The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder
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This event took place on Wednesday, March 13, 2019
This transcript makes reference to a PowerPoint presentation. Please refer to the full event video in the right sidebar.
JOANNE MYERS: Good evening, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you for joining us.
It is a pleasure to welcome Sean McFate to this Public Affairs program. Sean is professor of strategy at the National Defense University and also teaches at the Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service. He is the author of an important new book, which will be available for you to purchase at the end of the program, entitled The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder.
Having seen firsthand the horrors of battle, Sean uses his experiences as a paratrooper in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division and as a private military contractor in Africa to inform this very rich, thoughtful, and provocative work of military science. To learn more about our most versatile guest, I hope you'll take a moment to read his bio, which was handed out to you when you checked in this evening.
Time and time again, Americans have been told that we have the strongest military, the best-trained troops, the most up-to-date technology, the most advanced equipment and resources, and yet America has not won a single war in 70 years. I see the quizzical look on your faces, but think about it for a moment. Whether we are speaking about Korea, the Vietnam War, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, America has not in the traditional sense of the word been "victorious" since 1945.
Now you're probably wondering: Can it really be that our enemies are more adept at devising winning strategies, more successful at outmaneuvering us, and thus outperforming American troops? In The New Rules of War Sean provides answers and explains why America's armed forces have been failing, why old strategies no longer work, and why our militaries have not adapted sufficiently to changed conditions. Many both in and out of the military have argued that a vision of the future without warfare is almost unimaginable. If this proposition is correct, then a major part of that vision is to look not toward the past and to not meet 21st-century threats with 20th-century responses but to plan for a different future.
The questions that follow then are: How at a time of global unrest, when conventional conflicts and traditional ways of engaging in warfare no longer exist, can we be triumphant? How can we prevail in an age of entropy, one where mercenaries, militias, terrorist entrepreneurs, and other armed actors operate alongside great powers like the United States and Russia, or when regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel create even newer challenges? What will the future of war be like?
For the answers, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a very special guest this evening, Sean McFate. Thank you so much for joining us.
SEAN McFATE: Thank you for inviting me here to the Carnegie Council. It's a pleasure to be here.
As some of you may or may not know I also write fiction, international spy thriller stuff that's based largely on reality. Things that don't go into the non-fiction go into the fiction. People ask, "Well, how could you do non-fiction and fiction?" because it's kind of a rare thing. The secret is that for non-fiction it's early in the morning with lots of strong coffee, and for fiction it's at night with lots of Scotch.
I wrote this book because I was angry. I was angry because, maybe like you, I had lost friends in Iraq and Afghanistan; as a taxpayer it has sickened me to see trillions of dollars thrown away in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places; and as a vet it hurts me to see our national image tarnished by low-level foes, all while achieving very little on the ground. I wanted to know, because we do have the very best military in the world—we have the best troops, the best training, the very best technology, the most money—the U.S. Department of Defense has more money than all the next eight biggest militaries in the world combined—yet we haven't won a war since 1945. The last time we won a war the world ran on vacuum tubes.
So I wanted to know what's the problem, and that's the central puzzle of this book, which is written, by the way, for everybody. It's not an academic-y book. It's written so that my mother could read it because I want to have a debate and discussion beyond the Beltway and beyond academic and expert circles.
Here's the bottom line upfront: Warfare has changed, but we have not. Our adversaries grasp this, and that's why they prevail. We must change, too, and this book explains how to do that. It doesn't just identify a problem, it gives specific solutions, and it's causing a bit of a stir right now in the national security establishment.
The problem is this: Victorious nations are loathe to change the way they fight war. Let's go back a hundred years, way back to World War I. Billy Mitchell was an American aviator in World War I. This man saw the future of war, and it was air power, and when he came back to Washington, DC, he said to everybody, "Air power is the future."
But of course, England, France, and America were like: "No. It's going to be infantry. It's going to be static-line trench warfare." It's going to be basically the Maginot Line.
And he said, "No, it's going to be air power."
To demonstrate this, he said, "I can sink battleships," which back then in the 1920s was anathema. Basically, an airplane was a motorized kite in the era of the super-dreadnought. They drug out some captured German battleships from World War I into the Chesapeake and dropped bombs on them and sunk a few.
But it became a huge uproar in the press, saying, "It's a circus show, it's not real," etc. Perhaps to get Billy Mitchell out of the media spotlight, the head brass in the War Department sent Mitchell on a one-year inspection cruise of the Pacific Ocean, just to get him out of town: "Go away, Billy. Be quiet for your own good."
Billy Mitchell comes back a year later with a 400-page typed report saying, "In the future, Japan will launch a sneak attack against Pearl Harbor at 7:30 in the morning on a Sunday with aviation." He said this in 1924.
What do you think happened? What do you think the military did with Billy Mitchell?
AUDIENCE [off-mic]: They court-martialed him.
SEAN McFATE: They court-martialed him for this. That's right. They court-martialed him in a very public, Kardashian-like court-martial. It was ugly, it was demeaning. The press was there. This was Washington, DC, at Fort Lesley McNair. They defrocked him, and he quit. He said, "I'm done."
For the next couple of years he proselytized air power to anybody who would listen to him. He died a bitter man in Milwaukee, and then a few years later Pearl Harbor happened, and the U.S. military said it was caught completely by surprise, even though they had early warning from 1924.
It has sort of a happy ending. The military in its way made up and apologized to Billy Mitchell. They named a bomber after him, the B-25 Mitchell bomber, the only one in World War II actually named after a person.
The moral of this story is that victorious nations do not like to change the way they win wars, even at their own demise. France thought the future of war will be just like past wars, World War I, it'll be static trench-line defenses. So they built the best defense line in the world, the Maginot Line. Meanwhile, Germany had innovated because it was hungry and created the blitzkrieg, actually an English idea, and went right around the Maginot Line.
We are facing a Billy Mitchell moment today. That's what this book tries to explain and tries to answer. And the stakes are high, because even an undefeated army can lose a war. Rome thought itself the Eternal City until 410 AD.
If we were to ask today, "What are today's biggest threats?" we could spend all night—which we will not do—discussing this. You could say China, Russia, those are the threats du jour; it could be Iran's nuclear missile program; it could be the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) 3.0' it could be narcotic wars south of our border; it could be Venezuela right now; genocide; North Korea; climate change; etc. All these are bad threats, but they are not the worst. Something that's giving rise to all of them is a systemic threat that I call "durable disorder."
Durable disorder is the new global environment. It's slowly creeping around the world and has been at least for 25 years. As the "Westphalian order" of nation-states retreats, it is what's left in the wake.
It contains and does not solve problems, which is the problem, but it's not anarchy. It's not "The sky is falling, let's invest in more sky," but it is a world where conflicts do not resolve, they persist and smolder eternally in so-called "forever wars," it's marked by permanent entropy and overlapping forms of governance, if any governance at all. It is systemic and gives rise to the other threats we've discussed. Others are even exploiting it, like, I would say, Russia and others. It is also not new.
Most of the history of the world is disordered. This notion that we learn in sixth grade that the world is run by nation-states and only they get to wage war with their national armies, that is largely a fiction. It's ahistorical. It's only a couple hundred years old. Most of the world looks like durable disorder. This is the world that Machiavelli was lamenting about in The Prince.
If you look at, for example, the Middle Ages or early Renaissance, it looks very similar to today. The Middle East looks very much like this, where anybody who was rich enough could wage war for any reason they wanted to. There were groups of religious zealots or mercenaries or whatever. What this meant was there was persistent, never-ending conflict, and we are returning to the status quo ante of durable disorder.
Signs of it today: It has been going on at least since the end of the Cold War, but half of all peace deals fail in five years, over half of the world states are in some form of armed conflict, the majority of countries around the world are failed or failing by any metric, and many states are just regimes in states rather than actual states. Armed conflicts persist, they don't resolve today.
We are seeing the return of mercenaries for the first time in 150 years. They went underground, but now they're coming back. And now that you have mercenaries—and these are not just the lone guys in the Congolese jungles with a Kalashnikov, these are high-end Special Operations units. These are showing up with attack helicopters—anybody who is rich enough can wage war for whatever reason they want, no matter how petty. The super-rich can become a superpower for good or for bad.
A good example might be if there's another ISIS outbreak in Northern Iraq and they start crucifying Christian men and selling Christian women off to sexual slave markets and the international community doesn't do anything they really didn't do before, can you imagine a megachurch with a $90 million annual budget hiring mercenaries to go out there and protect Christians? Yes, one can. I was involved in something similar to that 10 years ago.
Those who grasp the changing global environment of durable disorder can exploit it and do, and those who do not are being exploited.
Unfortunately, American foreign policy is the Humpty Dumpty foreign policy. It's about trying to put the international order as we imagined it back together, reestablishing a liberal world order. Whether that liberal world order really existed as they think it does is a different question, but you cannot do this. The proverbial horse has fled the barn. A new kind of world order begets a new type of warfare, and that is what this book explains.
Last year, the National Defense Strategy shifted. There is a National Security Strategy, and under that is a National Defense Strategy, and it orients our military about how to fight future wars, what the threat is, and it made a major shift last year. It shifted from counterterrorism, counterinsurgency against near-peer threats, big-power threats, and it talks about disorder as a part of this. Specifically, the big-power threats that we're focusing on now are these two guys, China and Russia.
Here's the issue. Everybody thinks that if there's going to be a big fight with China or Russia that it'll be just like World War II, it'll be conventional. There's a saying that "Generals always fight the last war." Perhaps you've heard of it, or the last successful war. This truism happens to be true, and for us the last big successful war was World War II.
If you ask people in Washington, DC, in think tanks, or Hollywood to imagine the future of war, usually it's some version of World War II with better technology. That's usually what they imagine. But why does everybody assume that if there's a fight with China or Russia in the future it'll be a conventional one, like World War II? It won't. Conventional war is dead. This is actually Rule 1 of my 10 new rules of war: Conventional war is dead.
Data clearly shows in social science that there is nothing more unconventional today than a conventional war, so in this graph—this is from 1946 to 2015—the bottom line in red is all the conventional wars we've had in that timeframe, and blue is everything else. Nobody fights conventionally except for us anymore, yet we're sinking a big bulk, perhaps the majority of our defense dollars, into preparing for another conventional war, which is the very definition of insanity.
In fact, you could already argue we are at war with China and Russia right now, and part of their strategy is to keep us from knowing that, to keep us guessing, which we can discuss in Q&A.
So what does war look like in durable disorder, a new type of global environment, a new type of conflict? It's getting sneakier. War is getting sneaky.
Let's look at Crimea, old rules versus new rules. In the old rules of war, when the Soviet Union wanted to take or re-establish control over a territory they would use armored columns and tanks. Think of Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968.
Today when they do that they could blitzkrieg through Eastern Ukraine. They had the military to do so compared to Ukraine, but they didn't do that. What they used instead—new rules of war—are Special Forces (Spetznaz), mercenaries like the Wagner Group, fake pro-separatist militias like the Donbas Battalion, the "little green men"—these are Russian soldiers wearing uniforms with no insignia, so those little green men that little kids play with, those little toy soldiers—and they used a lot of propaganda and information warfare.
They occupied Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea with a ghost occupation, and the reason this worked is because we live in a global information age where plausible deniability is more powerful than firepower. The Kremlin gets that, we do not. They actually cut their defense budget a year ago, yet their bellicosity has not been cut at all. By the time the West was still figuring out what was going on, Crimea was a fait accompli. Victory. That's new rules of war.
How about this? The South China Sea. China is taking over the South China Sea. Everything we're doing is not working. Old rules of war would require carriers. We throw in carriers as a deterrent, and they would back down. We throw in carriers and the Navy into the South China Sea, and it does not stop China at all. But what do we do? More carriers, more Arleigh Burke destroyers.
The reason that their strategy is working is it goes something like this—this is one of the new rules of war: We think of war and peace like pregnancy, you either are or you are not. And that's wrong. It's not war or peace, it's war and peace. Think of the Cold War. Or think of war and peace like a light switch, it's either on or off. So China's strategy is to keep the superpowers' light switch to off so that we remain docile. As long as we are docile, they can get away with murder, and they do.
War and peace is a false dichotomy. It's a fiction in our head. They exploit that fiction. They get right in between that space of war and peace. They go right up to the brink of war in the South China Sea, right up to where we will react, and they stop. But they keep everything they capture or create, and this is how they win the South China Sea, one island at a time, without carrier groups. And we're still fighting old rules of war by throwing in more carrier groups.
Or mercenaries. Mercenaries are all over the world now. It's the biggest insecurity trend of the 21st century in the early part that is totally not covered, and that's by design. These mercenaries offer maximum plausible deniability.
I have a background in this world, and it's scarier than most people think. These pictures right here are from a Buzzfeed photo. This shows American ex-SEALs and ex-Green Berets in Yemen working for a Middle Eastern monarch as a hunter-killer team, killing political opponents.
When you want something positively done in war and don't want your name attached to it, you hire mercenaries, and these are special operators, they're not just—we can talk about the world of mercenaries, but they're active in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, and parts of the Congo.
They're in Venezuela right now. Russia sent the Wagner Group into Venezuela. Russia is backing Maduro, and they know that if the military leaves Madura and join with Guaidó, then Venezuela is lost to Russian influence. So they sent in the Wagner Group to kneecap the Venezuelan military, to be enforcers, saying, "You will not defect." That's new rules of war.
So in the future victory goes to the cunning and not the strong, yet the United States, for example, is still investing in the strong, and we wonder why we lose.
Durable disorder is a new environment for war. We are not set up currently to fight in this environment. In fact, our habits, our systems, our bureaucracies refuse to even recognize this reality or adapt to it. We buy, train, equip, all of these things for an old set of rules of war, and then we get frustrated by the results. That is the problem.
This is what I call "strategic atrophy." This answers the very first question I put up. We have the best military, there's no question about it. We have the best of everything beyond the military. The problem is we have a low strategic IQ about how to deploy it: strategic atrophy.
For example, here is war as we imagine it. I like to say that budgets are moral documents because they do not lie. If you look at where we put our money, it's into things like technology, machines.
Here's an example of a robot by Boston Dynamics. We're investing all sorts of money into robots, thinking that in the future there will be robot wars. So, instead of D-Day, when the landing rampart goes down, having American troops come out, you'll have, I guess, robots come out. I don't really know. What's the purpose of this?
How about this? This might look to some of the younger folks in the crowd like an Xbox game, like Call of Duty or something like that. It's not. This is actually a system that's being developed by the Department of Defense. It's a visor that you wear that shows everything on the tactical battlefield: your friend, your foe, you could do collaborative targeting. It's really just like Xbox but in real life.
And my favorite is the F-35. This is a fighter plane. You've heard of it probably. We—U.S. taxpayers—have spent on this program $1.5 trillion. We've spent more money than Russia's gross domestic product (GDP). Think about that. In two long wars, how many combat missions has this thing racked up? Any guesses?
Zero. Zero combat missions. I'm an old infantry guy. I'm an old paratrooper. The worth of any weapon is its utility. And we're buying more of these things. In the South—I grew up in the North—we'd say, "This dog don't hunt." We're buying more of these things, and they don't go to war. It's as useless as a battleship in 1939.
Now let's look about war in reality and what does work. Also, all those things were about achieving—this is a military term—"tactical combat overmatch." That means battlefield victory. But battlefield victory is irrelevant in the new rules of war. Victory is elsewhere, and we'll talk about this. War is becoming epistemological. Telling truth from lies determines winners and losers, not Waterloo or Gettysburg or Stalingrad or Midway. We're still investing in the old rules of war of battlefield victory. Wars move past battlefield victory.
Here's an example—strategic victory, not tactical: Russia interfering with elections, not just 2016 but also Brexit and across Europe. There is general consensus in this country from all the intelligence agencies that Russia tried to interfere in 2016, maybe 2018, maybe 2020. The only question remains is how successful were they. Was it a trifling success, or did it sway the election? That's to be determined.
But the strategic logic of messing with elections is this: Who cares about the sword if you can manipulate the arm that wields it? This is how you win in modern warfare. It's not with tanks, it's with ballot boxes.
Or this: This is a picture of a Russian bomber bombing. It's a conventional weapon used in an unconventional way.
In the old rules of war the Soviet Union wanted to disunite Europe. That was always the goal: disunite NATO, disunite the EU, break apart Europe. What they would do is they would use the old rules of war. They would threaten violent force. They would have these huge military exercises on the border of East and West Germany, 150,000 soldiers—Zapad-81—and they'd tell NATO: "Don't worry. It's just a military exercise. Don't get worked up." But of course, NATO has no idea. Is it a feint or is it just an exercise? So it freaked NATO out. That's old rules.
New rules of war: When Russia wants to disunite Europe it bombs civilian centers in Syria. That creates a tidal wave of refugees that crashes on the shores of the European Union and creates Brexit. It creates the rise of right-wing national parties that then want to break apart the European Union. New rules of war: Russia is weaponizing refugees.
How about Hollywood? When was the last time anybody saw a villain in a Hollywood movie who was Chinese? Anybody?
You can't. Hollywood has been bought by China. They green-light everything.
So in a world that's becoming more and more about narrative and the war of narrative, they own the biggest megaphone in the world. And they're rumored to be making their own version of Hollywood to surpass the United States' Hollywood someday.
These are all new rules of war. So war has moved on, and we must move on, too.
I'm going to skip this in the interests of time and just say this: Victory in the new rules of war is an infinite game. There's not going to be a decisive USS Missouri moment like at the end of World War II where Japan surrenders. It's going to be more like business. Coke doesn't defeat Pepsi and obliterate them forever. You have better quarters, you have worse quarters. That's what war is turning into.
This is actually normal for war. Most wars last a very long time. The Peloponnesian War lasted 30 years, the Thirty Years' War. In many ways, World War II was the same war that lasted 30 years with a 20-year interim break.
This book is learning how to win in this new environment of durable disorder. I give 10 new rules, which we'll discuss in Q&A. They're broken down this way, they're all packed together in a certain way. The first four rules are things we have to stop doing. Rules 5 through 10 are things we have to start doing.
The United States is struggling because we are paradigm prisoners of our way of warfare. And it's not just the United States, it's the West.
If you think about it, what does it mean if the West has forgotten how to win wars? The implications are terrifying, especially as we seem to be in the age of rising autocracy.
This book is meant to generate a discussion, what I call an "intellectual insurgency," and it's getting a lot of attention within Washington, DC circles in a very controversial but constructive way.
With this, I'd like to turn it over and answer question you might have about The New Rules of War.
Thank you very much.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much for laying the foundation. I'm sure there are many questions, and I have one while we're setting up there. How do you convince the Pentagon and government officials to actually listen to you?
SEAN McFATE: It's interesting. I've had a lot of discussions within the Department of Defense, the State Department, and others, and there's actually a lot of consensus around this, especially from vets coming back from war, because they see this.
I've been told what I need to focus on is the Hill. Because the Pentagon—I've talked to the people at the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) policy, and they're like, "We can only do what the Hill tells us to do, and that's who you really need to talk to." Actually, the military is quite receptive to this. Some people would be surprised.
One of the things I think we should do is slash the Defense budget because most of the Defense budget goes to very expensive conventional war weapons. That will make the Department of Defense much more cunning because they'll have to do more with less. Also, we should redistribute it to the State Department and others that have been withering for 20-plus years that need to be resuscitated.
JOANNE MYERS: It'll be a few years before you're actually successful, I can tell.
SEAN McFATE: Yes, yes.
QUESTION: I'm Susan Gitelson. Thank you. This was a bombshell.
There's one area that I don't believe you've gone into yet, and that's cybersecurity, because that's cheap, relatively, and it calls on new technology, and it can do some very insidious things.
The other area you just mentioned, the autocrats, because the world is no longer made up of major powers. There are a lot of leaders in various countries who have taken over everything. Even to look at North Korea, everything goes for nuclear warfare or whatever it is. What happens to the people? We see it more and more in Eastern Europe and in many places. So this is a new world also.
SEAN McFATE: It is. Those are two tough questions.
I do talk about cyber in Rule 2. When people think about cyber there are a couple of things to think about. There are a lot of "jazz hands" around cyber right now. If you want to make a lot of money, and you go to the Pentagon and put "cyber" in front of whatever you're doing, "Cyber Carnegie Council"—boom! Money falls in your hands.
That's not a development strategy. It's getting a lot of attention, and a lot of it is misbegotten because it's really influenced by things like Hollywood. People look at the James Bond movie Skyfall: anytime a hacker touches a keyboard, they become a god. That's not the way cyber works.
Or people say that it's Stuxnet. This is the Israeli-American virus that we used in 2010 or 2011 against the Iranian nuclear program. In reality, Stuxnet had almost no effect on Iran's nuclear program.
But cyber has a role to play. Its true power is not sabotage, which is how it's depicted often, it's influence. It's like Russia influencing elections and outcomes. Tying this to your second question, democracies, open societies are vulnerable to this type of manipulation.
It's easy to be morose about this, but autocrats are also vulnerable. In Rule 9 I talk about something called "shadow war," which we can discuss a bit later. We are vulnerable to this new way of war as others try to manipulate us with false knowledge and false information. In some ways autocracies are easier to destabilize because they centralize everything in a certain elite class, and if you can get inside that and create paranoia, the autocrat will purge themselves.
I talk about some of these strategies in Rule 9, and I'll just put this out there for a later question, the question of ethics and also the question of secrets and democracy not being compatible. War is getting more sneaky. It's going into the shadows, but we have all learned from Senator Church that secrets and democracy are not compatible, so what do we do?
QUESTION: James Starkman.
I think Susan stole my question a bit. It's about cybersecurity. Would the Israelis be building a $1 billion or more project in the Negev almost completely devoted to cybersecurity if it were something other than what it is generally thought to be?
Also, could we not take down the electrical grid of a potential enemy or other sabotage, which I think you diminished as a threat?
SEAN McFATE: I had the privilege of spending three months in Israel last year working as a visiting scholar at the Israel Defense Force's (IDF) war college. They have a new military strategy out in 2015 that looks a lot like The New Rules of War. They have something called the "campaign between wars," which looks a lot like shadow war because Iran is waging a shadow war right now against Israel.
I don't think it's sabotage, I think it's influence. It's also collection intelligence monitoring, National Security Agency (NSA) type stuff.
For example, who's the Quds commander, the general, I forget his name, I can't pronounce it.
AUDIENCE [off-mic]: Soleimani.
SEAN McFATE: It was his birthday the other day, and Israel—in new rules of war, ridicule is a very powerful weapon that we don't do. It's like fire: it can power a steam engine, it can blow up the whole barn—sends out this fake Facebook thing congratulating Soleimani on his birthday, and it has Nasrallah from Hezbollah saying "Way to go!" and has all these other things going "Way to go!"
I think that's a true power. It's influence. It's the ability to change people's minds, to shape the narrative of the conflict, to shape political perceptions and reality of things and disinformation.
Power grids. People always say, "They could take down our power grid." People have been saying that for 25 years.
In 2015 or 2016 the Department of Energy said, "We're imminently likely to be hacked, and this is going to happen to America." Nothing ever happened. In fact, there is solid social study research to show that squirrels are a bigger threat to power grids than cyber. Squirrels. So, rodent-fare, rodent warfare.
But in all seriousness, people say this, but—I'm a cyberskeptic—I would love to see the math on it. I would like to see how it works. Are we not resilient anymore after 20 years of this? Maybe we are, maybe we're not. It's a threat, but I'm skeptical. That's all. You're an optimist, and that's okay, too.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Starkman]: Not exactly.
QUESTION: Richard Horowitz.
I wanted to ask you a question on the slide you showed which had the red line on the bottom and the blue line on top.
SEAN McFATE: Oh, here. Yes. Okay. There we go. This is the graph of unconventional versus conventional warfare.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Horowitz]: Yes. The red line is conventional warfare, and you said the blue line is everything else.
So my question is, how do you define "everything else"? And who makes the decision of what to include?
SEAN McFATE: This data set is in the Correlates of War. It's a gold-standard data set in political science.
All data sets have problems, which I don't want to go into right now. It's not a perfect data set. It might be the best we have.
They determine a war by a thousand people or more dying in a war in a year. What counts as a war is always up in the air. For example, they don't count the Rwanda Genocide, or they bracket it.
This is the interesting thing about new rules versus old rules of war. If you talk to a traditional warrior and you say, "What was the Rwanda Genocide?" they say, "Well, it's not war."
I'm like: "Well, is it an 800,000-person homicide? What is it?"
Or you look at cartel wars in Mexico. To policymakers that's a law enforcement problem, it's a police problem. But you can make the argument that those are cartels waging wars without states, which is actually one of my rules. Wars without states are going to be a thing of the future.
Last year the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank in London put out its annual conflict survey. The most conflicts last year were Number 1, Syria, not a surprise; Number 2, not Iraq, not Afghanistan. Number 2 was Mexico.
Everything else here is an open-ended question. That blue line on top is conservative. It's probably higher than that.
But what counts as war? I'm arguing we should be more supple in our thinking about that to include drug wars, to include things like genocide.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Horowitz]: Do I understand correctly that the comparison between the blue and the red line is not a function of how many deaths per year but a function of how whoever makes the line decides what to include in the blue category?
SEAN McFATE: It's an amalgamation. To make this chart you have to have at least a thousand combat deaths—and how that's measured is another question—a year in a conflict, and red is traditional interstate military-military warfare. That's the bottom line. I'm calling that "conventional" war. Everything else is insurgencies, it's terrorism, it's narco-trafficking, it's stuff like that.
QUESTION: I'm Kristin Liebling. I have two questions for you.
First of all, in the context of the reference you make to certain things being revived, you didn't really go into that. What are the chances of reviving real nonproliferation policy in this country?
The other question is: How are you yourself going to progress? What do you do next to continue this?
SEAN McFATE: Like what? Like the next 20 rules of war?
When you say "nonproliferation," I assume you mean nuclear?
QUESTIONER [Ms. Liebling]: Correct.
SEAN McFATE: There are a couple of things I do not touch in this book, and one of them is nukes. It's an important issue, I just ran out of space.
I do say this: Why do we assume the nuclear taboo will last forever? It probably won't. And what does limited nuclear war look like? Is that all possible? Because we have in our mind 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that may not be what it—and if you look at where it might happen, it could be India-Pakistan, it could be eventually in the Middle East between Israel, Saudi, and Iran with a 1914 Sarajevo moment.
But if there's a limited nuclear war, any nuclear war, I don't know what would happen after that. It's a frightening thought, and people look at this as big bombs. So I don't really know where that goes.
My sense is the proliferation community is still in an old-rules-of-war framework. They're still Westphalian in how they see the world.
Where I would go, I don't really know what my next project is. One of the things people have asked me about is that we desperately need a grand strategy for the 21st century, something that rationalizes American foreign policy, what America stands for in the world. Think of NSC-68 (United States Objectives and Programs for National Security) in 1950 or the Long Telegram. Containment was our grand strategy.
Grand strategy is the rudder that guides a ship of state in international waters. We don't have that. We've been floundering for 25 years.
One of the things I'm thinking about is we need a book about what does grand strategy look like in an age of durable disorder. So that's a possibility, but I don't really have a—still thinking.
QUESTION: My name is Jigar Khatri.
I wanted to ask you a question about hybrid warfare. I know you briefly touched on Russia and Ukraine a couple of slides back. What can the United States and its allies do to defend against hybrid warfare, information warfare, and how can the United States and its allies establish deterrence in that domain?
SEAN McFATE: Hybrid warfare, for those who don't know, is a concept that was introduced in 2007 by a colonel in the Marine Corps, Frank Hoffman, who is a colleague and friend of mine at National Defense University. Since then the idea has blown up. It kind of means a little bit of nothing, frankly. NATO has its version.
It's something that looks a little like this. "Hybrid" means it's conventional and unconventional ways of war mixed in together. Case studies would include Russia in Crimea, Iran and Syria, things like that.
The way I look at hybrid war is that it's an incredible leaping pad for conventional warriors to grasp this, the new rules of war.
War has three levels. Tactical is lowest, operational art is like campaigns, and strategic is what I'm talking about, at the highest level. At the operational art level it's useful for military defense planners because it helps them figure this is the type of war we're fighting and diagnosing what we need to do.
But in terms of the strategic level I don't believe in hybrid war. I think there's just war. There's no conventional war or unconventional war. Hybrid war is just war.
I think deterrence doesn't work in this new set of wars because for deterrence to work you have to have symmetry. It's like a game of chess. That doesn't work in an age of non-attribution. So if war is going non-attribution, how can you deter? Think of it like the Internet. How can you deter cyberhackers? You can't even tell where the cyberattack is usually coming from. So the logic of deterrence that worked in the Cold War does not work like it is here. I think we have to find other ways to do this, and I talk about that. Rather than deterring things, we have to get in the shadows and punch back.
QUESTION: My name is Peter Burgess.
I'm interested in your views about some new rules for peace as opposed to war because over the last 50 years there has been major progress in things like global education. Yet we've got leaders who basically are stuck in the 19th century, let alone the 20th century. I'm just wondering whether you can apply some of your new rules to the issues of peace and people like inequality.
You've worked to some extent in Africa. There are some amazing people in Africa, but the leadership is in kindergarten and very rich at it.
SEAN McFATE: Yes, they're very good at it.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Burgess]: Your thoughts, sir?
SEAN McFATE: It's a great question.
I agree with you. In some ways I think the question of peace and war, one's the opposite of the other. Sometimes we have to think of them as conjoined.
I think Africa, which I spent a great deal of time in, has benefited from this. I think we have to start to pay attention also at demographic shifts and education.
But how do we do this in a way that is systemic in a global environment where international norms and international public law is fraying, in my opinion? Can the private sector—is there some intersection there that's beyond corporate social responsibility (CSR)? CSR is often just a marketing line for some companies, right? Can we find ways to incentivize them to invest in communities because they need the community and so forth?
One example—it's not a good example—might be Firestone and Liberia. They created a village because they were farming rubber, and they created their own sort of parallel governance in that. There are some problems with that case study. I know that.
But I agree with you. That could by my next book.
I think that's a harder problem set for me, but I would love to explore that, and are there ways that we could find to blunt some of the worst effects? I'm not advocating war should be this, I'm observing war as becoming this way. So, are there ways that we can blunt some of the worst aspects?
QUESTION: My name is Calin Trenkov-Wermuth. Thank you very much for a very interesting and insightful presentation.
I'm wondering, according to the new rules that you have outlined, what do you think would be an appropriate proportional response/retaliation against, for instance, the Russian government in response to what has been carried out against the values and ideals of this country? What, according to these new rules, do you think is a proportional, adequate response? Because my sense is that the current response hasn't really been quite adequate to shake up the Kremlin.
SEAN McFATE: You're right. When you use the word "proportional," I think of just war theory. I think just like the old rules are Westphalian and have to be updated, the laws of war also have to be updated to a new set of laws of war, the international law of armed conflict, whatever that looks like to you. That's sort of a footnote, and that's maybe perhaps to the gentleman about the rules for peace.
If we can dispense for a second with proportionality and other just war theory ideas, I would say this: We can't just play defense, we have to play offense. We have to get in the shadows and punch. If Russia is succeeding because they're using means of plausible deniability, then we have to create strategies of implausible deniability that they can't hide behind. What they'll do is they'll litter the entire information landscape with BS. So the signal-to-noise ratio blocks everything out. The answer to that is not to try to find each one of those rumors and kill it. It's too late by then. The way we do it is we have to get their mind off the United States by getting their mind on internal stability and internal security.
In the book under Rules especially 9 and 10, I discuss what are some of the things that we could do. We've done this before in the Cold War. I'm not saying we have to relive the Cold War, but we've done some of these things before.
I don't really have time right now, but there are certain things we could do now. They would be controversial, they may be unethical, but they could also be effective, and that's a bigger question that any strategist has to ask.
When you look at any strategy there are at least two tests: One, is it feasible? And the second, is it acceptable?
I have feasible strategies, but I'm not sure if they would be acceptable. But I'm not if it's acceptable to have elections manipulated either. We could talk offline about some of those strategies.
QUESTION: I'm Reed Bonadonna. I'm a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council.
I actually just got finished writing a book—I'm finding a publisher—about how to think like a military officer. Maybe after I read your book I'm going to have to add another chapter or more than that.
This is a question about how to think like a military officer. Military officers generally, as you were alluding to, we get trained to think like tacticians. One of the points I make in my book is that there may be some ways in which a lifetime of thinking like a tactician unsuits you to thinking at the strategic level. They're very different kinds of thought.
How do you think military education and military culture need to change? Maybe some of the ways that you're changing the way that you teach, and I don't just mean inculcating the 10 rules, but changing the way military officers think to adapt to this new paradigm or model, whatever it is?
One of the thoughts I had, for example, just war theory is pre-Westphalian. We had someone here talking about Thucydides, a professor who wrote a book about Thucydides a little while ago. [Editor's note: Bonadonna is referring to a podcast with Brown University's Johanna Hanink and Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal on Hannink's book How to Think about War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy.]
One of the things might be to go back to some of the earlier traditions of war fighting to get clues to this brave new world. How do you change the way officers think of themselves as war fighters and tacticians and all that happy stuff?
SEAN McFATE: I'm glad you asked the question. I just gave a lecture on Thucydides two weeks ago, but I'll spare you from that.
Actually, I spend a lot of time in this book talking about strategic education. In some ways you could read this book and say: "Oh, my gosh, this is so hard." But actually it's not. All we've got to do to win is change the way we think about war. We can't change our geopolitical circumstance, we can't add a few zeros to our national wealth or GDP. Those are all hard things to do. This is learning. So I talk about something called—we need "war artists."
Right now here's what we do. If you're a military officer, you're a colonel, you come to a war college where I teach—how many years do have in the service?
QUESTIONER [Mr. Bonadonna]: 29.
SEAN McFATE: Well, not you, but when a lieutenant colonel shows up to the war college, they've got 15 to 20 years already in the service. Why are we waiting 15 to 20 years before we start training strategic-level education? Let's do it when people are freshman. That's one thing.
The second thing is strategic-level and tactical-level thinking are different in this way: Tactical-level thinking is like engineering. It's complicated thinking, it's systems theory. It takes a certain brilliance. To make a 747 takes billions of parts, a lot of knowledge, and a lot of skill to do it, but you can solve it, you can create it, you can make it fly.
At the strategic level, we only have wicked problems. It's all ambiguity.
So engineering, which is what West Point teaches, is not good for ambiguity. What we need for strategic-level thinking are the humanities, liberal arts. Because when you read Dostoevsky you're not really learning about 19th-century Russian society, you're thinking through ambiguity and how you think through ambiguity. So we need that.
The third thing we need is why do we assume that the best strategists only have military uniforms. Let's open it up.
Mercenaries change war in fundamental ways. They marketize it. So think of market strategies blending with military ones. Think of Adam Smith meets Clausewitz. We have CEOs in this town who would be better strategists than four stars in Washington.
So let's open up our aperture for what makes a good strategist. Why don't we create an academy that's for that, or some sort of track in the Army or Marine Corps? Right now in the military if you're tracked as a strategist, it's kind of a joke. It's kind of a career-ender. You probably were not there, but there are people who are tracked as strategists, and they're stuck doing PowerPoint in the Pentagon for five years.
We need to take it seriously, and I have more to say about how do we create war artists to deal with new types of thinking because we need innovative ways of thinking.
QUESTION: Thank you for a thrilling and very informative presentation.
My question will focus in on Rule 9, shadow wars. I'm convinced by a lot of what you said. I find it compelling.
What would be the cost to our societies and our ways of thinking if we were to go deep into that shadow war area?
In terms of the British government, our full-spectrum effects toolbox is much smaller than the Russian full-spectrum effects toolbox. It's partly because we're a democracy and we can't move as fast. They go into Crimea and move at lightning speed; they go into Syria and take us by surprise because they can, because they don't have to run it past the duma, they can just do it. They can dispatch a hit squad into the United Kingdom and take someone out, although they say they were tourists visiting a cathedral, which is a compelling counter-narrative. But the point is they can move fast, they can do things, and it's a gangster state as well, so they've got a gangster code. It's not like they have no rules; they have rules. But the way they operate, they don't think about ethics and these sorts of factors.
How would you deal with that challenge? Because, yes, we could deploy mercenaries. Yes, they've taken out one of ours; we could deploy special forces into Moscow. We won't do it, but we could. But where does it go? How does it escalate? These are the challenges.
QUESTION: My name is Charles Liebling.
I noticed in the 10 rules there's no mention of international law, there's no mention of Geneva Conventions, there's no mention of the United Nations. When you say "conventional war is dead" are you saying that international law is dead and that the Geneva Conventions don't mean anything anymore?
SEAN McFATE: Two tough questions. I will do my best to try to get them.
In the very first chapter I say a couple of things: One is that this book does not cover the ethics of war, it brackets it. Ethics are a very important thing of war, but that's not what this book does. This book is in the tradition of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. It assumes that once legitimate authority has decided to go to war, it's about how to wage war as efficiently as possible to minimize suffering.
Second of all, I do think that international public law, international organizations are largely relics of a Westphalian era, and they have proven incapable in 25 years, from NATO in the Balkans to—I did several Chapter VI and VII missions in Africa working alongside the United Nations. I came away from there kind of pessimistic. Where has the United Nations been in Syria and Iraq?
They need to update just like this. I'm trying to pull the national security establishment into the 21st century. I think one gentleman said from the 19th century. I think that's a fair rendition. I think in some ways the rules of modern diplomacy and international law are mired also in the 19th century. They also tend to be very tactical and not strategic.
So I think there needs to be a similar treatment for international public law as this, but it's a different audience, and I'm not the person to do that. I have enough knowledge to get in trouble but not out of it. It's a good question.
For the difficult question of this gentleman over here, shadow wars. I could spend 20 minutes on this discussion.
There are things that we should consider doing. Let's find ways to disrupt the Russian chain of command so they don't know if it's a real order from the Kremlin or not to do something, and if they do something, they get whacked by the Kremlin. How do we create paranoia within the autocrat's elite circle because it's full of ambitious people and let him take them down for us? Victory goes to the cunning and not the strongest.
There are lots of other ideas in here. There's also ridicule and influence. Putin runs around half-naked on a bear. Why can't we do something about that? Seriously. I think we're a little too cautious.
How does it end? This is a good question, but non-action is also an outcome, right? Do we want our grandkids to be speaking Mandarin and Russian? I don't know.
But you raise an important point which I also flag in this book like the laws of armed conflict, secretive democracy. It's an important question. I don't have the answers in this book, but I'm intellectually honest about flagging it, saying: "Boom! Somebody smarter than me needs to think about this."
But I do think we have to be aware that the status quo is not working and that we might have to start to do things that we have traditionally thought to make us morally queasy, but the alternatives may make us even more queasy.
Thank you very much with that.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much for coming out of the shadow and introducing us to The New Rules of War.
I'd like to invite you all to continue the conversation and to purchase this wonderful book. Thank you.
SEAN McFATE: Thanks a lot. Appreciate it.