The Competition Metaphor in International Relations
Competition does not bring out the best in you—it exposes what you’re really about
When I arrived at the Pentagon in 2009, the Obama administration was just getting its footing as caretakers of the War on Terror.
Our focus then was truly global dominion. That meant, yes, killing and capturing whatever the intelligence process coughed up as bad guys no matter who they were or where they were. But also, technologically, our fixation was on “prompt global strike”—the idea that the US should be able to reliably put warheads on foreheads anywhere at anytime without constraint.
I don’t know what to say about that other than that it sounds much crazier when I say it out loud.
But by the time I left the Pentagon in late 2014, the five-sided imagination had shifted entirely to “competition,” which signaled, among other things, that prompt global strike was not enough.
In its place came great-power competition. Strategic competition. Long-term strategic competition. “Competitive strategy.” All the buzzwords filling the acronym-addled mind reflected zero-sum repertoires of war-making toward China and, secondarily, Russia. Those adversaries promised a high-technology “future of war.”
I say with some degree of remorse that I was one of the pioneers of this conceptual shift toward both high-technology war fighting and competition.1 On some level, I’ve been making amends ever since.
In this context, it’s really important to understand four related things about the national security state’s fixation on China: