Competitive Advantage and Rules in Persistent Competitions

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Strategic goals can be refined through a better understanding of competitive advantage in great power conflict.

The contemporary narrative around great power competition is that states can achieve their ends only if they possess competitive advantage. At present, competitive advantage is not properly defined, with commentators instead relying on a variety of interpretations with faulty assumptions, which are shaping procurement and behaviours in the defence and security community around the world. In this paper, the authors propose that competitive advantage be defined as: the ability to wage a campaign in the period between major conflicts (referred to in this paper as ‘wars’) to shape the rules that govern violent competition in favour of one’s own inherent asymmetries, such as domain-specific advantages due to geography, internal domestic conditions and the particular components of material power.

This paper explains the context for great power competition, proposes a definition of ‘competitive edge’, and establishes connectivity between concepts and actions for militaries. Along the way, and most importantly, the paper aims to reshape the reader’s interpretation of ‘rules’ in international relationships – not as rules by which order is maintained, but as a means of governing competition itself. The paper was informed by a RUSI seminar in November 2019, attended by leading international academics, military leaders and industry.

The key proposition of this paper is that the concept of advantage is often either underdeveloped or conflated with a desirable political end state (for example, the existence of a rules-based order) or specific processes (such as deterrence). This conceptual confusion has important policy ramifications, such as generating strategies which fail to establish priorities and which are reactive by nature, allowing competitors to set the tempo and rules of competition.

This paper grounds the notion of competitive advantage in the idea that in a competition each state enjoys domain-specific asymmetric advantages. As such, the authors’ proposition is that competitive advantage should be defined as structuring the rules of competition to enable the use of one’s own comparative advantages and curtail those of one’s opponents. The study of historical and contemporary great power competitions through this lens yields several key conclusions:

  • In an era of persistent competition, states are engaged in constant campaigns between phases of major wars to shape the rules of competition in favour of their own asymmetrical advantages. Rather than being seen as an alternative to war, so-called ‘grey-zone’ activities should be seen as primarily efforts to socialise an opponent to accept certain rules of competition when war does break out.
  • In this context, framing the goal of strategy as the defence of open-ended principles, or in terms of processes such as deterrence, yields a policy that is both reactive and untenable – allowing opponents to shape the rules of competition.
  • Selecting ends that are consistent with one’s own asymmetries, shaping competitors’ behaviour to accept rules that favour these asymmetries and exploiting the opportunities this provides requires a whole-of-government approach. However, interagency coordination is not the same thing as fusion. In the absence of strategic clarity and a keen understanding of key asymmetries to which the behaviour of agencies is subordinated, coordination can produce a strategic whole that is less than the sum of its parts.

This paper uses a variety of sources to illustrate and test its argument. In addition to the RUSI seminar with policymakers, military leaders and industry, the paper has used a variety of historical case studies to build its theoretical base. To the extent that the paper is attempting to illustrate the broad utility of its key arguments across multiple time periods and contexts, examples were selected for temporal variance. They were also selected on the basis of their commensurability with contemporary circumstances in terms of the variables being discussed and their generalisability (that is, cases with sui generis characteristics were avoided).


Dr Sidharth Kaushal

Research Fellow, Sea Power

Military Sciences

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Professor Peter Roberts

Senior Associate Fellow

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