Defense Policy Security & Defense United States and Canada
Seizing the advantage April 2, 2021

Recalculating the math of great-power competition

By Arun Iyer

Join Forward Defense for leading-edge commentary and key recommendations as we help chart the course for the United States’ next National Defense Strategy.

Is the “2+3” strategic framework the most effective way to think of great-power competition?

According to the 2018 US National Defense Strategy (NDS), “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” with “revisionist powers.” The powers at hand: China and Russia.

The focus on renewed great-power competition (GPC) has helped reset US defense priorities, efforts, and investment. But the Pentagon’s informally adopted “2+3” framework for GPC—which grades China and Russia as primary threats while framing North Korea, Iran, and terrorism as secondary threats—has the potential to over-simplify the most complex challenges faced by the United States. The Biden administration should make that framework more accurate and more useful for US and allied interests.

The 2018 NDS, which included the “2+3” framework, was portrayed as a necessary pivot away from nearly two decades of counterinsurgency and toward high-end, country-on-country conflict. Two years before, the 2016 US National Military Strategy had been accompanied by a “4+1” framework that placed four countries—China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran—on equal footing, with terrorism as “+1.” But in 2018, with a US Department of Defense (DoD) focused on violent extremism and struggling to make the “pivot to the Pacific,” the mathematical packaging needed to be refreshed.

While the “2+3” framework was simply meant to rebrand and refine the “4+1” concept, it has instead reinforced a two-tiered system, implying that China and Russia are similar threats while the others are lower in priority. While arguably valid as a long-term strategy, the “2+3” approach has left the United States less prepared in the short and intermediate terms to address its most relevant challenges.

To better serve US interests, the Biden administration should recalculate the DoD’s GPC framework to address the threats that the country is most likely to confront, while improving the United States’ preparedness for the most dangerous threats. It should replace the single “2+3” concept with three multilayered and interactive frameworks nested upon one another. While more complex than the current framework, this approach reflects the equally complex nature of the challenges faced by the United States.

The “granular look”: a precision framework

One obvious framework is to take a detailed look at each US competitor individually rather than lumping several challenges into one bucket. Technically a “1+1+1+1+1” framework, this is a better way to develop strategies that address practical threats to the United States and its allies and partners. The approach avoids a potential pitfall of the “2+3” framework, which bundles China and Russia into a group of two and thus produces strategies aimed at countering the similar threats that the two countries pose to the United States while failing to address the unique threats each country poses.

Take, for example, the threats posed by the development of advanced military capabilities like hypersonic weapons. While China and Russia are both developing formidable hypersonic weapons, the threat such systems actually pose to US interests will be heavily impacted by the plans and intentions of each competitor. While Russia is thought to be developing hypersonic weapons primarily in order to improve its existing second-strike capability for nuclear deterrence, China is thought to place greater emphasis on the role of hypersonic weapons in regional security matters. Since differences in intent may result in differences in a weapon’s deployment and use, the strategies to counter such capabilities must be tailored to each country and its respective intent.

Such a granular look will be most useful in the foundational layer of the next NDS, informing the strategies that address the components of each threat posed by individual competitors. In being so specific, the granular look paves the way for more effective and efficient strategies against each specific competitor. A bonus advantage: The GPC strategies that are developed from the granular look will be less likely to create unintended consequences—and even if they do, they’ll allow for more precise corrections. 

The “factored look”: a multiplicative and relational framework

Simple addition won’t be enough: US competitors are often threat multipliers for each other, collaborating with one another or other actors. Accordingly, this second aspect of recalculation should focus on the degree to which specific competitors cooperate or complement each other to threaten US national interests.

This cooperation can manifest itself through direct collaboration akin to an alliance or through indirect means like intelligence sharing, security cooperation, or weapons proliferation. For example, North Korea is cooperating with Iran on missile capabilities. The collaboration not only spurs proliferation but also couples advanced capabilities with potentially more dangerous intent that enhances the countries’ threats to the United States and its allies and partners. This factored look may also incorporate actors outside of the GPC framework that enhance the threats to US interests posed by primary threat actors, as in Venezuela’s cooperation with Russia.

The factored framework informs strategies that deliberately deter, disrupt, and disincentivize cooperation among US adversaries. It builds upon the foundational granular framework to identify which relationships serve as critical enablers for strategic competitors. It further informs how to address those relationships to prevent the expansion of threats.

The “additive-subtraction look”: a counterbalancing framework

The third recalculation involves developing strategies for additive subtraction: adding new actors (even other great-power competitors) to reduce or negate GPC-related threats. Such strategies can address threats that would be more difficult to combat directly.

In an example of additive subtraction between two great-power competitors, the United States incentivized China in 2017 to pressure North Korea to denuclearize and stabilize the Korean peninsula. The United States took a similar tack, turning to actors outside the GPC realm, in countering Iran through the US-brokered Abraham Accords.

The recalculation: A complex equation with multiple mathematical functions for the next NDS

A granular look at the threat posed by each competitor, informed by an understanding of adversaries’ abilities to multiply and balance each other’s threats, will provide the insights necessary to shape strategies that address the broad range of risks that the United States and its allies face from strategic competition. In formulating the next NDS, national-security analysts would benefit from considering these recalculated threat assessments and using them in a layered approach to replace the already-outdated “2+3” framework.

Arun Iyer is a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Further reading

Image: President Joe Biden walks with his Combatant Commander nominees, Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost (L) and Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson as they arrives for their nomination announcement in the East Room at the White House in Washington, DC on Monday, March 8, 2021. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Sipa USA