- Jonathan M. DiCiccoJonathan M. DiCiccoMiddle Tennessee State University
- and Tudor A. OneaTudor A. OneaBikent University
Great-power competition (GPC) is a touchstone for strategists and policymakers. Its popularity stems from perceptions of China’s rise, Russia’s resurgence, and the United States’ relative decline. The term’s notoriety in policy circles is related to its use in U.S. national defense and strategy guidance documents. Sometimes GPC is dismissed as a buzzword, but it is a distinctive phenomenon that deserves scholarly investigation.
GPC is a classic feature of modern international relations grounded in a traditional power politics approach. Specifically, GPC is a permanent, compulsory, comprehensive, and exclusive contest for supremacy in a region or domain among those states considered to be the major players in the international system. The contest varies in intensity over time and space but remains a persistent aspect of the international system of sovereign states.
Great powers field uncommonly large, sophisticated, and diversified capabilities and compete for high stakes; their competitive behavior is endemic to a stratified system in which select states are recognized as having special status. That status imparts to members of the great-power club privileges and responsibilities, including collective action to address system-wide problems. However, the competition over power, security, and status among the great powers is always present.
GPC is often parsed into analytically separable dimensions (military, economic, scientific–technological, and so on), but in practice such dimensions are interrelated. Together with the great powers’ extraordinary capabilities and interests, the interdependence of these dimensions of competition tends to push GPC to be comprehensive. GPC is sometimes treated as something other than war, but when GPC intensifies, the possibility of major war looms.
Patterns of GPC are identified through the lens of competing schools of thought on power politics: balance of power and hegemonic–power transition. Each provides a general framework in which GPC may be located. Scholars, however, should not confine their investigations to such frameworks; novel scholarship is warranted to further develop the concept of GPC, to characterize it and theorize about its dynamics, to further study it empirically, and to scrutinize it through critical lenses.
- Conflict Studies
- International Relations Theory
- Security Studies
Great-power competition (GPC) has become a touchstone for strategists and policymakers. Its popularity stems from perceptions of China’s rise, Russia’s resurgence, and the United States’ relative decline. Such perceptions have led observers to anticipate intensifying conflict among those states most capable of dominating a region or contending for global preponderance. GPC has been elevated over 9/11-era priorities such as countering terrorists, insurgents, and threats to human security (Wright, 2020). The reordering of priorities is often represented as a paradigm shift (Miles & Miller, 2019; O’Hanlon & Twardowski, 2020).
The emphasis on GPC has invited scrutiny from scholars and analysts. Some complain that the concept lacks explanatory power, strategic value, or both (e.g., Ashford, 2021; Mazarr, 2019; Nexon, 2021; Wyne, 2020, 2022). Such complaints have not prevented adherents from treating GPC as a guiding principle for grand strategy, particularly for the United States. National security guidance documents issued by both the Trump and Biden administrations regard GPC as a key feature of the international environment that requires adjustments to policy and strategy.1
Indeed, the expression’s ubiquity in the blogosphere, think-tank reports, and policy-oriented journal articles may be traced to documents like the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS) (Blankenship & Denison, 2019; Larson, 2021). The NSS highlighted “the contest for power” and expressed concern about “revisionist powers” China and Russia “reassert[ing] their influence regionally and globally,” thus challenging the United States and contesting the U.S.-led international order. The need to renew a competitive advantage was framed by claiming that, “after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition [has] returned” (White House, 2017, pp. 1, 27).
Claims that GPC has “returned” ring hollow for many international relations (IR) scholars. As one memorably wrote in Foreign Affairs, “competition among great powers cannot return, because it never really went away” (Nexon, 2021). Great-power politics has always been a part of modern IR. It is the subject of a venerated tradition of dramaturgy, theory, and analysis, from Thucydides to postwar-era scholars like Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, A. F. K. Organski, and Kenneth Waltz. The assumption that a struggle for power inheres in the human condition connects Thucydides’ statement, “of the gods, we believe, and of men, we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can” (Thucydides, 2008, Book V, p. 354) with 20th-century IR realists like Morgenthau, who wrote that “international politics is of necessity power politics” (Morgenthau, 1973, p. 40). GPC fits into this broad tradition, though it should be differentiated from competition and struggle among ordinary states. It is rather a distinct contest among extraordinary states over supremacy in one or more regions, domains, or fields (see the sections “Defining Great-Power Competition” and “Characteristics of Great-Power Competition”).
Though as a term of art “great-power competition” made only sporadic appearances in the IR literature prior to the Trump administration (e.g., Jervis & Snyder, 1991; also Harkavy, 2013; Wishnick, 2009), the general idea is integral to works that trace the rise and fall of great powers and patterns of contention among them (e.g., Gilpin, 1981; Levy, 1983; Mearsheimer, 2001; Organski & Kugler, 1980; Rasler & Thompson, 1994).2 By interpolating between works of this sort and the broader power-politics tradition, it is possible to distill an understanding of GPC as a distinctive, persistent phenomenon in the modern international system.
Whether GPC merits special consideration remains controversial. The position taken here is that an academic conversation about GPC is warranted and should begin with a series of tasks, each of which is afforded its own section:
observing GPC in world politics, defining and characterizing GPC as an inescapable contest for supremacy in one or more regions, domains, or fields,
expanding on key characteristics of GPC (i.e., that it is permanent, compulsory, comprehensive, and exclusive),
discussing great powers, their qualifications, and how their self-prescribed behavior constitutes and perpetuates GPC,
clarifying the stakes over which great powers compete,
assessing the difficulty of parsing dimensions of GPC, and
highlighting discernable patterns of GPC as reflected in long-standing (if also competing) traditions of IR scholarship.
A concluding section underscores the idea that GPC is a distinctive but regular feature of IR—one that takes on specific forms and patterns and varies in intensity but merits scrutiny precisely because it never really goes away.
Observing Great-Power Competition in World Politics
GPC may be observed and characterized using historical insights from the modern system of states (1648–present).3 This approach privileges the central system of European politics, diplomacy, and war because the term “great powers” (and states that initially filled that role) emerged from that system.4 Contemporary great powers have achieved their status by consciously emulating precursors and replicating many of their practices—including competition, which may be understood as constitutive of great-power-ness. In other words, great powers are such because they have proved willing and able to compete with other great powers (see the section “Defining Great-Power Competition”).5
To begin from the premise that GPC exists as an observable phenomenon is not to deny that it is, in part, socially constructed by participants and analysts. Indeed, choosing to analyze GPC is in itself consequential because inquiry can sustain an idea and give it life. In its present confines, GPC resembles Schrödinger’s cat: simultaneously vital and moribund. An inquiring observer may expose it as either vital or moribund, but not both. Readers are encouraged to register their own observations regarding this contested concept’s vital signs, evidence of which may be detected in discursive contexts as well as historical treatments of great-power politics, from conflict and war to coordination and collusion.
Defining Great-Power Competition
GPC may be understood as a practice in world politics, and arguably a constitutive practice—that is, great powers are great powers because they compete or are capable of competing with each other.6 Accordingly, the concept “great power” means little outside of competition against similar actors, and a great power cannot give up the competition without jeopardizing its membership in the great-power club. Similarly, if the great powers were to stop competing because, say, one dominant power absorbed the others into an empire, or if the great powers chose to integrate into a single, larger entity, then this would mean an end to the modern great-power system. In an international system that features great powers, GPC is an endemic feature of the system.7
With this in mind, GPC may be defined as a permanent, compulsory, comprehensive, and exclusive contest for supremacy in one or more regions, domains, or fields among those states considered to be the major players in the international system at a given time. The contest’s intensity may vary over time; so too might the relative emphasis placed on specific dimensions of contestation. This definition amounts to saying that GPC is a distinct subtype of international competition. While it shares some features with the more general state-versus-state competition assumed by mainstream IR theories of power politics, it stands apart in important ways.
The power-politics tradition, broadly construed, maintains that inescapable competition among states risks tipping over into violent conflict. War is possible for numerous reasons: Most states respond to the absence of a centralized authority above states (international anarchy) by investing in military capabilities; the demand for scarce resources fuels competition; and the tendency to favor one’s group in distributing resources and benefits predisposes states to compete, and sometimes to fight (Schweller, 1999; Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Waltz, 1958, 1979). In the extreme, states fight to preserve their very existence. Because the survival of one’s state is at risk, competition with other states is compulsory, and as long as independent states exist under anarchy, the competition remains permanent.8
GPC, too, is permanent and compulsory within the confines of the modern international system. However, unlike ordinary interstate competition, it is comprehensive, exclusive, and distinctive for the stakes involved, including their magnitude and breadth. This latter point does not refer to survival, but instead to the struggle that plays out within and across regions—for spheres of influence, regional dominance, and even preeminence in the global system—and its consequences for the wide range of state and issue areas that GPC affects.9 Since the question of whether GPC is worthy of attention hinges on whether the idea has any substance, these characteristics merit elaboration.
Characteristics of Great-Power Competition
Never has there been such harmonious cooperation among all great powers as to render the modern system devoid of GPC. GPC’s intensity may alternate between intervals of greater collaboration, such as the Concert of Europe (1815–1854) or the post-Cold War era (1990–roughly 2014), and greater conflict (even total war, as in the two world wars).10 Cooperation may coexist with conflict; for example, the Cold War featured intervals of détente as well as crisis. That said, there are no holidays from GPC, even during more peaceful intervals. Consider the Concert of Europe: Even in its heyday (1815–1822), it was based not only on cooperation, but also the veiled threat of military confrontation among its participants (Britain, France, Russia, Austria, and Prussia). War between France and the other four powers was not ruled out in the case of Belgium’s independence in 1830–1831, nor in the Egyptian crisis of 1839–1841 (Kissinger, 1957; also Bridge & Bullen, 2005). Likewise, the post-Cold War period featured great-power friction during the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, the 1999 Kosovo War, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine (Chollet & Goldgeier, 2008; also Charap & Colton, 2017). The contest among great powers persists through periods of war and peace and never completely goes away (Nexon, 2021; also Edelstein, 2019).
A great power cannot decline to participate in GPC because sitting out the contest would leave it comparatively worse off and could result in its dismissal from the club. A passive great power risks passing up opportunities in favor of rivals that achieve gains in its place. As Catherine the Great allegedly said in the case of the 1792 partition of Poland among Russia, Austria, and Prussia: “Who gains nothing, loses” (McKay & Scott, 1983, p. 211). Passivity may manifest as a great power punching below its weight, as in the 18th century when the Netherlands failed to convert its economic and technological superiority into commensurate military and political power and ended up occupied by France in 1806 (Israel, 1995; Zakaria, 1998). Passivity also allows threats to the great power’s interests to proliferate over time; consider Britain’s purposive limitations on armament under the Ten Year Rule (the assumption that major war would not occur in the next decade), which arguably contributed to its weakness against the rising Axis (Layne, 1993; Mearsheimer, 2001).
Great powers draw upon large and diversified portfolios of capabilities and practices when competing with each other. Moreover, any conceivable political, economic, military, technological, diplomatic, ecological, or cultural development may be exploited by the great powers to improve their standing in the ongoing competition. Vigilance toward other competitors, then, is compulsory and can imbue otherwise benign developments with significance for the contest. As Metternich was rumored to have quipped upon hearing that the French foreign minister Talleyrand had died, “I wonder what he meant by that?”
This does not mean that GPC is a no-holds-barred free-for-all in which anything goes. Rather, it suggests that all available opportunities might (and perhaps should) be employed to enhance or regain capabilities, status, and security relative to other great powers. In the opening decades of the 21st century alone, great powers exploited developments in refugee movements, energy prices, global warming, the fight against terrorism, innovative technologies (e.g., hypersonic missiles, drones, and cyber weapons), space exploration, the Olympic games, and the COVID-19 pandemic to gain an upper hand. Non-great powers are unable to take advantage of the full range of such opportunities due to their limited capabilities and interests; consequently, their competitions tend to be circumscribed to specific areas in which they enjoy some comparative advantage. By contrast, competition among great powers is multidimensional and, when taken to extremes, may seem all-encompassing.
Great powers do not compete against lesser-ranked powers for power, status, or security. They only compete against each other. Great powers start with a commensurable advantage over non-great powers in the size and diversity of their capabilities portfolios; generally, only other great powers are able to unilaterally prevent them from achieving their objectives. Further, since great powers are expected to prevail in military confrontations against non-peers, they are not likely to perceive the latter as threats to survival. Only a great power’s peers pose existential threats in the sense of conquest, occupation of territory, or restriction of its political independence. The same rule does not apply to non-great powers that fear both their neighbors and great-power intervention alike. Finally, status contests only occur between similarly positioned social actors; as Aristotle put it, it is “potter against potter.” The more a certain actor is out of everyone’s league, the less likely it is to elicit comparisons with the lower ranks on the assumption that most actors will never catch up to it, try as they might. Great powers therefore measure their status only against peers (Mearsheimer, 2001; Renshon, 2016; Schweller, 2006; see also Elster, 1999, pp. 164–202; Rosato & Schuessler, 2011).11
Magnitude and Breadth of Stakes
Stakes are considerably larger in GPC compared to ordinary interstate competition. Lesser-ranked powers are constrained by the limits of their capabilities; most are capable of competing only against peers in their immediate area, whether neighborhood or region (Vasquez & Senese, 2008). Great powers compete at a systemic level: extra-regionally or even globally (Buzan, 2004; also Lemke, 2002). A great power need not share borders or even the same region with another great power to consider it a competitor—consider the United States and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War or the United States and China in the 21st century (Thompson, 1999).
For non-great powers, the stakes of competition consist of survival and securing a modicum of capabilities, especially tied to the territory they control or claim. By contrast, great powers concern themselves with which power exercises predominant influence over a given international area.12 In this sense, GPC may be referred to as a struggle for “mastery” or supremacy within a system or regional subsystem (Friedberg, 2000, 2011; Simms, 2013; Taylor, 1954). In practical terms, great powers care about the way power and status are distributed. Both are positional goods and cannot be shared, since the more actors lay claim to them, the less meaningful they become. A great power can improve its power and status only at the expense of another great power. As positional-goods theorist Fred Hirsch put it: “positional competition is a zero-sum game; what winners win, losers lose” (Hirsch, 1978, 23; see also Schweller, 1999; Wohlforth, 2009).
A Note on Nuclear Weapons
Discussions of high-stakes competition for power and status demand consideration of nuclear weapons. Though they may confer elements of power and status, nuclear weapons are neither a necessary nor sufficient qualification for great-power-ness (see the section “Great Powers”), nor have such weapons obviated GPC or affected its ubiquity. However, they may affect GPC’s intensity and domains of competition.
Some scholars hold that nuclear weapons dampen the propensity of adversaries to fight, which helps explain the so-called long peace: the unprecedented absence of great-power war since the mid-20th century (Sagan & Waltz, 2013; also Gaddis, 1987). Some argue further that through their sheer destructive power, nuclear weapons confer security to great powers possessing them, which in turn should dampen their incentives to arm themselves beyond a second-strike capability, to establish control over strategic territory, or to gain and keep allies (Brodie, 1946; Jervis, 1989; Sagan & Waltz, 2013). But these assumptions are not borne out by practice. No nuclear-armed great power has forgone a diversified portfolio of military capabilities nor the use of coercive practices.
Great powers may not intentionally engage in nuclear war, but they manipulate the risk of war to exert concessions from their rivals. In the nuclear age, crises arguably have substituted for major war, as evidenced by the United States–Soviet Cold War (George & Smoke, 1974; Hoffman, 1965; Schelling, 1966), and thus nuclear brinksmanship is one possible manifestation of GPC. Competition may also occur before a great power can develop a survivable nuclear arsenal and thus remains vulnerable to a rival’s first strike (Sagan & Waltz, 2013), or if new technological advances reintroduce concerns about survivability. Indeed, studies have called into question whether nuclear stalemate or mutual assured destruction is self-sustaining (e.g., Rhodes, 1991). A great power might harness technological developments such as advances in weapon systems’ accuracy and maneuverability, missile defenses, or sensors and cyber capabilities to escape the stalemate, as the Reagan administration sought to do with the Strategic Defense Initiative (Baucom, 1992; DiCicco, 2011). The possibility of a competitor gaining nuclear superiority represents a powerful incentive for a great power to seek for itself such advantages (Kroenig, 2018; Lieber & Press, 2021). Rather than eliminating GPC, nuclear technology and armament can become one domain in which great powers compete against each other, as in the nuclear arms races between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Finally, possessing a large number of strategic nuclear weapons does not guarantee the prevention of an adversary’s attack with conventional or tactical nuclear weapons. A rival might use conventional force to seize territory and then use the threat of nuclear weapons to secure its gains. Consequently, great powers have incentives to acquire and maintain diversified inventories of conventional weapons, tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, and specialized defenses as part of their ongoing competition with one another—a stance reflected in the United States’ Nuclear Posture Review of 2018 (Colby, 2018; Cunningham, 2021; Montgomery, 2021; Péczeli, 2018).
So, not all great powers acquire nuclear weapons, but most do; and for those that have them, nuclear weapons tend to comprise a high-stakes domain of competition with other great powers.
Embedding Great-Power Competition in International Relations Theories
GPC’s distinctive characteristics insinuate it as an important, if often implicit, principle in mainstream international relations (IR) theories (see also the section “Patterns in Great-Power Competition”). At first glance, GPC may seem a logical component of structural realism because of their shared focus on great powers. As Kenneth Waltz put it, “the story of international politics is written in terms of the great powers of an era” (Waltz, 1979; also Mearsheimer, 2001). Nonetheless, there are fundamental distinctions between GPC as a power-politics phenomenon and structural realism (Goddard & Nexon, 2016). The latter emphasizes anarchy as a condition that compels all states (as functionally undifferentiated units) to seek survival, which perpetuates security competition among all states. By contrast, the competition in GPC is restricted: Not all states can partake in it (actually, most cannot), and its stakes are more ambitious than ensuring survival. Indeed, as many prominent thinkers in the power-politics tradition have argued, great powers’ pursuit of goals such as status and influence might put their survival at risk (Aron, 1966; Carr, 2016; Gilpin, 1981; Morgenthau, 1973; Spykman, 1942; Wolfers, 1962).
While power is a fundamental part of power politics, it is insufficient for explaining and forecasting variations in GPC. Geopolitics, domestic politics, ideology, identity, technology, decision-makers’ perceptions, and the history of previous great-power interactions may all be seen as relevant factors. GPC is not merely a function of polarity (see the section “Polarity”) or system structure, and more eclectic theories such as neoclassical realism promise insight into GPC (see, e.g., Lobell et al., 2016). Liberal theories, too, and constructivist approaches—for example, those illuminating strategic culture—may provide appropriate frameworks for analyzing GPC (Johnston, 1995; Katzenstein & Sil, 2010; Moravcsik, 1997), as might some approaches in the Marxian tradition.
GPC therefore is not the exclusive domain of realists. Many working in a constructivist mode, in a liberal vein, or from Marxian or critical perspectives would acknowledge that GPC is an important feature of the system that has consequences for many aspects of international politics—at least in some times, places, and social configurations. On the world stage, “the units of the greatest capability set the scene of action for others as well as for themselves” (Waltz, 1979, p. 72). These extraordinary units—the great powers—deserve additional examination before moving ahead with discussions of the stakes, dimensions, and patterns of GPC, the last of which reintroduces the possibility of embedding GPC in IR theories.
Great powers stand apart from average states because of their capabilities, behavior, and peer recognition (Levy, 1983; Lynch, 2020). In effect, to become, remain, or return as a competing great power, a state must be able to fulfill all three criteria. Since great powers and GPC are mutually constitutive, these identifying criteria also influence the stakes and patterns of GPC and are implicated in great powers’ ascendancy as principal actors on the world stage.
Origins of the Great Powers
The origins of great powers and the competition among them poses a chicken-and-egg problem. No consensus exists as to when great powers (and, ipso facto, GPC) emerged. Levy (1983) and others (Dehio, 1962; Modelski, 1972) date the process to the end of the 15th century, starting with France’s invasion of Renaissance Italy in 1494. Indeed, this moment is seen as coinciding with the emergence of modern institutions and practices such as balance of power, raison d’état, diplomatic representation, and the use of gunpowder weapons in the European context. However, the term great power was first used in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna to describe states such as Russia, Britain, Austria, France, and Prussia that could put in the field 60,000 troops (Webster, 1950). Many date the great powers’ rise to the 17th century between the Treaties of Westphalia (1648) and the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), the first instances of system-wide war and diplomatic congresses convened to negotiate the subsequent peace (McKay & Scott, 1983; also Craig & George, 1995; Lebow, 2010; Onea, 2021). From these perspectives, two common points emerge. First, great powers and GPC arose in tandem; and second, their rise is a modern state-system phenomenon. For this reason, the term great power does not refer to every empire or strong state throughout history, but instead applies to distinctive polities in the modern system that collaborate, confer, consult, and, above all, compete.
Scholars largely agree on the historical composition of the great power club but may dispute the timing of a particular state’s membership or demotion. The historical list of great powers counts 12 states: France, Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, the Habsburg Empire/Austria-Hungary, Sweden, Russia/U.S.S.R., Prussia/Germany, Italy, the United States, Japan, and the People’s Republic of China (Levy, 1983; Sarkees & Wayman, 2010). The Ottoman Empire and contemporary India are occasionally added to this list, but the rest figure in most all accounts. Current great powers include the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China), plus Germany and Japan (Sarkees & Wayman, 2010, pp. 34–35; see Volgy et al., 2011, for an alternative metric).
Great powers field uncommonly large, sophisticated, and diversified capabilities. Capabilities are both material and nonmaterial. Material elements include territory (size, layout, geographic location, natural resource endowment); population (size, average age, proportion of urban-to-rural population); wealth (productivity captured by gross domestic product [GDP], say, or inclusive wealth, accounting for health, education, environment, and infrastructure); military strength (size, equipment, force structure, and training of armed forces); and technology (ability to discover and apply new devices and techniques; Tellis et al., 2003; also Onea, 2021). Nonmaterial elements comprise competence in utilizing these capabilities; morale, or the ability to mobilize them and conserve public support; and diplomacy or the ability to obtain support from other states.
To be a great power, a state must surpass ordinary states’ performance across the board and meet or approach club members’ standards along multiple dimensions. It cannot be content with doing well in a single one (Waltz, 1979; Wohlforth, 2012). Even projects that only consider quantifiable material capabilities, such as the Correlates of War, identify major powers using multiple indicators capturing different elements: total population, urban population, iron and steel production, energy consumption, military spending, and size of military forces (Sarkees & Wayman, 2010).13 Most 21st-century great powers have nuclear weapons, but this capability is neither necessary nor sufficient for a state to qualify as a great power (see the section “A Note on Nuclear Weapons”). While each great power’s capabilities must outweigh those of ordinary states, it is not necessary for it to perform equally well in all categories; for example, a great power’s economic productivity may overshadow its military capability (early 21st-century Japan or Germany), or vice versa (Russia).
Great power also represents a role identity, which means that being a great power comes loaded with expectations concerning how it should behave. Specifically, great powers are expected to pursue more extensive interests than ordinary states in terms of range and scope, show a high degree of international involvement in using force and undertaking commitments, assume responsibility for managing the international system, and hold their own when confronting other great powers.14
Unlike ordinary states that have only enough resources to ensure their survival and to affect their immediate neighborhoods, great powers have capabilities to spare. They may project power far away from their borders or even their home region and often can influence outcomes in two or more regions at once (Buzan, 2004). Great powers’ extraordinary and diverse capabilities tend to reflect their extraordinary and diverse interests: They often are concerned with objectives beyond their physical security, such as expanding their sphere of influence or promoting their institutional, cultural, or religious values abroad (Levy, 1983). Such diverse objectives also tend to be reflected in great powers’ behaviors and in their shared expectations of each other’s behavior.
One tell-tale sign that a state is a great power is its level of involvement in wars and alliances. Great powers account for more than half of the interstate wars and for two thirds of the extrastate wars (wars against colonies or political actors not recognized as states) fought during the past two centuries. Great powers are also involved in 88% of the alliances concluded during that interval. Furthermore, scholarship demonstrates that war participation goes up once a state becomes a great power and, conversely, declines once a state exits the great-power ranks (Sarkees & Wayman, 2010; also Gibler, 2009; Levy, 1983; Wright, 1965), which corroborates the claim that conflict behavior and great-power-ness may be seen as mutually constitutive.
Indeed, major war is a crucible in which great-power-ness is forged. Traditionally, it was held that great powers do not emerge as much as they “reveal” themselves through successful war (Taylor, 1954; Wight, 1978). As impressive as a state’s capabilities may look on paper, the ultimate test may be its ability to hold its own against another great power in an escalating crisis (Levy, 1983; Ranke, 1950). All great powers since 1648 have been acknowledged in the aftermath of victories or draws against the great powers of the day.15 On its own, defeating a great power is not sufficient for a state to become itself a great power, as seen with wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan, but failing to meet this criterion may call into question an existing great power’s credentials (Hironaka, 2017).16
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Great powers are capable of great destruction but are not solely destructive—they also tend to assume greater responsibility than ordinary states. Great powers concern themselves with systemic problems such as migration, pandemics, drug trafficking, and terrorism because they are uniquely equipped to solve them (Bull, 1977; Levy, 1983). The great powers have regularly acted as a managerial committee to decide international security matters. The origins of this practice go back to the Concert of Europe (Mitzen, 2013; Schroeder, 1994). It is possible to overstate the harmoniousness of such arrangements: As Korina Kagan (1997, p. 3) argued, “[t]he standard account of the Concert grossly exaggerates the degree of cooperation among the European great powers, while underrating the rivalries and competition among them.” Competition notwithstanding, the collective managerial function of the great powers is neither myth nor anachronism. In the 21st century, many issues of international peace and security are addressed by the “P-5” powers who hold permanent seats on the UN Security Council (Elrod, 1976; Jervis, 1985) or are managed by ad-hoc groups comprised of P-5 members and other great powers (e.g., Germany in the “P-5 + 1” grouping). Inclusion in such elite groupings suggests a third key element of great-power-ness: status recognition.
Great-Power Status Recognition
Great power is also a social rank or status. Status is not self-conferred. It must be acknowledged by other actors (Larson et al., 2014; Lebow, 2009; Murray, 2018). Accordingly, for a state to become or remain a great power, it has to be recognized as such by the members of the great-power club. Recognition means that the state is extended the same privileges, respect, deference, protocol, and immunities enjoyed by current members (Levy, 1983).
By custom and tradition, great powers are to follow a tacit code of conduct whose main rule is to avoid humiliating a peer (Elrod, 1976; Schroeder, 1994). Humiliation in this context refers to a great power being challenged in its vital interests or status by another club member via fait accompli (Altman, 2017). Since other great powers’ reactions may determine whether international endeavors fail or succeed, great care should be taken to consult them in advance to allow them to express any objections. At that point, dissenters may be offered appropriate compensation or may refuse to endorse an action that might be injurious to them. Consultation is also about manifesting proper respect toward a fellow great power by reaffirming it as an equal in rank (Wolf, 2011, p. 106). Failure to consult implies that the other state’s position can be safely ignored—and hence that it is treated as if it was not a genuine great power.17 As a result, consultation is an indication of whether great powers see a state to be just as important as they are by including it in or excluding it from their strategic calculations (Buzan, 2004). To this extent, a state is recognized as a great power once it is consulted regularly by the existing club members—by invitation as an equal partner in international conferences, treaties, congresses, institutions, or decision-making mechanisms they manage (Levy, 1983). If the state is routinely left out, it is not a great power. Peer recognition thus is an integral element of great-power-ness, and status a stake in GPC.
What’s at Stake in Great-Power Competition
Great powers enjoy high rank and engage in competition for high stakes. At first glance, the stakes of GPC resemble those in ordinary state-against-state competition, as they consist of power, security, and status (Lynch & Hoffman, 2020; Mazarr et al., 2018; see also Brooks & Wohlforth, 2015; Gilpin, 1981; Morgenthau, 1973). This classic triad of objectives is traced by some to Thucydides, who argued that the Athenians sought empire for profit, security, and honor (Thucydides, 1972, I, pp. 76, 80–82; also Aron, 1966, pp. 72–74; Lebow, 2009). However, the stakes are considerably larger in the case of GPC. Unlike nongreat powers that are typically constrained to their immediate neighborhood or subregion (Vasquez & Senese, 2008), great powers compete at a systemic level in one or more regions or even globally (Buzan, 2004). Indeed, a great power might seek to establish itself as dominant in one or more regions as a means to achieving security, power, and status.
The ongoing competition over the division of power and status among great powers cannot help but acquire a security dimension. Great powers have both motive and means to oppose each other’s designs. Hence, resistance from other great powers must be anticipated and planned for. The great power seeks to prevail against the active efforts of a rival to prevent it from succeeding and, in turn, it is likely to block the other side from reaching its goals. To invoke Clausewitz, GPC is not the “the action of a living force upon a lifeless mass, but . . . always the collision of two living forces,” bent on outdoing each other (Clausewitz, 1976, p. 77; Freedman, 2013, pp. xi–xiii). China’s use of anti-access and area-denial (A2/ad) strategies to frustrate U.S. naval access to waters adjoining East and Southeast Asia and U.S. efforts to counter those strategies together illustrate one security dynamic associated with GPC (Caverley & Dombrowski, 2020).
Power is a complex objective referring to the ownership of objective, measurable capabilities. These capabilities may be geopolitical (strategic chokepoints), economic (natural resources), military (defense spending and army size), or technological (including but not limited to high-tech and cutting-edge weaponry; Brooks & Wohlforth, 2016). Spheres of influence (Hast, 2014; Jackson, 2020) are of particular importance because they facilitate access to a variety of resources while also denying or diminishing competitors’ access to those resources. GPC takes place both for acquiring resources from third parties and in developing internally more resources than the competitor. As such, power can be both a means to gain an advantage in GPC and a stake over which great powers contend (Morgenthau, 1973).
Status, meanwhile, is a contest to determine which power should be accorded higher ranking and command more deference on the part of the other club members. Put differently, all great powers are relative equals, but some are more equal than others, and great powers jockey for position within the great-power echelon. Status is important for two reasons: First, it is a path to acquiring material advantages through privilege as well as exemptions from common obligations expected of the top-ranking actors; and second, it a psychological gratification mechanism. Group self-esteem is enhanced by superiority by comparison with other actors, which is one reason why great powers seek to achieve and maintain positive social comparison vis-à-vis each other (Larson et al., 2014; Onea, 2014; Ward, 2017; Wolf, 2011). It also helps explain why misrecognition can lead to increasingly risky displays that can provoke crises and escalation to war (Murray, 2018).
While objective power is a determinant of status, great powers will also pay particular attention to performance—how effective capabilities are perceived in practice, not on paper, especially in terms of war records (Hironaka, 2017; Levy, 1983; Wohlforth, 1987, 1993). Great powers often are concerned with status markers, which are seen as indicators of a state’s putative power. Such indicators vary historically. Seventeenth-century great powers were concerned about diplomatic precedence, such as passage or dipping the flag; 18th-century powers emphasized royal displays such as the building of palaces; and 19th-century powers used their colonial holdings as a measuring stick (Luard, 1976, Chapter 9). Since the 20th century, great powers have competed over armaments such as aircraft carriers and hypersonic missiles, basing rights and troop placement, voting rights and procedures in international institutions, Nobel prizes and Olympic gold medals, and space programs (Cooley & Nexon, 2020; Murray, 2010; Neiman et al., 2021; Redihan, 2017; Ross, 2009).
Other Potential Stakes
Great powers also may compete in terms of ideology, but this is not necessarily a motive of GPC, which privileges power, status, and security (White House, 2021; see also Brands, 2018; Kagan, 2009; Kroenig, 2020). Indeed, great powers might compete with each other even if they share the same domestic institutions and religious, cultural, or political convictions. This is mostly evidenced by GPC in the 18th century when all great powers had similarly dynastic regimes and were known to align with ideological adversaries against another great-power competitor, including one sharing the same ideology. Richelieu’s France—despite its Catholic identity—allied with Protestant powers Holland and Sweden against their Catholic rivals Austria and Spain, for example, and during the 1970s, the People’s Republic of China aligned with the United States against the Soviet Union despite the latter’s earlier ideological affinity with China. Ideological conflict is sometimes presented as an indelible feature of GPC, but in this permanent contest pragmatism is likely to prevail over principle.
Proponents of a democratic, liberal, or capitalist peace might argue that GPC could be eliminated altogether if the great powers were to achieve ideological convergence regarding political, economic, or legal arrangements. Would GPC be rendered obsolete if all great powers were to become, say, consolidated liberal democracies (Doyle, 1986; Maoz & Russett, 1993; Russett & Oneal, 2001; but see Rosato, 2003) or contract-intensive capitalist economies with respect for the rule of law (Mousseau, 2009; also Gartzke, 2007)? The answer is probably not, for two reasons. First, the imperative to compete inheres in both representative democracy and capitalism, so at the level of basic principles, there is little tension with compulsory competition against peers in the international arena. Second, if democratic peace theory or market-capitalist theories of peace were to hold, great powers would be unlikely to fight wars against each other. To foreclose war as an option would leave open many possible dimensions of GPC.
Dimensions of Great-Power Competition
GPC may be framed as occurring in various dimensions or categories of interaction. Lynch and Hoffman (2020) illustrate the range of possibilities and the challenge of parsing a contest that is essentially comprehensive. Their analysis of the United States’ 2018 National Defense Strategy alongside selected scholarly works on great powers (Friedberg, 1988; Howard, 1974; Kennedy, 1987) yields nine plausible dimensions of competition: social–cultural, political–diplomatic, military, scientific–technological, logistical, ideological, economic, financial, and informational. Most commonly mentioned among the selected sources are military, economic, and scientific–technological, though these are not mutually exclusive. The authors ultimately delineate five categories: political–diplomatic, ideological, military, economic, and informational (Lynch & Hoffman, 2020, pp. 21–22); the residual dimensions seem to be subsumed under one or more of these (e.g., science–technology under military, economic, and informational). This “lumping and splitting” exercise suggests that GPC practices assigned to nominally distinct analytic categories are probably interrelated and interdependent—which in turn calls into question the utility of distinguishing among dimensions.
Some works analyze a particular dimension of GPC, but in doing so reveal the futility of trying to isolate any one dimension in practice. Dong Jung Kim’s (2019) study of economic containment as a strategy of competition is one notable example. Building on Mastanduno (1985, 1992), Kim defines economic containment as “use of economic measures designed to weaken the strategic competitor’s relative material power, thereby undermining its ability to initiate aggressive military action” (Kim, 2019, p. 1424). The target is a competing power and the strategic motivation is holistic, not issue-specific. The strategy is intended to maintain a leading power’s position and relative advantage, and not solely in the economic realm: Economic containment “seeks to weaken the targeted state’s economic and military capacity, so that the leading state can more effectively maintain the status quo” (Kim, 2019, p. 1424). For Kim, this motivation marks economic containment as a technique of GPC.18
Economic containment illustrates the downside of overemphasizing analytic distinctions among dimensions of GPC. Because it takes aim both at the target state’s economic performance (by denying access to capital, labor, technology, and markets) and its military power (by harming its ability to convert latent power into effective military capabilities and by denying access to cutting-edge military weaponry and technology; see Kim, 2019, pp. 1427–1428), this technique reflects interdependence among ostensibly separable dimensions. David Lake’s examination of competitive economic exclusion similarly exposes the economic and military dimensions of GPC as inextricably linked (Lake, 2018, p. 239). Great powers, according to Lake, tend to construct economic zones that integrate the economies of subordinate polities with their own domestic economies. Within such a zone, the great power’s substate economic actors derive disproportionate benefits and the great power keeps potential competitors out of the zone to preserve those special benefits. The formation of competing zones or blocs, combined with the fear of being excluded from those zones, incentivizes expansion and, ultimately, militarized competition, especially over the boundaries of the economic zones.19 In this way, “economic” competition is not just economic, but also political and diplomatic and, moreover, risks military competition and war.
While it is possible to parse GPC into analytically distinct dimensions, then, it is important to recall that GPC is comprehensive. As the studies by Kim (2019) and Lake (2018) demonstrate, different dimensions of GPC are intertwined. Analysts trying to isolate them may be frustrated, especially if the goal is to comment on or develop strategy. And yet, specifying dimensions of competition may have value for tracing variations in GPC over time inasmuch as policymakers may emphasize competition along certain dimensions over others, perhaps depending on historical path dependence or systemic conditions.
Patterns in Great-Power Competition
GPC is neither a free-for-all in which every great power competes against all the others, nor is it random. Evidence from the past four centuries suggests that great powers align in specific patterns with and against other great powers, with alignment referring to expectations of opposition and support (Snyder, 1997). Thus, both the number of great powers in the system (polarity) and how they configure themselves with respect to each other should be considered, including two competing theoretical camps in the power-politics tradition: balance of power, and hegemonic–power transition theory.
Polarity refers to the number of great powers dominating the system at a given time (e.g., Waltz, 1979). The three essential configurations include multipolarity, in which three or more great powers of roughly similar capabilities exist, as was the case before World War II; bipolarity, or two great powers of comparable resources, such as the superpowers during the Cold War; and unipolarity, in which only one superpower (or preponderant power, or hegemon) exists whose capabilities vastly exceed those of other states, like the United States immediately after the Cold War.20 Some see polarity type as having important implications for the likelihood of great-power war and, presumably, for the intensity of GPC as well. One common assumption is that a smaller number of great powers results in less frequent and lower-magnitude wars; by this logic, multipolarity would be the most dangerous configuration because of the greater potential for miscalculation, free-riding, and entrapment as great powers compete (Ikenberry et al., 2011; Mearsheimer, 2001; Waltz, 1979; Wohlforth, 1999). Waltz (1979) argued that bipolar systems are more stable, but GPC does not go away under bipolarity, nor under unipolarity despite the arguably stabilizing influence of a preponderant power (Organski, 1958; Wohlforth, 1999).
In a bipolar system, the two poles are expected to compete for supremacy in one or more regions or domains, much as the United States and the Soviet Union did throughout the Cold War era. Though the intensity of the competition varied over time, the superpowers jockeyed for advantage even during détente; for instance, the Soviet Union repudiated the view that détente meant for it preserving the status quo (Garthoff, 1994). In a unipolar system, reduced competition between the “top dog” and like-minded great powers does not necessarily preclude competition among the great powers, especially over spheres of influence or in regions where the dominant state is disengaged (Monteiro, 2011; see also Rhamey et al., 2015). The post-Cold War pattern of the United States deterring attack against its great-power allies and restraining them from narrower competitions against other great powers (and with each other) might not be reproduced in other unipolar contexts. Further, GPC may flare up if the structure were to erode into a bipolar or multipolar setting (Mearsheimer, 1990), which raises questions about the power dynamics and relative stability of different configurations, some which are addressed in long-standing schools of thought on international relations.
Two Opposing Schools of Thought: Balance of Power and Hegemonic Transition
Two major IR schools of thought account for patterns of opposition fundamental to understanding GPC: balance of power and hegemony–power transition. As theories in a broadly realist tradition, both share a number of assumptions: States are the primary actors on the world stage, relative capabilities are a key explanatory factor, rationality is the rule in foreign policy decisions, and—implicitly—GPC is a compulsory aspect of international politics.21 However, they disagree on conditions for great-power war and peace (Kaufman et al., 2007).
For balance of power, the most stable state of affairs is equilibrium, a roughly equal distribution of capabilities among the great powers (Gulick, 1955; also Claude, 1962; Levy, 2003). Conversely, the most dangerous condition is disequilibrium: when a great power amasses capabilities in excess of the other great powers and threatens domination—where, in the words of 18th-century Swiss legal scholar Emmerich de Vattel, it is able to impose its “law” on them, as a government would do on subordinate domestic actors (Sheehan, 1996). In response, the other great powers increase their military capabilities (internal balancing) or join forces (external balancing) to confront the aspiring hegemon (Waltz, 1979; also Blankenship & Denison, 2019).
According to the balance of power school of thought, then, the general pattern of GPC consists of successive bids for hegemony from the strongest great powers in the system: the Habsburg Empire of Charles V, Philip II’s Spain, Louis XIV’s and Napoleon’s France, Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union (Dehio, 1962; Mearsheimer, 2001; Morgenthau, 1973). However, these bids regularly fail due to the resistance of grand coalitions formed by opposing great powers. The aspiring hegemon is cut down to size, and equilibrium is restored (Waltz, 1979; also Layne, 1993). By this logic, a growing imbalance of capabilities among great powers intensifies their competition, while an even distribution dampens it.22
Hegemonic war theory (Gilpin, 1981) and power transition theory (Organski, 1958; Organski & Kugler, 1980; see also DiCicco, 2017; DiCicco & Levy, 2003; Kugler & Lemke, 1996; Tammen et al., 2000) holds the opposite viewpoint. The strongest great power emerges as an uncontested leader—whether referred to as a hegemon or dominant power—and imposes its preferred order (Bull & Watson, 1984; Gilpin, 1981). Thus, it is the disequilibrium of capabilities among great powers—power preponderance, or unipolarity—that is conducive to stability and peace among them (Organski, 1958; Wohlforth, 1999). Order will endure for as long the leading great power is unrivaled, as with Pax Britannica, but will break down once it starts declining and other great powers catch up. This process is seen as inevitable due to power shifts caused by differential growth rates (Gilpin, 1981; Organski, 1958) as well as by the hegemon taking on too many foreign commitments—imperial overstretch—which ends up sapping its productivity and advantaging rising powers (Kennedy, 1987; also Gilpin, 1981).23
Power transitions are not necessarily lethal. Whether or not they end up in war depends on whether the rising contender that verges on overtaking the dominant power is satisfied with the international order (or “status quo”). If the challenger is satisfied, then power transition may proceed peacefully, with the top dog gracefully conceding or negotiating an accommodation with the rising contender. Historically, few cases of peaceful transition obtain. The United States and Britain at the turn of the 20th century is the archetypal example (Vasquez, 1996; also Lemke & Kugler, 1996; Schake, 2017), but it is also an overdetermined one, as Britain and the United States shared a commitment to nominally representative democratic governance, liberal trade principles, and freedom of navigation, as well as cultural similarity (Rock, 1989). Accordingly, the United States seemed content to promote many of the same principles and rules as did Britain, and Britain was less inclined to oppose a transition with the United States than, say, the one that was simultaneously elevating Germany as a peer competitor.24 Still, the expectation that a satisfied challenger will be able to ride out a power transition without war is an important codicil of power transition theory.
If the challenger is dissatisfied with the prevailing order, however, the likely outcome is war (Organski, 1958; Organski & Kugler, 1980; also Greve & Levy, 2018). In the hegemony–power transition school of thought, then, the GPC pattern crystallizes into duels for system dominance between a declining hegemon and the main rising contender. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the duel was arguably fought between Spain and France, while in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the main contenders were France and Britain. In the first half of the 20th century, the contest for supremacy pitted Britain against Germany, and in its second half, the United States against the Soviet Union.25 The focus on dominant power and challenger does not render irrelevant the other great powers in the system; to the contrary, Organski argued that precisely “because these nations are so important, the dominant nation needs the help of at least some of them to keep its international order running smoothly,” and consequently enlists other great powers to share in managing the order—“and the benefits that flow from it” (Organski, 1958, p. 327). Great-power allies of the dominant power may then help to defend the status quo against a dissatisfied great power inclined toward revisionism; but allies or not, when a dissatisfied contender achieves parity with the dominant power, the contest becomes dangerous.
Balance of Power and Power Transitions: From Theory to Practice
The two schools provide contrasting predictions and recommendations for the contemporary system. Balance of power argues that unipolarity, founded on disequilibrium of power, is inherently unstable; it is likely to trigger balancing against the United States by the other great powers, both through internal balancing and anti-U.S. coalitions (Layne, 1993; Posen, 2014; Waltz, 2000). However, this prediction failed to manifest for two decades after the Cold War. The other great powers were either U.S. allies (namely Britain, France, Germany, and Japan) or refrained from openly and directly challenging Washington (China and Russia; Lieber & Alexander, 2005; also Brooks & Wohlforth, 2008, 2016). Such behavior is broadly consistent with the predictions of power transition theory: Most great powers tend to be satisfied with the dominant order and therefore choose to support the status quo, and dissatisfied great powers are unlikely to openly challenge the dominant power if not yet at parity with it.
Balance of power theorists have responded that GPC as balancing is not absent, but rather manifests itself differently in unipolarity. Some argue that great powers surreptitiously “soft balance” the dominant power by declining to support its initiatives, denying it legitimacy at the United Nations, or creating organizations that could be turned into anti-U.S. coalitions, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Pape, 2005; Paul, 2005; also Feng & He, 2017). Others argue that the dearth of balancing is explained by the absence of threat from a relatively benign U.S. unipole (Walt, 2002); great-power possession of nuclear weapons, which rule out attempts at conquest or domination by the unipole (Monteiro, 2011); or that the United States, as a naval power separated from the other great powers by vast oceans, poses a reduced threat to those great powers when compared to neighboring land powers (Levy & Thompson, 2010).26
Consequently, the recommendation of the balance of power school of thought on how the United States should best manage GPC is to pull back voluntarily its forward-deployed military presence from most regions, leaving the task of balancing to local powers.27 The United States would follow a thriftier grand strategy of restraint (Posen, 2014) or offshore balancing, meaning that it would intervene only in contexts where local powers are unable to maintain the balance on their own (Mearsheimer, 2001; Mearsheimer & Walt, 2016; Walt, 2018). By giving up some of its power and demonstrating moderation, proponents argue, the United States would lessen other great powers’ apprehension and avoid imperial overstretch.
Conversely, hegemony–power transition seems to predict that unipolar dominance keeps the intensity of GPC low (Brooks & Wohlforth, 2016; Wohlforth, 1999, 2009), but as the gap closes between China and the United States in economic, military, and technological terms, competition is likely to intensify. As the United States and China approach parity, the contest over predominance is rekindled. Scholars disagree over which party would likely initiate conflict in such a power transition: the rising power seeking to be top dog (Organski, 1958; Organski & Kugler, 1980) or the dominant power seizing its opportunity to prevail in a conflict while it is still stronger (Copeland, 2000; Gilpin, 1981; Levy, 1987). The interval that appears most dangerous is neither the one prior to the power transition nor the one following it, but the interval of power parity in which the two contenders are more or less evenly matched in capabilities (Kugler & Lemke, 1996).
As U.S.–China parity approaches, a Sino-American hegemonic war is not inevitable. If the United States succeeds in maintaining itself as number one in multiple power dimensions, a power transition may be averted (Brooks & Wohlforth, 2015, 2016). If, as most power-transition researchers expect, a power transition occurs, war may be avoided if China were a satisfied power. Dissatisfaction might be resolved either by China’s improbable transformation into a liberal democracy (Tammen et al., 2000) or by the United States accommodating China and conceding commensurate status (Ward, 2017).28
Therefore, the recommendations of the hegemony–power transition school of thought are for the United States to maintain or restore a sizable power advantage over China or to address Beijing’s dissatisfaction by encouraging democratization or by offering status concessions (Brooks et al., 2012; Paul, 2016). Failing this, the United States might apply a containment strategy to China (Brands, 2019; Friedberg, 2018).
As a “twilight struggle” (Brands, 2019), GPC is sometimes seen as incompatible with theories of great-power war because competition stops short of full-scale armed conflict and because the U.S.–Soviet Cold War demonstrates the possibility of competing in a comprehensive way without escalating to a major war. Of course, GPC may involve irregular warfare, covert operations, proxy wars, subversion, nonlethal cyberattacks, gray-zone conflict, and many other modes of struggle that may not qualify as conventional warfare (see, e.g., Jackson, 2017; Kastner & Wohlforth, 2021; Loidolt et al., 2020; Lynch, 2020; Marks & Ucko, 2021; Renz, 2016). But while GPC may occur in the shadows, one of those shadows is cast by the possibility (however remote) of major war. For this reason, analysts must not be sanguine in their assessments and recommendations—rather, they should remain mindful that a twilight struggle could intensify, escalate to war, and cast competitors into the darkness of the abyss.
Conclusion and Future Research Directions
The meteoric rise in popularity of the term “great-power competition” (GPC) invites scholarly examination. From a traditional power-politics perspective, GPC may be defined as a permanent, compulsory, comprehensive, and exclusive contest for supremacy in a region or domain among the major players in the international system. A great power’s role identity depends on its capability and willingness to compete, and the existence of a stratified system of states that elevates a select few to great-power status requires ongoing competition among those powers. The exclusive contest varies in intensity, and at higher levels, GPC can seem all-encompassing. Over time, the relative emphases on certain domains and tactics have changed, but the presence of GPC has not.
Not all analysts share this view. Michael Mazarr, lead author of a landmark RAND study on international competition (Mazarr et al., 2018), argued that GPC requires certain scope conditions. Mazarr made the case in Foreign Affairs that three conditions—a multipolar system structure, a tendency to disregard rules that would otherwise constrain states’ behavior, and rivalries characterized by political–military conflict—were “present during periods of great-power competition. . . . Yet none of them accurately describes world politics today” (Mazarr, 2019). It is possible to find evidence-based support for Mazarr’s claims that the system is not truly multipolar (Brooks & Wohlforth, 2016; also Beckley, 2018); that it features a thicket of rules, norms, and institutions not present in earlier periods (Ikenberry, 2018; Kim, 2020); and that great powers compete with each other in nonmilitary domains. But it is misguided to infer that GPC cannot exist in, say, a system with a dominant power atop a rules-based order that is comanaged with mostly satisfied great powers (a system structure anticipated by Organski  and depicted in his stylized “power pyramid”), just as it may be misguided to believe that the liberal international order transcends the habitual power politics of centuries past (Mearsheimer, 2019; cf. Ikenberry, 2018). Russia’s repeated use of military intervention in its “near abroad” between 2008 and 2022—including a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as well as military interventions in Georgia and Syria—suggests that dissatisfied great powers have the capability and willingness to use subversion, political and information warfare, covert operations, and even large-scale military action in the great-power contest for power, security, and status.
Skeptics might dismiss Russia as a special case and its revanchism as a last gasp of an expiring mode of world politics that has aged poorly over time, but Russia is not alone. As a near-peer of the United States, China’s actions under the leadership of Xi Jinping suggest intensifying GPC with global stakes (Friedberg, 2018; also Fravel, 2021), as well as a rapid development of military and naval capabilities to deny the United States regional access and, perhaps ultimately, to compete head-to-head with U.S. power-projection capabilities. Even those great powers generally seen as “satisfied” with the rules of the U.S.-led order may be susceptible to GPC or its second-order effects. For example, France’s 2016 submarine deal with Australia, undercut by the United States in 2021, may be framed as a consequence of strategic competition with China, as was U.S. President Joe Biden’s admission to French President Emmanuel Macron that the move was “clumsy”—a statement meant to allow great-power ally France to save face while not appearing so contrite as to make the United States seem weak.
Though it is not impossible that GPC may be eradicated in a future international system—in particular, one that results from systems change, a fundamental change in the character of the system and the nature of its principal actors (Gilpin, 1981, pp. 40–42)—it remains a permanent feature of the modern sovereign-states system. As a systemic phenomenon, GPC is distinct from generic interstate competition and is not reducible to dyadic rivalries. GPC involves interrelationships and effects that transcend bilateral relationships, and thus invites examination of its systemic dynamics and consequences (e.g., Levy & Mulligan, 2022). It may be that GPC is socially constructed through narratives and reinforced through “role-play” by the system’s major players (Blagden, 2021). But whether viewed as self-fulfilling prophecy or inescapable feature of the system, GPC seems very much alive—and its apparent vitality demands that observers neither dismiss nor neglect the subject.
Future Research on Great-Power Competition
Future research into GPC should include conceptual, theoretical, empirical, critical, and practical inquiries. No consensus exists on conceptualization; the working definition advanced here provides one option but does not discourage development of alternatives. Given a sound conceptual foundation, scholars might also explore theoretical and empirical applications. Since GPC varies in intensity over time and space, its dynamics are of interest. Studies may seek to explain whether, when, where, and why GPC intensifies or wanes; such studies will require systematic empirical observation. In this way, GPC is a phenomenon to be explained, but it also might generate effects of its own and therefore merits study as a force for change—including, for example, innovation (Doran, 1971; Rasler & Thompson, 1994). Also, among observable effects of GPC may be damages, injuries, or injustices visited upon weaker countries, minority groups, and innocent persons caught up in the throes of competition, as well as harm to the physical and natural environments in which competition occurs. For these reasons, critical inquiry into GPC is warranted, both in academic and practical veins.
Practical, policy-oriented studies would do well to parse ends, ways, and means and avoid the pitfalls of treating GPC as a strategy or an end unto itself (Nexon, 2021; Wyne, 2022). Various strategies associated with strategic competition have already been advanced, but the proliferation of such strategies should not inhibit the imaginations of thinkers tempted by the vision of a more perfect mousetrap. If GPC never really goes away, strategies that minimize the risk of escalation to great-power war are sorely needed. To return to an earlier simile, the cat may be very much alive—and it will neither declaw nor defang itself, nor will it confine itself to the box from whence it came.
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1. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (2017) used the term “great power competition” and the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (2021) used the expression “strategic competition.” Though the Trump era National Defense Strategy (2018) also shrugged off the term “great power competition” in favor of “strategic competition,” it flagged “the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by . . . revisionist powers” as “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security” and tagged China and Russia as the strategic competitors (United States Department of Defense, 2018, pp. 2, 4).
2. Its existence also is implied in accounts of rivalries among the system’s heavyweight contenders, whether called great powers (e.g., Onea, 2021; Thompson, 1999) or major powers (Volgy et al., 2011). Alternatives like elite powers (Morton & Starr, 2001) reflect finer distinctions; a good example is world powers, which rank above great powers and beneath superpowers in a stylized global hierarchy (Buzan, 2004, pp. 68–73; Murray, 2018, pp. 81–82). That scholars substantiate such distinctions supports claims that the world’s most powerful states compete among themselves for higher status (see sections “Great-Power Status Recognition” and “What’s at Stake in Great-Power Competition”).
3. Whether the Treaties of Westphalia inaugurated modern state sovereignty is debatable (Nexon, 2009; Osiander, 2001). However, they still may constitute the origins of the modern state system as the first instance when states made war and peace with attention to the system and not merely to another state.
4. Some may regard this approach as limiting, and the great powers’ historically contingent privilege as undeserved, due to their imperialist tendencies and use of exploitative practices to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of those they subjugated, often violently. See, for example, Elkins (2022).
5. The expression “able to compete” is crucial. Countries aspiring to be great powers may pursue foreign policies that have the trappings of great-power-ness (Fordham, 2011). However, choosing to behave as one thinks a great power behaves is insufficient for great-power-ness. Aspirants cannot fully achieve great-power status without the consent of the great powers (see, e.g., Murray, 2018; Ward, 2020) unless they are able to force recognition by defeating one or more existing powers (see the section “Great Powers,” which notes that great power-ness is sometimes forged in war).
6. With apologies to Charles Tilly, one might say that “competition made the great powers, and the great powers made competition.” However, this pithy encapsulation oversimplifies the phenomenon and the qualifications required of its participants.
8. The competition may be permanent even under more hierarchical conceptions of international order that invoke network centrality (e.g., Goddard & Nexon, 2016) or a dominant power atop a rules-based order, such as power transition theory (e.g., Kugler & Lemke, 1996; Organski, 1958; Tammen et al., 2000).
9. Further, GPC may assume specific patterns (such as balance of power and hegemony) that are not reproduced or are reproduced imperfectly in ordinary interstate competition. See the section “Patterns of Great-Power Competition.”
10. Even total war is not a Hobbesian “warre of all against all,” but follows certain patterns of alignment—with great powers aligning both against and with other great powers. See the section “Patterns of Great-Power Competition.”
14. Thies and Nieman (2017) identify competition as a mechanism that serves as a “push factor” for revisionism among rising powers, but also emphasize socialization as a “pull factor” that encourages assimilation and accommodation of such powers within the existing order. Competition and socialization both have roots in an idealized conception of great powers’ role in the international system.
15. Great powers have traditionally lost their club membership as a result of defeat or occupation by other great powers. As Martin Wight wrote, great powers do not die of old age in their beds. Wight notes the defeat and permanent demotion of Sweden, Spain, and Italy, among others (Wight, 1978, p. 48).
16. For the Correlates of War, a great power can lose temporarily its membership as a result of weakness, defeat, or occupation, only to resume it subsequently (Sarkees & Wayman, 2010). However, Levy argued that great powers remain great powers through bad patches provided that they can make a comeback within a “reasonable” amount of time (Levy, 1983; also Wight, 1978, p. 48). The latter is consistent with “the Phoenix factor”—defeated states are likely to experience rapid recoveries that ultimately restore their rank, as arguably has been the case with post-World War II Japan and Germany (Organski & Kugler, 1977).
17. This has been traditionally seen as a deliberate insult and justification for a hostile reaction by the neglected party, and in earlier times even constituted grounds for war. If the neglected state does not protest its snubbing or exclusion, it de facto abandons its claim of being a great power (O’Neill, 1999).
19. Lake likens the vicious cycle prompted by fear of economic exclusion to that of the security dilemma. On the operation of such a dilemma in an economic context, see Copeland (2015). Lake also argues that the protectionist impulses that contribute to economic exclusion and international competition arise from the domestic political activities of rent-seeking economic actors inside great-power states (Lake, 2018, p. 240). For a related argument about great-power overstretch, see Snyder (1991).
21. Researchers operating in the power transition theory tradition (Organski, 1958; Organski & Kugler, 1980) generally prefer to be identified as rationalist rather than realist (Tammen et al., 2000), but nonetheless share some key assumptions with realists (DiCicco & Levy, 2003).
22. Whether degree of imbalance and intensity of GPC move in lockstep or exhibit nonlinear patterns of association is an empirical question.
23. Some contest the claim that decline is inevitable, arguing that the dominant power may use its privileged position to consolidate its advantage relative to its competitors (Beckley, 2011; Brooks & Wohlforth, 2016; Norloff, 2010).
24. There is additional room for debate about this case. First, Britain may have given ground not because it saw the United States as satisfied, but in order to address challenges by France and Russia in Europe and India (Friedberg, 1988). Second, the United States was not completely satisfied—war with Britain was in the cards in the 1890s for supremacy in the Western Hemisphere and disputes continued in the 1900s (Bourne, 1967). Even if one is inclined to believe that the risk of an Anglo-American war shrank after, say, the Venezuelan crisis, U.S. authorities continued to dog the British over technology patents and rights to intellectual property—especially the sort with military applications—through the interwar period.
25. The identity of the contenders varies by theory—according to some these duels included Portugal and Spain, the Netherlands and France, Britain and France, Britain and Germany, and the United States and the Soviet Union (Modelski, 1987; Rasler & Thompson, 1994).
28. A variation on accommodation is to transform the dissatisfied power into a “responsible stakeholder” by encouraging its participation in order management. By becoming a bona fide member of key institutions, the formerly dissatisfied power gains an incentive to preserve the existing rules that now work for its benefit (Johnston, 2008). However, mere inclusion may not be enough, and the dissatisfied power may seek instead to delegitimate or even supplant the current international order (Schweller & Pu, 2011; also Cooley & Nexon, 2020).