How Biden Can Get ‘Strategic Competition’ Right

How Biden Can Get ‘Strategic Competition’ Right

The forthcoming National Security Strategy provides an opportunity for the Biden administration to articulate clear goals and objectives for "strategic competition."

More enduring than all the insights George F. Kennan provided in his seminal essay “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” was one word: containment. This term organized U.S. thought during the first decade of the Cold War, and it came to represent a vital element of U.S. foreign policy throughout the conflict. American policy evolved, but containment remained a critical framework well past 1947, influencing American policymakers until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

President Biden and his national security team have a chance to organize and influence American foreign policy the way Kennan did. However, instead of “containment,” the term of significance is “strategic competition.” The Biden administration has the opportunity to develop the meaning of this term in the upcoming National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS needs to accomplish three things. First, it must define strategic competition. Second, it must clarify that strategic competition is an organizing principle that is flexible enough to avoid stifling policy innovation. Third, Biden must persuade the American people that competition matters.

In its current iteration, strategic competition is an unhelpful organizing principle for U.S. policy. First employed by the administration in its interim guidance released in March 2021, there has been little effort to further define the term. This is disastrous for crafting policy. Strategy is judged by its ability to provide clarity. This is made more challenging in today's strategic environment, which is defined by ambiguity. Reducing this ambiguity requires developing a concept of strategic competition that aligns with U.S. interests. The administration can accomplish this by doing the following.

First, it must further define strategic competition. At a minimum, the NSS needs to clarify the following contours. Why are we competing? The administration must identify the stakes and make it explicit that American prosperity is supported by an international order that is currently being threatened by great power competitors. How are we competing? The administration must prioritize certain tools to maximize the United States’ competitive advantage. The interim guidance describes activities that run the gamut of national power, but the NSS must be more specific to ensure the proper allocation of scarce resources. What is the end goal? In other words, how do policymakers define victory? The administration should describe the future the United States hopes to secure through strategic competition. How do we know we’re “winning” strategic competition? Indicators of success are critical in a protracted state of competition where stark wins, such as the dissolution of the Chinese Communist Party, are unlikely. Therefore, the administration should include less absolute means of assessing progress in the NSS. 

Second, the NSS must make it clear that strategic competition is an organizing principle, not a unified global strategy. It is a framework to guide policymaking in the strategic environment, and it must be flexible. Competition will shift across the globe—what works in Eastern Europe may not work in Southeast Asia. Likewise, objectives will shift from region to region. Greater recognition of Taiwan, for example, is more meaningful among Indo-Pacific states than it is among African states. Strategic competition is a first principle for framing, but it must not stifle innovation and nuance in regional policy.

Third, the administration must engage the American people. Buy-in from the public is necessary to sustain any arduous foreign policy posture. In this case, gaining public support will be especially difficult given the ambiguity of competition. The administration can secure this buy-in by clarifying strategic competition, emphasizing the stakes, and then amplifying domestic messaging on the subject. 

Some argue that strategic competition harms relations with great power competitors by framing them in an adversarial light. This is true, but it is appropriate. China and Russia seek to establish spheres of influence that are incompatible with vital U.S. interests. These objectives are fundamentally in competition with each other. While the “strategic” component of strategic competition has been made light of, it indicates a conscious decision to employ competitive behavior where appropriate. These arguments demonstrate the shallowness of the current understanding of the term. As it is, strategic competition generates more anxiety than clarity, identifying the looming problem, but doing little beyond that. Yet, by making the clarifications suggested, the term can be operationalized and meaningfully contribute to U.S. policy.

The Biden administration has a chance to define a concept that could shape American foreign policy for decades to come, just as containment did at the onset of the Cold War. Strategic competition should become the critical organizing principle in this first stage of competition, and it could influence policy for as long as the dynamic persists. The forthcoming National Security Strategy provides an opportunity to develop this term. The success of the NSS will be contingent on the administration’s ability to define strategic competition, employ it as a flexible tool for organization and guidance, and persuade the American people. Competition with China is not the “new Cold War”—yet. Avoiding another bipolar order that plunges half the globe into the shadow of authoritarianism and threatens nuclear annihilation requires careful navigation of great power relations. And that means getting our strategy right first.

Nolan Woodman is a graduate student pursuing a Master of Arts in Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs. Their research focuses on Indo-Pacific security, U.S. grand strategy, and influence in great power competition.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Navy.