There is a transformation afoot in great-power conflict. In a twist to the well-worn caution, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” China and Russia are redefining both. These competitors have discovered that nearly everything that can generate strategic leverage is a potential hammer, while everything of major interest to the United States and her allies can make effective nails. And so, as these rivals smell blood (or weakness) in the competitive water, they are on the offensive nearly everywhere, seeking to diminish American influence and strategic position through persistent and effective gray-zone maneuver.
Augmenting their substantial political, economic, military, and commercial capabilities, Beijing and Moscow are mastering the “weaponization of everything” to achieve exploitable hypercompetitive advantages vis-à-vis the United States. Their “hammers” range from political coercion, predatory economics and strategic extortion, to information warfare and subversion, covert action, and overt disregard for international norms. Recent U.S. Army War College work finds the United States off-balance and slow to respond to this increasingly dynamic multi-domain hypercompetition, where methods short of war are combined to generate favorable war-like outcomes for America’s great power rivals.
China and Russia hold three distinct advantages over the United States in today’s hypercompetitive environment. First, while the latter clings to a discredited model of persistent American primacy, the former radically redefine the rules, boundaries, and tools of competition. Feeling unconstrained, these competitors ignore previously accepted international norms, furiously working to directly or indirectly damage American position. Every aspect of U.S. power and interest is under assault – all levels of government, alliances and partners, international organizations, industry and media, political parties, and individual citizens. No “nail” is out of bounds.
Second, U.S. rivals have greater freedom of action and are more tolerant of risk than the United States. In contrast to ponderous “risk-confused” American policy- and decision-making processes, U.S. rivals mix top-down, centralized decision-making with opportunistic distributed action. They thrive on prudent risk-taking precisely because their gray-zone provocations rarely draw effective U.S. response. Any damage to U.S. position, influence, or power is a relative victory. Yet in the face of these attacks, the United States is slower to recognize hazard, slower to strategic consensus, and slower still to an aggressive defense of its interests. On the Russian threat specifically, information warfare expert Molly McKew suggests, “For now…America is still in the dark — not even on defense, let alone offense.”
Finally, U.S. rivals skillfully exploit the strategic influence space. Today’s hyperconnectivity exacerbates vulnerabilities in free and open societies. Perception dominance, not physical or material dominance, is fast proving the decisive advantage in great-power rivalry. U.S. rivals’ maneuvers go under-recognized and uncontested in the strategic influence space. They exploit divergent political perceptions and biases, magnify social and cultural fissures, disrupt commercial activity and markets, and they ignore law and precedent. All of this creates U.S. and allied decision vulnerability.
Perception dominance springs from the understanding that the volume and velocity of information can overwhelm accuracy and understanding. So U.S. rivals employ fact-perilous, fact-toxic, fact-inconvenient, and fact-free information to sow division and doubt and create disruptive alternate realities. In the end, deliberate manipulation of the strategic influence space by authoritarian adversaries erodes confidence in the institutions, stability, and will of their democratic rivals.
Russia and China create the worst possible Faustian choices for U.S. public- and private-sector leaders. On the one hand: choose to stick to the core values that define the United States – a rules-based international order, truth and candor, free speech, free markets, free enterprise, etc. – and see those values exploited at U.S. expense. On the other hand: compromise those values to wrestle in the mud with rivals, and hazard erosion of the hard-won principles that have for so long separated the United States and other liberal democracies from their authoritarian adversaries.
The character of the current hypercompetitive struggle for global influence and position couldn’t be clearer. Unfortunately, the United States is routinely outmaneuvered and outplayed precisely because it is heavily invested in a perception of its unrivaled primacy. Meanwhile, U.S. adversaries – undeterred by an imagined American past – generate and exploit new windows of opportunity, seizing gray-zone initiative and reaching directly into the heart of American democracy to destabilize the U.S. civil discourse.
As warlike behavior migrates into new competitive spaces – strategic influence, commerce, culture, domestic politics, cyberspace, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum — the U.S. government and private sector must recognize the far-reaching and growing hazards of hypercompetition and rival gray-zone strategies. The boundaries between war and peace, battlefield and market, and adversary and competitor are dissolving. If the United States is to effectively compete for position and influence in this turbulent and dangerous environment, it requires an urgent meeting of the minds to bring a more collaborative stance to hypercompetitive great-power rivalry.
We were sufficiently warned. The Chinese concept of “unrestricted warfare” and the Russian doctrine of “new-generation warfare” are fixtures of the contemporary international security debate. Both are playbooks focused on hammering every conceivable nail. By now, the United States should recognize its profound vulnerability. Failure to play is playing to lose; wrestling in the mud may be unavoidable.
The views expressed in this work are the views of the author and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.