The release of the first part of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference and Robert Mueller’s recent testimony on Capitol Hill should erase any lingering doubt about this hard truth: The United States is at war with Russia. For years, Moscow has persistently attacked the heart of American democracy, seeking to change electoral outcomes and destroy Americans’ faith in democracy and the world’s faith in America. Freely practicing democratic politics and exercising political liberty (including through elections) are core values for Americans. They are why we rebelled from England, fought a civil war and battled fascism in World War II. The United States has no more vital interest than the integrity of American democracy.
The real question is why Americans have been so slow to recognize that they are in this war. Putin certainly believes he’s at war with America, and remains convinced that Washington has been working for decades to weaken Russia and take down his regime. He has acted accordingly.
By contrast, the U.S. response to this new war has been a fairly reactive, piecemeal and modest set of defensive actions. One reason for that failure is that this war does not look like any war Americans have known before, nor is it one that we predicted and prepared for. It is not military in the traditional sense of belligerents imposing their wills upon one another through organized violence — and military means are what the U.S. knows best. But this struggle is most certainly politics by other means in the Clausewitzian sense, and its stakes are higher than most of the wars the United States has fought in its history. What’s more, this new kind of war — cognitive as opposed to physical — likely represents the future of great-power conflict. If the United States hopes to win this war, we must first understand why this kind of warfare is ascendant.
Discussions about the future of warfare often become a cacophony of speculation rooted in parochial experience. “Look to ideology,” a political scientist might say, “surely the forces of populism and identity politics will define what war looks like in the coming decades.” “Look to technology,” the engineer might say, “Surely data, AI and robotics will shape how war is fought.” “Look to economics,” the CEO might say, “Surely sanctions, supply chains and natural resources will be the weapons of future war.” Some will argue that nuclear deterrence will be indispensable; others will see this as outdated and declare cyberwar the wave of the future.
This is perhaps why debates about the future of war make for good parlor games, but not usually good policy. More often than not, as Sir Lawrence Freedman demonstrates in The Future of War: A History, speculation about the future of war misses the mark by a long margin, with sometimes calamitous results. U.S. policymakers and military leaders eagerly discarded the hard-learned lessons of waging counterinsurgency in Vietnam, assuming wistfully that America would never fight such wars again, and returned to the comfort of planning for conventional wars they knew and preferred to fight. They would receive their comeuppance in Afghanistan and Iraq a quarter century later.
This is not to dismiss the value of contemplating and planning for wars of the future. Both of us have devoted most of our careers in tech, academia, government and business to advising leaders on how to plan for the future. It is clear that if we fail to anticipate and prepare for the future of war, then we will surely suffer for it. Beyond the inevitable strategic surprise, we will fight on our back feet, with greater loss of treasure, blood and perhaps even our most vital interests and values.
What the Protagonists Choose to Contest
So how then to think about the future of war? A naive approach turns out to be a powerful one: war is as war does. The nature and instruments of warfare in a particular era are shaped — simply but fundamentally — by whatever it is that the major protagonists choose to contest at that time.
Periods in which capturing and holding physical territory or natural resources are paramount give rise to a style of warfare that reflects those objectives. Preventing terror attacks over the past two decades has fostered an American “forever war” of drones, special operations, partner capacity-building and tenuous law that is clearly a product of Washington’s perceived threats and identified adversaries since 9/11.
Nations never stop fighting, but what they fight over, and therefore how they fight, is in flux. Consequently, what is even thought of as “war” — its objectives, its strategies, its tools — is always shifting over time. This is not to say that war is no longer fundamentally political in its essence; it most certainly is. But we would argue that insofar as the political ends of war do change, and the nature of those ends determines in no small part how belligerents fight.
This approach is relevant for 2019 because it welds together two emergent and core themes in the present national security debate: on the one hand, the breakdown of the post-WWII U.S.-led international order and, on the other, the rise of the “cognitive” battlefield and information warfare. We would argue that the former drives the growing prominence of the latter. The nature of the contest — a battle over the future of world order – is, in effect, selecting the most effective instruments of war, a family of tools that allow states (and non-state actors) to shape public perception and belief.
Perhaps the most crucial contest facing the United States and its core democratic treaty allies as they enter the third decade of the 21st century is the fate of what has been termed the “liberal” or “rules-based” international order established in the wake of the second World War. This order peaked between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and is now on an inexorable denouement.
As countless articles have highlighted, the U.S.-led global order faces challenges on a number of fronts. There is a China seeking primacy in Eurasia and working to shape the international system to its own ends. There is a revanchist Russia that sees national advantage in disorder and seeks to undermine the United States, the European Union, NATO, and other forces championing the established order. There are theocratic and populist movements within and across states, fueled by a visceral sense of marginalization. There are powerful corporations and networks operating across borders that have become almost inseparable from our daily lives in ways an Orwellian state could only dream of.
This battle over the continued vitality of the U.S.-led world order should undergird our understanding of the future of war and how we should prepare. World orders are no longer made or broken through the raw fact of capturing and holding physical territory, controlling resources or supply chains, or possessing a single crucial super-weapon. These are not unimportant per se, but not decisive either.
Defining and sustaining a global order now depends more on intangible assets: the core credibility of — and trust in — the dominant “order underwriters,” broad support from the public and the elite for the vision and values of the order, the reliability of financial infrastructure and material exchange, and legitimate mechanisms of international consultation and coordination.
It is no surprise in this context that the manipulation of information and efforts aimed at shaping perceptions of credibility, trust, and values should become increasingly relevant. The shift of U.S. adversaries toward weapons of influence, information and diplomacy should be read only as their being resigned to the reality of American conventional military dominance. Indeed, it is also a clear sign of the kind of war they are waging: incrementally eroding the existing global order, undermining confidence in — and the self-confidence of — its principal underwriter, the United States, and working to establish more self-interested alternatives.
This is not to say that organized violence will not remain a key feature of future war. It will. As we have seen throughout history, military action can collapse the international order. But increasingly, it is neither the most effective — and certainly not the most efficient — tool for doing so.
Changing the Approach to National Security Policymaking
To the extent that the fundamental goal of American foreign policy is to ensure that the United States shapes the future world order and resists attempts to unravel it for the long-term benefit of the American people, we must construct a view of warfare that fits that end. This suggests important changes to how U.S. policymakers approach national security policymaking and planning.
First, success should be measured more in social capital than physical capital. Do publics support democratic governance, market economics and human rights as the optimal macro framework for living their lives? Do companies and consumers trust the stability and even-handedness of financial institutions, as well as the platforms that enable so much of their interaction and exchange? Which systems, states, institutions and other actors possess the most trust; which ones can withstand the greatest pressures on their credibility? The answers to these questions may invert traditional calculations of who is winning and who is losing in the contest to shape the next world order. In this conflict, trust and influence count for more than wealth and firepower.
Second, the wars of the future may not be won primarily by militaries. While the ability to organize and direct violence in tightly defined physical — and even virtual — domains will remain important, conventional and non-conventional military tools may be ill-suited to projecting power in the social, economic and political domains. In the very least, military tools may take a back seat in a contest for world order that will likely turn on trust, ideas and influence. War increasingly will privilege the strength and innovation in other tools of power — financial, commercial, regulatory, diplomatic and especially cognitive — and the state institutions that employ them. Money isn’t everything, but budgeting is indicative of national priorities. When the President proposes a topline level of defense spending more than seven times the combined budgets of the State, Treasury, Commerce, and Energy departments and trade agencies, you know the United States is not investing responsibly in the tools it will need to fight in the future.
Third, we must broaden our conceptual strategic landscape to consider a wider range of adversaries and allies than traditionally have been considered part of the national security domain. It is not just states that now make — and make up — the global order. Actors insignificant from the viewpoint of warfare as physical combat may be great powers from the view of warfare as a conflict over world order. Technology platforms and media companies able to shape minds and mobilize action at scale frequently outstrip states in this view. Facebook, the Chinese tech conglomerate Baidu, News Corp., and others shape tens if not hundreds of millions of people’s political opinions and commercial activity every day, thus playing a major role — sometimes more important than governments — in how people and nations perceive and relate to each other around the world.
Contests for world order come in many shapes and sizes. World War II was a conflict over competing visions of world order as much as the Cold War was in subsequent decades. The trick for America is to tailor its tools and approach for the kind of world order contest it faces today. Grasping the nature of the war we are in and where it is being waged — in the battlefield of people’s minds more than any latitude and longitude — should be the lodestar of U.S. strategic thinking, planning, and investment in the years ahead.