As humanity ‘rethinks’ itself, it's time to ‘rethink’ war...
AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov
In 2021 I wrote an essay for a graduate course I was taking at Kings College London, in their Global Security Program. On re-reading it, for those prepared to suffer through academic prose, it offers some insight into a global security context now defined by Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine. I thought it worth sharing.
The years between now and the middle of the 21st century will be a time of transformation that will leverage and challenge classic strategic thinking as no other time. This transformation will witness two gordion developments. First, the exercise of great power politics driven by a revanchist Russia, a chastened USA and most importantly an ascendant China - that may yet unleash the spectre of nuclear war. Second, exponential advances in science and technology will either drive the erosion of liberal democratic belief systems - amplified by both domestic and foreign bad actors - to see our polities collapse due to an inability to process these unrelenting system shocks, or we may witness a new Age of Abundance that will profoundly remake human civilization – and in turn the “central art” of strategy making.
Accordingly, this paper will argue that classic strategic theory, from Sun Tzu to Thomas Schelling remains relevant to the first development, but is decidedly less so for the second, “that in common with war, strategy has an enduring nature but an ever shape-shifting character” one where “strategy is a process, a constant adaptation to shifting conditions and circumstances in a world where chance, uncertainty, and ambiguity dominates”.
9/11 marked a watershed in the post-Cold War era. Despite Francis Fukuyama’s declaration that humanity had witnessed the ‘end of history’, wherein strategists such as Martin van Creveld and Mark Kaldo could postulate that war as we had known it was now “obsolescent” - history it seems still had the capacity to “surprise”.
The resulting War on Terror caused strategists to reconsider the application of their theories to the asymmetry of modern and increasingly hybrid warfare, and the rapid recalibration of their strategic doctrines and consequent force structures to meet and defeat the new ‘enemy’. In so doing, they were largely ignoring the growing body of evidence that their most dangerous adversaries were old and historic, with the consequence that many, if not most of the old rules of strategy and war were as relevant as ever.
This paper posits that for the next 10-20 years, a classic great power rivalry will continue to challenge global peace, with a much less great (and thus more dangerous) Russia struggling to cling to its superpower status, while a still dominant USA tries to do the same with a China that many expect will overtake them in terms of by GDP as soon as 2028.
With its 5,000-year-old history, a defence budget second only to the United States (US$262 billion) and the world’s most populous nation (at 1.4 trillion), China may well prove to be, as Lawrence Freedman notes “the more likely setting for a future great power war”, an observation shared by the current Commander of United States Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip S. Davidson. Speaking to the Aspen Security Forum, he called China “the greatest long-term threat to the United States and the rules based international order.
In its quest to ‘regain’ its historic position as the leading civilization on earth, the PRC has for over 30 years been processing the debasement of the former USSR, both Gulf Wars, the Arab Spring and NATO’s intervention in Libya to conclude that the US is its existential challenger – at least with regard to its hotly contested “nine dash line” of land, water and seabeds it believes to have been Chinese for over 2,000 years.
The nuanced “game of cards” that Beijing has consequently been playing has seen it use all of its assets, not least being the leveraging of its growing economic clout with the US$1 trillion Belt and Road initiative linking infrastructure projects from Europe to East Asia (with similar efforts in Africa and South America). This massive effort has had the dual effect of creating a string of indebted vasal partners, but also access to secure port facilities for China’s increasingly blue water navy – echoes of Alfred T. Mahan’s “demand for stations along the road. not primarily for trade, but for defence and war.”
In war games that resulted in a loss for the US, Rand Corporation’s David Ochmanek observed that “It’s not just that they’ll be attacking air bases in the region. They’ll be attacking aircraft carriers at sea. They’ll be attacking our sensors in space. They’ll be attacking our communications links that largely run through space. They’ll be corrupting the databases in our command systems. They’re going to try to suppress us in every dimension they can”. He concludes that “The Chinese don’t have to comprehensively defeat the United States militarily in order to achieve near term objectives.”
The United States facing this new super competitor finds itself in an unfamiliar position – that is of being domestically and internationally unsettled. The long-term consequences of the Trumpist awakening have yet to be realized, but the nations’ brush with autocracy, and the growing realization that its defeat of same may not yet be decided, has sown an insecurity domestically, and outright distrust amongst allies and adversaries alike internationally.
Empirically, the US’s status as the unipolar superpower remains unchallenged. Its economy is by far the largest (US$21.4 trillion), with its US$732 billion defence expenditures almost three times that of China’s.
The new Biden administration wasted no time in issuing an unambiguous policy position, with the new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken declaring that the administration will hold China “accountable for its efforts to threaten stability in the Indo-Pacific, including. . . the Taiwan Strait and its undermining of the rules-based international system” and that “American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the US”.
Thus we have the world’s two largest powers locked in a contest to determine whether the international system will be characterized as unipolar or bipolar, or whether we might see a return to a Bismarckian balance of power amongst several regional players. This contest shall be waged in all the environments – land, sea, air, space and cyber, employing both conventional and nuclear forces – and shall be inspired and informed by all of the classical theorists.
But it is economic, not military might that will likely prove the most ‘instrumental’. As Christopher Coker notes, “War would cripple the economies of both countries, and in the case of China perhaps even threaten the sustainability of Communist Party rule. So instead, China might choose to be at war with the United States in cyberspace without firing off a single missile or dropping a single bomb.” Citing Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf, he defines this scenario as a Cool War, that is “an ongoing conflict that involves constant offensive measures that seek to damage the economic health of a rival, and the targeting of ‘cutting edge’ technologies (so denying a rival a technological edge). Its purpose is to be in a constant state of war without triggering a conventional, still less a nuclear confrontation”.
While this brings to mind the Masters’ admonition of the ‘supreme excellence’ of winning without fighting, it is another of Sun Tzu’s parables that best describes the real challenge: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself, but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” This clearly is not the time for an ‘unsettled’ United States not to “know” itself.
Though a lesser strategic threat today than China, Russia is the more dangerous and immediate threat because of its unadmitted status as a failed, or at least stalled kleptocracy. The adventurism this legacy nuclear ‘great’ power evidences is a perfect example of Beatrice Heuser’s observation that “the way in which a society makes war is a projection of that society itself”.
With a GDP equal to that of Texas, a defence budget equal to India’s and a negative population growth, Vladimir Putin’s post-Soviet Russia has been struggling to leverage the great power status afforded by its nuclear arsenal but challenged by an economy narrowly dependent on oil production and kleptocratic corruption.
Despite legal manoeuvring that could see Putin retain the reigns of power until 2036, his grasp is perhaps more tenuous than often thought – as evidenced by the recent street protests in support of Alexei Navalny.
It is in this context that Russia has pioneered the aggressive deployment of ‘Non-Linear’ or ‘New Generation’ warfare utilizing a form of ‘warfare’ that Thomas Rid argues isn’t so new at all, that is “sophisticated versions of three activities that are as old as warfare itself: subversion, espionage and sabotage”.
Christopher Coker describes the concept well: “War, in a word, can now be relatively contactless, played out not on a battlefield but in the minds of an enemy, and fought at a level of consciousness that erodes self-belief and, in turn, self-confidence. It is also asymmetrical in nature, though unusually the asymmetry is that of the aggressor not the defender. It is the aggressor who uses irregular forces, avoids battles and exploits propaganda”.
Articulated for the first time in in 2013 by Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, wars were “not declared, but simply began” and could destabilize even the most “well off” country into a “an arena of the most intense armed conflict in a matter of months or even days”. The tools to be used included “political, economic, information, humanitarian and other measures... With new information technologies” playing an especially critical role. The intent of all is to prevail in its conflict with the west, “without having to rely on superior force in a classic battle”.
From the annexation of Crimea, to the subversion of the Brexit referendum and the Trump presidency the Russians have leveraged and profoundly amplified the culture/societal divisions amongst its democratic adversaries that are in turn driven by unprecedented technology driven disruptions in those societies. These ‘netwars’ have proven highly effective, arguably the most successful active measures campaigns in history.
However, the measure of Russia’s success is the destabilization of western democracies, fomented by their support and cultivation of populist forces that on the whole share Putin’s fear of future of technologically driven possibilities. They may prove too successful in their efforts, in that it is not too fanciful to suggest that the FSB and GRU have sown the seeds of the civilizational ‘system collapse’ theorized by so many, that would inevitably consume Russia as well.
When considering the impact of new technologies on strategy, the general assumption is that it is technology’s effect on war-making that is most relevant. But what if it is in fact the impact that technology has on society - for good and bad - that may define the next Revolution in Military Affairs?
Ray Kurzweil is the best known of a growing cohort of academics who argue that humanity is at a pivot point, that we are on the knee of an exponential growth curve of technological advances that is unprecedented in human history and will remake human civilization in the next 20-30 years. A new Age of Abundance is considered inevitable, one where we “may find ourselves living in a non-zero sum world”.
Stanford University professor Tony Seba, in a ground-breaking 2020 report entitled Rethinking Humanity, has detailed the near-term impacts of profound disruptions in transportation, energy and food. He describes a world where the effective cost of all three are reduced almost to zero by 2030, with new materials in turn enabling hyper-localized manufacturing that do not require the trading systems or logistics on which society currently is based. Nor they argue, will they require the nation state as we know it.
In such a world, the societal divisions being exploited by Russia and others will inevitably worsen. It is a civilizational race to the new age sought or to system collapse. What of Russia for example, when its oil has no value? What is the role of the nation state when cities might well once again become principalities that would be familiar to Machiavelli?
This brief survey posits that the near future is one of transformation for strategists. The classic thinkers will continue to be relevant in guiding the great power rivalry between China, the US and Russia – from hybrid through conventional and nuclear in all of the domains. However, as we consider the unprecedented disruptions in our societies, and the paths to which they lead, it might well be the time to consider that as humanity ‘rethinks’ itself, so to might we be compelled to ‘rethink’ war.
 Freedman, Lawrence. Strategy: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013 xxi
 Gray, Colin S. The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010 4.
 Heuser, Beatrice. The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010 17.
 See Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press, 1992
 Strachan, Hew. “The Lost Meaning of Strategy”. Survival 47 (3) 42.
 Coker, Christopher. Future War, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015 https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/kcl/detail.action?docID=4094505.
 BBC.com. “China will overtake the US to become the world's largest economy by 2028, five years earlier than previously forecast, a report says”, accessed February 26, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-55454146
 Wikipedia.com. “List of Countries Military Expenditures”, accessed February 26, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_military_expenditures
 Wikipedia.com. “List of Countries and Dependencies by Population”, accessed Thursday February 26, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_and_dependencies_by_population
 Freedman, Lawrence. The Future of War: A History. Great Britain: Allen Lane, 2017 282.
 The Atlantic.com. “How the U.S. Could Lose a War With China”, accessed February 26, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/07/china-us-war/594793/
 Von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/kcl/detail.action?docID=1623274. 86.
 Mahan, A.T. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. New York: Dover Publications, 1987 2.
 “How the US Could Lose A War With China”
 Financial Times.com. “Anthony Blinken Blasts China in first phone call”, accessed on February 27, 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/f2e8f0d6-db17-42af-886f-901f751b4a9f
 Coker, Future War.
 As detailed in The Atlantic.com. “Lubyanka federation: How the FSB determines the politics and economics of Russia, Dossier Center”, accessed February 26, 2021. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/lubyanka-federation/
 Heuser, Beatrice. The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the
 Wikipedia.com. “Demographics of Russia”, accessed February 25, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Russia
 NPR.com. “Referendum In Russia Passes, Allowing Putin To Remain President Until 2036”,
Accessed February 26, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2020/07/01/886440694/referendum-in-russia-passes-allowing-putin-to-remain-president-until-2036
 Coker, Future War.
 Rid, Thomas. “Cyber War Will Not Take Place’, Journal of Strategic Studies 35 (1) 6
 Coker, Future War.
 Freedman, The Future of War. 224
 See Harding, Luke. Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West. London: Faber. 2020
 Freedman, The Future of War. 227
 Coker. Future War.
 See Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin. 2006
 Coker, Future War.
 See Arbib, James & Seba, Anthony. Rethinking Humanity: Five Foundational Sector Disruptions, the Lifecycle of Civilizations, and the Coming Age of Freedom. Palo Alto 2020