“But, the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out to meet it”.
ThucydidesAthenians and Spartans
Alphen, Netherlands. 9 January. What will be the shape of future war? The world is fast becoming divided between latter day Athenians and Spartans. The former is powerful and views it expansion as inevitable and a consequence of its superior open political, social and economic model. The latter is less powerful but ruled by nationalistic and militaristic elites who fear that in time they too will be swept away by a ‘progressive’ West that is now a global idea rather than a place. This systemic tension not only makes war possible, but will shape the very nature of twenty-first century warfare.
Karl von Clausewitz once said that the overriding aim of war is to disarm the enemy. The latter day Athenians strive to disarm adversaries through treaties. The latter day Spartans believe the key to disarming an adversary to be coercive power and its decisive application at a time, method and place of their choosing. In Clausewitz’s day one disarmed a state by smashing its armed forces war. Today, there are so many ways to disarm a state and it is the new ends, ways and means of future war that occupy so much of my thinking and concerns these days. Somewhere, sometime in the not-so-distant future war will take place. It could well be a big, systemic war in which all Western states will somehow be involved and for all the reasons Thucydides so eloquently describes in his seminal 5th Century BC work History of the Peloponnesian War.
The Shape of Future War
The shape of war is not simply a function of relative military power. How a systemic war is fought is essentially dictated by the political, social and economic nature of the combatants. Today, there are roughly three sets of systemic adversaries that represent three distinct poles of power in the twenty first century. The West and its fellow travellers are the Athenian Globalists, who in varying ways embrace the openness that new technology and borderless trade and movement brings, but also wilfully ignore the profound vulnerabilities it generates. China and Russia lead the Exploiters, Spartan states that seek to ring-fence their own systems and societies behind rigid systems of government from the vulnerabilities of globalisation, whilst at the same time seeking to exploit Globalist vulnerabilities. A third group might be called the Believers. Whilst the Globalists and Exploiters are both committed, in their varying ways, to a system of global capital the Believers reject the secular legitimacy of power and seek instead a new unworldly order based on extreme interpretations of faith. Al Qaeda and Islamic State are the most obvious examples of Believers in geopolitics, but there are others.
The Globalists are the status quo and seek to expand their writ primarily via co-option (Athenian League?) though retain some military means to punish those who challenge the order they have forged. Whilst Globalist elites talk constantly of ‘change’ for them it is as much about justifying elitist decisions to their sceptical, traditionalist peoples, than defending those self-same people. There are also two wings of the Globalist elite, both of which are pretty hard core and which whilst appearing to counter each other, in fact reinforce each other. At one end of the Globalist political spectrum there are what might be called the Goldman Sachs Globalists, for whom the borderless movement of capital and the businesses that foster such movement are the key essentials of power. For them nation-states are very passé and little more than second order, local entities that exists to maintain the order they need to do business. At the other end there are the liberal Globalists who espouse open internationalism based on a vision of the borderless universalism of peoples. For them the nation-state is also an anachronism forged as it was on mono-cultural identities which must also be eroded.
Societal and strategic vulnerability is thus an inherent consequence of the world views of both wings of the Globalist elite. Indeed, openness and vulnerability are two sides of the same strategic coin. Whereas one promotes and exploits extreme openness/vulnerability for profit, the other creates extreme openness/vulnerability in pursuit of ideology. Vulnerability that the Exploiters and the Believers, the Grand Revisionists, are only too happy to use against the Globalists by turning the world they have created against them. It is at this point the shape of future war becomes apparent.
Whilst ostensibly weaker both the Exploiters and the Believers use offset strategies to exacerbate the structural vulnerabilities of the Globalists. However, whilst the Exploiters systematically analyse and design coercive strategies to achieve their revisionist grand political ends, the Believers are, by nature, far more instinctive and opportunist. Consequently, for both Exploiters and Believers coercion, and its many tools and applications, are ‘values’ to be had at any cost, whereas for Globalists defending against coercion is simply an impediment in the way of wealth-generation and societal ‘renewal’, and thus a cost to be minimised. Indeed, for many Globalists armed forces are themselves legacies of out-dated states that must be maintained only at a minimum level even if such forces also rely to an extent on what many Globalists see as ‘archaic’ patriotism. Worse, one great weakness of the bureaucratic Euro-Globalists is that because of Europe’s peculiar and particular recent history many of them are convinced that Europe’s own military power poses a threat unto themselves. For them ‘strategy’ is overwhelmingly a civilian function of law and precept, rather than power, coercion and capability.
For Globalists systemic war is not just unthinkable (which is why they try hard not to think about it) it is illogical because of its myriad of costs. In other words, Globalists cannot possibly imagine why someone would start such a war and thus have little interest in it, even if, to echo Plato, war certainly has an interest in them. Still, for all their martial emphasis the Exploiters would prefer to achieve their revisionist aims short of war, primarily through intimidation of the Globalists and their populations. Of course, they prepare for war because the threat of war is central to their coercive narrative, but also because to them as nationalists (nationalism destroys patriotism) ‘war’ is part of the very DNA of strategy. For Believers war is a ‘purifying’ end in and of itself.
The Four Phases of Future War
Future war will thus be about far more than military power. Future war will be a complex matrix of coercive actions all of which will form part of a new escalation of conflict designed to blackmail Globalists into accepting what for them are unacceptable actions. As such future war will essentially concern the application of pressure in pursuit of revisionist strategic ends by exploiting globalist vulnerabilities via a myriad of coercive means of which mass destruction will be only one extreme. For the Exploiters future war will thus involve the application of pressure across a prescribed mix of ‘effects’ ranging from systematic mass disinformation, disorder, disruption and, if needs be, to decisive destruction.
Future war will not begin with any formal declaration, that is far too legalistic, globalist, and anachronistic. Future war could also be ‘gradualistic’ by nature. Future war will begin at ‘escalation level one’ with fake news, and disinformation campaigns that try to turn the now many ‘communities’ within Western states against each other, and exploit further the profound split in many Western states between the patriots (in the literal meaning of the word) and the internationalists, with the aim of rendering such states politically paralysed. The Believers will tend to focus on these early elements of future war unless they can develop the high warfare means of future warfare the Exploiters are already in train to deploy.
If the fostering of disorder via disinformation fails the Exploiters will move onto ‘escalation level two’ and the next phase of future war– disruption. Globalism has been built as world-wide web of people, ideas and things. On the face of it, the Internet that has so empowered Globalism has redundancy so deeply built into it that it would be very unlikely to suffer a catastrophic denial of service attack. However, the systems and infrastructures that increasingly rely on cyber-systems are too often insufficiently robust because robustness implies cost and a constraint on the ‘openness’ the Globalists espouse. The Exploiters, on the other hand, see robustness of their critical infrastructures and systems as the sine qua non of their respective coercive strategies and are willing to impose the cost on their peoples of the closed structures such ‘robustness’ generates. After all, the Exploiters have few shareholders to satisfy. Crash the critical systems the Globalists rely upon and the unstable societies they have created will render impossible an effective strategic and political response.
‘Escalation level three’ would see Exploiters seeking to ram home their perceived advantage by reinforcing a growing sense of pending panic they have generated within Globalist societies by stepping up coercion. This would be achieved by advertising and threatening mass destruction. This phase of future war would be prosecuted by essentially military means. It could be via use of a limited war that underpins and reinforces strategic revisionist aims, by placing chemical, nuclear and biological forces on full alert, or by a combination of the two. At this point the revisionist forces, Exploiters and Believers, might even join forces and create a latter day Delian League, with the latter undertaking terrorist attacks against the Globalists to further foster panic. Alternatively, Exploiters would use undercover Special Forces to exploit terrorism as war by other means. Escalation level four? Full on systemic war.Preventing Future War
Why am I writing this? The Globalists are in denial that such a threat exists because for both wings threat is politically inconvenient, even if the people sense otherwise. Take contemporary Britain as an example. At one level the current National Security Capabilities Review (NSCR) (or Sedwill Review as it is popularly known) is a useful exercise if it did what it says on the tin: to consider security and defence in the round given the changing nature of threat with the aim of ensuring the efficient and effective application of resources. Sadly, the NSCR is the now all too familiar cost-cutting politics dressed up as strategy. As such it demonstrates (yet again) not only that the British elite do not understand future war or are even willing to consider it, they completely misunderstand the utility and role of in the face of such a threat. Any state that sacrifices defence to pay for security, which is the essence of the Sedwill exercise, simply demonstrates it understands neither. Worse, such a state also demonstrates to allies, adversaries, and its own people that it affords neither security nor defence sufficient political priority. Further cuts to already critically over-stretched armed forces simply to meet the dictates of a short-term balance sheet also demonstrate an elite that has not only abandoned any pretence to considered strategy in security and defence, it has also decided that the critical vulnerability it is imposing on its people is a price worth paying for Globalism.
The paradox? By weakening the security and defence of the European state it is Europe’s own elite Globalists who are helping to create the conditions for future war by artificially exaggerating vulnerability. Instead, Europe is promised new virtual Maginot Lines, such as PESCO, which weaken European defence because it is strategic tinkering that demonstrates all too clearly that Europe’s elites do not believe future war possible and are not serious about deterring it or preventing it. This situation will worsen, particularly in Europe, as the Revisionists systematically exploit social media and the new technological ends, ways and means of future warfare, such as hyper-sonic weapons, Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing, big data, et al.
If future war is to be prevented Athens must properly think about war conceptually, strategically and practically. Western states are in danger of being disarmed by forces ostensibly far weaker if it fails collective to re-capitalise the twenty-first century security and defence of the Western state across the new spectrum of future war. Therefore, Western states must together begin to re-think security and defence in the round, and the worst that could be done to them and their people. That means looking at all tools of security and defence. In practice a real review would reconsider the balance that must necessarily be struck between ‘unseen’ security and ‘seen’ defence to forge the two into a new form of shield and sword. Why the state? The state remains for millions the focus of identity, the legitimate and most efficient purveyor of security and defence, and the tax-generating source of power. Only Western states working in harness, and which use institutions such as NATO and the EU as means to a strategic ends, rather than political ends in themselves, will successfully deter future war. For future war can only be deterred demonstrating an ability and a capability to act to effect across the entirety of the future war coercive spectrum.
Future war that has already started and needs to be fought. As British General Sir William Francis Butler once said, “The nation that insists upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards”.
Have a nice day!