Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Competitive Shaping in World Politics: A Bibliographic Essay and Course Outline
Competitive Shaping in World Politics: A Bibliographic Essay and Course Outline

Competitive Shaping in World Politics: A Bibliographic Essay and Course Outline

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This Philadelphia Paper provides a theoretical and applied introduction to Competitive Shaping, an umbrella term for a variety of discrete means of contesting the state and the system surrounding it, contesting hearts and minds, and various aspects of how competitive success and failure in such endeavors are to be assessed over the long term. It is intended to help support coursework in the theory and practice of competitive shaping for advanced undergraduate and graduate students. Throughout American history, the United States and its allies have utilized competitive shaping for strategic effect. Examples range from the strategy, spying, and statecraft of the post-independence U.S. as well as the Cold War. What plagues the U.S. is a pervasive and pathological inability to retain, organize, and re-use best practices and adapt them to new circumstances.

While authoritarian regimes are certainly adept practitioners of competitive shaping, competitive shaping is not an inherent property of authoritarian regimes and other malcontents. As J. Bowyer Bell and Barton Whaley have observed, it is a common misconception (likely originating from certain features of Judeo-Christian theology) that guile, duplicity, stratagem, sophistry, subtle influence, and behavior shaping are tools reserved for “bad” people.1 Competition for power and influence lies at the core of political and social life. Democracies can and should engage in competitive shaping, especially if they hope to retain their liberty and independence. American competitors almost certainly lack the scruples and normative constraints that Americans often hold. The U.S. and its allies should not necessarily sink to their level, but it does mean that the opponent’s willingness to descend to said level is a factor for consideration.

This does not mean, though, that any and all methods of competitive shaping are instrumentally valid, politically important, or ethically justifiable. As the RAND Corporation analyst Gregory F. Treverton wrote in 1987, America’s covert operations often have been managed poorly and often are poorly justified.2 An inability to see the risks, limitations, and complications of non-military tools and the inherent attractiveness of these discrete tools to policymakers can be highly dangerous.3 Moreover, as Cold War historian John Prados points out, American’s efforts to use political, cultural, economic, and paramilitary influence abroad have often repeatedly failed to achieve American strategic objectives at great cost to those unfortunate enough to be the subject of such efforts.4 By knowing the theories and approaches of competitive shaping, researchers and policymakers may discern better when it is justifiable and promising to utilize a particular technique or approach and when it is not. This is a matter of professional judgment that this paper hopefully aims to enhance, though it cannot be a substitute for it.

To be sure, the development of competitive shaping skills and capabilities will be hindered by bureaucratic seams, mismatched authorities, and the lack of properly trained U.S. personnel. We believe that this last issue is the most important starting point. Even the best reorganization plans will be suboptimal without the right people in place to carry out the assigned responsibilities. Undergraduate and graduate level education (both in universities and in U.S. government professional education) is essential for increasing the numbers of such personnel. University education in international affairs, security studies, and diplomatic and military history develop many of those who work in and lead various government bureaucracies and civil society organizations. But the vista of educational opportunities on this topic reveals scant offerings. We hope that this paper will be used to help fill that gap.

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