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Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century: Theory, History, and Practice

Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century: Theory, History, and Practice, edited by Thomas G. Mahnken. Stanford University Press, 2012, 318 pp.

Thomas Mahnken turns the essays from a 2010 US Naval War College conference into a collection of thoughtful, well-blended, and informative essays by 19 contributors on the theory, history, and application of US competitive strategies. Mahnken’s ability to guide the reader through the theory and evolution of US strategy and seamlessly transition into the here and now provides thought-provoking insights for anyone from the “armchair” strategist to those highly versed in US policymaking.

Part I addresses the concept and theory of competitive strategies. Insights offered by the authors are well reasoned and help gain an understanding of competitive strategy. Bradford Lee’s chapter on strategic interaction goes past the typical Clausewitz/Sun Tzu strategy colloquialisms, instead building upon them to form four strategic concepts—denial, cost imposition, attacking the enemy’s strategy, and attacking the enemy’s political system. Barry Watt’s final chapter of the section provides crystallization on why competitive strategy is so difficult to implement. The six reasons he outlined are logically presented, simple to understand, and provide solid examples that expand on his arguments.

Part II, on the practice of competitive strategies, proves both fascinating and daunting. Gordon Barrass’s chapter provides a clear historical example of the ultimate US victory over the Soviets via competitive strategies and provides some little-published historical events, such as an early precursor to cyber warfare as far back as 1982. John Battilega’s chapter forced the reader to muddle through a few pages of “important aspects of Soviet military thought.” This ultimately caused this reader to lose focus and potentially miss the meat of his argument: Soviet perspectives on four US competitive strategy initiatives.

As Mahnken turns to current competitive strategies between the United States and China in part III, the readings are more enticing but also more speculative. James Holmes’ chapter on “The State of the US-China Competition” discusses several salient points on Sino-US military competition but never addresses the impact the US ability to control sea lines of communication (SLOC) has on China’s trade and resource imports—thus giving the United States an ace-in-the-hole against China’s regional hegemonic aspirations. Holmes also remains focused on military competitive strategies and does not look at the totality of instruments of power. One cannot help but think the increasing economic interdependence between these nations will not also have an effect on our behavior toward one another. Indeed, Jacqueline Newmyer Deal’s chapter, “China’s Approach to Strategy and Long-Term Competition,” supports this notion when she concludes that the Chinese seem to be combining informational and economic instruments of power to paralyze a US response to a future military attack.

Dan Blumenthal’s chapter on “The Power Projection Balance in Asia” provided an excellent analysis on future areas of conflict. He points out an inherent disadvantage of the United States: China need only keep us out of its home turf, while we are consistently the visiting team. His logical arguments help explain why China is becoming more worrisome to US policymakers. Noting that as the power-projection balance shifts in China’s favor, US responses will be more escalatory in nature, Blumenthal introduces a critical dilemma plaguing US policy. The very responses the United States may be forced into are in stark contrast to its desired end state—the status quo. Blumenthal never addresses a US response to this no-win situation, instead, focusing on the more straightforward approach of trying to sustain our power-projection advantages, thereby avoiding the dilemma. Owen R. Coté Jr.’s article on “Assessing the Undersea Balance” is a superb accompaniment to Blumenthal, looking at why and how we can use competitive strategies to maintain our power-projection edge via undersea capabilities.

The final three chapters of part III, while interesting, get too myopic in viewpoints. Chase and Erickson’s chapter focused almost entirely on the growing ballistic and cruise missile threat, while Toshi Yoshihara’s chapter dealt entirely with proposed Japanese competitive strategies. Ross Babbage’s chapter on Australia’s role in the Western Pacific strategic competition does discuss enabling seamless operations with the United States, but ultimately these chapters serve to highlight the glaring weakness of this section—an overly military-focused approach to a rising China. Even at the height of the Cold War, it was a robust approach of both a military buildup and diplomatic/economic solutions (i.e., getting oil prices to drop) that led to victory. Part III, for the most part, avoids looking at competitive strategies through a holistic approach. Economic or diplomatic means to supplement the competitive military approach are never addressed, and this omission is significant. China is much different than the old Soviet Union; there are vast amounts of Sino-US economic interests at stake. The impacts of this relationship are rarely discussed. There are nonmilitary ways and means that can contribute to our strategic approach, and not addressing “soft power” gives the reader an incomplete picture.

Part IV leads off with a chapter that addresses some of the issues above. Thomas and Montgomery outline some of the broader diplomatic and economic opportunities the United States has but never draw the connection with how these can work in concert with military options. For example, does China view the Straits of Malacca as a critical weakness? If so, could a US-India relationship force China to focus development on a blue water navy vice the ballistic missiles that will be more effective inside the first island chain? Although the chapter offers valid points, it stops short of offering a competitive strategies perspective by never discussing how our behavior can induce China to take actions that are ultimately self-defeating. Paul S. Giarra’s chapter spends the last four paragraphs pointing out the vulnerabilities of China’s SLOCs but stops short of identifying how to exploit the weakness. James R. FitzSimonds completes the book, making three recommendations for military procurement and tactics. He asserts that the main impediment toward implementing his recommendations is a cultural barrier, not a funding or technological one. Although FitzSimonds makes feasible arguments, the true benefit of his chapter is how it highlights how small measures can cumulatively tip the balance of power against China by using competitive strategies.

The one issue Mahnken never truly addresses is whether taking a competitive strategy approach has the potential to create a series of military buildups that lead to increased tensions and potential military conflict. Will competitive strategies create the very environment we are hoping to avoid? Despite the discussion on consequences, Mahnken’s book is extremely interesting and educational for understanding competitive strategies. Individuals who want to understand how we can compete with China militarily over the next few decades would be well served to read his book.

LTC Brent E. Novak, USA

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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