30 April 2020

Great Power Relations: What Makes Powers Great and Why Do They Compete?

The US national security community is in the midst of a renewed examination of great power competition (GPC) and its role in strategy. GPC already predominates as a strategic term inside the Department of Defense (DOD) and it has rapidly spread in the national dialogue on foreign policy. Yet there remains notable ambiguity regarding what GPC actually implies. What does the concept mean? Why it is happening now? How can we answer these questions authoritatively? 

This paper aims to produce a more engaged debate on the subject of great power competition by considering what it means to be—and to compete as—a great power. 2 Most observers of international affairs make sense of the complexities of global politics with the help of theories that simplify the world and make it comprehensible. These theories are not just abstract concepts; they serve as frameworks that represent what factors analysts believe are most significant in describing how the world works. Consequently, they offer a valuable lens for us to think about GPC and assess its application to national strategy. Our objective in this paper is to elaborate on relevant parts of international relations (IR) theories on the structure of global power and thus inform leaders on how to understand great power relations and then develop and advance appropriate, effective, and coherent policies. Readers will benefit from an exploration of GPC and its relationship to the ways that policymakers interpret global events for four main reasons:

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