The Competition Metaphor in International Relations

10 January 2024, 2114 EST

When I arrived at the Pentagon in 2009, the Obama administration was just getting its footing as caretakers of the War on Terror.

Our focus then was truly global dominion. That meant, yes, killing and capturing whatever the intelligence process coughed up as bad guys no matter who they were or where they were. But also, technologically, our fixation was on “prompt global strike”—the idea that the US should be able to reliably put warheads on foreheads anywhere at anytime without constraint. 

I don’t know what to say about that other than that it sounds much crazier when I say it out loud. 

But by the time I left the Pentagon in late 2014, the five-sided imagination had shifted entirely to “competition,” which signaled, among other things, that prompt global strike was not enough. 

In its place came great-power competition. Strategic competition. Long-term strategic competition. “Competitive strategy.” All the buzzwords filling the acronym-addled mind reflected zero-sum repertoires of war-making toward China and, secondarily, Russia. Those adversaries promised a high-technology “future of war.” 

I say with some degree of remorse that I was one of the pioneers of this conceptual shift toward both high-technology war fighting and competition. On some level, I’ve been making amends ever since. 

In this context, it’s really important to understand four related things about the national security state’s fixation on China: 

  1. It predated the Trump administration. 
  2. It originated from the Pentagon, and if you want to get really deep in the origins, the Office of Net Assessment. 
  3. It found expression in the concept of “competition.” 
  4. It is re-expressing, almost beat for beat, how America approached Japan in the ‘80s, which only abated because of Japan’s prolonged recession starting in 1990.

These indisputable historical facts—which I stress in Pacific Power Paradox—seem largely lost in today’s policy conversation.

The reason I bring it all up is that I initially (circa 2012) saw an intrinsic appeal in the logic of competition. The national security state still does. And it’s worth denaturalizing that appeal—questioning its merits—because it’s more affective and habit-based than logical. 

What I mean is, anyone who’s wended their way through strategic studies in grad school has been acculturated to competition as a bedrock (and unquestioned) assumption, and is therefore primed to find “competition” attractive.

For a certain kind of realist, competition is of course the inevitable state of things. And, if you’re a national security bro, as I once was, or have ever worn the uniform, as I once did, you’ve been conditioned in your everyday life to think of competition as a virtuous thing.

But that’s not right. 

There’s something seductive (yet wrong) about analogizing international relations to competition—contests in which a winner means a loser and there is no way to avoid being one or the other. 

Here’s what I think is true, and it comes as much from my time as a competitor in combat sports and growing up around gang culture as it does from my study of international relations.

Competition Reveals, It Does Not “Make”

Competition does not bring out the best in you—it reveals what you’re really about. The submerged self that maybe you can’t access or discover otherwise. And what emerges can be disappointing.

What that means is that if your decisions rest on biases of any kind (racial or otherwise), that will be exposed. If you lack impulse control, you’ll be found out. If you’re a sadist, your sadism will be exposed once you gain a position of advantage or control. What you value most/least will no doubt be exposed. And if you are ruthless and unsparing toward others, competition will reveal whether you discipline yourself that way or whether you only impose it on others.

All of that is what competition will really mean in the context of international politics. That is what the Cold War presented us with over and over. And that is what we’re revealing about ourselves on the global stage today. 

Competition will not make America better in any respect—it will expose in a rawer way what the American national security state is about, and as any honest historian acknowledges, that’s not a pretty picture.

Competition as a Misspecified Analogy

Thomas Schelling, game theorists, and certain realists formalized our knowledge of deterrence, compellence, and brute force as analogous to various games in which we were engaged in competitive pursuits against others. Invariably, the image these analogies conveyed were transactional and zero-sum—two teenagers playing a game of chicken, the prisoner’s dilemma, boxers facing off in a ring. 

But these images are not synecdoches of real life; they are snapshots of extreme outlier moments. Do you play a game of chicken every day of your life? No. 

When the fighter hears the bell ring, he is relieved—he doesn’t carry the fight with him into the locker room or to his hotel. He doesn’t have to fill himself with adrenaline and hyperfocus. What kind of person walks around thinking he’s fighting 24/7? A fascist. To extrapolate strategy insights from the context of the fighter in the cage is to miss everything that is important about what put that fighter in that cage.

As I wrote in the Duck of Minerva a while back:

if you take fighting analogies too seriously, your perception of reality will be massively warped…World politics is obviously a mixed valence enterprise. Some interactions are zero sum, but most are not…The idea that you should ignore the messiness of reality in favor of a view that the world is about domination and nothing else at best presents you a dilemma. You might even call it a security dilemma…

Competition displaces many things for the sake of one thing; it reorients our priorities. It is a selective—and, if your life is well lived, rare—venture.

International relations, by contrast, is an everyday thing. It is the whole of life, on an ongoing basis. Collapsing your reality (and the reality of those around you) into status-chasing or preparation for a “great” war that need not come to pass is nonsensical. Selfish. Unfulfilling.

Worse, it forecloses on better futures. 

From a strategy perspective, relating to other actors in a competitive way leads you to focus on a narrow band of choices—competitive ones, obviously. Doing so obscures context. The circumstances and conditions that give rise to the competitive impulse, and that frame competitive choices, are what matters.  

So if the aim of confronting China is to protect democracy, undermining democracy—whether at home or abroad—makes no sense. It is power stripped of purpose.

The competition metaphor only sporadically fits international relations, and when it does, you must ask the classic question: Is the game even worth the candle?