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We can gain a critical edge in the great power competition

AP Photo/Andy Wong
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves at an event to introduce new members of the Politburo Standing Committee at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 23, 2022. China on Nov. 11 confirmed that Xi would attend both the Group of 20 meeting and the gathering of Asian Pacific nations in his first major overseas trips since the COVID-19 pandemic.

We live in a time of significant change and uncertainty, as authoritarian regimes challenge Western values and political systems, both militarily and economically. In particular, the rise of China as a superpower suggests unprecedented challenges for the United States and the West’s role in the world. In his recently released National Security Strategy, President Biden called attention to our nation’s economic well-being as inextricably linked with China’s rise.

Strategic competition with China has expanded beyond the traditional battlefield to all sectors of society. And yet, little has changed in the U.S.-led approach to international security and political economy. The United States and its allies must harness a modern arsenal of democracy — an “arsenal of innovation” — to maintain our economic and security standing and the prevailing international order. 

At the close of World War II, the United States led the creation of an international order based on free enterprises and open economies, an unprecedented action. Over the past 70 years, the United States and Western-led systems have faced threats from revisionist actors, including the Chinese Communist Party, Iran’s Islamic regime, Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Today, these actors are attempting to rewrite international rules and norms — de facto and de jure — to tilt the global system in their favor in the short term and lead it in the long term. Increasingly, they have the power to do so economically and militarily.

This modern context of strategic competition requires the United States to rethink its entire approach to international security. What if we could overhaul how the Department of Defense (DOD), or any organization experiencing stagnancy, collaborates and thinks with the development of an “innovation doctrine”?



An innovation doctrine would define how we organize and act for defense innovation to get ahead of the challenges of strategic competition. We define a doctrine as organized guiding principles (theories or beliefs) that steer our thinking and actions. Such an innovation doctrine would take a holistic approach to problem-solving that fast-tracks ideation and experimentation in order to rapidly surface innovative approaches with minimum resources.

Doctrine organizes, disciplines and accelerates innovation. It enables us to handle discontinuous change, perhaps the leading characteristic in today’s political-strategic environment. Complacency in any line of work can damage your psyche. But it’s downright diabolical when it exists in an environment considered to be the backbone of our nation’s line of defense. Doctrine helps us achieve mission acceleration, creating a process by which innovators can focus more on creative and inventive activities, instead of the friction that inevitably occurs in the absence of a framework or process.

Indeed, innovation is a discovery-based learning endeavor rather than a deliberately designed one. A discovery-based approach enables realization of incremental insights that can lead to new business models or operating concepts. For example, the Amazon Web Services cloud platform grew out of a discovery-based approach for Amazon’s retail business experience. 

This approach has been proven in the military domain. The U.S. Navy’s carriers, for example, were developed through iterative learning geared toward gaining better feedback on battle damage from battleship engagements with opposing navies. These innovations were achieved through iteration at scale and assembling problem-solvers who learned through experimentation. An innovation doctrine would organize such a process at scale.

We believe the development and adoption of an innovation doctrine is required for the safety and security of Western systems and values. Innovation must become a warfighting function and the development of an innovation doctrine must be a top priority. We can — and we must — accelerate our technological innovation. We cannot wait. The country that continuously innovates at speed and scale will win the next war.

Peter A. Newell is CEO of BMNT, an innovation consultancy whose clients include the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies. A retired U.S. Army colonel and former director of its Rapid Equipping Force, he chairs the Common Mission Project board.

Alex Gallo is executive director of the nonprofit Common Mission Project, a fellow with the National Security Institute at George Mason University, and a former professional staff member with the House Armed Services Committee.

Tags Biden China Great power competition National Security Strategy US-China relations

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