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Strategic Assessment 2020 Nov. 4, 2020

4. Contemporary Great Power Technological Competitive Factors in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The convergence of new technologies is creating a fourth industrial revolution that will transform almost every aspect of 21st-century life. Even as the new technologies generate much greater wealth, the revolution will reshape trade patterns as it returns both manufacturing and services to home markets. The United States is particularly well positioned to take advantage of these changes—but only if it revises its immigration policies to attract and retain the best minds from around the world. China is also well positioned, but it must overcome increasing distrust of its government. Russia is dealing with an ongoing demographic crisis even as foreign and domestic investors have lost trust in its potential for growth.

Nov. 4, 2020

3b. Contemporary Great Power Geostrategic Dynamics: Competitive Elements and Tool Sets

The chapter assesses the hard and soft power tools of the three contemporary Great Powers. It focuses on the tools that each has today and is likely to attain in the coming 5 to 7 years, analyzing how each might use these tools to advance its major interests and strategic aims in the five major categories of state interaction: political and diplomatic, ideological, informational, military, and economic. The chapter observes that the tools of competition traditionally associated with one category of interaction in less rivalrous eras will be used more often in other categories in this era of Great Power competition. It assesses that for the foreseeable future, Russia’s tool kit makes it an urgent but transient security challenger to the United States, while China’s growing power tools make it the true challenger to American national interests and global policy preferences. An assessment of both gross and net power indicators between the United States and China indicates that Beijing’s ongoing power transition timeline is longer than some now fear. This allows American and Chinese leaders time to negotiate mutually acceptable changes to contemporary international norms, rules, and institutions in order to prevent what would be a truly unwelcome and destructive direct military clash, should such accommodation be elusive.

Nov. 4, 2020

3a. Contemporary Great Power Geostrategic Dynamics: Relations and Strategies

This chapter provides a comparative assessment of the strategic objectives for the three contemporary Great Powers: the United States, China, and Russia. It first traces the evolution of each power’s strategic interests from 2000 to 2017, indicating where important milestones transitioned the powers’ relations from relative cooperation and collaboration into de facto rivalry (by 2014 to 2015) and then a formally acknowledged rivalry (in 2017). The chapter next outlines the Great Powers’ current strategic viewpoints and how they contrast across the five major categories of state interaction: political and diplomatic, ideological, informational, military, and economic. It demonstrates that each power has many divergent strategic interests, making rivalry inevitable. The chapter indicates where varying strategic interest intensity combines to make risks of Great Power clashes most worrisome in the coming 5 years: the Indo-Pacific, cyberspace, outer space, and, to a receding degree, the Middle East. It concludes that Russian strategic aims make Moscow a transient security risk to U.S. geopolitical dominance, while China’s ideological vision and aspirations make it the most important, albeit presently less threatening, rival to the U.S. status as the head of the global liberal international order.

Nov. 4, 2020

2. Past Eras of Great Power Competition: Historical Insights and Implications

The chapter reviews the major contemporary theories about interstate power competition and state power transitions. It surveys many of the recent major studies about Great Power transitions since 1500, establishing that the vast majority of such transitions include some form of direct Great Power clash (war). The chapter develops a framework for evaluating the main competitive categories of Great Power competition (GPC): political and diplomatic, ideological, informational, military, and economic. It then applies these categories in analysis of four distinct dyadic rivalries contested in three post-1780 eras of GPC: the United Kingdom (UK) and France; UK and Imperial Germany; UK and the United States, and the United States and Imperial Japan. These eras were chosen due to several important parallels with the emerging era of GPC. It concludes with 10 major insights that hub around the broad conclusion that although periods of Great Power rivalry that involve major power transitions generally lead to direct clash (war) between them, adept statesmanship can arrest this tendency if properly attentive to both the geopolitical and domestic drivers of Great Power war.

Nov. 4, 2020

1. Introduction

This chapter establishes the return of Great Power competition (GPC) as the fully acknowledged, dominant paradigm of interstate relations in 2017 after a 25-year absence from mainstream thinking. It establishes that competition is not synonymous with confrontation and clash and that GPC features a continuum of friendly-to-confrontational interactions between the competitors. The chapter notes the important linkage between GPC and Great Power transitions, observing that power transitions do portend greater instability and possible military clash (war). It establishes that Great Powers compete for an array of interests with a mixture of hard and soft power tools. It also defines a Great Power as one with three major characteristics in comparison to other states: unusual capabilities, use of those capabilities to pursue broad foreign policy interests beyond its immediate neighborhood, and a perception by other states that it is a major player. This makes the United States, China, and Russia today’s Great Powers. After a brief introduction of the volume’s 15 chapters, this chapter provides a short analytical evaluation of 4 relevant topics to contemporary GPC that cannot be addressed fully herein: space, cyberspace, homeland security, and climate change.

Nov. 4, 2020

Major Findings on Contemporary Great Power Competition

This strategic assessment is both firmly focused on the dynamics of contemporary Great Power competition (GPC) and respectful of past strategic assessments generated by the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) over the course of almost 40 years. As an homage to the format of several historical INSS strategic assessments, this one begins with a summary of major findings within the current volume.

Nov. 4, 2020


The completion of an edited volume that is composed of original material at this depth and scope is a testament to collaboration by a team of teams. As editor, I wish to thank each of these teams for its hard work and dedication in providing the high-caliber substance and the appealing form of this volume about the new era of Great Power competition.

Nov. 4, 2020


In retrospect, it seems clear that the new era of Great Power competition that is the subject of the chapters in this volume began to take shape almost as soon as the last era had drawn to a close. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sudden end of the Cold War, the United States found itself in a position of unchallenged (and seemingly unchallengeable) global preponderance.

Nov. 4, 2020

8. Weapons of Mass Destruction, Strategic Deterrence, and Great Power Competition

Weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and the means to deliver them—are an important feature of the global security environment and a key element of Great Power competition. For Russia and China, WMD contribute to multiple goals: conflict deterrence at the strategic and regional levels; regime survival; coercion of rival states; and, potentially, as an adjunct to conventional forces to support operations. U.S.-Russia competition in nuclear weapons has been constrained in recent decades by various arms control agreements, but the erosion of this regulatory regime in the context of deteriorating bilateral relations could create new competitive pressures. China has elevated the importance of its nuclear forces, modernized and expanded its strategic nuclear capabilities, and fielded a growing number of dual-capable theater-range missile systems whose role (whether conventional or nuclear) in a future crisis or conflict could complicate deterrence and heighten escalation risks. China and Russia may perceive chemical and biological warfare agents, including agents developed through new scientific and manufacturing techniques, as important capabilities for a range of operations against the United States and its allies. Chemical or biological attacks could be difficult to attribute and may be well suited to support Russian and Chinese objectives in operations below the threshold of open armed conflict.

Oct. 26, 2020

Baltics Left of Bang: Comprehensive Defense in the Baltic States

The paper starts by defining comprehensive defense, then looks at the primary threats facing the Baltic states and the resulting strategic situation. Then each national author outlines how that state is responding to the threat. The paper concludes with policy recommendations for Baltic state governments.