The Societal Foundations of National Competitiveness | Web version
July 21, 2022
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Leaders and national security officials in the United States have long argued that a dynamic domestic environment is the foundation for American global power. U.S. rivals emphasize the same theme: Chinese officials endlessly repeat a narrative about the decline of the United States (and the West more generally) and the coming transition of global leadership to a Sino-centric East. Yet few analyses have tried to determine just what it means to have a vibrant and competitive society. What characteristics of a nation or society contribute to competitive advantage?
A new RAND report, through analysis of comparative studies of historical eras and trends, historical case studies, and the findings of issue-specific empirical research, seeks to answer that question. The analysis explores how seven characteristics of a society determine its competitive standing in the context of today’s emerging rivalries and distinguish dynamic and competitively successful nations.
The research had five leading findings:
The study first identified seven leading societal characteristics associated with national competitive success: national ambition and will, unified national identity, shared opportunity, an active state, effective institutions, a learning and adapting society, and competitive diversity and pluralism.
It then highlighted the importance of a prudent balance within each of these characteristics. When pushed to the extreme, factors such as national ambition or pluralism can become competitive handicaps.
Third, the study identified specific factors other than societal characteristics, such as membership in networks of trade and exchange of ideas, that help determine national competitive standing.
Fourth, the analysis found that lasting competitive advantage derives from positive-feedback synergies among the seven nominated societal characteristics. It is these blended, interactive effects, creating competitive wholes greater than the sum of their parts, that distinguish the strongest and most-competitive nations of each era.
Fifth, the study further identified one recipe for national competitive advantage that was most consistently associated with success: Competitive societies tend to be open, tolerant, full of intellectual energy and commitment to learning; they have a powerful sense of their own role in the world and a sense of mission or will; they almost always benefit from strong public and private institutions, as well as a state apparatus that actively promotes advantage; and they embody a pluralistic clash of ideas and an ability of people from many backgrounds to offer their talents and succeed. The author terms this specific mix of characteristics the Renaissance spirit.
The author applied the seven characteristics to the United States in an initial effort to create a snapshot of where the country stands on these scales, finding that the United States continues to reflect many of these characteristics, and the overall synergistic engine, more than any other large country in the world. But the analysis also offers reason for grave concern: Multiple trends are working to weaken traditional U.S. advantages. Several, such as the corruption of the national information space, pose acute risks to the long-term dynamism and competitiveness of the nation. These and related trends raise a worrying prospect—that the United States has begun to display classic patterns of a major power on the far side of its dynamic and vital curve.
A brief overview of the report can be found here.
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