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Great Power Competition vs. Great Power Adversary: Understanding the Differences

The term "Great Power" refers to a nation that holds significant global influence and has the ability to shape international affairs. Historically, the term has been associated with countries such as the United States, China, Russia, and the United Kingdom. In recent years, there has been a growing concern about Great Power Competition and Great Power Adversary, particularly in the realm of national security. This blog article will explore the differences between Great Power Competition and Great Power Adversary and highlight their implications for the national security of the United States.

Great Power Competition

Great Power Competition (GPC) refers to the strategic rivalry between two or more great powers, with each seeking to gain an advantage over the other. This competition can occur in a variety of areas, including economic, military, diplomatic, and ideological spheres. In the context of national security, GPC can manifest itself in different ways, such as through technological advancements, military modernization, and economic influence. One of the critical features of GPC is that it does not necessarily imply hostility or conflict. Great Powers can compete in a manner that is mutually beneficial or at least not detrimental to either side. For example, the United States and the European Union engage in economic competition globally, but also work together to promote common values including democracy, peace, the protection of human rights, and a commitment to the advancement of science and technology. These collective interests and regard for other nations keep the countries from having major conflict, but still foster an environment of respectful competition.

Another key aspect of GPC is that it can be influenced by norms and rules. In other words, there are generally accepted rules and standards of behavior that govern the competition between great powers. These norms and rules help to prevent the competition from turning into an all-out conflict. These established norms can be compared to the rules of a sports competition or the Olympics. Both sides must compete using the same guidelines and rules, and there's usually some type of referee that determines if someone has broken the rules.

Countries’ use of the United Nations to discuss discuss common issues and the formation of mutual embassies or consulates globally have allowed for an exchange between countries to diplomatically share national interests on both sides. Rules pertaining to privileges and responsibilities for each embassy have been established along with general rules for the protection of all embassies globally. Each country is to inform other countries of their diplomatic interests and their intentions to gain an advantage over other nations within the confines of the rules-based system.

The art of competition is to gain advantage using the same rules. When countries no longer apply those same standards and gain distinct advantage, competition is no longer fair and therefore must be addressed using a different term. In the case of China and Russia, their governance, economics, and military activities have bypassed accepted competition rules. They have crossed into a game that is not based on the established standards to compete, but rather an adversarial attitude and strategy where one has to win and the other has to lose.

Great Power Adversary

In contrast, a Great Power Adversary (GPA) is a country that poses a significant threat to the national security of the United States. This threat can come in many forms, such as military aggression, cyber-attacks, economic coercion, and ideological subversion. Unlike Great Power Competition, Great Power Adversary implies a more hostile relationship between the United States and another country.

One of the primary characteristics of a GPA is that it seeks to undermine the interests and values of the United States. For example, Russia has been accused of meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, and China has been accused of engaging in cyber-espionage against US companies.

Another key aspect of a GPA is that it is generally not bound by norms and rules. Adversaries can engage in behavior that violates international law or accepted standards of behavior. For example, North Korea has conducted nuclear tests in violation of international treaties, and Russia has annexed Crimea in violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity and continues with the recent hostile acts against Ukraine sovereign.

Implications for National Security

The differences between GPC and GPA have significant implications for the national security of the United States. GPC can present both opportunities and challenges for the United States. For example, competition can drive innovation and technological advancements. At the same time, competition can also lead to a more aggressive and assertive posture from Great Powers, which can threaten US interests and values. Having rules is essential in preventing escalation to conflict.

GPA, on the other hand, poses a direct threat to US national security. Adversaries seek to undermine US interests and values, and they are generally not bound by norms and rules. As such, the United States must take a more aggressive and assertive approach to deal with adversaries. This may involve diplomatic, economic, and military actions.

In conclusion, GPC and GPA represent two distinct phenomena in the realm of national security. While competition can be mutually beneficial, adversaries pose a direct threat to US interests and values. As the United States continues to navigate the complexities of international relations and agreements, it must understand the differences between Great Power Competition and Great Power Adversary and take appropriate actions to safeguard US national interests.

To fully realize the distinction between Great Power Competition and Great Power Adversary we must start to use both phrases, define both phrases and then create a model of the comparisons to measure which areas have crossed the line from GPC to GPA. With those guidelines in place, it might be possible to clearly articulate or deter and move back from GPA into GPC as nation states. Once countries have decided to move past acceptable competition and into the adversarial position, it becomes a dangerous situation that can lead to conflict. A doctrine must be created whereby we know what measures to use to bring a country back into a GPC relationship and out of the adversarial role. A combination of deterrence, pressure, timelines and incentives will most likely play a part in preventing conflict and facilitate the return to a GPC relationship.

As we understand this new position, we can’t be caught unaware and unprepared. We are working to advise our customers on how to work in this space at the strategic level. For more information on this topic or to discuss other national security matters, please reach out to me at

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