With Competition Like This, Who Needs Conflict?

Craig Perry has written his fourth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece looks at how competition could minimize conflict. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

“If you call what’s going on now a hybrid war, let it be hybrid war. It doesn’t matter: It’s war.” – Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesperson

What if the great powers really could subdue their enemies without fighting, as Sun Tzu suggested? This appears to be what Russian agents were up to in 2016 when they allegedly meddled in America’s presidential elections. According to the U.S. intelligence community and federal prosecutors, Moscow’s goals were to undermine public faith in democracy and influence the selection of the next U.S. commander-in-chief, presumably with the aim of weakening a superpower rival—or better yet, installing a favored candidate in the White House. Russians apparently were up to similar tricks in the latest French, German, and Montenegrin elections as well.

Then again, the United States and its allies are hardly innocent when it comes to interfering in other countries’ affairs—so it should come as no surprise that Moscow blames the West for much of the world’s instability, from Arab Spring uprisings to “color revolutions” across the former Soviet Union. In 2013, Gen. Valeriy Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, framed these turbulent events as a new form of warfare, where political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures are often more effective than traditional weapons. The very rules of war have changed, he concluded, and Russia’s military must adapt accordingly.

The Kremlin has clearly embraced these modern rules of war in recent years, pursuing an aggressive, whole-of-govern¬ment approach to achieving its foreign policy goals while avoiding escalation into full-blown state-on-state conflicts. This strategy of indirect action typically begins with so-called “information confrontation,” a combination of old-fashioned propaganda and modern cyber operations to shape perceptions and manipulate the behavior of target audiences. Russia’s intelligence services might then mix it up with subversive “active measures,” while the military and its proxies—ethnic compatriots, private military contractors, or even “little green men”—stand ready to up the ante while obscuring Moscow’s involvement.

Not to be outdone, China also updated its military doctrine to incorporate nonmilitary means of influence in 2003. The People’s Liberation Army’s “three warfares” strategy—encompassing public opinion, psychological, and legal warfare—is intended to control public narratives and influence perceptions to advance China’s interests while compromising the ability of opponents to respond. This approach offers China a new form of “non-kinetic” weaponry that can be combined in highly synergistic ways. For example, to advance its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, Beijing is advancing spurious legal arguments, deploying civilian flotillas, and broadcasting propaganda portraying itself as a victim of foreign powers. Sun Tzu would be proud.

There is debate in national security circles over what to call these new forms of warfare—and whether they are really all that new. Pundits have coined terms such as “gray zone conflicts” and “hybrid warfare” to describe what others chalk up to time-honored doctrinal concepts like information operations and irregular warfare. The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy offered yet another buzz phrase for this phenomenon: “competition short of armed conflict.”

Whatever we call it, there is no doubt that nonmilitary methods of warfare are becoming more commonplace, for a variety of reasons. Compared to traditional combat operations, they are relatively inexpensive, deceptively innocuous, and difficult to attribute, particularly in the cyber domain. They also carry a limited risk of escalation, as even the most audacious provocations seldom trigger an armed response—especially against a nuclear power. Perhaps most importantly, these subtle, indirect approaches can sometimes affect strategic centers of gravity—such as government decision-making and political legitimacy—that are difficult to target directly with military force. Future advances in communications technology, big-data analytics, and artificial intelligence will only further enable such competition below the threshold of conflict.

This is certainly a worrying trend, as these tactics have the potential to exacerbate social divisions, undermine confidence in democratic governance, and blur distinctions between civilian and military combatants and targets. On the other hand, the more confident great powers are in their ability to secure national interests through nonmilitary means, the more likely they are to pursue less violent and risky courses of action. In other words, competition short of conflict could very well reduce the risk of future great-power wars.

© Craig Perry 2018