Welcome to the Competition


Russia’s cyberattacks should be teaching Americans something that those situated in the orbits of China, Iran, and Russia have long known: There are serious political competitions underway for regional and strategic dominance. These extend beyond military battlefields and are a fought across a variety of domains – political, economic, informational, and cultural. Is the United States finally ready to compete?

President Donald Trump understands that America’s competitive spirit is one of the country’s strongest features. It is time for the new administration to inject that culture of competition into America’s diplomatic and development agencies.

Competitiveness is inherent in the way that military and intelligence agencies think and act, but it is virtually absent in most other government organizations. Typically, those organizations focus on administering systems, running programs, and maintaining relationships as ends in themselves. 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. The new team has an opportunity to ensure that agencies focused on external actors have the operational concepts and drive to contest determined and capable adversaries.

These adversaries are governed by repressive systems that are fundamentally designed to counter the very qualities that allow the best attributes of human nature to flourish. As Freedom House has reported, authoritarian states recognize that “genuine competition of ideas and a well-informed public spell trouble for regime security.” These countries, as well as non-state actors such as the Islamic State, are adept at competitions short of conflict because they are constantly honing the skills required to advance and defend their repressive systems internally. With great proficiency, they have turned these methods outward as well.

The Baltic countries have long understood the nature of the political competition taking place in their region. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are on the front lines of Russian political warfare. Officials there recognize that, as one Latvian defense official put it, all it takes for an enemy is to break down a society’s willingness to protect the values of their country, since without that will, “you can beat your enemy without a battle.

China is using initiatives such as One Belt, One Road, and its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to jumpstart investments in and connectivity throughout Eurasia. The AIIB is expected to lend $10 to $15 billion a year Washington’s opposition did not stop many of its allies from joining the bank. As one China scholar, Zheng Wang, has pointed out, through this “alternative diplomacy,” the Chinese are avoiding a direct challenge to existing international institutions and instead, creating new platforms that Beijing can control or substantially influence. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent speech at Davos is the latest example to suggest China’s determination to actively shape economic and political trends.

The Middle East is in turmoil due not only to the assault of Islamist terrorist organizations, but also due to a regional competition among Iran, Arab states, Turkey, Russia, and the West. These multiple levels of competition perpetuate violence and human suffering as states advance their interests through proxies.

While much of the U.S. policy community continues to debate the meaning and value of terms such as hybrid warfarepolitical warfare, and gray zone challenges, the problem central to these concepts is how to compete effectively and to exert political and economic influence. While we refine our lexicon, our adversaries refine their methods.

Fundamentally, the United States continues to lack the mindset and operational concepts, and, as a result, the capabilities for achieving political overmatch in key regions of the world. While strengthening the U.S. military is an appropriate and necessary element of the new administration’s national security agenda, it is not sufficient. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis noted during his confirmation hearing, while the military understands competition, we should not turn only to that institution.

The Trump administration has an opportunity to build up what we lack: the capacity to engage these long term political competitions.

First, incoming officials in the agencies that work in the domains of diplomacy, foreign aid, development, and rule of law, should cultivate a mindset and a culture that makes a conscious effort to shape the competitions underway. Today, the word “compete” is rare in State Department strategy documents. The new team has an opportunity to develop approaches to counter adversaries, convince the undecided, and influence the competitions unfolding all over the world.

Second, the United States and its agencies need to better understand political, economic, and social competitions by creating improved mapping capabilities. The United States equips its military with information about who they will encounter in the field and the same should hold true on the civilian side. Several years ago, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, wrote of the need to become knowledgeable about “local economics and landowners,” the powerbrokers in a community, and the relationships among, for example, development projects and village politics. This holds true today.

Third, accentuate the positive. More systematic attention must be paid to identifying opportunities for positive change and matching them with resources. What people and conditions could facilitate the achievement of U.S. goals? Such opportunity analysis is not a traditional part of how the U.S. collects information. Washington thus often misses strategically important chances to advance U.S. goals. Just as the United States focuses on the threats to its interests, it needs to build a cadre of experts in the political landscape in contested regions that can recognize and exploit opportunities.

Fourth, remove stultifying constraints that prevent many American experts and diplomats from responding to events as they unfold. In the military sphere this is often referred to as “shaping the situation through action,” or “mission command,” which aims to devolve authority to the lowest possible level. Agencies such as the State Department and USAID, start by identifying the most egregious regulations that prevent individuals from responding with the flexibility to respond to events as they unfold.

The incoming Trump administration has been criticized for being long on private sector skills and short on government experience. It’s time to recognize the former as a strength, and to consider how to make that experience applicable to the challenges of government and foreign policy today. Like a business pressed by harsh market forces, U.S. foreign policy must learn to adapt and compete.


Nadia Schadlow, a senior editor at War on the Rocks, is the author of the forthcoming (March 2017) Georgetown University Press book, War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory.  Some of the ideas contained in this essay were first introduced in her 2013 Orbis article, “Competitive Engagement: Upgrading America’s Influence.”

Image: Kremlin.ru