Guest Post / Contributor: Great Power Competition: A Primer

Guest Post / Contributor: Great Power Competition: A Primer

Since the concept for this project first started to develop, I have always wanted to feature ‘guest posts.” Posts from people other than myself that I feel can provide added value to what we are trying to accomplish here at The Cognitive Warrior Project. Today will be the first of a series on the Great Power Competition and hopefully many other guest posts. (I actually looked up the difference between contributor and guest post, and for now, this will be filed under guest post until I get the behind the scenes issues fixed.) 

Today I would like to introduce you to Ryan Nye. Ryan is a Green Beret officer (don’t let that stop you from reading on) who is currently pursuing an advanced degree in Political Science. He has several overseas deployments, has been an ODA Team Leader, an ODG Team Leader, and a Company Commander. Ryan is an all around good dude and a next level thinker that I am very excited to have contributing here. Because of his specific background, I believe that Ryan will have a perspective that is certainly different from my own, but more importantly, very valuable in understanding the challenges that we face as the overall focus shifts from the War on Terror to the Great Power Competition. In my opinion this is an excellent piece that offers a window into how National Strategy is set and a great primer into the future challenges that we will face. Without any further delay, Ryan Nye… 

In my time in SOF, I couldn’t help but notice a very disturbing trend. The more Generals, Ambassadors, and senior policy makers wanted to talk about Great Power Competition, the more Green Berets would talk about terrorism. Why the disconnect?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is simple: people talk about what they know and avoid the things they don’t. Senior officers and NCOs had spent almost 20 years mastering the art of terrorist hunting and aren’t terribly interested in trying their hands at something new. This is as understandable as it is frustrating. 

However, I remain optimistic. I believe the next generation of warriors, unencumbered by past experience, will rise to the occasion and tackle Great Power Competition head on. They will become true warrior-diplomats, capable of mastering even the most complex of environments. I mean, how hard could it be right?

Well, as it turns out… really, really hard. “Great Power Competition” is a massively expansive, poorly defined jumble of concepts which cover nearly the entirety of the human experience. To become an expert would require several lifetimes and one of the finest minds in history. How would you even start?

This is where I come in. As a professional student who enjoys summarizing, I believe I can help you, dear reader, come to grips with the seemingly impenetrable wall of history, culture, geography, sociology, international relations, philosophy, economics, strategic analysis, etc. surrounding any discussion of Great Power Competition. Allow me to act as your Great Power Competition sommelier, selecting choice analysis of States, strategies, and concepts, to help you understand the bigger picture. My goal here is not to make you an expert in anything, it is to make what the experts say accessible to you. 

If you’re still reading, I feel safe in assuming that you are at least somewhat interested. If that is the case, then you’ll like what comes next.

But What is It?

Ok, so where the heck did Great Power Competition come from and what does it even mean?

Great Power Competition officially became a “thing” in December 2017, when President Trump published his National Security Strategy. This official document is published by every administration and is the public way in which they define the US’s main national security challenges and their plan to confront them. This is the piece of paper which tells the military, the spies, the FBI, the national parks, and even the post office what their focus should be. In the 2017 document, Great Power Competition is only used once and it is in reference to the rise of Russia and China as “revisionist powers”, hell bent on tearing down the U.S. dominated global order. Iran, North Korea, and transnational criminal elements are also mentioned, but are a lower category of threat. From there, Great Power Competition flowed into other government documents, into the think tanks, to the journalists, onto the web, and into our hearts.

There are two main takeaways. First, the National Security Strategy clearly defined competing with Great Powers as the #1 foreign policy challenge faced by the US. Second, the National Security Strategy called for a whole-of-government approach, meaning that every agency and department is expected to make this their top priority. 

Fair enough. But what does it mean? 

Intuitively, the definition is obvious: Great Power Competition is competition between great powers. So far so good, but this is where obvious clarity starts to end. What is a “power”? What makes it “great”? And what are they competing over? Like most things in life, the answer depends on who you ask. But here is a very simplistic take:

Take any group of humans and they will start to form interests. These interests will be based on their needs. Their needs are shaped by their history, culture, and geography. Different groups will inevitably have different interests. In order to achieve their interests, groups will compete with each other in every available field. Over the years groups evolve, are born, and die, but the general rules remain in place. This holds true in a high school cafeteria or at the UN. The only difference is the complexity involved. 

Whenever groups are competing with each other, they need a simple way to describe what is going on. Inevitably, they will come up with new terms to describe old things. This helps the current generation define itself and its version of the competition. 

And that is “Great Power Competition”. It is the new term we’ve all decided to use to describe the eternal struggle for dominance between groups with conflicting interests. In this context “Power” means a country and “Great” means, effectively, worthy of the US’s interests.

But why not just say that then? The reason is because the term isn’t meant to be accurate, it is meant to define a new era of American foreign policy. This isn’t cynical; it is a necessity. Every era has buzzy terms which acts as analytical short-hand. We could have an in-depth policy discussion of the intricacies of a unipolar world… or just understand the 1990s as the era of “America: World Police”. Similarly, the 2000s-2010s were the era of the “Forever Wars”. Obviously reality is more complex, but these short-hands get the job done.

So a new phrase was born to describe the intentional shift by the US government away from fighting terrorists and towards competing with other countries. Competition with other countries never actually went away during the terrorism years, it has simply moved back into the limelight.

Alright, there were a lot of terms in that introduction which you may not be familiar with. I’ve slapped my version of the definitions below. They are meant to be conversational. Most are hyperlinked to the simplest explanation I could find (mostly wikipedia).

  • Great Power Competition- the collectively agreed upon term to describe the current struggle for global dominance. Don’t get tripped up by the myriad of various definitions. Each stakeholder group will define it slightly differently and for different reasons. Just remember it is a vague, catch-all term.
  • National Security Strategy– The President’s report which outlines the US’s major national security issues and the plan to deal with them. If you want to know what the President is thinking about, look here.
  • National Defense Strategy– The Pentagon’s report which gives broad military guidance for how to deal with the issues described in the National Security Strategy. If you want to know what the Generals are thinking about, look here.
  • 4+1- the official list of America’s “bad guys”, as found in the National Defense Strategy 2018. It consists of 4 countries and 1 ideology/bundle of small-ish groups. The “4” are China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The “1” is terrorism/transnational criminal threats. If it seems like strategists just shoved everything which didn’t fit the “Great Power” framework into one category, that’s because they did.
  • Revisionist Power– A State which wants to change the current political system. Russia and China are considered revisionist states because they do not like the U.S. dominated international system and are working to change it. The U.S. designed the international order to serve its own interests, not those of competitor States.
  • Whole-of-Government Approach– This is when a State aligns the priorities and actions of all of its components in order to accomplish a specific goal. In tangible terms, think about how a counter-terrorism headquarters may have representatives from the military, the FBI, the treasury department, etc. because each element has its own capabilities. 
  • Near-Peer– Competing States with capabilities, military, economic, diplomatic, etc. at or near those of the US. This is not to be taken too literally. In truth, some countries have surpassed, and will continue to surpass, the US in certain categories.
  • Westphalian System– The fancy term for how the world’s boundaries are politically structured. Which is to say, divided up into geographically defined units possessing sovereignty, otherwise known as “States”. You know how countries have borders, their own laws, and get their own team at the Olympics? That’s the Westphalian system. This concept was codified in Europe a few centuries ago and has gradually become the global standard. We’ll be talking about this a lot.
  • Polarity– how power is distributed within the international system.
    • Unipolar- only one Great Power, i.e. a “hegemon”, which exercises most of the cultural, economic, and military influence. Arguably, the world has been unipolar since the collapse of the Soviet Union, although this phase appears to be ending.
    • Bipolar- Two Great Powers. Think of the Cold War. The US and USSR divided the world into competing camps.
    • Multipolar- Anything more than two Great Powers. Most of world history falls into this category. Lots of States, lots of competitions, and extremely complex.


I hope that was clear and at least somewhat helpful as a primer into Great Power Competition. Future articles will cover diverse topics:

  1. Country specific introductions and analysis
  2. Concept specific introductions and breakdowns
  3. Complex geopolitical event breakdowns

Hope to see you there.

8 thoughts on “Guest Post / Contributor: Great Power Competition: A Primer

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    Positive Polly: A Case Study in Resiliency and Do as I Say, Not as I do | The Cognitive Warrior Project
    July 10, 2020 at 2:46 PM

    […] prolonged absence here. Thankfully, Ryan Nye provided some reading material in last week’s post: Guest Post / Contributor: Great Power Competition: A Primer. If you have not had the chance to check it out you really should do so. (This was supposed to be […]

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