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Biden’s ‘Strategic Competition’ Is a Step Back

A switch from Trump administration language does nothing to clarify U.S. policymaking.

By , an associate research analyst at CNA.
Then-U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Delaware.
Then-U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, on Dec. 14, 2020. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Recent reporting and public statements by U.S. officials have confirmed U.S. foreign policy has a new guiding creed. As U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration prepares to release its own national security and national defense strategies, officials are settling on “strategic competition” as the guiding idea of policy—especially, though not always explicitly, with China. Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s beloved “great-power competition” has been cast aside.

Great-power competition was a flawed and ill-defined organizing principle, and it should be replaced. But “strategic competition” is a poor replacement and will likely exacerbate the worst elements of great-power competition on both inter- and intra-government levels. At the very least, the Biden administration should provide a clear definition of strategic competition that will guide U.S. government policymaking. Ideally, it should replace both “strategic” and “competition” with clearer, less tautological, and more substantive terms. Otherwise, the next step may be to have a strategic strategy of competitive competition.

Although it is not a new term, no one knows what “strategic competition” is meant to be. Although the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) summary announced that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” Trump-era officials and the U.S. Defense Department spoke most often in terms of “great-power competition.” The Biden administration’s interim national security strategy declares its policy will “allow us to prevail in strategic competition with China or any other nation.”

Recent reporting and public statements by U.S. officials have confirmed U.S. foreign policy has a new guiding creed. As U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration prepares to release its own national security and national defense strategies, officials are settling on “strategic competition” as the guiding idea of policy—especially, though not always explicitly, with China. Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s beloved “great-power competition” has been cast aside.

Great-power competition was a flawed and ill-defined organizing principle, and it should be replaced. But “strategic competition” is a poor replacement and will likely exacerbate the worst elements of great-power competition on both inter- and intra-government levels. At the very least, the Biden administration should provide a clear definition of strategic competition that will guide U.S. government policymaking. Ideally, it should replace both “strategic” and “competition” with clearer, less tautological, and more substantive terms. Otherwise, the next step may be to have a strategic strategy of competitive competition.

Although it is not a new term, no one knows what “strategic competition” is meant to be. Although the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) summary announced that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” Trump-era officials and the U.S. Defense Department spoke most often in terms of “great-power competition.” The Biden administration’s interim national security strategy declares its policy will “allow us to prevail in strategic competition with China or any other nation.”

Neither administration defined strategic competition. During the Trump administration, officials and officers focused on great-power competition, which itself remained poorly defined. Biden officials have, at best, only described how strategic competition departs from great-power competition. For example, on Oct. 6, Assistant Secretary of Defense Mara Karlin stated strategic competition “ideally requires a disciplined and focused approach” that leverages U.S. advantages to a greater degree than the great-power competition concept.

A clear, basic definition will not give away the U.S. road map for dealing with China or other challenges. It will, however, be essential for making sure the many U.S. government outposts are on the same page. In the absence of better exegesis, let’s unpack the term—as officials and officers across the U.S. national security apparatus are surely doing.

At best, “strategic” is intellectual dead weight. What would “operational,” “tactical,” or even “nonstrategic” competition look like? What distinguishes “strategic” competition from competition? Indeed, in 2019, Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell—both now serving the Biden administration in senior policymaking positions—noted “foreign policy frameworks beginning with the word ‘strategic’ often raise more questions than they answer.”

At worst, “strategic” is the germ of organizational confusion. Strategic competition promises to be a Rorschach test because, as Clements Center predoctoral fellow Elena Wicker observed, overuse has bleached strategic of substance. In a culture where “strategic” is a meaningless modifier and officers and officials seek to link their domains to guidance from above, strategic competition is a blank slate that could justify almost anything. In this climate, a theory of strategic competition risks being a practice of mere competition.

For all its flaws, the great-power competition concept clearly directed the U.S. government to focus on competing with great powers (though defining “great powers” opens another can of worms). To tie their portfolio to great-power competition, officials had to focus on China and Russia, the great powers implicated in the concept. North Korea, Iran, and terrorism were all stretches to fit into the great-power competition concept by design—the priority was the United States’ great-power rivals: Russia and China.

In contrast, strategic competition by itself could refer to any of the classic threats that have animated U.S. national security for the past 30 years—though not the deepening threat of climate change. Absent clear guidance akin to that found in the NDS summary saying the organizing principle is “inter-state strategic competition,” it will be hard to genuinely set priorities. Primary threats—be it climate change, Russia, or China—will be relatively diminished as advocates for handling Iran, North Korea, and terrorism push their causes up the agenda.

Competition is also not a particularly useful term. As foreign-policy professor Daniel Nexon noted with respect to great-power competition, “competition isn’t a strategic goal.” This remains true for strategic competition. Furthermore, like great-power competition, it still primes policymakers and shapers to view the world through the prism of competition with adversaries. Competition with these adversaries is a vital component of U.S. foreign policy—but it cannot be the only lens.

The Biden administration has wisely noted that great powers can cooperate, and the U.S.-China relationship must be one of “responsible competition.” This aligns with CNA analysis that encouraged naval officers to think in terms of “great power relations.” (Although as the graphs above show, the Navy is fond of great-power competition.) Replacing “competition” would help the U.S. government focus on the fact that all states, whether allies or adversaries, compete and cooperate in ways that shape and are shaped by U.S. foreign and defense policy.

That strategic competition has won the bureaucratic battle to replace great-power competition is even more concerning in light of the national security advisor’s past remarks. In 2019, Sullivan and Campbell wrote ‘“strategic competition” reflects uncertainty about what that competition is over and what it means to win in foreign policy. Strategic competition’s triumph could be the result of persuasive arguments restricted to government that changed Sullivan’s mind. More likely, it suggests that the process could agree on no adjective beyond “strategic,” which suggests that strategic competition will be anything but.

As Sullivan and Campbell imply, more precise terms are possible and desirable. Karlin suggested strategic competition connotes focus and discipline. So set the bearing toward “focused competition” or “disciplined cooperation,” if that’s what you care about most. If the concern is over order, ideology, or existence, “competition over order,” “ideological competition,” and “existential competition” all provide greater clarity. On Oct. 6, the Biden administration used “responsible competition” to describe the U.S.-China relationship. Any of these would have an easily understood, inherent meaning that would provide better direction and a clear frame of reference for U.S. foreign-policy observers at home and abroad.

With neither the national security strategy nor national defense strategy finalized, published, or delivered, the Biden administration still has a chance to replace strategic competition with a term that will focus and shape U.S. foreign policy. At the very least, both documents should provide a clear definition of what exactly strategic competition is. Better yet, replace “strategic” with a concrete adjective. Best of all would be to ditch “competition” for a term that better captures the nuances of U.S.-adversary and U.S.-ally relations.

Cornell Overfield is an associate research analyst at CNA. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect his employer.

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