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Research Questions

  1. What are the drivers and dynamics of competition among great powers?
  2. What are the different dimensions, features, and components of strategic advantage?
  3. Which characteristics influence an actor's potential for achieving strategic advantage?

Strategic competition and the pursuit of strategic advantage are foundational concepts in UK, U.S. and Allied strategy and policy documents. However, there is no universally agreed definition or theory of strategic advantage, what it comprises, and how it works. This risks strategies, policies, plans, and behaviours being built on faulty assumptions.

Given these conceptual and definitional issues, the Secretary of State's Office for Net Assessment and Challenge (SONAC) in the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) commissioned RAND Europe to offer an independent, evidence-based perspective and refine the current working definition of strategic advantage. The RAND-led team, which also drew in leading academics, did so through the application of a multi-method research approach involving the development of a series of twelve historical case studies and a series of expert workshops.

This study explored the types of strategic advantage held by different actors, the ways in which these can been gained and/or lost, and the ways in which nations seek to maintain and exploit their advantages in practice as part of great power competition.

Key Findings

  • Strategic advantage is comprised of individual strands of advantage or disadvantage relating to all available levers of power.
  • Strategic advantage is time-dependent and context-dependent but can be 'future-proofed' to mitigate the risks of being overtaken by a competitor.
  • A position of overall strategic advantage can relate to both adversaries and friendly actors, given competition represents a broad continuum of relations.

Recommendations

  • The UK should use strategic partnerships to shoulder the weight of competition and conflict, and to overcome limits on national capabilities.
  • The UK should consider new partnerships of convenience to adapt to the changing operating environment and to achieve different goals at different times.
  • The UK should better combine all instruments of power to favourably shape public opinion at home and abroad, to enhance power projection abroad, and to enhance and leverage the potential of science and technology.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was commissioned by the Secretary of State's Office for Net Assessment and Challenge (SONAC) within the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) and conducted by RAND Europe.

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