Global Agenda Strategic Thinking

The Case Against the Concept of Great Power Competition

Matej Kandrík

This article was originally published in June 2021 on The Strategy Bridge.

Great power competition is a trendy concept that frames the current perception of international affairs held by many. As such, it deserves serious consideration. Arguably the most dominant conceptualization of great power competition is an objective status of international order characterized by an increased contest between great powers. To understand great power competition, we need to deconstruct it. The underlying claim here is that great power competition is a hollow, unhelpful, and potentially dangerous concept. The case against it is threefold.

First, it does not provide insight into who exactly are those great powers and how to differentiate them from medium or small powers. Most often, great power competition describes bilateral interactions between the U.S. and China. Sometimes Russia is added with a footnote that the Kremlin is not a true systemic competitor, but a regional power and major disruptor. This uncertainty naturally leads to an important question about how the European Union, Japan, India, and other important, but arguably not first-league, players fit into the great power competition discussion.

Second, competition is a primary category of means the state employs to struggle over security and prosperity with other states. It describes the nature of interactions states engage in to proceed towards specific ends. It is part of a continuum between cooperation and conflict. A sense of rivalry is arguably a defining feature. This distinguishes it from adversarial interactions of conflict and cooperative interactions typical for coexistence. The takeaway point here is that international actors compete with each other all the time. Competition is nothing new and therefore, the concept of great power competition adds no value to this discussion.

IT IS TEMPTING TO MISJUDGE GREAT POWER COMPETITION AS AN END IN AND OF ITSELF AND NOT A MEANS.

Third, great power competition does not come with an inherent strategic end. We do not know what, exactly, it is that states should compete over. It is tempting to misjudge great power competition as an end in and of itself and not a means. This is potentially dangerous. If any specific goal does not limit competition, it can become an end in itself. Such competition for competition’s sake risks unchecked escalation.

IN SEARCH OF GREAT POWERS

…AS THE CASE OF RUSSIA CLEARLY SHOWS, ONE DOES NOT HAVE TO BE A GREAT POWER WITH GLOBAL INTERESTS AND REACH TO BE AN INFLUENTIAL PLAYER IN INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS.

According to Kenneth Waltz, a great power can be determined through the criteria of population and territory, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence. These give great powers a relational advantage to change other states’ behavior, arguably globally. As John Mearsheimer argues, great powers seek more power. Also, they compete over gaining or affirming great power status, which makes status a strategic end. Their competition is geographically unlimited, therefore global, and takes place—at least in theory—in all dimensions of national power. Employing these criteria, the United States and China are today contenders for great power status.

…LIMITING GREAT POWER COMPETITION TO U.S-CHINA OR U.S.-CHINA-RUSSIA INTERACTIONS RISKS FALLING INTO COSTLY AND POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS OVERSIMPLIFICATIONS.

Nevertheless, as the case of Russia clearly shows, one does not have to be a great power with global interests and reach to be an influential player in international relations. Policymakers should not simply put aside actors such as the European Union, India, Japan, and others. These states present an essential variable for Great Power Competition in several ways. Middle and small powers tend to become objects to be competed over, which is the most fundamental driver of classical geopolitics. Yet, they also have their own agency. Cunning leaders of middle or small states sometimes are able to walk the line between great powers, receiving favors from various sides. Their modes of interactions with so-called great powers can range from non-alignment and neutrality to balancing, hedging, shelter-seeking, or bandwagoning. Furthermore, states like Ukraine, Turkey, Taiwan, Belarus, Iran, or North Korea are considered places of special interest to primary players due to their geopolitical position. That is why limiting Great Power Competition to U.S-China or U.S.-China-Russia interactions risks falling into costly and potentially dangerous oversimplifications.

MEANS OR ENDS?

One of the gravest blunders any decision-maker or military commander can make is to exchange the means for the ends of strategy. Competition misjudged for an end is not limited by any goal and may lead to conflict escalation. In the context of great power competition, such a mistake could turn very ugly. To avoid headlong employment of great power competition as a guiding concept for formulating policy, analysts have to pay double attention to discussing strategic the ends great powers can strive for through competition.

A good strategic end is arguably tangible enough to allow decision-makers to assess if they have succeeded, failed, met it halfway, or decided to adjust or abandon that particular end altogether. Moreover, it is important to acknowledge that especially great powers pursue various ends simultaneously, which may or may not be connected. Naturally, not all ends are attainable through competition. it is informative to review some past actions of the U.S., Russia, and China to see how competition as a means fitted them.  

WESTERN ANALYSTS HAVE SPENT A LONG TIME DISCUSSING THIS PHENOMENON UNDER THE LABEL OF RUSSIAN HYBRID WAR, WHILE A MORE ELEGANT INTERPRETATION WOULD BE EDGY AND UNRESTRICTED COMPETITION.

In Russia’s case, strengthening the regime’s grip on power at home, together with coercion and subversion abroad are the methods of choice for the fundamental goal of regime survival. Causing trouble abroad is a Russian way of reminding the rest of the world that they should be treated as an essential player in newborn multipolarity. In reaching for this goal, Russia does not seem to be particularly shy about the means it employs. When the Kremlin lost Kyiv’s prospect of joining the Eurasian Economic Union over closer association with the European Union in 2014, it decided to annex Crimea and incite and support the armed separatist movement in Donbas. Western analysts have spent a long time discussing this phenomenon under the label of Russian hybrid war, while a more elegant interpretation would be edgy and unrestricted competition.

The key enabler of China’s rise has been its economic competitiveness in global markets. Enormous financial means invested into research and development have recently translated into technological competitiveness. Beijing’s assertive actions in the South China Sea and over Taiwan and Hong Kong, declared an interest in managing regional interactions from the dominant position. China also leads several projects to develop and deepen its global economic and political engagement, with the One Belt, One Road Initiative as a prime example. The One Belt, One Road and other similar projects bring cooperative and competitive interactions in one package. China needs time for further economic, military, social, and technological modernization. That translates into Beijing’s interest in maintaining the current status quo. Competition always was and will continue to be an essential statecraft tool of Beijing.

…TO BE SUCCESSFUL, CURRENT AND FUTURE U.S. ADMINISTRATIONS WILL NEED CLEAR ANSWERS ON HOW, WHERE, AND WHEN TO COMPETE, NOT JUST WITH WHOM.

During the Cold War, the U.S. pursued containment against the Soviet Union, with the general end being the prevention of a regional hegemon emergence in Eurasia. After the Cold War, with no apparent challenger worth that name, the U.S. adopted a broader strategic posture with less clearly defined ends. President Donald Trump’s administration officially introduced a focus on the great power competition in the 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy. These contributed significantly to the proliferation of “GPC” (great power competition) into the vocabulary of defense analysts and foreign policy pundits. In the U.S. context, the great power competition concept seems to be an eloquent way of setting clear and strong emphasis on foreign policy priority on China. The end of Washington’s uncertain strategic focus is arguably a good thing. However, to be successful, current and future U.S. administrations will need clear answers on how, where, and when to compete, not just with whom.

WHAT IS THE ADDED VALUE OF GREAT POWER COMPETITION?

The failure of great power competition as a concept is almost absolute. Great Power Competition exploits intuitive or implicit understanding of what great powers are, while it gives no solid clues on what actors should policy makers consider relevant and why. States compete all the time. Competition is something states naturally do in a quest for security, prosperity, and prestige. Still, competition is hardly a defining feature of how states seek to achieve or secure their interests. States employ unique blends of cooperative, competitive, and conflict interactions vis their partner, rivals, and adversaries. Great power competition provides close to zero helpful guidance on how decision-makers should act and, most importantly, what they should seek through competition with others. Based on this assessment, great power competition seems like a hollow, unhelpful, and even an eventually dangerous bumper sticker slogan.

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