At the end of March 2022, the American RAND corporation released a study entitled “Understanding competition. Great Power Rivalry in a Changing International Order – Concepts and Theories”. [i] The author is RAND Senior Fellow Michael Mazarr, known for his publications on hybrid warfare, security, military strategy, and deterrence theory. [ii] Previously, he regularly gave comments and participated in the preparation of reports on the topic of rivalry, but the new material was already released with an amendment for the conduct of a special military operation by Russia, so the current rethinking of the approach to global affairs by American analysts is interesting.
RAND studies are usually used as theoretical doctrines with a goal setting for both the military and politicians, therefore, it is possible to predict possible scenarios for the future behaviour of Washington and its satellites.
RAND has repeatedly addressed the same topic before. The report of the group of authors, published in November 2021 and devoted to the stabilisation of rivalry between the great powers, noted that, based on the analysis of key factors, the US confrontation with China and Russia will only grow.
Among the recommendations for the US government, it was said to take seriously the need to develop formal and informal rules for relations, as well as to look for opportunities for mutual transparency, notification and arms control. In addition, they talked about the need to find opportunities to give rivals (i.e., Russia and China) an increased status in exchange for creating a trade space for agreements that would serve the interests of the United States and strengthen stability. [iii]
But judging by Washington’s refusal to consider Russia’s proposals put forward in December 2021, these recommendations were either ignored or not read by decision makers.
An earlier study on this topic from 2018 said more about China.
It was said that “the hinge point of the competition will be the relationship between the architect of the rules-based order (the United States) and the leading revisionist peer competitor that is involved in the most specific disputes (China). <…>
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.” [iv]
Now Mazarr, given the Ukraine crisis, notes that “the invasion is also likely to have profound echo effects through the international system, and the parallel rivalry between the United States and China, in ways that are not yet clear. But the essential long-term competitive dynamic will remain, adding more urgency to the need for the United States to understand just what it means by a national security strategy built around strategic competition”.
Referring to accepted concepts among scientists, Mazarr identifies four levels or types of competition. These include a constant degree of inter-state competition to maximise power or influence; more intense competition between states seeking systemic leadership; fully militarised competition between aggressive states ready and even willing to use force; and the concept of competition most discussed today – organised campaigns of action to gain an advantage without going to a major war.
The author makes an important point that competition is a condition or situation in its form, not a policy or strategy. The basic reality of the international system is that countries compete in different ways, pursuing different goals. How they do this, i.e. the goals they choose, the set of tools they use to achieve these goals, is already a matter of strategy. And the nature of the international system of any era sets the context for competition.
For Mazarr, the reaction of the international community (and in reality, Western countries – ed.) to the operation in Ukraine demonstrates the extent to which most countries share basic norms and values and, in many cases, are willing to take decisive action to coordinate actions in their own defence.
The most comprehensive grand strategies have always sought to advance national interests by making the best use of the entire spectrum of global behaviour – from cooperation to competition to conflict. He goes on to point out that “so many countries today explicitly call out the importance of a rule-based order in their national security strategies. Especially for smaller and medium powers, institutions and norms that provide greater stability and predictability to world politics are highly desirable”. At the same time, Mazarr does not say that many countries have rejected and continue to reject US hegemony. Consequently, the elimination of the so-called rule-based order will be welcomed and supported by them.
He then provides a generalised assessment of other major aspects of international rivalry. These include the following:
• The presence of either “spatial” or “positional” disputes, or both. Some rivalries are characterised primarily by contests over territories or sovereignty (spatial issues), but among truly great powers, rivalries often focus on broader positional disputes over control or “issues of status, influence, and hierarchy in a given order or system.” Such disputes are “exceptionally difficult to resolve” and generally recede only when one of the rivals abandons the contest for systemic supremacy.
• The risk of a “proliferation of intractable dispute issues.” Over time, rivalries can generate a profusion of disputes across many issues, causing a spiral of hostility.
• A tendency toward destabilising arms races. Rivalries often spur mutual military buildups, which exacerbate threat perceptions and increase the risk of war.
• A constant risk of militarised disputes. Rivalries are often characterised both by a history of arms conflict and a persistent risk of crises which threaten to spill into war.
Thus, according to the author, Russia’s operation in Ukraine fits into the classic model of behaviour of great powers in competition. “Such contests have often featured militarised disputes, local aggressions, and proxy wars.”
But Ukraine cannot be a great power in principle, so the dispute is between Russia and the US/NATO/EU, where Ukraine is only a pawn of the West, which deliberately was a geopolitical irritant to Russia, including an arms race, and which raised Ukraine to a critical threat level in Moscow’s eyes. Therefore, this is a conflict between Russia and the West.
Mazarr then proceeds to the theory of power transition and examines Sino-American relations in the world system, where the role and functions of the United States are declining, and China, on the contrary, is increasing. A similar concept is that of revisionist powers, including Saddam Hussein-era Iraq, China, and Russia. But on the detailed scale of revisionism are also India, Brazil and the United States itself, which position themselves as an exceptional force.
Then the question arises: how does the competition take place? To determine its nature, five key factors are suggested.
1. The very essence of competition. Some historical rivalries have been linked to territorial (or spatial) factors, such as land mass dominance – for example, the British-French or Franco-German rivalry for hegemony in Europe. Others were mostly related to ideological influence: the US-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War was a struggle to establish a dominant system of ideas in world politics. Some rivalries are more related to reputation and prestige in a less systematic form.
2. Participants’ goals. Do they have aggressive intentions to dominate world politics, or do they at least seek regional hegemony? Are their goals primarily defensive? Do they seek economic power rather than military power? One of the key aspects of this issue is the use and justification of military force.
3. These two questions lead to a third question: how to determine success in a given competition? Obviously, success in the competition as a whole does not require success in every battle, war, or lower-level competition.
4. The fourth defining question is aimed at describing the degree of intensity of competition. This aspect would make it possible to assess how extreme and fruitless rivalries are, measured by indicators such as the history of violent conflicts, the level of publicly expressed mutual discontent, the degree of hostile nationalism on one or both sides, the aggravating effect of war-prone internal interest groups, the number of incompatible interests and grievances, and other variables.
It can be said that a two-way rivalry is considered highly intense when both sides believe that they cannot realise their vital interests or important goals without harming the other side, and when both sides are willing to take complex and potentially violent actions to do so.
5. The fifth and final characteristic asks how stable the competition or rivalry is in accordance with objective factors that determine stability. Stable competition is one in which rivals rarely, if ever, go to war or come to the brink of war, even if they may perceive themselves in fierce competition and seek to undermine each other’s power on a permanent basis.
This factor overlaps to some extent with the problem of intensity, but it is not the same thing: rivalries can be intense, but remain stable, with a tendency to recover from crises and not go beyond the brink of war.
The report concludes that even before the recent conflict in Ukraine, the rivalry between the US and Russia and the US and China had become highly volatile. Now, given the sanctions and the subsequent effects on the global economy, there is even less stability.
Finally, what can be the goals and means of the United States in this competition? Mazarr is limited to four points:
1. Safeguarding the security of the US homeland, including political institutions and information environment;
2. Sustaining technological and economic advantages and strengths sufficient to ensure that one or more major rivals does not come to dominate the 21st-century information economy;
3. Preserving a global system and regional orders representing free sovereign choice and a lack of hegemonic and coercive influence by US rivals;
4. Arriving at a sustainable balance of competition and cooperation with US rivals, including major elements of an agreed and shared status quo and important sources of equilibrium in the relationships.
There is nothing new here. These provisions were spelled out in the national security and defence strategies of the United States under both the Trump and Biden administrations. In other words, Washington wants to preserve its hegemonic unipolar world order and prevent other states from challenging it. And the words about sovereign choice are hypocritical arguments, just like rights, freedoms, democracy and another set of standard phrases that we constantly hear from representatives of the State Department and the White House.
Mazarr is also trying to determine what China and Russia want in the current competition:
“China is approaching the current competition or rivalry from the standpoint of a country that sees itself either as the rightful dominant power in the world or as one of a small handful of dominant powers.
China is determined to reclaim a role and voice in the international system appropriate to its degree of power and, in the view of many Chinese officials and scholars, the inherent superiority of Chinese society and culture. In the process, China is set for an ongoing contest for regional and global supremacy with the United States, a competition that is baked into the current structure of world politics.
Yet there are limits to China’s ambitions in this competition, and at least for the time being China does not approach the level of militaristic revisionism as several 20th-century major powers. <…>
Russian approaches to the rivalry with the United States thus have many similarities with China’s, as well as some differences. Russia clearly has more-modest global ambitions, in line with its potential power. But its willingness to take risks, and the directness of its challenge to existing norms, now appears to be significantly greater. This may be a product in part of Russia’s degree of resentment at the current global context and its frustration at the trajectory of its power since the Cold War. <…>
Russia’s astonishing use of force in Ukraine also opens the possibility that its essential perspective on the rivalry, and perhaps its ambitions, have changed in more-radical ways—that it is becoming a more classic militaristic revisionist, for example. That is certainly possible, although it is too early to tell. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reflects an extremely high-risk, violent act to advance interests that were already well established in the competition: control over the security context of its near abroad. It may be that the larger fundamentals of Russia’s approach to the rivalry remain unchanged.
Even if that is the case, the war contains perilous risks of escalation that could put the United States and NATO on a military collision course with Russia in ways that depart from the current character of the rivalry and pose new dangers of wider war. Such risks, again, reflect exactly the sort of dangers that tend to arise in strategic rivalries that include militarised disputes.”
As a result, Mazarr wonders what the US leadership needs to do to prepare as much as possible for the escalation of rivalry. He writes that “the United States does not now possess an institutional capacity for organising and implementing a campaign-like approach to a rivalry, from the grey zone or competition phase through planning for crises and war.
The lack of substantial interagency integrated planning mechanisms today risk having the same destructive effect on US efforts to succeed in competition missions short of war. The United States has various engagement plans for specific countries, from embassy country-team strategies to security cooperation plans. But they are often not integrated or centrally coordinated.
Other problems lie in how the services plan for the use of their capabilities: Allowing more flexibility and the application of boutique mission tasks, even for a small number of units, would help open the space for more-effective and more-tailored military roles.”
Mazarr speaks about the institutional military-political weakness of the United States. Perhaps deliberately, so that the Pentagon and other services receive more funding and support. He is also taking his time to assess Russia’s role and status in the conflict in Ukraine, probably in order to reduce the assessment of the military threat to the United States. But if we take into account the four points that are tasks for the United States, we can conclude that continued resistance to the collective West on the part of Russia, one way or another, will undermine the goals of the United States.
China, even without moving to the same level of escalation, is already doing the same thing, albeit in different ways. It will be an added advantage for the two countries if they attract more states to their informal alliance against American hegemony.