Understanding Competition

Great Power Rivalry in a Changing International Order — Concepts and Theories

by Michael J. Mazarr

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U.S. national security policy for the foreseeable future will likely be oriented around the idea of competition — often paired with modifiers such as strategic or great power — with at least two primary competitors, China and Russia. The author tries to bring some coherence to the discussion of competition by reviewing U.S. government strategy documents, published RAND Corporation research, and select other sources to help clarify what international competitions are all about.

Amid current debates about the proper role of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in this competitive environment, the author examines the specific aspects of competition that are essential to achieving U.S. defense objectives and the tools in the DoD arsenal that can be brought to bear in this domain. The struggle below the threshold of armed conflict, always important in rivalries, is especially critical today. Emerging rivalries with China and Russia will demand contributions from DoD across a wide spectrum of activities, including critical roles and missions during peacetime. The United States can find strategic advantage by using peacetime activities to shape potential wartime contexts decisively in its favor.

This research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This publication is part of the RAND Corporation Perspective series. RAND Perspectives present expert insights on timely policy issues. All RAND Perspectives undergo peer review to ensure high standards for quality and objectivity.

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