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Author: Michael J. Mazarr

This report offers the results of a yearlong study conducted by the RAND Corporation, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, to examine the characteristics of highly competitive societies and apply those criteria to the United States. The report explores the relationship between a nation’s social condition and its global standing. Does the character of a society bear on its competitive position? Do its essential societal characteristics decisively influence its ability to generate a potent engine of national power, compete for the respect and allegiance of other countries, sustain technological supremacy, and attract the mostskilled immigrants and global capital? Can we identify which societal characteristics contribute most to competitive success? The study sought to throw light on these questions without offering definitive answers.

The eventual goal of this line of work is to perform a societal net assessment of the United States and China and derive a sense of how well equipped the United States is for a long-term competition.

The research reported here was completed in January 2022 and underwent security review with the sponsor and the Defense Office of Prepublication and Security Review before public release.

This research was sponsored by the Office of Net Assessment in the U.S. Department of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD), which operates the National Defense Research Institute (NDRI), a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense intelligence enterprise.


Nations rise and fall, succeed or fail in rivalries, and enjoy stability or descend into chaos because of a complex web of factors that affect competitive advantage. One critical component is the package of essential social characteristics of a nation. The ultimate story of the Cold War is that the United States was simply a more competitive society than the Soviet Union: more energetic, more vibrant, more innovative, more productive, more legitimate. Through analysis of comparative studies of historical eras and trends, historical case studies, and the findings of issue-specific empirical research, the report explores how seven characteristics of a society determine its competitive standing and distinguish dynamic and competitively successful nations.

If the history surveyed in this report provides an accurate guide to the future, the fate of the United States in today's rivalries will not be determined solely, or even in significant degree, by the numbers of its weapons or amounts of defense spending or how many proxy wars it wins but by the basic characteristics of its society. The author applies the seven leading characteristics that affect national standing to the United States to create a snapshot of where the country stands. That application provides some reason for optimism. The United States continues to reflect many of these characteristics, and the overall synergistic engine, more than any other large country in the world. However, multiple trends are working to weaken traditional U.S. advantages. Several, such as the corruption of the national information space, pose acute risks to the long-term dynamism and competitiveness of the nation, raising the worrying prospect that the United States has begun to display classic patterns of a major power on the far side of its dynamic and vital curve.

Seven leading societal characteristics are associated with national competitive success:

-- These are national ambition and will, unified national identity, shared opportunity, an active state, effective institutions, a learning and adapting society, and competitive diversity and pluralism.
-- There is some causal relationship between these seven characteristics and competitive outcomes in most cases studies the authors examined.

A prudent balance within each of these characteristics is important:

-- Factors such as national ambition or pluralism can become competitive handicaps when pushed to an extreme.
-- Some of the characteristics harbor greater risk than others in this regard: Excessive national ambition and will is more dangerous than excessive shared opportunity. But all of them carry some danger when thrown out of balance.

A specific set of factors other than societal characteristics helps determine national competitive standing:

-- These include membership in networks of trade and exchange of ideas.
-- It is often the interaction of these nonsocietal factors with the qualities of a nation—the ways in which its character matches or falls out of alignment with the demands of the moment—that determines national fates.

Lasting competitive advantage derives from positive-feedback synergies among the seven nominated societal characteristics:

-- It is these blended, interactive effects, creating competitive wholes greater than the sum of their parts, that distinguish the strongest and most competitive nations of each era.
-- Nations whose competitive standing deteriorates tend to manifest weakness in many factors that compound: Competitive failure typically results from a negative-feedback loop of some kind, in the same way that success derives from a positive-feedback loop.

One recipe for national competitive advantage was most consistently associated with success, the Renaissance spirit:

-- Competitive societies tend to be open, tolerant, full of intellectual energy and commitment to learning; they have a powerful sense of their own role in the world and a sense of mission or will; they almost always benefit from strong public and private institutions, as well as a state apparatus that actively promotes advantage; and they embody a pluralistic clash of ideas and an ability of people from many backgrounds to offer their talents and succeed.

Table of Contents:

Chapter One: The Sources of National Competitive Advantage
Chapter Two: Factors Other Than Societal Qualities That Determine Competitive Position
Chapter Three: National Ambition and Will
Chapter Four: Unified National Identity
Chapter Five: Shared Opportunity
Chapter Six: An Active State
Chapter Seven: Effective Institutions
Chapter Eight: A Learning and Adapting Society
Chapter Nine: Competitive Diversity and Pluralism
Chapter Ten: Assessing U.S. Standing in the Characteristics
Chapter Eleven: Findings and Implications

Appendix A: Methodology
Appendix B: Defining Concepts

Report (419 pages): https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA499-1.html
"What Makes a Power Great: The Real Drivers of Rise and Fall," Foreign Affairs, July-August 2022: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2022-06-21/what-makes-power-great

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