Cover: The Fates of Nations

The Fates of Nations

Varieties of Success and Failure for Great Powers in Long-Term Rivalries

Published Apr 10, 2024

by Michael J. Mazarr, Alexis Dale-Huang, John Deak, Gregory Weider Fauerbach, Stacie Goddard, Timothy R. Heath, Joshua Shifrinson


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Research Questions

  1. What does success or failure in a rivalry look like?
  2. What varieties of success can great powers aspire to?

The United States, according to official U.S. national security statements and an avalanche of commentary since about 2016, is engaged in a long-term strategic rivalry with China and a lesser — but still critical — rivalry for influence with Russia. Many U.S. strategy documents refer to the concept of strategic competition, but the core idea — and increasingly the reality — of these relationships matches the classic historical concept of a great power rivalry. These rivalries, especially with China, promise to define U.S. foreign policy and national security challenges for decades. Yet most assessments of these rivalries tend to ignore the critical question of outcomes.

This report is part of a larger project on the societal sources of national dynamism and competitive advantage. This research aims to identify historical modes of strategic success and failure in great power rivalries that offer lessons for the United States. The authors define categories of success and failure (in terms of such variables as control over territory, relative power, victory or defeat in war, international legitimacy, and social stability) and present detailed case studies on specific historical examples that are associated with success and failure. They also discuss the implications of the typologies of both kinds of outcomes for the rivalry with China.


  • No single type of success or failure typically describes rivalry outcomes. The success or failure of specific countries in rivalries often reflects some combination of these typologies.
  • Success and failure in great power rivalries can be understood in intrinsic terms along a spectrum of outcomes that begins with two critical factors: preserving basic territorial integrity and promoting domestic stability and dynamism.
  • Many rivalry outcomes are temporary rather than permanent. Rivalries only truly end in one of three ways: one side collapses or is conquered, one side decides to give up and grant predominance to the other, or both sides agree to transcend the competition and develop a different relationship. Outcomes short of those results often only set the stage for a more angry and bitter return of the confrontation.
  • The dynamism and power-generating capacity of a great power's society is the essential foundation for success under all models.
  • Gaining a predominant role in the international system of the period — leading the system's institutions and setting its rules and norms — is also strongly associated with success in rivalries.
  • Short of comprehensive victory in war or national collapse, the punitive and coercive imposition of terms is not a common avenue to success in rivalries.
  • Excessive ambition and strategic overreach contribute to several varieties of failure.
  • Status considerations and competition are often a critical variable in how great powers take stock of in-progress rivalries.

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

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