Clare O’Neill

Part I explored the vulnerabilities of using mental models. Part II explores the use of cooperation-competition-conflict as an alternate mental model to the peace-war spectrum.


Mentals models help us visualise our strategic outlook and adjust force posture and structure for the array of challenges ahead. It is therefore interesting to observe that the peace-war spectrum is dwindling in security and military literature in preference for a spectrum spanning cooperation-competition-conflict.

Strategic posturing between China and the U.S. is being described by the categories of cooperation, competition, containment, and conflict. The U.S. military is using a competition- to-conflict spectrum to frame their Multi-Domain Operations concept, and within the Australian setting, the Chief of Army’s Strategic Guidance 2019 describes the international system as oscillating between cooperation, competition and conflict.

Further iterations describe the simultaneity of competition and cooperation in both economic and security spheres, horizontal and vertical competition, the build-up of competition and confrontation, and drawn-out contestation, competition, and cooperation.

There has been a clear change of mental model from the peace-war spectrum, as currently described in Australian doctrine, to one characterised by cooperation-competition-conflict.

This mental model is not new. Forms of this intellectual construct have been used in international relations theories to describe the competitive interaction of states as they seek to maximise power (as first articulated in written word by Thucydides). In its most intense and violent form, this competition can result in war. Other theories describe conditions when states choose cooperation to achieve some form of collective security as captured by the Concert of Europe, League of Nations and United Nations.

The study of games (‘social interaction in the face of incentive structures’) has also helped expand our thinking on why some circumstances engender cooperation, produce competition or generate open conflict in contexts of imperfect information and uncertainty. For example, game theory has ‘shed remarkable light on the drivers of conflict, competition, and cooperation’.

Using cooperation-competition-conflict as a mental model is not new, but it is noteworthy that security commenters and practitioners are using this model, aligned to diplomacy and economics, at a time when grey zone actions are being used across all elements of national power.

Cooperation, competition and conflict

As discussed in Part I, we need to reconsider our use of the linear peace-war spectrum. This does not mean that peace and war are no longer valid conditions; violent clashes of wills for political purpose will continue as will periods of relative peace. But the peace-war spectrum, as a mental model, can limit our thinking in a continuously competitive world. An improved mental model sees competition as the constant condition, and cooperation and conflict as temporal conditions. This also includes periods of crisis and confrontation.

The temporal conditions of cooperation and conflict transpire through both deliberate statecraft – including a range of actions from collaboration to contest to war – and the unintended consequences of this statecraft as interactions in this complex system collide. As famously stated by Trotsky, ‘you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you’. These conditions are temporal because current events show that not even 144-year old postal cooperation lasts the test of time, and history records that the Hundred Years War did, eventually, end.

To expand:

  • Competition implies rivalry between two or more actors with the aim to outperform other competitors. This contest is a constant condition. General Stephen Townsend detailed this as the ‘reality that we’re in competition all the time’. As stated by Kelly McCoy in his article for the Modern War Institute, ‘Competition is older than warfare itself, it is the original politics.’ Constant competition acknowledges that peace settlements are temporal and contested. Competition allows us to frame challenges and imagine different solutions in place of just escalating or de-escalating violence. Competition is also a better way to think through problems. Australian Army doctrine uses ‘instability’ in the peace-instability-war mental model, but instability implies a negative condition to be ‘fixed’ while competition can be used positively. For example, if you take competition as inevitable, then you may make stronger efforts to set it on a sustainable course through a framework of international law and restraint or competitive coexistence. You can also see when this deteriorates such as the recent breakdown of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This RAND report articulates an excellent framework for assessing the international competitive environment.

  • Conflict, like cooperation, is a temporal condition of competition. Conflict encompasses the character of war scenarios and its enduring nature. As Clausewitz stated, ‘the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking’. This elicits continuous analysis and clarity about what kind of conflict is possible. Frank Hoffman’s construct for conflict and Albert Palazzo’s war cycle are recent examples and are a good start to forecasting possible war and conflict scenarios.

  • Cooperation allows for concepts that create power and influence without the use of damaging or violent interactions. It is positive interaction for mutual benefit of both parties, although this mutual benefit may not be equally weighted. Discussing cooperation invites conversation about other elements of national power that may provide options for cooperation when military options are unviable or unpalatable. The need for cooperation is most evident when it is missing, such as the current U.S.- China trade volatility and shaping of zero-sum unilateralism.

Cooperation-competition-conflict, as a mental model, is characterised by simultaneity, dynamism and scale. It is not a linear progression of violence like the peace-war spectrum. The conditions can be simultaneous across the different elements of national power and within these elements of national power. This is also applicable for domains. The conditions are also dynamic – they change – and the scale and intensity also varies.

It is tempting to draw cooperation-competition-conflict as a spectrum. Many have, such as in the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning and Multi-Domain Operations literature but these visualisations simply replace words – war for conflict, cooperation for peace and competition for instability. These attempts miss the simultaneity, dynamism and scale of cooperation-competition-conflict. Kelly McCoy’s visualisation is more progressed but shows that it is difficult to show different elements of national power in various states of cooperation, competition and conflict on the one diagram.

National power considerations

The simultaneity of cooperation, competition and conflict within and across different elements of national power is an important change from the linear peace-war spectrum. This simultaneity is the nuance that is missed in the current literature on Multi-Domain Operations which calls competition and conflict a continuum.

The Indonesian Confrontation in the 1960s is a good example of this simultaneity. Australia was engaged in armed conflict with Indonesia but maintained diplomatic, aid, trade and educational links. Military officers from both nations attended the other’s staff colleges while other military elements exchanged violent actions.

Current Australia-China relations can also be framed through simultaneous cooperation and competition; Australia cooperates through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank while competing across security, cyber, information and education. Another example is the Japan- China relationship where security tensions co-exist with economic cooperation. The two countries signed over 50 agreements on economic cooperation during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s state visit to Beijing in October 2018 yet security tensions continue.

Lastly, the Russia-China relationship provides an interesting example. Western commentators have often characterised this relationship as either ‘friend or foe’; missing the nuance that the relationship is both. They compete because of enduring geopolitical factors while also finding common ground in opposition to the U.S. on a wide array of initiatives. The binary condition of being at peace or at war misses this intricacy. It also misses understanding that different conditions exist across various elements of national power, and sometimes even within those elements of national power.

Understanding that cooperation, competition and conflict are simultaneous means we are less likely to fall into the trap of ‘either-or conditions’. This includes wrongly framing other actors as either ‘friend or a foe’, or the simplification that you are either ‘with us or against us’; a line made infamous by U.S. President George W Bush after the 9/11 attacks.

This is important as fluid alliances and partnerships are replacing Cold War blocs while competition brews over consumer markets and technological advantages. This competition plays out in trade, investment, employment, exchange rates, and intellectual property disputes. ASEAN countries have strategic and diplomatic cultures with ingrained aversion to geopolitical alignment and military alliances. There is therefore unlikely to be clearly defined blocs or conditions as the uneasy competition of great powers plays out in our region.

The scale and intensity of this competition is also changing over time. For example, the scale of China’s ambitions and the intensity of U.S.-China competition in the Indo-Pacific has varied in recent years. Ensuring Australia has sophisticated statecraft to navigate these fluid relationships is particularly relevant as the Pacific Step-Up begins in the South-West Pacific and South East Asia.

Domain considerations

It is possible cooperation-competition-conflict may be simultaneous within and across domains in future conflict. This mental model helps us think about the possible different characters of conflict.

  • Will there be conflict across all domains, or will space be an anomaly and some parts remain in cooperation due to civilian reliance?
  • Will information warfare be waged in isolation from ongoing cooperation on and from the land, sea and air?
  • Will we be at ‘cyber war’ but remain below the threshold of violence in the human domain?

An interesting historical case is the relative absence of gas warfare in World War II. To simplify a complex situation, Allied and German restraint from using gas could be framed as cooperating on an ethical code of combat. This cooperation existed even though the German’s used gas against civilians. However, during the same war, ‘prize rules’ were discarded and unrestricted submarine warfare employed by all sides with devastating effects. This shows that reading the state of play across and within domains and across and within the elements of national power requires judgement of simultaneity, dynamism and scale.


The world is not neat. International competition is intensifying across all elements of national power with distinct types of competitive actions prevailing in different issue areas. We need mental models to think simply about complex challenges, but that do not make us lose sight of our multi-faceted and changing world. It is time to elevate our thinking, and our doctrine, beyond the intellectual legacy of the peace-war spectrum and acknowledge constant competition and its temporal conditions cooperation and conflict. Each condition is dynamic and often simultaneous and scaled. The military, economic, diplomatic, informational challenges ahead demand this adaptation in order to understand how we can create national advantage and craft durable and comprehensive strategies.

About the author: Clare O’Neill is the Deputy Director the Chief of Army’s Initiatives Group. Clare has been the Chief of Army Scholar and Fulbright Professional Scholar in Australia-United States Alliance Studies at Georgetown University. Clare is the Founder of Grounded Curiosity and Defence Entrepreneurs Forum Australia, and Member of the Military Writers Guild.