Great-power competition is back and the world has to reckon with its consequences on multiple fronts. For instance, this new competitive era will bring about a profound change in the strategic communication approaches of global actors, be they states, multinational companies, international NGOs or pressure groups with a global footprint.
Asian players should take note, particularly since perception is projection, and proper positioning is key for success in the era of great-power competition. Do not be fooled by talk of an “Asian Century”: The more you announce a new reality, the more you give time to its opponents to derail it.
Let us analyze the “new normal” in terms of strategic communications. At least five aspects are behind a transformative evolution.
First, “morals above all” positioning. The fragmentation of power and the “instant” reaction of global public opinion will impact on how legitimacy is acquired. What was allowed 10 or 20 years ago (remember the media narratives in the build-up to the US military intervention in Iraq?) will no longer be a winning card.
Specifically, a stronger emphasis will be put on gaining moral high ground, either per se or in contrast a perceived or existing competitor or adversary. Gaining moral ascendancy is one of the sure recipes for forcing your adversary on to the defensive and for increasing its likelihood to do mistakes.
Exposing vulnerabilities that will create global public outrage or spinning actions to fit into a convenient narrative (not surprising in times of fake news) is already part of the toolbox of global players, but the leveling of the playing field will oblige them to be even more creative and persuasive. We already see these tactics in the continued US-China feud, with China, its companies and strategic plans under defense.
Second, the “pick a side” mentality. The days of the abundance of choice are gone. The talent of being part of multiple, often-competing clubs will rather become a vulnerability. The most direct consequence? No more à la carte menus in security, trade or economy more broadly.
The attempts to diversify one’s allies will be very hard to pull off and will raise eyebrows and start a circle of mistrust. No more concessions and “free meals.” Solidarity and commitment will be more often tested based on a simple principle: “Stand fully by me if you want me to stand by you.”
With his muscular attitude toward America’s NATO partners that are not spending at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense, President Donald Trump is only the harbinger of this new era. To be more specific, pressure will only increase on Germany to level up its military commitment and to put an end to its lucrative energy deals with Russia. In the future, Eastern Europeans will potentially be forced to view their involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative through the “pick a side” lens: security with the US or cheaper infrastructure with China.
Third, “there will be consequences” messaging. It does not take much to observe the increased polarization and a more aggressive posturing on the global markets. What is perhaps less known relates to the social and economic spillovers of political tensions, with the impact especially present in the reconfiguration of global value chains.
The gloves are off, and the global markets have become the stage for standoffs between great powers. “Opt for my supply chain or else” will come to characterize many economic interactions that in the past were believed to be protected from political influences.
It is somehow ironic that despite the clashes between the current US administration and the local high-tech world, Apple’s actions on the global scene are perfectly aligned with the positions of the Trump administration. The use by Huawei of Google’s Android operating system or Apple’s plans to move production out of China to Vietnam or India are maybe only cold business decisions, but we cannot ignore how convenient they are for hawkish political leaders.
Fourth, “raison d’état” is back. It was not long ago that the prophets of globalization were preaching the irrelevance of the state and economic flows were considered the first principle of international politics. Times have changed, and national interest is back in the front seat of global politics.
Regular economic exchanges can be diverted by higher state grounds following the evolutions in the country of origin of the global player. One example is the decision of the French government not to deliver Mistral-class ships to Russia. Given France’s interest in being perceived as a loyal partner within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union and to punish Russia for its intervention in Crimea, the resolution of the case went beyond narrow economic calculus. A situation to be followed by many others in the coming years.
Another French example, on the tech – read US – companies tax: Paris went forward with it despite possible trade implications – and retaliation – between the US and the EU (since trade is a European competence, no longer a national issue in the EU, any trade spat between Paris and Washington is in fact a Brussels-DC one).
Fifth, information warfare is the new norm, both offline and online. The direction is clear: no more “regular PR” focused on elegant branding and creative solutions, at least in strategic industries. What will more likely happen is the triumph of constructive paranoia: mean and talk well is good but preparing for worse-case scenarios is best.
If even Canada is caught in this spiral (see the scandal that led to the imprisonment of Huawei’s chief financial officer), then things are set to become even more serious in the case of first-order rivalries. Leaders of states, multinationals, and global non-governmental organizations should increase their resilience to propaganda and information warfare, since it’s here to stay. Yes, charm offensives will still exist (even Boris Johnson tried one recently in Brussels), but in the meantime, attacks will become meaner and more creative in terms of reputational attacks, offline and online.
As one can see, we are only at the beginning of a process that is evolving before our eyes. Its full characteristics are only partly visible. However, based on the trends described in this article, these transformations should materialize in a new style of strategic communication, in the prevalence of what we may call “competitive storytelling” and the preference for permanent campaigning.
I am not arguing for a paranoid switch to permanent crisis mode, but certainly people, companies, organizations and states will be forced to make both a positive case to achieve their objectives and a reactive one, involving a combination of closely monitoring, preparing for and responding to the actions of their competitors in a manner unseen before. Competition is official, bigger and meaner than anytime in the past three decades.
The transition toward a multipolar world and the associated power shifts no longer allow for simple options and all-of-the-above answers. Diversification under the radar also carries out reputational risks (demonization, blame games) and countries and organizations can get caught in the crossfire of great-power competition. The key for survival in the new world is competitive storytelling: positioning your entity in a way that both matches positive needs and gets shielded from competitive reputational attacks.
“There is no alternative” is the subtle message behind this new type of storytelling – promoting your ideas while rejecting de facto competing approaches. It goes without saying that managing risk in this new global environment will ask for skills similar to the ones that prevented a nuclear holocaust after World War II.