Cover: The Societal Basis for National Competitiveness

The Societal Basis for National Competitiveness

Chinese and Russian Perspectives

Published Mar 12, 2024

by Timothy R. Heath, Clint Reach, Michael J. Mazarr


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Research Questions

  1. What are the societal sources of national dynamism and competitive advantage?
  2. Do U.S. rivals think about the question of societal advantage in radically different ways from the United States?
  3. What do China and Russia think about the qualities of nations that tend to produce competitive advantage?

This report is part of a larger RAND study on the societal foundations of national competitiveness. Building off that study's identification of the qualities that contribute to national dynamism and success in international rivalries from a Western perspective, the authors surveyed Chinese and Russian thinking about the qualities that tend to produce competitive advantage. The authors aimed to find general themes and patterns of thinking, not actual plans.

Both China and Russia hold starkly different views from most U.S. and Western officials and analysts about the societal sources of competitive advantage. Unsurprisingly, the countries' concepts emphasize the claimed advantages of their distinct models, grounded in the unity and coordinated policy allowed by nationalistic autocratic regimes.

Chinese and Russian conceptions of societal advantage carry at least an implicit message that an effective combination of three societal characteristics (national ambition and will, unified national identity, and an active state), when layered on top of the cultural values of their respective societies, can provide a winning formula in a long-term rivalry regardless of other factors associated with dynamism and competitive advantage. The contest between the United States and these two rivals may pivot around this essential standoff: a narrower recipe for national success based on nationalism, centralized authority, and willpower versus a more expansive formula built on networked power, grassroots dynamism, and the values of openness and freedom.

Key Findings

  • China's and Russia's conceptions of advantage rely on powerfully centralized national efforts that reflect, to them, decisive degrees of national unity, coordination, and will.
  • Chinese and Russian official statements and independent analysis consistently use language suggesting that strong doses of nationalism offer important competitive advantage. Reliance on such self-aggrandizing nationalism is a competitive disadvantage for both China and Russia in the constraints it puts on access to networks of talent and collaboration.
  • Both China and Russia believe that they are operating from a base of cultural values superior to the West and view their societies as having a potent spiritual advantage that will underwrite long-term success against a decadent and morally weak West.
  • There are blind spots in Chinese and Russian thinking about national competitive advantage.

This research was sponsored by the Office of Net Assessment and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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