US Foreign Policy

A Strategy for Competition

To compete successfully, DoD instead needs a strategy that uses its military strength to persuade friends and, when necessary, coerce rivals.
By Melanie W. Sisson Author

This article was originally published by the Center for a New American Security

The Bottom Line

  • The next National Defense Strategy (NDS) must do much more than deter war. A state that competes successfully sets the terms of international life to suit its interests and convinces other actors to do more of what it wants, at the times of its choosing, in the ways that it likes. Deterring high-end conflict, even through overmatch, does not produce these outcomes.
  • The Department of Defense (DoD) needs a strategy for competition that persuades friends and coerces adversaries. The new NDS should be guided by clearly defined regional priorities, and DoD should structure its forces to assure and enable friends, discourage adversaries from challenging U.S. interests, and respond rapidly and effectively to challenges that do arise.


Competition in international political life is not new—it just seems so to some because the post–Cold War United States accommodated itself to the idea that great power politics were over. During the decades following the Cold War, the United States prospered at home and was unmatched militarily anywhere. It therefore did not behave as though it were competing for global influence; it simply assumed it had it.1 Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest, no. 16 (summer 1989), 3–18. Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” in “America and the World 1990,” Foreign Affairs, 70 no. 1 (1990–91).

This shifted during the Obama administration and then changed definitively in 2017, when the National Security Strategy and then the 2018 National Defense Strategy codified China and Russia as near–peer competitors. Deterring high-end conflict was instantiated as the Department’s primary objective in great power competition, with military overmatch subsequently identified by many in the defense community as the means necessary to achieve it. 2Robert W. Button, “Thinking Constructively about Overmatch,” RealClearDefense, March 21, 2017, David Vergun, “DoD Comptroller: Overmatch against China, Russia Critical,” Defense.GovApril 10, 2019, Sen. Jim Inhofe and Sen Jack Reed, “The Pacific Deterrence Initiative: Peace through Strength in the Indo-Pacific,” War on the Rocks, May 28, 2020, Evan Montgomery, “Unpacking Overmatch: Three Crucial Questions about U.S. Military Superiority,” War on the Rocks, July 6, 2018,

Read the full article.

Note: This paper offers a counterpoint to another in this series, “Defining DoD’s Role in Gray Zone Competition,” by Jim Mitre and Andre Gellerman.

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