Should we confine ourselves to the zero-sum context, where the answers are comparatively easy, evading the more interesting contexts where the answers may be harder?

Thomas Schelling, 1967

Consider gangs coexisting within a prison. These rival organizations will fight over some issues but are driven to collaborate on others. Peace is maintained and mutually beneficial business (drug dealing, for example) is conducted—both inside and outside the prison—within a delicately balanced equilibrium. One side eradicating the other is highly improbable and unnecessary violence to that end serves to only degrade outcomes for both sides. Instead, threats, violence, alliances, deconfliction, and even cooperation are all used deftly for the purpose of maintaining balance and accruing gains to each side. At the end of the day, these gangs are stuck with each other and need to learn how to coexist.

Though some may balk at the analogy, strategic competition between the United States and China shares many attributes with these prison gangs. And given the substantial intellectual shift required in the US national security enterprise to best manage the dynamics—and risks—of that competition, the jarring tone of this comparison may, in fact, be useful here.

The United States is still struggling cognitively to come to terms with the rise of China. More specifically, the US national security community is not well prepared to contend with a peer rival who seeks to contest American hegemony, but with whom our economy is critically interdependent. What is required, therefore, is significant cognitive reorientation for competition: from our foundational models of how we understand the functioning of the international system, to policy analysis, to the formation of strategy, to that strategy’s execution. In other words, there must be a shift in mindset—the structure of shared assumptions, causal reasoning, language, and framing that allows a group of actors to fruitfully proceed with collective problem-solving, planning, and execution. The rise of China is creating an implicit zero-sum mindset among planners and practitioners; we see this as ill-fitting and, frankly, dangerous. We offer an alternative—a mixed-motives mindset—that would serve as an appropriate framing for strategic competition with China.

The Need for an Appropriate Shared Mindset

This is a critical time for the national security apparatus to adopt an appropriate mindset for competing, as the interactions between the United States and China are meshing together multiple realms of policy and strategy—namely security and economics—that have been treated separately in recent decades. This spans both the challenges of deterrence and steady-state campaigning, as efforts in both of these tasks will need to be sensitive to the growing interrelationship among these realms. Given that these topic areas span a wide purview of responsibilities, authorities, and expertise across the interagency enterprise, it is critical to establish a cognitive baseline—an appropriate shared mindset—for framing the challenge to ease collaboration.

Mindset is an expansive term, encompassing the collective beliefs and habitual choices of an institution. For a large bureaucracy, such as the Department of Defense, this can range from goals and prioritizations to causal models, norms, as well as the default habits of day-to-day action. On the one hand, actors in such organizations engage in critical thinking and active problem-solving in their work. On the other hand, however, actors often tend to fall back on habitual routine to operate day-to-day. As international relations scholar Ted Hopf argues, “Habits both evoke and suppress actions. They imply actions by giving us ready-made responses to the world that we execute without thinking.” Applied across organizations, mindset encompasses all of this shared understanding and regularized behaviors. In fact, complex bureaucracies could not function without a shared mindset becoming concretized across its membership through standard operating procedures. The key, then, is implementing and sustaining a shared mindset best suited for the challenges that the organization faces in its environment. Getting the mindset right, therefore, is critical.

The Zero-Sum Mindset’s Origins

Put simply, a zero-sum game is a situation in which the winner’s winnings exactly equal the loser’s losses. An immediate implication of this is that the only way for one player to be better off is to make the other player worse off. In such a game, the strategic consideration of a player can be reduced to taking the actions that are most hurtful to the other player. The division of a fixed pie fits this model, as any morsel of pie that one side acquires comes at the cost of the adversary’s share. This is the purest expression of relative gains, in which one actor values her gains in relation to the results for the other actor. In such scenarios, therefore, simply imposing costs becomes a reliable strategic concept for selecting strategies as one’s interests are diametrically opposed to the rival’s.

Abstract models only have utility to the degree that they provide useful insight into aspects of the real world: all models are wrong, some are just more useful than others. Zero-sum, two-actor games are the easiest class of games to analyze and given that game theory was essentially birthed and nurtured at the beginning of the Cold War, it is not surprising that these games were given more credence than they deserve. They rely on extraordinarily restrictive assumptions of pure conflict, in which actors have literally no shared interests. Given the stark ideological divide, lack of economic interdependence, and looming threat of catastrophic global war between the United States and the Soviet Union, these games were deemed useful tools for framing that particular contest.

These wildly stylized models of the zero-sum variety, unfortunately, share almost no relationship to the social world. Many writers have already explored crude zero-sum thinking bleeding into social relations, domestic politics, as well as the international system with deleterious effects. Intellectual giants of the early Cold War, such as Thomas Schelling and Anatol Rapoport, had significant reservations about the impact of zero-sum game theoretic models leading to unhelpful mindsets within the context of US-Soviet competition, as even the strategy of deterrence hinged on the shared interest of the mutual non-use of nuclear weapons. Steady-state competition under the shadow of mutual assured destruction, therefore, became a bargaining problem: “Strategy thus reflected the judgement that ideas of . . . victory could be anathema even in limited conflicts during the nuclear age, and that all parties thus had a common interest in stabilising crises and conflicts before mutual disaster struck. This encouraged notions that the superpowers were engaged in processes of bargaining rather than battlefield contests for supremacy.”

In the wake of the Cold War, the zero-sum mindset was given a brief reprieve with America’s push for a globalized liberal hegemony, but this hiatus only lasted for a decade. With the falling of the Twin Towers in September 2001, the Global War on Terrorism introduced an even more simplistic and unhelpful version of zero-sum thinking within national security circles. Not only were the enemies of in this conflict characterized by ideologies that were incompatible with those of the United States; they were also deemed illegitimate entities due to their nonstate status. This illegitimacy precluded coercive bargaining as a strategy and eradication, therefore, was deemed the only solution: “[given] the perceived illegitimacy of terrorist groups . . . [such operations] do not fall within the Westphalian tradition of international relations among legitimized entities, but rather smack of ‘pest control’ within the liberal world order. . . . The diplomacy required for beginning and ending a state of war was moot.” The Global War on Terrorism, therefore, solidified an even stronger form of zero-sum thinking that not only assumed no overlapping interests with adversaries but also assumed away bargaining as a tool.

Among the negative implications of an entrenched zero-sum mindset, three stand out. First, in a zero-sum world, conflict is an incessant feature of the environment. Though active fighting may not always be observed, the goals of actors are diametrically opposed, and coexistence occurs under a constant cloud. This is the purest expression of Thomas Hobbes’s characterization of a system in which it can be always raining (war) or cloudy (preparing for war), but never truly sunny. We can unfortunately begin to see this assumed conflict mindset within American national security institutions, in which conflict with China is not simply being prepared for but is being treated as a near inevitability.

Second, in a zero-sum world there is the problem of static, cost-imposition strategies. This refers to the conditions under which a single strategic choice, used over and over, is the best response to every situation. Falling into the zero-sum mindset, therefore, limits flexible and creative strategic thinking; it conditions actors to frame all challenges in the same manner and induces a uniform strategic response. As we see the United States waking up to the challenge of a rising China, this type of thinking has unfortunately taken hold and runs the risk of being seen as a default (dominant) strategy. When terms like “impose costs” or “throw sand in the gears” of the opponent’s foreign policy are treated as cognitive shortcuts for planners, we see a zero-sum mindset taking hold. To be clear, these concepts may play a limited role within a nuanced strategy but cannot be treated as across-the-board justification for any proposed activity.

Third, the construct of zero-sum contest implies an outcome of winning or losing. Coexisting with an enemy with whom you have no overlapping interests, and with whom you are induced into an incessant conflict of cost imposition, makes the removal of that enemy an attractive goal. The zero-sum mindset, as applied to strategic competition with China, suggests an ontological framing in which the goal for the United States would be the removal of the adversary. Holding such a mindset would, therefore, generate such strategic goals as significantly degrading China’s economy, seeking the precipitous removal of the Chinese Communist Party, or fully decoupling the two countries’ economies. Precipitating such a jarring outcome with the second most significant economic actor in the world, who is also the United States’ largest trading partner, would be disastrous.

These three aspects of zero-sum are dangerous and our impression of the current cognitive landscape of US national security finds that they may be taking hold. Military strategists, planners and warfighters, who are frustrated with China’s rise and who are imbued with a bias toward action, often fail to appreciate the large overlapping interests and inescapable interdependencies that bind the two nations. This is coupled with a tendency by many national security hawks to decry any discussion of cooperation with China as naivete or acquiescence to America’s relative decline. There is, however, a way forward. A mixed-motives mindset would provide a foundation that allows US national security professionals to frame the strategic competition space more appropriately; it would enable the development of hard-nosed and self-interested—yet nuanced and dynamic—strategies in the nation’s best interest.

The Benefits of Shifting to a Dynamic Mixed-Motives Mindset

In dynamic mixed-motives games, actors share some interests and clash over others, as their interests are neither perfectly aligned nor perfectly misaligned (as in the zero-sum case). Since interaction happens over time this is a setting in which actors can improve their well-being by using dynamic strategies: the optimal strategic response can change over time.

To maintain an equilibrium better for the United States than static zero-sum strategies can produce, dynamic strategies are important. This dynamism, defined as applying multiple types of strategic actions over time to maintain stability, is needed when exogenous shocks, mistakes, or transgressions by the other actor threaten to disrupt the equilibrium. More concretely, these strategies require that actors should signal intentions when beneficial, reward the other actor for productive behavior and punish the other actor for transgressive behavior. Strategies using positive reinforcements (carrots) and short-term, discrete punishments (sticks) can shape behavior in ways that promote productive coexistence. Fundamental to such strategies is communication between actors in terms of nonverbal yet comprehendible “costly signaling” as well as overt communication via “cheap talk.” In contrast, if an actor employs the zero-sum strategy focused on imposing costs, the other actor’s behavior cannot be shaped over time. This balanced set of strategies is, unlike the uniform punishing of a zero-sum mindset, stabilizing rather than escalatory as it allows for coherently dialing the level of conflict up or down.

In a mixed-motive mindset, the only focal goal is to maximize one’s absolute welfare within the realm of the subset of strategies that maintain security. This is because the perfect negative correlation of interests with the other actor does not hold, as it would within a zero-sum game. Therefore, focusing on relative gains will neglect opportunities for making oneself better off. Recognizing that the true aim of policy and strategy is to ensure your own nation’s long-term expected benefit (not to impose cost for its own sake) is a fundamental mindset shift.

This wider, more nuanced, aperture is much more appropriate for the current era of strategic competition with China. Consider private-sector firms colluding to fix prices. In this case, antagonistic actors coexist in a market while attempting to maximize profits in the face of rival firms and regulatory agencies. Though they cannot overtly negotiate and bind themselves to inflate prices, they can tacitly find and maintain such an outcome. They can do so by identifying places where gains are accrued while competition is maintained. In an anarchic international system that is decreasingly being seen as having a robust rules-based order, such a mindset for interdependent great powers is appropriate. Finally, such outcomes are focused on stability, as opposed to escalation and disruption. Given these features, instantiating such a mindset across the national security enterprise would provide a more mature basis upon which to build specific deterrence and competition strategies.

What if the opponent is operating in a zero-sum mindset? If the rival nation is using zero-sum strategies, then it is a best response to do the same in the short term. But this does not preclude a switch in strategic thinking and hence equilibrium. This is akin to a price war between two rival firms. The price war is destructive for both firms as it lowers profits without any substantive positive benefits (much like a tariff-based trade war between nations). Firms can get out of price wars as long as they are sufficiently forward thinking and open to cheap talk communication (often tacit) to map the pathway to equilibria that could be sustained by dynamic strategies. This is because collusive firms would be made better off (higher profits) by jointly increasing prices. This move away from the myopic zero-sum price war mentality does not mean that the firms stop competing in other ways. Firms will still put substantial effort into protecting their intellectual property and put money into research and development for innovation to gain more customers and profits. Thus, they compete in certain areas that are important for their long-term security while avoiding damaging competition.

A dynamic mixed-motives mindset for national security professionals would include several components:

  • Competitive coexistence: This component recognizes that the United States and China have significant overlapping and shifting interests across dimensions of interaction.
  • Time horizon: The time horizon is indefinite. Language and concepts that revolve around “defeating” China in strategic competition are a poor fit.
  • Stability: Strategic disruption is most likely a dangerous and escalatory pathway. Strategies to identify and maintain favorable equilibria should be prioritized.
  • Dynamic strategies: Thoughtful agility is key. If cost imposition is used, it should be done sparingly and turned off when the effect is achieved. One should be comfortable with fluid switching between cooperative and competitive behaviors.
  • Thinking positive (not negative): Success should be measured in securing gains for the United States. Cost imposition on the competitor should be a strategic tool, not a default setting.

How to Change a Collective Mindset

In the epigraph that opens this article, Schelling warns us about the dangers of zero-sum thinking; it is both comforting and (perhaps to the warfighter spirit) appealing in its Manichean simplicity. He challenges us, however, to do better as competitive coexistence among great powers is a complex and fraught state of affairs. If our arguments above about the dangers of an existing zero-sum mindset and attractiveness of moving to a dynamic mixed-motive mindset are compelling, what can be done? Mindsets, by definition, are sticky, amorphous, and notoriously difficult to shift. The American national security mindset may evolve by itself eventually, but catastrophe may occur in the intervening period. Therefore, we offer three actionable ways forward.

New foundational models of political competition coupled with economic interdependence need to be created. The absence of economic interdependence between the Soviet Union and the United States allowed the study of economics and security to drift apart; they now need to be knitted together. This requires a tailored demand signal and appropriate resourcing to mobilize the academy to make up for the decades of neglect in modeling the political economy of strategic competition under the condition of interdependence.

Education of today’s and tomorrow’s leaders is key. Professional military education needs to be adjusted to improve understanding as to how security and economic well-being are meshed together in the current environment. Military professionals need to be schooled on how deterring and campaigning in the security realm may have real and significant impacts in the economic realm, and how costs, risks, and benefits should be weighed. They should become better educated on the workings of the interagency enterprise and how actors with different authorities and responsibilities should act in concert to form coherent grand strategic efforts. Tomorrow’s leaders can be impacted through the normal cycle of professional military education; today’s leaders could benefit from tailored executive short courses.

Processes should be altered to improve the ideation and collaboration among planners and strategists at all levels. As globally distributed planners and strategists (across the geographic combatant command staffs, for example) interact with themselves, with each other, and with higher authorities at home, the language and concepts they employ should be guided toward the appropriate frames and assumptions of a mixed-motives mindset. This should be designed within existing reporting and coordination efforts in and across organizations to generate efficiency, bolster efficacy, and create a shared mindset across the global enterprise.

Changing mindsets at this scale is a tall order, but it is critical to secure our nation’s interests in this challenging time. A collective cognitive reframing to accommodate indefinite coexistence with a competitor while engaging in conflict and cooperation across multiple dimensions is the key to doing so.

Leo Blanken is an associate professor in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School and is currently a fellow at the Irregular Warfare Initiative. He is the author of Rational Empires: Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansion and coeditor of Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure. He also collects and DJs rare soul and funk records from the 1960s.

Jason Lepore is professor and chair of the Economics Department of the Orfalea College of Business at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. His research has been published in the Journal of Economic Theory, the Journal of Mathematical Economics, and the International Journal of Industrial Organization. He is coeditor of Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure.

Major Christopher Bossisa 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) officer. Previously, he taught at Western Michigan University and the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Major Boss has had several conventional and special operations deployments to Africa, most recently as a Special Forces detachment commander. He holds two master’s degrees, one in philosophy and the other in applied design for innovation.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Sgt. Mikki L. Sprenkle, US Army