Hyper-competition and Muscular Liberalism – 28 March 2011

This is a brief post I’ve wanted to write for some time. It’s written in a hasty style just because I’m really snowed under at the moment.

What is hyper-competition? What range of activities or actors would be capable of challenging us with it?

Was the Cold War hyper-competition? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. That was a military and political competition that was obviously deeply hostile. It did spread across military, political, social and cultural lines, but crucially did not break out into the economic sphere (not properly). What about Russia now? Different, but still not hyper-competition. Under this iteration there is the economic competition and the attempt to change politics through influence and funding, but there isn’t the same military and political competition.

Do Jihadists provide hyper-competition? They are a danger to law abiding citizens, our economic stability (via shocks) and to our wider economic interests. One of the largest threats comes from our response to it (throttling our own liberalism and liberty to confront them), and from voluntary wars that drain money, men and equipment from our economies and militaries.

What about China? A sleeping military threat, but increasingly pervasive in terms of economic power and influence. It owns a vast amount of our collective debt, it sends large numbers of students to understand us and our technologies. It has a massive capacity in cyber-intelligence, and in ‘borrowing’ our IP etc, and it produces the vast majority of our computing power, including talk of having embedded ‘back-doors’ in our computing. It goes out and regularly beats us in engendering itself in important mineral producing countries because it understands how to do business free from the ethical constraints we impose on ourselves, and it sponsors (in various ways) opinion formers. So, does China count as hyper-competition – you bet your bum it does. The leverage that China has been able to gain was begun in an age when we thought of them as backward and supplicant to our all powerful consumerism, but in reforming and going for a system of controlled capitalism China has already got the vital grip over our core infrastructures to continue to make serious advances into the political, social, economic and military competition. The threat to their model is internal – can the Communist Party continue to buy off enough of their people to maintain their control?

And what does this mean for our own muscular liberalism? Cameron and Condi Rice (in their own ways and at different times) evoked the notion that ‘we would do the right thing’ and back up our political beliefs – those of freedom and self-determination – with the right kind of foreign policy decisions. ‘Too often have we gone for stability over principle’, was the essence of Rice’s thoughts. In the UK this debate has raged internally, over how to deal with radicalisation. Far from the vacillating and hand-wringing of the 90s and 00s,  this is the time to reinforce the commonly held beliefs of the west with foreign and domestic policy actions. Libya is clearly a good example of this (aside from the budgetary problem the UK has with any of these things).. and the stand against Gaddafi is a neat tie-up of the support for freedom and transparency with foreign policy action. Internally, the projection of a set of ideals that are to be upheld and worked towards is not wrong (many of our allies including the US do this) and we also shouldn’t be scared to reject and work against those who seek to tear our systems and beliefs down. The fear of projecting a positive normative identity for ourselves is at best curious. In terms of our ‘hyper-competitor’, well more brains than mine are required to work out how best to engage in this competition, and where the threats from it lie. Much of the game as it is being currently played are lost already, but understanding the threat is the first step to analysing it, and doing something about it. My fear is that even these very first steps have still to be taken.

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