Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—and China’s implicit support for this violent attempt to subvert the international order—has intensified the strategic competition that now defines U.S. national security policy. What up to this point may have seemed like an abstract and inchoate challenge has suddenly become real, urgent, and perilous. In response, many U.S. officials and analysts have called for the United States to enhance its military capabilities, harden its defenses, and invest in key technologies. Washington must prepare to have its will tested again and again, they say, whether by proxy wars or by other challenges to the United States’ network of alliances and security partnerships. Success in great-power competition, in this view, depends on accumulating victories in a series of individual contests for supremacy.

History offers a different lesson. Nations do not prevail in enduring competitions chiefly by acquiring superior technological or military capabilities or even by imposing their will in every crisis or war. Great powers can make many mistakes—lose wars, lose allies, even lose their military edge—and still triumph in long-term contests. In the struggle for advantage among world powers, it is not military or economic might that makes the crucial difference but the fundamental qualities of a society: the characteristics of a nation that generate economic productivity, technological innovation, social cohesion, and national will.

This is not a new insight, of course. American politicians, scholars, and pundits have for decades paid lip service to the idea that a dynamic and resilient home front is the foundation for success abroad. But behind such vague bromides are specific national qualities that social scientists can identify and measure. Over the course of 15 months, I led a RAND Corporation study for the U.S. Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment, supported by analysis from outside historians, that did exactly that. Drawing on historical case studies and research on economic development, technological advancement, and much else, we isolated a number of national characteristics that throughout history have underpinned national competitive success—including a strong national ambition, a culture of learning and adaptation, and significant diversity and pluralism.

These domestic strengths are the building blocks of international power. But to enable a country to succeed, they must reinforce and support one another. And they must not fall out of balance. Too much national ambition, for instance, can lead to overreach, imperiling the country that overcommits itself. But countries with too little ambition, diversity, or willingness to learn and adapt risk starting a negative cycle that can spiral into national decline. Today, the United States finds itself deficient in many of the qualities that powered its rise over the second half of the twentieth century. If it is to regain its competitive advantage—and prevail in its current contests with China and Russia—it will have to do more than just outspend its rivals on defense or advanced military technologies. It will have to nurture the qualities that make great powers dynamic, innovative, and adaptive.

INNOVATION ADDICTS

On the eve of the Peloponnesian War in 432 BC, a delegation from Corinth traveled to Sparta in a last-ditch effort to prevent what would become a generational conflict. In his history of the war, Thucydides recounts how the Corinthians accused the Spartans, their allies, of turning a blind eye to the alarming growth of Athenian power. “The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act, you never go far enough,” the Corinthians complained. They continued: “To describe their character in a word, one might truly say that they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.” Put differently, Athens posed a danger not primarily because of the size of its navy, the richness of its soil, or the number of its people. It stood to supplant Sparta as the dominant power for a broader and more encompassing reason: the superior qualities of its social and political system.

A remarkably similar story unfolded some 2,000 years later. The United States ultimately prevailed over the Soviet Union in the Cold War because it was more energetic, innovative, productive, and legitimate. Indeed, some commentators made the comparison directly, casting Washington as the Athens of that drama to Moscow’s lethargic, conservative Sparta. The lesson of both historical rivalries applies to nearly all contests between world powers. Almost always, nations rise and fall because of a complex and interlinked set of social characteristics that produce national dynamism and competitive advantage.

Yet identifying these characteristics poses an analytic challenge. Most are abstract and ill defined. Many are also difficult, perhaps even impossible, to measure reliably, especially in historical cases where accurate data simply do not exist. In complex geopolitical interactions, tracing definitive causal relationships can be difficult or impossible. Partly as a result, many efforts to identify the factors underpinning dynamism and competitiveness have produced essentialist theories about national will or decadence or have posited the superiority of certain cultures.

Countries with too little ambition, diversity, or willingness to adapt risk spiraling into decline.

Any attempt to overcome this challenge must first define the yardstick for national success or failure. Measures of economic growth or indicators of technological innovation might seem like obvious answers. But these are intervening factors: economic growth is a source of national power to be sure, but it is also a product of more fundamental factors that generate economic development. The same is true of innovation, military sophistication, productivity, and many other common output measures of national power.

An added complication is that some countries that score high on characteristics associated with national dynamism and competitiveness do not rise to the top of the global hierarchy. Some, such as the Netherlands and Singapore, are too small. Others, such as Sweden and South Korea, have lost or never had a drive for global leadership. Still, they generate economic growth, technological sophistication, high living standards, national cohesion, and many other outcomes associated with success. A related issue is that factors other than societal characteristics can make a critical difference in specific conflicts: Athens had more geopolitical power and long-term cultural influence than Sparta, but thanks in part to a devastating pandemic and strategic blunders such as its invasion of Sicily, it did lose the Peloponnesian War. What all this means is that any effort to identify advantageous societal qualities must consider absolute measures of national strength, such as longevity and ability to provide security and prosperity, and relative ones, such as success or failure in bilateral rivalries or standing on the world stage.

Our RAND Corporation study looked at both. We examined the literature on the rise and fall of nations and on the sources of economic and technological progress, conducted a dozen major historical case studies, and supplemented that historical scholarship with more recent research on a variety of issues such as inequality, diversity, and national identity. We found that nations that demonstrate both absolute and relative forms of competitive success tend to reflect, either in specific periods of ascendancy or longer-term positions atop the global hierarchy, seven leading characteristics: a driving national ambition, shared opportunity for citizens, a common and coherent national identity, an active state, effective social institutions, an emphasis on learning and adaptation, and significant diversity and pluralism.

The causal links between these characteristics and national competitive success, while generally consistent, vary across time and from country to country. And these are not the only variables associated with national success: other factors, such as natural disasters, pandemics, and geography, obviously matter. But a broad survey of the evidence suggests that these seven characteristics play an outsize role in determining the competitive fate of nations.

THE KEYS TO SUCCESS

The first essential characteristic—arguably the foundation for all forms of relative national strength—is some version of driving national ambition. Externally, this trait produces a sense of national mission and greatness and a desire to influence world politics. Internally, it generates a national drive to learn, achieve, and succeed in everything from scientific research to business and industry to the arts. Driving national ambition demands the commitment of a whole people to gain knowledge about and leverage over their world: to explore and control, to understand and direct. This impulse can easily go wrong. Excessive national ambition is a common route to failure, whether through destructive wars of choice or imperial conquests that overextend a nation’s resources and provoke destructive reactions. But without such ambition, countries seldom build potent domestic economic or technological engines or prevail in relative contests for power.

Much of the evidence for the importance of national ambition comes from the historical record and the nearly one-to-one relationship between competitive success and some version of this characteristic. Rome, for example, had a driving ambition: its rise to greatness during the middle and late Republic and early Empire and its supremacy over the major powers of its day were propelled by a powerful societal custom that valorized control, mastery, and conquest. Similar kinds of ambition, including the domestic urge for accomplishment and discovery, can be found in all highly competitive nations—the United Kingdom, the United States, Meiji Japan, the city-states of the Italian Renaissance, and others. Deteriorating societies tend to reflect the withering of this adventurous spirit and everything that goes with it, including a thirst for improvement, an appetite for new knowledge, and a willingness to take risks.

In addition to having a driving national ambition, highly competitive societies tend to share opportunities widely among their citizens. They offer many routes to success and exclude relatively few segments of their population from productive roles—at least as compared with their main rivals. In so doing, they leverage a high proportion of their available talent and provide real prospects to a broad cross section of their population. Over time, societies that exhibit this trait have become more inclusive in various ways, including in granting full rights and opportunities to all social groups and in providing clear pathways to entrepreneurial and creative advancement. Rome, Meiji Japan, and even industrial-era Great Britain gained powerful advantage from versions of shared opportunity that would look incredibly restrictive to modern eyes. But by the standards of their time, these societies generally developed more ways of drawing productive talent from more people than did their competitors.

Reenacting the Roman empire in Rome, April 2017
Alberto Lingria Xinhua / eyevi​ne / Redux

Throughout history, nations that share opportunity among their citizens have gained an edge over those that do not. Rome’s policy of opening citizenship to conquered peoples and incorporating freed slaves into significant social roles gave it economic and military advantages. Likewise, the social mobility afforded by the United Kingdom and the United States gave these powers an advantage over more socially restrictive powers in continental Europe, contributing to their tremendous economic and scientific advancement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Researchers have also found ample evidence for the importance of shared opportunity in narrower, issue-specific studies: inequality is correlated with slower growth and stunted innovation, for instance, and its absence is associated with creativity, innovation, and thus economic growth.

Another characteristic that stimulates national competitiveness is a shared and coherent national identity. The most competitive societies build their achievements on the foundation of a strong shared group identity—in modern settings, a sense of nationhood. Not only does this shared identity help nations avoid the competitive handicaps of political and ethnic fragmentation and conflict, but it also enables them to rally popular support for competitive efforts. The historian David Landes articulated the power of a common and coherent national identity beautifully in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations:

Britain had the early advantage of being a nation. By that I mean not simply the realm of a ruler, not simply a state or political entity, but a self-conscious, self-aware unit characterized by common identity and loyalty and by equality of civil status. Nations can reconcile social purpose with individual aspirations and initiatives and enhance performance by their collective synergy. . . . Citizens of a nation will respond better to state encouragement and initiatives. . . . Nations can compete.

This same dynamic has fueled the rise of many other competitive powers throughout history. For example, Japan’s ascent to industrial and military prominence in both the Meiji and the post–World War II periods was driven in part by a unifying national identity. That identity was always complicated by internal debates over the true nature of the Japanese character, but it nonetheless galvanized a national spirit of shared effort and sacrifice.

Highly competitive societies also tend to benefit from some version of an active state: a coherent, powerful, goal-directed, and effective government that invests in national capabilities and beneficial societal qualities. Active states have taken different forms in different countries and in different eras, yet they have generally nurtured public and private institutions that are essential for economic success and social stability. That has meant underwriting state-led development, cultivating the private sector, assuring national stability, promoting strong education systems, ensuring sufficient markets for revolutionary technologies, and rallying national willpower at critical moments. The most obvious example of an active state generating competitive advantage is the United States, from its early industrial policy to later state support of research and development and specific technologies. The city-states of the Italian Renaissance and the modern United Kingdom and Japan are also good examples. By contrast, Habsburg Spain and the late Ottoman Empire never developed coherent, lasting approaches to sponsoring key elements of national power, and their competitiveness suffered as a result.

Highly competitive societies tend to benefit from some version of an active state.

Economists have cataloged dozens of ways in which active states have helped catalyze growth in modern nations. Mariana Mazzucato, for instance, has shown how state support was critical for major advancements in information technology, green energy, and pharmaceuticals. The Internet and GPS technology both grew in part out of programs at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and government support helped spawn dozens of other technologies, including nuclear power and advanced aviation systems.

The active state in turn relies on another characteristic of competitive societies: effective social institutions. As the economists Daron Acemoglu, Douglass North, and James Robinson have demonstrated, strong and inclusive institutions foster economic growth, enhance the legitimacy of the state, respond to social challenges, and produce efficient military power. In the United Kingdom, for instance, a centuries-old national parliament, strong financial sector, and powerful navy all contributed to the country’s economic and geopolitical rise. The decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, on the other hand, revealed what happens when institutions become corrupt and ineffective. As with all characteristics associated with competitive advantage, effective social institutions alone are not enough to explain national success or failure; to matter, they must be paired with broader values and habits.

Most competitive societies share yet another characteristic: They tend to place a strong social emphasis on learning and adaptation. They are fired by the urge to create, explore, and learn. Instead of being shackled by orthodoxy and tradition, they embrace adaptation and experimentation and are open to innovations in public policy, business models, military concepts and doctrines, and art and culture. Throughout history—from Athens to Rome to industrial Great Britain and the United States—competitive success has been strongly correlated with widespread intellectual curiosity and commitment to learning. More recent studies provide evidence of a positive relationship between a commitment to modern technological education and growth and innovation, as well as one between educational attainment and growth.

Graduating from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, February 2011
Kieran Dodds / Panos Pictures / Re​dux

Finally, most dynamic and competitive nations embody a significant degree of diversity and pluralism. A broad range of experiences and perspectives helps generate more ideas and talents that in turn sustain national power. Pluralism also strengthens organizations, such as firms and military branches, by forcing them to keep up with the competition. Diversity takes many forms: even ethnically and racially homogenous nations, such as the Victorian-era United Kingdom or contemporary Japan, can still produce wide political and commercial variety that drives national competitiveness.

Diversity in the modern sense also promises potential competitive advantages. Melting-pot societies tend not to adopt the kinds of rigid orthodoxies that suppress competition and innovation, and their ability to assimilate foreigners makes it easier for them to attract talent from abroad. These advantages have helped many great powers rise and retain their competitive advantage, and their contribution to national vitality is corroborated by a mountain of empirical research on diversity in organizations.

A BALANCED RECIPE

Each of these seven characteristics is associated with national competitiveness, but not even societies that boast all of them can be assured of long-term success. Nations that prevail in long-term competitions must achieve balance in each trait, since all of these advantages can spiral into excess and become liabilities. This is perhaps most true of national ambition, which can lead nations to overextend themselves. But it is also true of the other characteristics. Efforts to build an active state can, for example, produce a centralizing agenda that curdles into authoritarianism and intolerance. Effective institutions can become bloated and stifling bureaucracies. Too much pluralism can dissolve national unity. Most dynamic and successful nations have therefore sought all seven of the essential characteristics in healthy moderation.

Nations gain tremendous competitive advantage from an active, public-minded elite.

They have also enabled the characteristics to reinforce one another. The most potent advantage of each trait arises not from its individual consequences but from its combined effect with those of the others. National ambition and a culture of learning and adapting strongly reinforce each other, as do an active state and effective institutions. Shared opportunity must be combined with some diversity and pluralism to gain its true value. This recipe for national success, with mutually reinforcing ingredients, shows up in all the competitively dominant societies, allowing for differences in era and approach. It mixes strong state-supported national ambition with varied and diverse human capital, effective social institutions and rule of law, a spirit of shared national community, and a deeply felt reverence for experimentation and new ideas.

In order for this recipe to produce competitive success, a society must have a public-spirited elite class. Nations gain tremendous competitive advantage from an active, public-minded elite that is representative of the broader society and connected to it via avenues of social mobility. But when a nation’s elite, or much of it, becomes corrupt or engages in rent-seeking behavior, that nation’s vibrancy, resilience, and competitive edge will erode. Crucially, the quality of a nation’s elite plays a vital role in determining the legitimacy of its governing institutions. Where elites are seen as corrupt and self-interested rather than devoted to the public good, societies and the institutions that govern them often atrophy or break down.

OVER THE HILL?

All this should give American leaders pause. In the second half of the twentieth century, the United States mastered the recipe for national competitiveness better than any nation in history. And even now, aspects of American society continue to exhibit strong elements of the seven essential characteristics: social mobility, diversity and political pluralism, in particular. Despite their troubles, moreover, U.S. government institutions from the local to the federal level still rank high in global evaluations of transparency and effectiveness. But there are also serious reasons for concern. If the United States continues on its current trajectory, it will risk weakening or even losing many of the traits that for the last 75 years have made it the world’s dominant power.

Four of the seven characteristics are especially at risk. One is national will and ambition. Survey evidence suggests that younger Americans do not view the United States, its values, or its ambitions in the same way as older Americans. A 2019 Eurasia Group Foundation survey, for example, found that fully 55 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 do not think the United States is “exceptional,” compared with only 25 percent of Americans over 60. Belief in American exceptionalism is not the same as ambition, of course, but it does indicate confidence in the national mission. Taken together with the many surveys that show growing popular skepticism about the need to project U.S. military power overseas, Americans’ waning confidence in their national mission suggests a country that is less self-assured than it once was. Across a wide range of issues, polls reveal that Americans generally have less faith in the future and in their major political and social institutions than they have in half a century. Such survey results have always ebbed and flowed, and Americans have had little faith in some institutions, such as Congress, for many decades now. But on the whole, public opinion polls paint a picture of a nation that is no longer sure of itself, much less of its right and duty to impose its will on the world.

The United States’ shared national identity may be in even greater peril. Increasingly, polling data and other observable trends—such as “associative sorting,” wherein people move to live closer to others with similar views—suggest that the country is becoming divided into mutually suspicious camps with little common ground. This national fragmentation has been accelerated by a siloed information environment that allows disinformation and conspiracy theories to thrive.

Storming the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., January 2021
Ashley Gilbertson / VII / Redu​x

Shared opportunity also shows signs of waning. Inequality is rising, and intergenerational mobility appears to be stalled. As the economist Raj Chetty and his collaborators at Harvard’s Opportunity Insights project have shown, only half of young people today earn more than their parents did, compared with 90 percent of people born in 1940. Efforts to close opportunity gaps in areas such as access to venture capital have not been sufficient to reverse these troubling trends. At best, the level of shared opportunity has plateaued, and it may well be retreating after decades of progress.

Finally, the spirit of learning and adaptation in the United States is increasingly threatened by the corrosive information environment. Competitive societies are information-processing organisms whose various components take insights about the world and turn them into behavior. Yet the U.S. information marketplace is being corrupted, in part because of the tremendous amounts of misinformation sloshing through social media, the sensationalism of the news media, the fragmentation of information sources, and the emergence of a “trolling” ethic that encourages hostility and mean-spiritedness in public discourse.

The United States continues to exhibit clear societal strengths. But data on issues as varied as the explosive rise of bureaucratic and administrative functions across many U.S. public and private institutions and the growing proportion of investment devoted to so-called value extraction, including via stock buybacks, suggest that the country may be living off the accumulated benefits of long-standing advantages rather than generating new competitive strengths. The United States displays some of the characteristics of a once dominant power that has passed its competitive prime: by some important measures, it is complacent, highly bureaucratized, and seeking short-term gains and rents rather than long-term productive breakthroughs. It is socially and politically divided, cognizant of the need for reforms yet unwilling or unable to make them, and suffering a loss of faith in the shared national project that once animated it.

Today, the United States finds itself deficient in many of the qualities that powered its rise.

At the same time that the United States has allowed some of its societal strengths to atrophy, its closest rival—China—has built up tremendous societal strengths in some areas but also allowed potentially fatal weaknesses to fester in others. China clearly benefits from a potent national will and ambition, both domestically and internationally, and a unified national identity among much of the population. It has an active state that is pouring resources into human capital, research and development, high technology, and infrastructure. Its subnational governments theoretically offer platforms for vibrant, pluralistic experiments in social policy. China has a proud tradition of learning and education, and its governing institutions appear to have a high degree of legitimacy: in the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, an online survey of public opinion in 28 countries, China scored toward the top of the rankings for average levels of trust in nongovernmental organizations, business, government, and media. In some ways, therefore, China seems to be cultivating a powerful combination of essential characteristics for competitive success and positioning itself to leap ahead of the United States.

Yet there are reasons to think China may falter. Opportunity there is widespread but still limited: inequality is growing, the World Economic Forum ranks China 106th out of 153 countries on gender equality, and young people are increasingly anxious about lack of social mobility. On the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, which measure quality of governance, China continues to lag behind the United States. China has little diversity and shows even less interest in embracing it. Most critically, China is not achieving a healthy balance of these essential characteristics. Its ambition is becoming excessive and self-defeating; its proud national identity could curdle into a xenophobic and exclusionary one that limits learning from abroad. The Chinese state is also becoming hyperactive, seeking to dominate all areas of social and economic life, choking off policy innovation and adaption, and imposing rigid orthodoxies that stifle free inquiry and innovation. These trends, along with other well-known challenges—including a rapidly aging population and burgeoning debt—should be red flags for China.

A QUESTION OF WILL

For the United States, the warning signs come from the opposite direction, suggesting a once-dominant power congealing into immobility. Similar signs have preceded the decline of many other great powers and civilizations that lost their competitive standing. The process is a poisonous cycle, the mirror image of the positive reinforcement among beneficial traits that generates competitive advantage. Opportunity is hoarded. National willpower recedes as a society becomes self-satisfied and gripped by new orthodoxies, losing some its drive for international achievement and domestic intellectual, social, and scientific progress. Unity fragments under partisan or ideological pressures. Social institutions become weak and inept or authoritarian and overly bureaucratic. The active state seizes up and is unable to take bold action to solve problems or create new opportunities.

To retain its competitive edge, the United States may need nothing less than a new national project to reinvigorate its essential characteristics. Our RAND study wasn’t designed to generate specific policy proposals, but its findings hint at what such an initiative would require. Among other things, it should include a renewed commitment to ensuring that opportunity is shared and to unleashing the national creativity and power that reside in underserved and underachieving parts of the population. To cultivate a shared American identity, the United States must also find ways to celebrate American national community and spirit—and unapologetically promote unifying themes of American history and culture—while acknowledging the complexity of its past. And it will have to embrace a renewed, although limited and targeted, active role for the state by encouraging research, innovation, and new models of learning; wage war against bureaucratic excess and administrative constraints on creativity in the private and public sectors; and do more to combat misinformation and disinformation.

Such an agenda would be thoroughly nonpartisan. Some of these needed initiatives—those promoting a vibrant commercial market and a strong sense of national community and identity, for instance—are often associated with conservative agendas. Others are more commonly seen as progressive priorities, including efforts to share opportunity more widely and empower an active state to shape markets for the public good. That there is something for everyone may be because the societal characteristics that drove the United States to predominance always reflected a productive and healthy combination of priorities from across the political spectrum: a nonpartisan view of American greatness that it is essential to recapture today.

The next great challenge for the United States will be to stimulate a new era of competitive advantage.

The challenges confronting the United States are very real. The threats posed by China and Russia should not be exaggerated, but both countries have goals that are antithetical to American interests and values and to the post–World War II international order that has served the United States so well. But the prevailing view of what Washington must do in response—redouble investments in military power and embrace a new campaign to contain Russian and Chinese power—is at best only part of the answer. Such efforts could easily become counterproductive if they overextend the United States or yield new forms of domestic repression and orthodoxy. Far more important is a determined national effort to reinvigorate the qualities that made the United States the greatest engine of competitive dynamism in history.

In 2005, the historian Kenneth Bartlett ended a series of lectures on the Italian Renaissance with a melancholy meditation on the causes of national stagnation and decline:

The Renaissance ended because the sets of attitudes and beliefs and self-confidence, that energizing myth that [was] the motive power of the Renaissance mind, simply ceased to function. The Renaissance could not continue in the form that it had. It couldn’t be sustained because ultimately the failure wasn’t military or political or economic, although all of these provided the context of the truly great failure which was psychological: The failure of will, the failure to confront the crises that the Italians knew that they were in, the decision—the hard decision, and the decision that is so natural in human nature—to accept what is known and safe and stable.

That fateful decision doused much of the intellectual fire that had fueled the period’s remarkable progress. In Bartlett’s words, it killed off the “self-reinforcing energizing myth” that had driven the Italians “to do such great things, to extend human experience so far in such a short period of time.” That source of greatness was much broader and more fundamental than economic growth or military might. It was the essential dynamism and vitality of a society. And when it suddenly evaporated, it left Italy without ambition or a commitment to learning, fearful of experimentation and innovation, and captured by elites concerned with power and profit above all else.

The United States faces a strikingly similar peril today. The primary threat to U.S. dynamism and competitive standing comes not from without but from within: from changes in the character of American society. The next great challenge for the United States will be to stimulate a new era of competitive advantage, one that can revive the qualities that powered the country’s rise in the last century as well as sustain them into the next. As it was for Italy at the end of the Renaissance, the ultimate question for the United States is not one of understanding or of capacity to tackle such an undertaking. The question is one of will: whether the United States has the reservoirs of creative determination, national solidarity, and political resolve to meet this weighty challenge.

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