This Is Not a Great-Power Competition

Why the Term Doesn’t Capture Today’s Reality

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet business leaders at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, November 2017 Thomas Peter / REUTERS

A new era of great-power competition is upon us. That, at least, is the emerging conventional wisdom among foreign policy analysts in Washington. Both the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) signaled a shift in thinking: the unclassified summary of the latter declared that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” and many have turned to the classic concept of great-power rivals to describe the new reality. “After being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century,” the NSS concluded, “great power competition returned.” Former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis used the term in a speech outlining the NDS. Outside government, references to great-power competition have proliferated over the last several months, the term having become a sort of shorthand for the situation the United States now faces. But does the phrase really capture today’s reality?

Great-power competition describes a specific pattern of relations between states—the sort practiced by the great empires and nation-states from the seventeenth through the early twentieth centuries. China’s rise as an economic and political power and Russia’s increasing assertiveness on the world stage have understandably fueled analogies to that time. But the emerging era does not match the patterns of the past. Treating it as though it does risks misunderstanding both the character of today’s threats and the source of the United States’ competitive advantages.


Great-power competition reflected a reality that many see as perennial in world politics: the leading powers of any era tend to view one another in suspicious, hostile, and sometimes apocalyptic terms and to compete bitterly for power, influence, and status. The typical version of the concept describes several specific ways in which collections of great powers interact.

For one, great-power competitions create a churning, multipolar structure of world politics in which major powers face a powerful set of potential enemies and constantly shuffle their allegiances. The classic case is Europe in several

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