February 26, 2024
Define "great power competition", go ahead we'll wait. It's not that you can't define it but odds are the person next to you probably has a slightly or possibly completely different definition. And we won't mention the overachiever two rows over that answered in 27 parts with footnotes and citations. Great stuff in an academic situation where people learn from one another's differing viewpoints. It's terrible if that one concept is foundational to your national security strategy. James Micciche is back to look at the danger of varying definitions across the DoD and the federal government as a whole. He makes the point that the time for definitive consensus and understanding is now if the United States is going to build a cohesive strategy around great power competition as the existing world order shifts again.

If one were to ask ten service members, “what is competition?” they would be fortunate to receive around twelve different answers.

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the title character famously asked, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” Juliet’s theory of dialectic transposition works well with tangible objects like flowers, potatoes and potahtoes, or caffeinated sugary drinks but fails when applied to abstract concepts. The inability to assign a collective understanding to an intangible can be frustrating, troublesome, and confusing. When an ill-defined term becomes the foundation of foreign policy and security strategy it can lead to divergent efforts and misappropriation of finite resources by agencies executing their own understanding of the concept. The most recent manifestation of this lexiconic vulnerability is the lack of a shared definition of competition and an understanding what it entails across the U.S. military and the greater United States Government (USG). If the United States military is going to posture itself to respond to the mechanism through which revisionist powers degrade U.S. influence and challenge the current status quo it must develop a common definition of competition and more importantly what the military’s role within it is.

If one were to ask ten service members, “what is competition?” they would be fortunate to receive around twelve different answers. Expanding the query to the interagency would probably yield an exponentially larger number of definitions, explanations, and concepts. Despite the 2017 National Security Strategy’s prolific declaration that, “great power competition has returned” and the 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance’s introduction of “strategic competition” the Joint Force struggles with not only defining competition but operationalizing the concept to address the deliberate efforts to degrade global U.S. influence by revisionist and rogue states. The inability to collectively define competition leads to detrimental outcomes for the United States as LTG (R) Dubik recently pointed out in the ARMY Magazine “the U.S. has already failed at [deterring our adversaries from achieving their strategic goals below the threshold of conventional war.]”

There are two primary causes for the Joint Force’s inability to develop a comprehensive understanding of what constitutes competition in 2022. The first is the emphasis that Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) places on Napoleonic era theorists, an argument I made here in the War Room in 2021. The strategic focus on a war-peace binary built around decisive military victories leading to tangible and enduring political outcomes accurately describes nineteenth century Europe but is far from how the world of 2022 functions. An idea that is clearly understood by America’s principal geopolitical rivals, Russia and China, whose recent joint statement on international relations outlines their perception of a multipolar and interdependent world undergoing a radical redistribution of power. Despite this combined declaration the two nations cannot be viewed as a monolithic entity as is evident by Russia’s ongoing attempt to revert Ukraine into a suzerain state primarily through the use of military power to prevent NATO/EU expansion and reestablish their expanded sphere of influence. The second cause, and the focus of this brief paper, is the failure of the DoD to adopt a doctrinal definition of competition and establish a common understanding of its role within competition through common language.

Divided by a Common Language   

Civilians often accuse the military of communicating in a unique language laden with acronyms, technical jargon, and operationally focused verbs aptly named MILSPEAK. The authoritative source for all things MILSPEAK is the 360-page DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. The 2021 version of the dictionary provides definitions to DoD terms ranging from “acceptability” to “zone of fire,” but surprisingly omits a definition of competition. When one widens the aperture beyond the dictionary and includes both joint and service specific doctrine, concepts, and policy, two distinct interoperations of competition begin to take form. The first, which I call the systemic approach, envisions competition as the inherent relationship between states within the international system and encompasses all activities from cooperation to large-scale combat operations. The second, I describe as the finite approach, views competition as a distinct activity occurring outside of crisis and conflict. Both concepts of competition have their benefits and detractions but present two different and divergent manifestations of the central concept of current U.S. security strategy.

The doctrinal foundation of the systemic approach is Joint Doctrine Note 1-19 (The Competition Continuum), which refined a non-linear / non-binary framework first introduced in 2017’s Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning (JCIC). JDN 1-19 describes competition as the manifestation of how states and non-states seek advantage to protect and advance national interests. It describes a world of, “enduring competition conducted through a mixture of cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and armed conflict.” The JDN goes on to provide examples of state-based competition ranging from medal counts during the Olympics to nuclear war. One important aspect of the systemic approach is competition and cooperation are not mutually exclusive conditions and the JDN offers concrete examples of states both cooperating and competing simultaneously.

The systemic approach is the most common approach across the DoD as the USAF and USMC have adopted variations of the competition continuum’s systemic view of the concept. This evident by the charge laid out to Marines in MCDP 1-4 Competing, “The most important task for Marines and the Marine Corps is to recognize that we are always competing.” The Army, who operates a finite approach, acknowledges existence of continuum but provides an alternative.

The Army’s concept of “strategic environments” highlights the finite approach to defining and understanding competition. The Army’s Multi-Domain Operations Concept identifies three distinct strategic operating environments: Competition, Crisis, and Conflict. The Army’s finite approach delineates specific activities, conditions, and actions for each environment diverging from the all-encompassing competition continuum. For example, the Army describes its role in competition as setting conditions to improve the ability to use or threaten the use military power against state actors to deter, compel, or coerce. The Chief of Staff of the Army outlines the services’ competition objectives in a 2021 white paper on MDO Transformation, “In competition, the Army provides the Department of Defense (DoD) with foundational capabilities and capacity to shape the environment. Army forces pursue relative positional and capability advantage to support Joint and political objectives.” A few months later The Chief of Staff of the Army published a white paper specifically on competition outlining the need for competition to be “broken into manageable subordinate parts,” or more specifically direct, indirect, and narrative competition. The Army’s service specific approach creates potential divergence with the remaining two-thirds of the members of the armed services whose systemic definition and operationalization of competition is not completely fungible with the Army’s finite framing. This divergence has the potential to obfuscate shared understanding at the strategic level of war and impede planning Joint operations but is not a new issue nor is it monopolized by the military.

While it remains far too early to declare the overall GWOT a success or failure both of the major large-scale military actions from that 20-year period ended on terms unfavorable to the United States.

History Repeats Itself

The 2017 return to great power competition concurrently marked the conclusion of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), ending nearly twenty years of U.S. security strategy focused on non-state actors. The GWOT suffered from a similar lexiconic challenge to the one the United States faces today. Terrorism, the very concept that the United States declared war on and spent over $9,000,000,000,000 to defeat remained ill-defined throughout the entire GWOT era. In “Inside Terrorism,” Bruce Hoffman shows how three of the principle government agencies used to prosecute the GWOT, the Department of State, Department of Defense, and the FBI, all used unique definitions of terrorism.

While it remains far too early to declare the overall GWOT a success or failure both of the major large-scale military actions from that 20-year period ended on terms unfavorable to the United States. The official Army history of the Iraq War declared “Iran was the only victor of the eight-year campaign” and the Taliban retook Afghanistan in a matter of weeks leading to the largest Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) in U.S. history. It would be foolish to point to a single factor for the aforementioned outcomes but Joint Doctrine Note 2-19 (Strategy) states “a strategy mismatched to the environment or the role of the organization it serves will likely fail.” While the inability to achieve a consensus of what our government was seeking to rid the world of during the GWOT illustrates both a lack environmental and organizational understanding it could provide valuable insight as the USG transitions to competition or now the emerging concept of campaigning.

A Restart?

As the United States faces direct and pressing challenges to its global influence, security interests, and the existing world order it helped shape; policy makers must take active steps to formulate a comprehensive strategic response. If competition is in fact the name given to our strategic answer to malign efforts by revisionist powers in the twenty-first century, then the United States Government and its subordinate agencies must define and operationalize the term just as NSC-68 attempted to do with containment during the last major period of geopolitical rivalry the United States faced. The introduction of campaigning as one of the three tenets of the recently released 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS)’s appears to offer the DoD a viable mechanism to create common cross-service consensus around the operationalization of competition that is currently lacking.

In recent remarks to Congress Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin outlined campaigning, as,

“The conduct and sequencing of coordinated military initiatives aimed at advancing well-defined, strategic priorities over time. The United States will operate forces, synchronize broader Departmental efforts, and align our activities with other instruments of national power to counter our competitors’ coercion, complicate their military preparations, and develop our own warfighting capabilities, along with those of our allies and partners.”

The concept takes steps to operationalize and define the military instrument power’s role in activities short of conflict and emphasizes whole of government efforts. The question now becomes, will the services, geographic combatant commands, and other semiautonomous extensions of the DoD quickly adopt and integrate similar constructs outlining and operationalizing their specific role in greater U.S. efforts in strategic competition or will they interpret the concept in a way that supports organizational preferences and biases.

It took the USMC and United States Army over three years to publish service specific guidance following the introduction of competition in 2017. Now much like Shakespeare’s Henry the V the services and combatant commands find themselves “once more unto the breach” in terms of understanding, defining, and operationalizing their role in military actives below levels of armed conflict. Time is of the essence to establish a consensus view of the concept of competition and extension campaigning and the role the military instruments of power have within it.

James P. Micciche is a Major and a Strategist in the U.S. Army. He is the G5 at the Security Forces Assistance Command (SFAC). He holds degrees from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and Troy University.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: Detail from the Shakespeare Memorial in Southwark Cathedral of a recumbent alabaster figure of Shakespeare, carved by Henry McCarthy in 1912.

Photo Credit: Photo by Lawrence OP via Flickr

4 thoughts on “WHAT’S IN A NAME?

  1. From the first paragraph of our article above:

    “If the United States military is going to posture itself to respond to the mechanism through which revisionist powers degrade U.S. influence and challenge the current status quo it must develop a common definition of competition and more importantly what the military’s role within it is.”

    Question:

    If “an appeal to conservatism” (religious and other) was the mechanism through which the U.S./the West degraded Soviet/communist influence during the Old Cold War of yesterday:

    “Without the Pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of Communism. In fact, Gorbachev himself gave the Kremlin’s long-term enemy this due, ‘It would have been impossible without the Pope.’

    (See the Public Broadcasting System [PBS] “Frontline” article “John Paul II and the Fall of Communism” by Jane Barnes and Hellen Whitney.)

    And if “an appeal to conservatism” (religious and other) is the mechanism through which the our opponents now seek to degrade U.S. influence in the New/Reverse Cold War of today:

    “In his annual appeal to the Federal Assembly in December 2013, Putin formulated this ‘independent path’ ideology by contrasting Russia’s ‘traditional values’ with the liberal values of the West. He said: ‘We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilization in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.’ He proclaimed that Russia would defend and advance these traditional values in order to ‘prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.’ ”

    (See the Wilson Center publication “Kennan Cable No. 53” and, therein, the article “Russia’s Traditional Values and Domestic Violence,” by Olimpiada Usanova, dated 1 June 2020.)

    Then, from that such perspective, must not “competition” be defined — in the New/Reverse Cold War of today much as it was in the Old Cold War of yesterday — more along “pro-change”/liberal (welcomes advancement/development) vs “anti-change”/conservative (abhors advancement/development) lines?

    The purpose of the U.S./the West’s military forces — thus seen from the “pro-change” New/Reverse Cold War perspective that I provide above — this must be understood more as per our own JP 3-22, Foreign Internal Defense (therein, look to Chapter II — “Internal Defense and Development” — and Paragraph 2 — “Construct”):

    “a. An IDAD (Internal Defense and Development) program integrates security force and civilian actions into a coherent, comprehensive effort. Security force actions provide a level of internal security that permits and supports growth through balanced development. this development requires change to meet the need of vulnerable groups of people. This change may, in turn, promote unrest in the society. The strategy, therefore, includes measures to maintain the conditions under which orderly development can take place.” (Item in parenthesis above is mine.)

    Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:

    “Competition,” thus today in the New/Reverse Cold War — and much like yesterday in the Old Cold War — to be understood from the perspective of (a) “pro-change”/advancement/development forces (this category now held by the U.S./the West); this, versus (b) “anti-change”/containment/roll back forces (this category now held by the U.S./the West’s opponents)?

    (This such “competition paradigm” being confirmed; this, by our opponents “appeal to conservatism” strategy noted above?)

  2. From the second paragraph of our article above:

    “Despite the 2017 National Security Strategy’s prolific declaration that, ‘great power competition has returned’ and the 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance’s introduction of ‘strategic competition’ the Joint Force struggles with not only defining competition but operationalizing the concept to address the deliberate efforts to degrade global U.S. influence by revisionist and rogue states. The inability to collectively define competition leads to detrimental outcomes for the United States as LTG (R) Dubik recently pointed out in the ARMY Magazine ‘the U.S. has already failed at [deterring our adversaries from achieving their strategic goals below the threshold of conventional war.]’ ”

    If one were to take on this “define competition” task — presented to us by MAJ Micciche above — then one would seem to need to provide a definition of competition which (a) addresses our competitors’ efforts to “degrade global U.S. influence;” this, (b) via efforts which these competitors pursue “below the threshold of (conventional) war.” (Item in parenthesis here is mine.)

    As to this such task — and herein using the New/Reverse Cold War thesis that I present at my initial comment above — let us consider that (a) the manner by which our competitors seek to degrade the global influence of the U.S./the West, this is by (b) appealing to the no-change/reverse change conservative interests of the world’s populations. (And especially to these such no-change/reverse change conservative interests that are found both in [a] our competitors own states and societies and in [b] the states and societies of the U.S./the West also):

    “Liberal democratic societies have, in the past few decades, undergone a series of revolutionary changes in their social and political life, which are not to the taste of all their citizens. For many of those, who might be called social conservatives, Russia has become a more agreeable society, at least in principle, than those they live in. Communist Westerners used to speak of the Soviet Union as the pioneer society of a brighter future for all. Now, the rightwing nationalists of Europe and North America admire Russia and its leader for cleaving to the past.”

    (See “The American Interest” article “The Reality of Russian Soft Power” by John Lloyd and Daria Litinova.)

    The next logical question would seem to be: How does one fight back against these “degrade the influence of the U.S./the West” efforts, which our competitors pursue (a) “below the threshold of (conventional) war” and (b) largely “by, with and through” the no-change/reverse change conservative elements of the world?

    The answer this such “how do we fight back” question this, also I suggest, can be answered from a New/Reverse Cold War perspective, for example, as (possibly) described by LTG (ret.) Cleveland and GEN (ret.) Votel (et. al) below. (Herein, note how these such officials suggest appealing to the pro-change interests of the more-liberal populations of the world — and especially to these such pro-change/liberal interests that are to be found both [a] in our competitors own states and societies and [b] in the states and societies of the U.S./the West also):

    LTG (ret.) Cleveland:

    “The Achilles’ heel of our authoritarian adversaries is their inherent fear of their own people; the United States must capitalize on this fear. … An American way of irregular war will reflect who we are as a people, our diversity, our moral code, our undying belief in freedom and liberty. It must be both defensive and offensive. Developing it will take time, require support from the American people through their Congress, and is guaranteed to disrupt the status quo and draw criticism. It will take leadership, dedication, and courage. It is my hope that this study encourages, informs, and animates those with responsibility to protect the nation to act. Our adversaries have moved to dominate in the space below the threshold of war. It will be a strategy built around an American way of irregular war that defeats them.”

    (See the Rand paper “The American Way of Irregular War: An Analytical Memoir; therein, see the “Conclusion” of the “Summary” Chapter, at Page xxiii.)

    GEN Votel (et. al):

    “Advocates of UW first recognize that, among a population of self-determination seekers, human interest in liberty trumps loyalty to a self-serving dictatorship, that those who aspire to freedom can succeed in deposing corrupt or authoritarian rulers, and that unfortunate population groups can and often do seek alternatives to a life of fear, oppression, and injustice. Second, advocates believe that there is a valid role for the U.S. Government in encouraging and empowering these freedom seekers when doing so helps to secure U.S. national security interests.”

    (See the National Defense University Press paper “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone” by authors Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin; therein, see the major section entitled “Doctrine.”)

    Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:

    By my suggestions and information provided above, have I made at least some progress; this, in helping to meet the “define competition” task presented to us by Army strategist MAJ James P. Micciche above?

  3. Given that our article above is entitled: “What’s in a Name?,” let’s attempt answer this question — in this case — via the New/Reverse Cold War “name” that I have provided above. Here goes:

    1. The New/Reverse Cold War of today “name” — that I have provided above — this such “name” provides us with a viable explanation as to why the U.S./the West would seek to work more “by, with and through” the more conservative elements of the world populations in the Old Cold War of yesterday — and why such entities as China and Russia would now seek to work more “by, with and through” these self-same more conservative elements in the New/Reverse Cold War of today. In both such cases, this is to “prevent,” to “contain” and, if necessary, to “roll back” such “revolutionary” political, economic, social and/or value “changes” as one’s “achieve change” opponents seek to bring about (the Soviets/the communists, re: communism, in the Old Cold War of yesterday; the U.S./the West, re: market-democracy, in the New/Reverse Cold War); this — both in their own home countries — and indeed elsewhere throughout the world.)

    2. The New/Reverse Cold War of today “name” also — much like the Old Cold War of yesterday “name” — allows us to see and understand how and why (a) both great nations and small, (b) both state and non-state actors and (c) both at home and abroad “enemies” might (1) find common cause (see “prevent change,” etc., at my item No. 1 above) and, thus, might (2) ALL become aligned against you at the very same time. (This, in fact, is what we saw [and, indeed, what we facilitated and engineered!) versus the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War Cold War of yesterday. And this is what we have seen — or are about to see — from our “prevent change” our opponents in the New/Reverse Cold War of today.)

    Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:

    From the above, one can understand why such “names” as “The War on Terrorism,” “Great Power Competition,” “Culture Wars,” etc., miss the mark.

    ALL OF THESE (and more) simply being “aspects” of the New/Reverse Cold War of today — that I attempt to describe in my comments above?

    1. Here might be another way of looking at certain of my thoughts immediately above:

      In the Old Cold War of yesterday (note the “name”), did not the Soviets/the communists — given their “revolutionary change” goals — have to deal with (a) both great power and small enemies/opponents, with (b) both state and non-state actor enemies/opponents and with (c) both at home and abroad enemies/opponents back then? Likewise:

      In the New/Reverse Cold War of today (again, note the “name”), has not the U.S./the West — given our “revolutionary change” goals post-the Old Cold War — had to deal with (a) both great power and small enemies/opponents, with (b) both state and non-state actor enemies/opponents and with (c) both at home and abroad enemies/opponents?

      Question:

      If the “name” the (Old) Cold War (not “great power competition”) was a better “fit” — this, for “the war that we were embarked upon” from 1945 to 1990,

      Then would not the “name” the New/Reverse Cold War (again, not “great power competition” be a better “fit” — this, for “the war that we have been embarked upon” since approximately 1991?

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