Edited by Thomas G. Mahnken
Stanford University Press, 2012 344 pp. $29.95
Strategy has always been a difficult art, and the challenges that modern strategists now face make practicing that art even more daunting. Some argue that American strategic thinking is deficient, or that there is a black hole where U.S. strategy should exist. If true, that does not bode well. As the United States comes out of protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, facing an age with myriad threats but fewer resources, the American strategy community must reinvigorate its intellectual tools if the Nation is to sustain its position and underwrite international order.
This requirement makes Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century a timely and relevant exploration of an intellectual concept known as competitive strategies. It is also a serious examination of the possible contours of Sino-American strategic interaction. In this volume, editor Thomas Mahnken of the U.S. Naval War College observes that "U.S. leaders need to develop a well-thought out strategy for competing over the long term, which mandates an enhanced ability to clarify and prioritize its goals, conduct a net assessment of enduring U.S. strengths and weaknesses, and formulate and implement a strategy that leverages our existing or attainable competitive advantages against a range of competitors."
The concept of competitive strategies, originally developed by business strategists including Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School, offers a viable approach for defining and exploiting such a sustainable, competitive advantage. Purists will argue the adjective is unnecessary; strategies are supposed to be inherently competitive. But just as often, security communities fail to examine long-term trends in the operating environment and to identify the potential influence of investment in key technologies or geostrategically relevant capabilities that could reduce the potential for violence or establish the conditions for success should a contest of arms occur. While strategies should be competitive against designated adversaries, many are not.
There are numerous characteristics of competitive strategies, which focus on long-term interaction between defense establishments in peacetime, long before any conflict arises. The authors share an understanding of these fundamental characteristics: a long-term approach, a distinct opponent with a defined set of strengths and weaknesses, and a concerted effort to align one's own strengths against enduring weaknesses of the adversary. The goal of a competitive strategy is to induce one's opponent to invest in the game we want to play, and channel his investments and attention into forms of competition that are the least threatening to us.
Like any anthology, several chapters stand out. The overall quality of these papers is high, and the volume includes detailed assessments on specific elements of Sino-American competition including missile developments, submarine warfare, and aviation capabilities. The strength of Competitive Strategies lies in the contributions of major strategists, including Steve Rosen of Harvard and Brad Lee of the U.S. Naval War College. The latter's chapter offers a number of strategic insights drawing upon both European and Chinese strategic thinking and influences. His presentation of particular strategies (cost imposing, denial, attacking the enemy's strategy, and attacking the enemy's political system) offers a foundation for any student of strategy, and should be tied to the remaining authors' more specific assessments.
Barry Watts, a former senior Pentagon official and retired Air Force officer, identifies a number of barriers to thinking strategically. His chapter merits a close reading and incorporation into the curricula of both civilian and professional military educational programs that delve deeply into strategy. …