By Michael J. Mazarr
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and China’s tacit support for this violent attempt to overturn the current international order, has intensified the strategic competition that now dictates US national security policy. What until today might have seemed like an abstract and strange challenge has suddenly become real, urgent and dangerous.
In response, many US officials and analysts have called for the United States to improve its military capabilities, strengthen its defenses and invest in key technologies. In their view, success in the race between the great powers depends on accumulating victories in a series of individual races for supremacy.
But history gives another lesson. Nations do not dominate through the acquisition of superior technological or military capabilities, or even by imposing their will in every crisis or war. Great powers can make many mistakes—lose wars, allies, even their military advantage—and still triumph in long-term contests.
In the struggle for supremacy among world powers, it is not military or economic power that makes the decisive difference, but the fundamental qualities of a society: the characteristics of a nation that generate economic productivity, technological innovation, social cohesion and national will.
These domestic strengths are actually the building blocks of international power. But to make a country’s success possible, they must reinforce and support each other. And they should not go out of balance. Because excessive national ambitions can lead to strain, putting the country at risk.
On the other hand, countries with very little ambition, diversity or willingness to learn and adapt risk starting a negative cycle that could lead to national decline. Today, the United States lacks many of the qualities that fueled its rise during the second half of the 20th century.
If it wants to regain its competitive edge – and dominate its current contests with China and Russia – the US must do more than simply spend more than its rivals on defense or advanced military technologies.
It will have to nurture the qualities that make great powers dynamic, innovative and adaptive. And studies show that there are 7 essential traits to consider. The first essential feature is a version of fostering national ambitions. Driving national ambition requires the commitment of an entire people to gain knowledge and influence over their world: to explore and control, to understand and direct.
In addition to having a strong national ambition, highly competitive societies tend to divide opportunities among their citizens. They offer many paths to success and exclude relatively few segments of their population from productive roles, at least compared to their main rivals.
In this way, they use a high proportion of their available talent and offer real prospects to a large part of their population. And throughout history, nations that share opportunities among their citizens have gained an advantage over those that do not.
Rome’s policy of granting citizenship to conquered peoples, and incorporating freed slaves into important social roles, gave it economic and military advantages. Likewise, the social mobility offered by Great Britain and the United States gave these powers an advantage over the more socially restricted powers in continental Europe.
This greatly helped them in their extraordinary economic and scientific progress in the 19th and 20th centuries. Another characteristic that stimulates national competition is a common and coherent national identity. The most competitive societies build their achievements on the foundation of a strong shared group identity, that is, a sense of nationhood. This common identity helps nations not only avoid the competitive obstacles of fragmentation and political and ethnic conflict, but enables them to rally popular support for competitive efforts.
For example, Britain has had the early advantage of being a nation. Meanwhile, the rise of Japan as an industrial and military power, both in the Meiji period and in the post-World War II period, was partly fueled by a unifying national identity.
The most obvious example of an active state generating competitive advantage is the United States, from its early industrial policies, to later state support for research and development and specific technologies. The city-states of the Italian Renaissance and the United Kingdom and modern Japan are also good examples.
Meanwhile, Habsburg Spain and the Ottoman Empire never developed coherent and consistent approaches to sponsoring the main elements of national power, and their competitiveness was weak. Meanwhile, the active state in turn relies on another feature of competitive societies: effective social institutions.
As economists Daron Açemoglu, Douglas North and James Robinson have shown in their studies, strong and comprehensive institutions promote economic growth, strengthen the legitimacy of the state, respond to social challenges and produce efficient military power.
For example, in the United Kingdom a century-old national parliament, a strong financial sector and a powerful navy helped the country’s economic and geopolitical rise. On the other hand, the fall of the Soviet Union revealed what happens when institutions become corrupt and ineffective.
But most competitive societies share another characteristic: they tend to place a strong social emphasis on learning and adaptation. They are motivated by the desire to create, explore and learn. Instead of remaining hostage to tradition, they embrace adaptation and experimentation and are open to innovations in public policies, business models, military concepts and doctrines, but also in art and culture. Throughout history—from Athens to Rome, to industrial Great Britain and the United States—competitive success has been closely linked to broad intellectual curiosity and a commitment to learning. More recent studies provide evidence of a positive relationship between commitment to education in the field of modern technology and growth and innovation, as well as a relationship between educational achievement and economic growth of a country.
Finally, most dynamic and competitive nations carry a significant degree of diversity and pluralism. A wide range of experiences and perspectives helps generate more ideas and talent that in turn support national strength. Likewise, pluralism strengthens organizations and institutions, forcing them to continue competition.
Nations gain a tremendous competitive advantage if they are led by an active elite that defends the public interest and that is representative of the wider society and connected to it through avenues of social mobility. But when a nation’s elite, or most of it, becomes corrupt, that nation’s dynamism, resilience, and competitive advantage will wane.
Taken with abbreviations from “Foreign Affairs” – Bota.al
Note: Michael J. Mazarr, political scientist at the think-tank “RAND Corporation” in the USA.
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