Fundamentals of International Relations Unit 3


Understanding International Competition

This unit exposes the reader to the reasons why nation-states compete with one another.

Despite the wide use of the concept of competition in international relations, there is no unified meaning of the concept.  Most scholars rather ignore defining what it means. One of the few available definitions by the Cambridge dictionary describes the concept as a “goal seeking behavior that strives to reduce the gains available to others.” Another labels it as a situation in which “two actors in the international system have incompatible high-priority interests and one or both actors engage in behavior that will be detrimental to the other’s interests.”

In the context of international relations, competition can be understood as a state of antagonistic relations short of direct armed conflict between actors, which reflects perceived contention, an effort to gain mutual advantage, and pursuit of some outcome or good that is not generally available. Competitive behavior is not necessarily characterized by seeking relative advantage by violence—but it is self-directed behavior unconstrained by any sense of others’ interests.

In the international system, the essence of competition is in an attempt to gain advantage, often relative to others believed to pose a challenge or threat. Nation-states therefore engage in pursuit of contested goods such as power, wealth, security, influence, and status. China, for example, is clearly competing to fulfill objectives well beyond the security of the Chinese Communist Party and the territorial integrity of its country: It desires dominant regional influence, a coequal global status to the United States, and more. However, a much broader definition of competition should also encompass competition with allies who are viewed as a challenge in only one sphere. An example is when the United States and countries of the European Union (EU) seek advantage in key industries.


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