Small Wars Journal

Power Competition: The Struggle for Cooperation

Share this Post

Power Competition: The Struggle for Cooperation

Assad A. Raza



Donald Trump pictured with (from left) Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping. Drawing by Joe Ciardello for the WSJ.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy states that China is a strategic competitor and the United States must restore its competitive advantage in the international arena. However, power competition is more complicated now compared to the Cold War Era. Today, states are hyper-connected through technology and economic cooperation which increases complexity for projecting power. A good example is China’s use of economic power through its Belt and Road Initiative to expand its regional influence all over Euro-Asia.  

During the Cold War Era, power competition was based on a bipolar system between the United States and the Soviet Union. With only two great powers during that era made competition simpler as both states developed their own unions to check military and economic power. Alliances like NATO and the Warsaw Pact were necessary to counter each other’s powers globally. This also allowed weaker states to deter military threats and increase trade between allies for economic benefits. What the Cold War Era taught us, is that cooperation between states is mutually beneficial and contributes to world order.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States increased cooperation throughout Europe and Asia. This not only benefited countries like Germany and Japan but also contributed to China’s rise as a competing power to the United States. However, China’s rise to power is more complicated compared to the Cold War Era because of its aggressive economic strategy. The expansion of China’s economic ties with developing states has increased its influence globally.

Foreign policy expert and author, Anne-Marie Slaughter, in her book The Chess-Board & The Web, writes that China’s strategy “is to weave a global web of commercial and political relations…… in other words, a world of networks in which all roads lead to Beijing.” China understands that absolute power is multiplied by cooperating with other states. This cooperation contributes to an increase in trade and investment opportunities in areas that the United States has ignored. A lot of these opportunities include technologies and communication systems as seen with the current race for the 5G network. Additionally, the increased interdependence between states makes military conflict a high-risk option for everyone, including the United States. Over time, these economic ties will increase China’s influence over states countering competing powers without going to war.  

To counter China’s global influence, the United States should focus on increasing cooperation with developing states. A balanced approach through diplomatic, economic, and military programs in these states would promote and protect U.S. interests abroad. Also, investing in development and security programs demonstrates U.S. commitment to partners and prevents them from aligning with competing powers.

However, over the past two decades, the United States actions and inactions abroad have damaged the country’s credibility. For example, the unilateral invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the removal of Gaddafi in Libya under the auspice of humanitarian intervention. Similarly, the recent withdrawals from the Iran Nuclear Deal and Trans-Pacific Partnership have contributed to the damaged credibility. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Hass, stated that “doubts about U.S. reliability have multiplied…. thanks to its withdrawal from numerous international pacts and its conditional approach to once inviolable U.S. alliance commitments in Europe and Asia.” Hence, the United States must invest in these relationships and formal agreements to maintain its position in the world order. However, as this article was being written we witnessed massive budget cuts to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development which contributes to the perception of U.S. withdrawal from the world stage.   



Photo: China Support to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan

Meanwhile, China has taken a marketing approach towards power competition to establish a competitive advantage. They went “all in” with their economic power and have used their military power judiciously for defense and humanitarian missions. China has positioned itself in areas that the United States has ignored over the years, like Sudan, which increases their credibility with developing states. Additionally, China’s economic strength and minimal terms on agreements attract these states to do business with them.    

Fortunately, being the dominant economic and military power in the world, the United States still has a competitive advantage. However, they must “step up” their international engagement strategy before losing its global influence to China. This would require an increase in diplomatic, economic, and military cooperation in areas vulnerable to China’s exploitation.

Robert J. Art, author and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote back in 1998 that:

 “the United States cannot profitably coerce states to engage in free trade at the point of a gun, nor order them under threat of attack to cut back their generation of greenhouse gases. The coercive use of American military power for both of these purposes is a losing proposition and beyond America’s military might. Instead, a more indirect approach is called for”.

Hence, to compete with China, the United States must renegotiate free-trade agreements and invest in economic and development assistance. An indirect approach through diplomatic and economic channels will increase the United States influence and help generate wealth in developing countries. Therefore, increasing future trade opportunities and strengthening partners through an open international economic order. Additionally, the United States must demonstrate their commitment to military partners by increasing security assistance programs and intelligence sharing between allies. A combination of these coordinated engagements will strengthen the United States competitive position over China.  

In closing, balancing against China’s rise to power requires sustained cooperation with allies and developing states using all elements of national power. Based on China’s actions over the past decade, they are hedging their bets through economic, development, and information activities to increase their standing on the global stage. China does not want to be the world police but does want to be the global economic power. For this reason, the United States must view power competition not just through a military lens to be competitive.


About the Author(s)

Major Assad Raza is an Active Duty Civil Affairs Officer in the United States Army. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Tampa, a M.A. in Diplomacy w/concentration in International Conflict Management from Norwich University, and is a graduate of The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation Command and General Staff Officer Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. Follow him on Twitter: @assadraza12


Warlock, et. al:

In addition to my reply below to your comment earlier, here is something else to consider re: "competition." (Or, in fact, the lack thereof.)

a.  If President Trump has accepted and adopted our opponents/our enemies' worldview/their vision of how they see themselves and others in the world -- for example -- as relates to such things as "sovereignty" and "sphere of influence,"

b.  Then how -- in these such circumstances and in any meaningful sense -- can/does "competition" exist?

In this regard, consider my thought here from another current SWJ thread:


Perhaps this (a discussion of the efficacy of such things hybrid warfare and civil affairs) is a good place to address our new "conflict environment," to wit: the acceptance by President Trump, and by his administration, of such ideas as: 

a.  "Sovereignty" (as, once again, the legitimate and universal right of the states and societies of the world).  And:

b.  "Spheres of influence" (as, once again, the recognized and legitimate extrapolation/extension of a nation's such "sovereignty").  

Note that this a stark reversal/a complete "about face" in the way that the U.S./the West saw the world -- and our "conflict environment" -- (a) after our winning of the Old Cold War and (b) until Trump. 

Back then, the U.S./the West saw such things as "sovereignty" only through the lens of states and societies who were (a) organized, ordered and oriented more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines and/or who were (b) moving out smartly to achieve these exact such objectives. 

In world such as this, such concepts of "sovereignty" (along other than modern western lines) -- and indeed "spheres of influence" ... were considered to be outdated, obsolete, illegitimate and, generally, "in the way of progress" concepts. ...  

Thus, when we are talking about (a) our "conflict environment" today and (b) the efficacy and use (by ourselves and/or others) of such things as hybrid warfare and civil affairs in relation to same, I believe that we must do this with an understanding that the United States today, under President Trump, appears to recognize that the other nations world, for example Russia, are: 

a.  Sovereign. 

b.  That this idea of "sovereignty" extends (much as with our Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere) to their near abroad, to their back yards and to their "spheres of influence."  And that, accordingly,

c.  These such nations (Russia, etc.) have a legitimate right to defend same; this, against the states, societies and civilizations (such as the U.S./the West) that may seek to "transform" them; for example, more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines.

Question:  In this light -- of the U.S. abandoning our position and rationale re: winning the Old Cold War -- and returning to a "defeatist" position and rationale -- as exemplified by our embrace of such things as "sovereignty" and "spheres of influence;" in this such light, in what instances, do we believe, will LSCO (by ourselves and/or by our enemies) be needed?  And/or such things as civil affairs, and/or hybrid warfare; in concert with, and/or in the service of same?  


Warlock:  As relates to my suggestion below -- that re: competiton between the U.S. and other great powers -- this, in many important ways, may no longer exist.  Consider the following: 



Today the United States must offer the world a blueprint forward beyond strategic competition oriented toward combatting the worst dimensions of China’s international behavior. As Van Jackson recently described it, competition with China alone is not a strategy because “the democratic world doesn’t need or want America to be China’s great power competitor.” Nations, whether as close as East Asia or as far as Europe, may share concerns around Chinese economic practices or creeping revisionism. Nonetheless, they need to be motivated to act on these concerns by a vision of a world in which these matters are addressed for them—not merely resolved in a manner that substitutes Beijing’s transgressions for bullying from Washington.

Here the Trump administration must recall the insight behind the unprecedented vision of the Marshall Plan. The “profound exhaustion of physical plant and spiritual vigor” that George Kennan described spurred the United States to action not because Americans feared communism would win over Europeans on its own merits, but rather that it would seem the least bad avenue available to weary populations. In 1947, America needed to provide a better option; today is no different. To put it as plainspoken men as George Marshall would have: You can’t beat something with nothing.


Thus, to understand how the U.S. -- today compared to yesterday -- might be seen in significantly non-competitive terms.  In this regard, consider that:

a.  In earlier times, and with earlier presidents, we consistently put something (other than glaringly selfish "Make America Great Again") on the table; this, to both inspire and bring more "on board" real and potential friends (and to bring fear and caution to real and potential enemies), for example, as noted here: 


Since the end of World War II, the United States has pursued a strategy aimed at overturning the status quo by spreading liberalism, free markets, and U.S. influence around the world. Just as Chinese revisionism alarms Washington, the United States’ posture stokes fear in Beijing and beyond. 


b.  Whereas today, and now with Present Trump, "crickets" (silence; no such communication)?

(Thus, my "you can't beat something with nothing"- like discussion in my comment below.) 

Bill -- The administration's actions indicate we haven't abandoned international competition -- just changed some of the forms.  Look at the renegotiation of NAFTA, or the abandonment of the TPP trade agreement, on grounds that they placed the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage.  Rhetoric aside, we have not abandoned Syria to Russian and Turk influence.  However ineffectual our actions, we still attempt to thwart North Korean desires to build up their nuclear influence. 

And lack of U.S. commitment or activity doesn't necessarily imply no international competition, particularly when two sides have differing views of what that means.  Look at the South China Sea...*we* may not view the odd FON action there as competition, but the Chinese have a different view.   

In order for there to be "great power competition," it would seem that there would need to be at least two great powers "competing."

This would not seem to be the case today; this, given that the United States, under President Trump of late, seems to have eliminated many of the best, and long-standing, "competitive" aspects of our foreign and our domestic policies -- and adopted in the place of same -- foreign and domestic policies which are, in fact, highly "non-competitive" in both (a) nature and (b) comparison. 


President Trump has indicated, in his 2017 National Security Strategy and elsewhere, that "stability" is now a primary focus of American foreign policy.  This such "stability" to be achieved by the U.S. (a) no longer attempting to transform other states, societies and civilizations more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines, and by the U.S. (b) embracing, in the place of same, such concepts as political, economic, social and value equality and diversity (and, thus, sovereignty) instead.

Likewise, President Trump has indicated -- for example by way of his immigration and refugee policies -- that providing for the wants, needs and desires of a certain ethnic, racial, religious and cultural group/a previous "old order" might we say; this -- not "competition" with other states and societies -- will be a/the primary focus of his domestic (and indeed certain of his foreign?) policies.

Thus -- as relates to the "competition" question and statement by Nadia Schadlow below -- how should we answer her today; this, as per the (now highly non-competitive?) status of the U.S. under President Trump?


There are serious political competitions underway for regional and strategic dominance. These extend beyond military battlefields and are fought across a variety of domains – political, economic, informational, and cultural. Is the United States finally ready to compete? ...

... Yet in virtually every theater of the world, local and regional competitions over ideas, economic systems, and societies affect America’s ability to protect and advance its interests.


For a comparison to earlier, more-competitive times and presidents, consider the following from Jennifer Lind in her "Foreign Affairs" article of February 2017: 


Since the end of World War II, the United States has pursued a strategy aimed at overturning the status quo by spreading liberalism, free markets, and U.S. influence around the world. Just as Chinese revisionism alarms Washington, the United States’ posture stokes fear in Beijing and beyond. 


Thus, to ask: 

In comparison to earlier U.S. presidents and their foreign and domestic policies, does the U.S. -- now today under President Trump -- [a] still "stoke fear in Beijing and beyond" and, this, [b] for similar "competitive" reasons as outlined by Jennifer Lind above?

(If not then, as I suggest at the beginning of my comment here, "competition" -- between the U.S. and other great powers --this, in many important ways, may no longer exist.)