
- Tanner Greer, “China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order,” The Scholar’s Stage, June 4, 2016.
- Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner, “The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations,” Foreign Affairs,March/April 2018.
- John Garnaut, “Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping’s China” (speech given at an internal Australian government seminar in August 2017 and published by Sinocism, January 16, 2019).
- “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China” Trump Administration document, May 2020.
- Senator Mark Warner, “The China Challenge and Critical Next Steps for the United States,” Brookings, May 15, 2019.
- Rob Atkinson, “Innovation Drag: China’s Economic Impact on Developed Nations,” Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, January 6, 2020.
Class Two Discussion Questions
- What is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) trying to achieve? What are its goals and objectives? What is Xi Jinping trying to achieve? To what extent are Xi’s goals congruent with the broader CCP’s goals?
- How do the CCP and Xi view the existing international system?
- From the CCP’s perspective, what are the main obstacles standing in the way of achieving the goal of “national rejuvenation”?
- What role does ideology play in the CCP’s strategy?
- In what ways are the CCP’s goals compatible or incompatible with US national interests?
- In what domains does the competition between the United States and China play out? How do these domains interact with one another?
Class Two Guest Speakers
Our speakers for our second class were Matt Pottinger and Matt Turpin.
Matt Pottinger previously served as the deputy national security advisor and National Security Council senior director for Asia. As a former Marine, Matt had three combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prior to joining the Marine Corps, Matt was a reporter in China, first for Reuters, then for the Wall Street Journal.
Matt Turpin previously served as National Security Council director for China and the senior advisor on China to the US secretary of commerce. Before entering the White House, Turpin served over twenty-two years in the US Army. Among other roles focused on the Indo-Pacific region, he served as a China advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and assisted the deputy secretary of defense with the Defense Innovation Initiative, examining the role of innovation in US defense policy.
Class Two Lecture
If you can’t see the slides, click here.
Slides 7–10 are selected quotes from our assigned reading. Our lecture and discussion (slides 11–16) took us through the evolution of the hopes the United States had for its four-decade-long strategy of diplomatic and economic engagement with China. The hope was that helping China grow its economy would lead to liberalization of its government and greater freedoms for its people. Deng Xiaoping said China needed to “hide our capacities and bide our time.” Over time, Xi has moved China to a more overt and aggressive phase, no longer hiding its intentions to challenge the West. As we discovered, China’s agenda always had been radically different than ours. The growing realization over the last five years is that our hopes for China to democratize as it developed economically were terribly naïve. What we’ve come to realize is that China has been playing a decades-long game to challenge and overturn the US-led liberal international order and replace it with a neo-totalitarian model.
Realizing this, four years ago the United States reoriented from a focus on counterterrorism to a new emphasis on great power competition with Russia and China. This new effort can be seen in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (which outlines the major US national security concerns and how we plan to deal with them) and 2018 National Defense Strategy (which identifies the priorities and capabilities required by the warfighters to implement the National Security Strategy).
Relevant to this course, China is using all elements of national power, including diplomacy (soft power, alliances, coercion), information and intelligence (using its economic leverage over Hollywood, controlling the Covid narrative), military might, and economic strength (Belt and Road Initiative). China has exploited Western finance and technology and has successfully convinced Western democracies to prioritize economic cooperation and trade with China above all else.
At home, China’s use of digital authoritarianism (facial recognition, biometrics, and social credit) has turned its own country into a surveillance dystopia to ensure that there are no internal challenges to the supremacy of the CCP. The CCP’s oppression of the Uyghurs—a Muslim minority in the western province of Xinjiang—is considered a genocide by many as well as a harbinger of what a Chinese-led world order will look like.
Going forward, coexistence with China will involve competition but also cooperation. But it’s going to take the demonstrated resolve of the United States and its allies to continue to uphold a rules-based order in which nations share a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific where the sovereignty of all countries is respected.
Slides 18–20 dug a bit deeper about why and how of the group project. Students formed teams to work on one of the great power competition issues at the intersection of commercial technologies (AI, machine learning, autonomy, biotech, cyber, commercial access to space, etc.) and DIME-FIL (diplomatic, information, military, and economic, finance, intelligence, and law enforcement).
Given who our students are, we assume they can all go online and to the library and write a great research paper. As we pointed out to them, while you can be the smartest person in the building, it’s unlikely that (1) that all the facts are in the building and (2) you’re smarter than the collective intelligence sitting outside the building.
Our teaching assistants (who previously took our Hacking for Defense class) shared with the students their own journey of what happens to early assumptions and how solutions evolve when you get out of the building.
If you can’t see the Project Agrippa slides, click here.
We want our students to build the reflexes and skills to deeply understand a problem by gathering firsthand information and validate that the problem they are solving is the real problem, not a symptom of something else. Then, students will begin rapidly building minimum viable solutions (policy, software, hardware, etc.) as a way to test and validate their understanding of both the problem and what it would take to solve it.
And they thought we were just going to have great lectures.
Next week we’ll discuss Russia.
Class Two Lessons Learned
- The United States hoped that helping China grow its economy would lead to liberalization of its government and greater freedoms for its people. We were terribly naïve.
- China has been playing a decades-long game to challenge and overturn the US-led liberal order and replace it with a neo-totalitarian model.
- Students will collaborate on teams to first understand and then work to solve national security challenges at the intersection of DIME-FIL and dual-use technology.
Steve Blank is the father of modern entrepreneurship, an entrepreneur-turned-educator, and founder of the lean startup movement. He is an adjunct professor at Stanford and a senior fellow for entrepreneurship at Columbia University.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Mikki L. Sprenkle, US Army