Cover: Understanding the Emerging Era of International Competition

Understanding the Emerging Era of International Competition

Theoretical and Historical Perspectives

Published Dec 19, 2018

by Michael J. Mazarr, Jonathan S. Blake, Abigail Casey, Tim McDonald, Stephanie Pezard, Michael Spirtas

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Research Questions

  1. What does the emerging era of international competition look like?
  2. How do competitors view the emerging competition?
  3. What are the indicators of competition advantage in economic, military, geopolitical, and informational terms?
  4. What should the national security strategy of the United States be, based on the nature of the emerging competition?

The most recent U.S. National Security Strategy is built around the expectation of a new era of intensifying international competition, characterized by growing political, economic, and military competitions confronting the United States. Yet there is little rigorous analysis of what such an era might look like or how it might unfold. The authors examine the ways in which theory and history can help understand the coming era and offer findings. They define the concept of international competition and provide an initial assessment, based on a first round of survey research grounded primarily in existing analysis, of what this framework suggests about the nature of the emerging era. The report concludes with several tentative findings, offered as hypotheses, about the emerging competition based on this initial survey.

Key Findings

  • The emerging competition is likely to be most intense between a handful of specific states with status grievances and countervailing regional and global coalitions, including the wider international community.
  • The hinge point of the competition will be the relationship between the architect of the rules-based order (United States) and the leading revisionist peer competitor that is involved in the most specific disputes (China).
  • Global patterns of competition are likely to be complex and diverse, with distinct types of competition prevailing in different issue areas.
  • Managing the escalation of regional rivalries and conflicts — and keeping the United States from being drawn into them in service of secondary interests — is likely to be a major focus of U.S. statecraft.
  • Currently, the competition seems largely focused on status grievances or ambitions, economic prosperity, technological advantage, and regional influence rather than conquest or the conscious, intentional resort to large-scale war.
  • The competition is likely to be most intense and persistent in nonmilitary areas of national advantage — and the targeting of other societies with such means creates emerging and poorly understood escalatory risks.
  • The postwar multilateral order provides the essential framework in which the emerging competition will unfold.
  • Two flashpoints for the emerging competition lie in regional territorial and influence claims and in the growing tendency of authoritarian states to seek to extend their reach and control beyond their borders.
  • The emerging era is likely to involve a drawn-out combination of contestation, competition, and cooperation in which "winning" or "victory" is the wrong mental model.


  • The mindset for the emerging era should be more of management than of something to be won.
  • This same mindset is likely to be required on many subsidiary challenges — the contest against extremism, global trade disputes, and others.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned and sponsored by the Director of Strategy, Concepts and Assessments, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements and conducted by the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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