The Doorstep: Mercenaries & the New Middle Ages, with Sean McFate

December 3, 2021

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council, Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, very excited today to welcome Dr. Sean McFate to speak with us about The New Rules of War: How America Can Win—Against Russia, China, and Other Threats, and we will spend a lot of time talking about the other threats. He's a foreign policy expert, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a professor of strategy at Georgetown, but what we're going to be talking to him about in a few minutes was his role as a private military contractor because of his background as a paratrooper, officer in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, and what his bio says is "Jump Master." I am very excited to talk with him today because he brings to us a perspective on what is going on today.

Nick, I wanted to mention, fresh off the presses I saw a New York Times posting that China "no longer needs Wall Street." If China no longer needs Wall Street, America needs a new strategy to win against China. This is based on China's equivalent of Uber, DiDi, a $39 billion car service company delisting today. This summer it was the darling. Institutional investors were falling over themselves to give them money, and now they have delisted. China no longer needs Wall Street. When I say that, what does that make you think about our U.S. strategy, and people on the ground here?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It's a worrying development because it is a sign that all roads, and particularly all financial roads, don't necessarily lead to and through the United States, which therefore is a lessening of our influence. If you're not listing on our markets, you're not subject to our regulations, you're not subject to our rules for currency. Those have been ways we have been able to influence.

Also, it is part of this gradual step of China, Russia, and some of the other players trying to extricate themselves from the U.S. financial and business systems, and what it means down the line is not simply does it affect jobs in New York, but over time it affects the willingness of people to want to continue to hold dollars, and it's the willingness of people to continue using dollars that keeps our currency attractive as a reserve and allows us to basically run deficits, including all the stimulus packages we've been having over the last couple of years, without having to raise taxes.

It is a worrying step. It is part of this decoupling process, and as you decouple and don't feel you need each other it raises the possibility that you might see more open conflict in the years to come.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I really wanted to mention this today because I agree with you completely. You have been tweeting a little bit on our Doorstep podcast Twitter handle—for our audience, please follow us—about this idea of is the dollar no longer supreme? We will keep this following this trend and keep looking at what this means as the new year comes.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It has been a very good discussion. Also, some of our former Doorstep guests like Rachel Ziemba have been contributing to that conversation on Twitter as well, so it has real implications for doorstep issues here in the United States.

TATIANA SERAFIN: The other doorstep implication—and I think Sean really brings it home, and again, we will speak to him in a minute—is this idea that America and China and the different ways they are dealing with the rest of the world—as Sean mentions, it's not just the top 30 countries, it's the rest of the 160 that we need to look at and think about, including those in Africa. We recently had our Africa podcast and guest, but this Al Jazeera piece I thought was really interesting with the idea that backsliding on the part of Western powers and the rise of autocratic-friendly China has created an atmosphere in Africa that emboldens generals and military cliques to seize power.

We are seeing a lot of coups over the last few months in Africa, Sudan being the latest, and the United States not knowing how to deal with it. The way China approaches politics in countries they're investing in is: "No problem. Whatever you guys want to do." I think this is going to lead to an increasingly problematic role for the United States around the world.

What do you think?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think so. Again, tying it back to when we had Howard French as our Doorstep podcast guest a few weeks back. During his time when he was a bureau chief traveling through Africa and the sense at the time in the 1990s that African governments felt that they had to conform to democratic standards because, again, going back to your first question about delisting from U.S. markets, in the 1990s the United States was the only game in town really. You wanted business, you wanted trade, you wanted investment, you had to play by certain rules. As you have said now, the increased role of China over the last number of years gives countries, if they dispense with democratic norms and the United States and Western Europe say we're going to impose sanctions, they can say, "Well, we can do business with China, that does not care about democratic norms." Now China may exact a price in a different area—much more onerous business terms—but certainly that has changed the game.

The other thing that has changed the game and is a wonderful point of connectivity to our guest, who will be joining us momentarily, is not only do you have the increased Chinese economic lifeline, so to speak, the rise of private military companies and mercenary groups, including Russian ones, especially active in Africa, give you the opportunity to make your bid for power. The Central African Republic just inaugurated a monument this past week to Russian mercenaries. It's a statue of Russian mercenaries in the downtown square of the capital to essentially thank them for their role in fending off different rebel groups. Definitely the environment is changing.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Wow, and we will talk to Sean about that.

Before we go, I want to mention two things for our listeners. "Is Militarization Essential for Security in 2022 and Beyond?" is a Carnegie Council panel on December 14 at 3:00 p.m. with a lot of special guests including our fearless leader Joel Rosenthal, but also Elliot Ackerman, who we spoke with about his novel 2034 in a book talk this year. Please sign up, join up. It is going to follow along with our Doorstep podcast very well.

Join us for our final Doorstep podcast of 2021—I can't believe this year's almost over—December 16 with executive director of Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service, Mo Elleithee. He will help us understand what has happened in foreign policy and domestic policy in 2021 and what we can expect in 2022.

Thank you, and let's get to Sean.

Thank you so much, Sean, for joining us today. We're so excited to speak to you after meeting with you a couple of weeks ago at the Carnegie New Leaders conference here in New York, where you spoke so eloquently about your book, The New Rules of War, and got us excited—or scared—about the idea of the rise of private military armies. I want to talk about that. I want to talk about what America should be doing and how we can connect that to Main Street concerns, and I think that's what we try here to do at the Doorstep, to try to give our audience a perspective on "Here's what's going on around the world, and we need to be talking about it more at home."

Congratulations on The New Rules of War. It's a fabulous look at, as you say in the subheading, How American Can Win—Against Russia, China, and Other Threats. Initially let's look at what America needs to do better. Maybe we can start with the graph that you showed us that blew me away—how much America spends on its military.

SEAN McFATE: This is a stunning number that I think most taxpayers intuitively know, but when they see it in the form of a graph it's just unmistakable. We spend more money on our military—well, let's back up.

We spend more money on the Department of Defense than on any other department or agency in the federal government. In fact, we spend more on the Department of Defense than all the other departments combined. So over half of our federal discretionary spending goes to the military compared to Education, the Environment Protectional Agency, the State Department, Agriculture, and globally we spend more money on our military than the next ten biggest militaries in the world combined, including China, including Russia, including all of our adversaries. In other words, we take our military very seriously.

TATIANA SERAFIN: What does that mean on the ground? Though Americans know it intuitively, when I talk to my students they really don't understand what "the military" means today. How do we bridge that gap?

SEAN McFATE: I would argue the military doesn't know what "the military" means today because we're spending money on weapons systems that were really tooled to fight 20th-century threats, and we're in the 21st century. For example, the F-35 is a jet fighter plane. We are spending $1.7 trillion on this single-seat airplane for the whole program. And it's not just us, it's our allies too.

To give you some scope about how big that number is, how many zeroes that is for a liberal arts guy like me, that is more than Russia's gross domestic product (GDP). On a single-seat airplane. In fact, if this airplane, the F-35, were a country, its GDP would be ranked 11th in the world, ahead of Saudi Arabia.

We have been at war for at least 20 years in at least two places. You would think that the F-35 would be basically winning the day for us. It has zero combat missions. Zero. The measure of worth of any weapons system, ethical or not, is how much you use it. It's like having a Ferrari in the garage that you never actually take out to drive because you don't want it to run over a speed bump, and that's what the F-35 is.

In fact, you can argue, when was the last time there was a strategic dogfight? The Korean War. That's like 60, 70 years ago. Why do we even need fighter jets in the 21st century? Why do we need manned fighter jets in the 21st century?

The Department of Defense thinks we need them urgently, and we are buying more of these suckers, which cost the same as like two 737s, and they don't go to war. The first time one gets shot down, the world is going to freak out because this exquisite weapons system is on a pedestal, where what it actually can do on the battlefield matters less than the symbology that it represents of American power. Anybody can shoot an F-35 down, and it will be much more of a victory internationally and politically than whatever battlefield leverage it can give us.

So I would argue that the military doesn't know what—it's having an identity crisis about what is war and what is the future of war. Meanwhile, they are spending like bandits.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Does any country in your view know what the future of war is?

SEAN McFATE: Oh, yes.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I ask, number one, because you tweeted this great article about what is happening with Iran and Israel, and I want to bring it up to our listeners if you can answer that in two parts.

SEAN McFATE: I think everybody, other than "the West," knows what the future of war is because it's already here. It simply looks like the future to us because we are mired in the past. There is a saying: "Generals always fight the last war, especially if they won it." Well, that happens to be true, and our last war [that we won], if we are honest, was in 1945. Every war the United States has fought, if we're honest, has been a stalemate or a loss against low-level actors like the Taliban and the North Vietnamese, and they understand that war is more than battlefield victory, it is armed politics. We get the battlefield stuff right, but we fail the politics. Hence the saying, "You can win every battle but lose the war." That's what we have been doing for decades now.

If we lose against the Taliban, what does it mean when we have to go up against Russia and China, who do understand the current environment for warfare, and they do fight it well? Also, part of their strategy is to keep us in the dark, which we can talk about, about how some of the best weapons today in warfare don't fire bullets. They're things like disinformation, trying to sabotage democracy, so that you collapse democracies from within. You don't have to do a Blitzkrieg anymore. You find other ways to take them down. That is actually the present of the war. It just looks futuristic to us because we are so stuck in the John Wayne version of warfare.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That raises I think some critical questions as we move forward because on the one hand, as you said, we're spending these large amounts of money on weapons systems that are essentially "on a pedestal," great to look at, we really don't want to use them, we certainly don't want to lose any of them, so we want to avoid those kinds of set pieces. People are then asking: "Why are we spending so much on a military if it's not actually going to provide the security that we need?"

On the other hand, I think that this environment—you say that we're moving into the mid-21st century—"banks, not tanks; Facebook, not F-35s; germs, not guns," all of these ways in which a society can be attacked and compelled to do things seems to suggest a radically different way of approaching international conflict. Do you see that the United States, both the national security establishment but also the society, is able to evolve towards thinking about what it means to be in competition and conflict under these types of conditions?

SEAN McFATE: It's a great question, Nick. The answer is, yes, we are completely able to achieve this. It's not like we were born in some bad geopolitical area, like Germany in the 19th century, between enemies. The problem is our way of thinking. In some ways it's not like we need some superweapon. It's the way that we think. Our paradigm of warfare is obsolete.

Everybody else gets this. We do not. They exploit this, and what that means specifically is that to us we think of warfare like battlefield victory, like the Battle of Midway or Gettysburg, and the truth is we all remember "Mission Accomplished" in 2003 in Iraq, when George Bush was standing on the aircraft carrier saying, "Hey, we won in Iraq," because we achieved perfect battlefield victory against the Iraqi army. It meant nothing for the war.

Battlefield victory is becoming obsolete in warfare. What matters more are things that don't look like warfare to us, and that's what our enemies and adversaries do. If you can wage war but disguise it as peace to your adversary, you're halfway to winning. That's why they use cyberweapons. Is that war? Is that peace? We don't know. They weaponize refugees as Belarus has done on Poland and the EU border.

They do things like use mercenaries. Russia uses mercenaries in Africa and the Middle East. Well, we think of mercenaries as cheap Hollywood villains, and our intelligence community doesn't really collect on them, so they're an excellent tool to do expeditionary operations.

Disinformation, deep fakes, fake tweets—we don't think of those as acts of war, so we don't respond, and that's what our adversaries do. They know that we think of war like pregnancy; you either are or you're not. Or like a light switch with no dimmer. It's either on or off. And they know that we always have that switched to off, and if we ever flip that switch to on, like we did after 9/11, the United States is going to come after you.

So they play a game of chicken, like China does in the South China Sea. They go right up to that line where we would flip that light switch to on, and then they stop, but they keep everything they've captured. Russia does the same thing in different ways, and that's this gradual incrementalism. That's what's gaining them international power.

We think of war as four years like World War II, a couple of months like Gulf War I, but war is strategic patience and being cunning wins the day, not F-35s and Ford-class carriers and all this other stuff.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think to one of your points, cyberweapons, the article that you mentioned about Iran and Israel, "crossfire of a cyberwar," little things that don't seem like war. If you can indulge me in the article you tweeted:

"In Tel Aviv, a well-known broadcaster panicked as the intimate details of his sex life and those of hundreds of thousands of others was stolen from an LGBTQ dating site were uploaded on social media.

"For years Iran and Israel have engaged in covert war by land, sea, air, and computer, but the targets have usually been military or government related. Now the cyberwar has widened to target civilians at a large scale."

Is this the way we bring it to the doorstep finally, that people understand war in a different way when we are targeted? I speak as someone whose college was cybertargeted just two weeks ago.

SEAN McFATE: I'm sorry to hear that.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I don't know who it was. I'm just saying. Is this how we bring it to civilians?

SEAN McFATE: I think, first of all, what we're also seeing in the 21st century is that the distinction in the laws of armed conflict between combatants and non-combatants has been increasingly blurred and deliberately blurred. It's not accidentally blurred anymore. We see this in all sorts of ways including cyber, and this idea of defamation, etc., is a big issue. The idea of using disinformation to sway close elections, that is how you fight war. Who cares about the sword if you can manipulate the mind that wields it? Who cares about how many F-35s the United States has if you can help put in a president who is sympathetic to your national interests? That's the forefront of warfare.

It's an aggregate of multiple things like this: If you could do a WikiLeaks on the United States, like has been done, to facilitate that and create division and distrust between a government and its people, that's just one more pinprick. As Americans we want the big sword that slaughters the enemy, but warfare has never worked that way. It's multiple pricks and multiple axes. Some are sneaky, some are not, and this idea of targeting civilians, that will bring it in.

The problem with cyber is attribution. You never know exactly who does it, and also there is something called "false flag" operations, which is where you frame an enemy. One thing that Russia could do is stir the pot between China and the United States and make it look like China is doing cyberattacks on the United States so the United States retaliates and attacks China. Getting two enemies to fight each other is a pretty old ploy. Cyber and other types of things like cyber today allow people to do that. The technologies we have, like deep fakes, cyberattacks, and so forth, allow a lot of deviousness and cunning in warfare.

If people actually see the direct linkage between an adversarial state and their personal life and threatening them, that might help. Remember, in the Cold War you never had to do this. The Soviet Union nuclear armageddon was there, but today our enemies and adversaries disguise the threats so that we live in our cocoon. They like us in our cocoon.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think that's an interesting point, that particularly these new cybertools allow for adversaries not just to target the top level, but they can bring it down to individuals, so that point about how would you feel if you're on one of the dating apps and all of that information can be used to embarrass you or to create difficulties. In some ways you're saying these new tools allow you to be touched directly by an adversary.

But I want to also then go to another side of the new rules of war that you've been looking at and discussing, and that is the ability of countries to take military operations and remove them really from the day-to-day doorstep. What I'm thinking about here is the increased use of private military companies. Politically we have always been told that there is a threshold, only so many people can be killed in a conflict before there is a public reaction, but it does seem that if you're shifting more to the private military side it gives countries the ability to send people in without having that domestic political trigger of "boots on the ground" or "What are our sons and daughters being risked for?"

Can you talk a bit about this dynamic of the return—because it really is historically speaking a return to an older tradition—of professional military experts available for hire rather than relying on the volunteer or conscript forces of a country in order to engage in military activity? Are we really going to see this continued trend towards not only countries but perhaps also private actors, big corporations being able to field pretty sophisticated military operations?

SEAN McFATE: It's a great question. I think, and I have been arguing for well over ten years, that the increased privatization of warfare is one of the biggest insecurity threats of the 21st century, and it gets almost no attention. Terrorism gets attention, China and Russia get attention, but look how Russia is using mercenaries. Russia is doing expeditionary operations into two continents now, Africa and the Middle East, for the first time since the 1980s. Their leading spear tip is not Spetznaz special forces or Russian troops or little green men. It's mercenaries like the Wagner Group.

And it's not just Russia. It's everybody. Earlier this year, in July of 2021, the president of Haiti was assassinated by Colombian mercenaries. We have mercenaries fighting other mercenaries in Libya today. It's like medieval warfare. We don't know exactly who is on the ground, what they're fighting for, and why. We know there are a lot of Russian mercenaries, Turkish mercenaries, Egyptian—when I say "Turkish mercenaries," I don't mean they're all Turkish people. What it is is that the Turkish regime is going out and finding mercenaries who speak different languages from all over the world to go into Libya and fight. We see Yemen full of mercenaries. We see billionaires hiring mercenaries.

Some of you may know Carlos Ghosn. He was the former chairman and CEO of Nissan Motors. He was arrested in 2019 in Tokyo for corruption, and he has been under house arrest in Tokyo under the national police and under Japanese intelligence. He secretly hired an American Green Beret mercenary to do an exfiltration like a Central Intelligence Agency James Bond op, and they got him out under the noses of Japanese authorities into Lebanon, which has no extradition treaty.

Every billionaire's light bulb went off, saying: "Oh, I have a get-out-of-jail-free card. I don't have to be accountable as much as I used to."

Multinational corporations are looking at this private warfare sector because if you're ExxonMobil and you're in Africa or the Middle East, you don't want to depend—from their point of view—on corrupt host nations. You would rather take charge of your own security.

We are getting into an area where maybe ExxonMobil one day will have its own private army. Maybe Elon Musk someday will have his own private army. Maybe a megachurch in the United States will have its own private army to do humanitarian Christian interventions.

The reason why this is literally an exploding sector in international relations that is not getting covered is that mercenaries do a lot of things very well. I don't mean morally well, I mean warfare well.

First of all, let's be realistic. Mercenaries are the second oldest profession. The world that we grew up in in sixth grade that said that war is only a privilege of nation-states, that is manifestly untrue. For most of human history, anybody who could swipe a check could wage war for any reason they wanted, no matter how petty. The superrich were superpowers.

If you look at the Middle Ages in Europe, that's how wars were fought, with mercenaries. Popes hired mercenary armies. That's how the Romans conquered the world. They had legions, but around each legion was a cohort of mercenaries or sellswords or whatever you want. Even the Old Testament talks about this, and never with any shame.

They are good because they are cheaper. It's like renting your car is cheaper than owning one. They are less dangerous because having a standing military historically can wage a palace coup where they can take things over. Those who have been to Milan may know this. Milan for a dynasty had the Sforza dynasty in the Middle Ages that was started by warlord mercenaries.

But the real reason we're seeing them today—why do countries like Russia use mercenaries, because they have a very good military? Why do they use them?

A few reasons. One, Nick, that you raise is that if you have a population which is casualty-averse, it's better to hire mercenaries because Russians, just like Americans, freak out when they see dead soldiers coming home in body bags but they do not care about dead contractors. They are disposable people, even if they're Americans or Russians. They do not care.

The second reason is that because we live in an information age, weapons that give you plausible deniability are now more important than lethality. That's why the F-35 is pretty useless today because just flying it over a country is an act of war. But if you could use covert means like mercenaries, because even if you capture mercenaries, like in Haiti, those mercenaries, they may not know who they work for. Just because they're Colombian doesn't mean they're working for the Colombian government because there are so many cut-outs.

Mercenaries are an ideal way to fight modern wars beneath the threshold of the global media, and if you want to win wars, you fight beneath the threshold of global media, nongovernmental organizations, etc. That's how Putin took Ukraine. He created the fog of war in Ukraine, used mercenaries, special forces, and little green men, and when the West was still trying to figure out what the heck was going on on the ground, Crimea was a fait accompli, and only then do you pull back the curtain and say: "Ha, ha, ha. It's been us all along." And he keeps Crimea. That's how wars are fought, not with aircraft carriers or F-35s but these sneaky ways like mercenaries because they give you plausible deniability, allow you to take greater risks, and lower the barriers of entry into conflict.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Can I just ask, because I think some of the listeners might be intrigued by this? We talk about who would be mercenaries, and people may have this idea that there's a bar somewhere in the world where you walk in and there are people standing around, The Wild Geese or something like that. It's a growing sector. In Afghanistan the contractor/private military sector was the second largest contributor at one point after the U.S. personnel.

Who works in this sector? It's a growth sector. You teach at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, of which both of your co-hosts here are proud alumni. I do not recall a track that was a mercenary track or at the career fair where someone would say: "Come work for the government, come work for Citibank, come work for Goldman Sachs. Oh, by the way, come work for"—or maybe there is now. Maybe they are at the career fair. But who is going into these fields, and how are they recruiting people? What's the dynamic? Are we going to see more Americans perhaps saying, "This looks like a lucrative profession, and I may be more interested in doing it?"

SEAN McFATE: Yes. For Carnegie Council listeners who want to pursue a mercenary career, I would say this: I was in this industry for many years. I had an epiphany at one point. I looked around, and there weren't many old people in my industry. So I started to rethink my life choices. I happened to be in Burundi at the time in Africa. I ended up getting out, but I have kept close ties inside the industry, including places like the Wagner Group, including places like Colombia, not just English speaking.

The industry has changed. I would say this. First of all, there's lots to say. Volumes of academic and legal ink have been spilt on differentiating a private military company from a mercenary operation. In truth the line is very blurry. If you have the skill set to do one, you have the skill set to do the other, and really that line is more a euphemism.

The United States called Blackwater a "private military company," but most of the world viewed them as mercenaries. Moscow calls the Wagner Group a "private military company," but everybody else sees them as mercenaries. And the skill sets are the same.

What is a mercenary/private military company? You're a foreign person doing paramilitary operations in a foreign land chiefly for profit. That's the simplest way of doing it. You're not being a mall guard. You're doing paramilitary things, and those could be either direct action, which is like combat missions, to training and equipping, professionalizing other forces. That's a military mission. Or three, what we call "nonpermissive strategic reconnaissance," where you go into a place like Iran or to the Congo, and your client is a gold-mining company, and they want to verify the asset is there, it's not being run by a warlord, etc. Those are typical mercenary activities today.

The pay is all over the place. Think of the mercenary industry as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are tier-three actors. These are like low-level infantry-type guys who like guard oil infrastructure. Then there are tier two, who are a little bit better, and at the top are tier one, like Special Forces guys. You see a lot of ex-Seals and ex-Green Berets in that world, working for Middle Eastern monarchies and so forth. Those guys can get paid a lot.

The bottom-tier guys get paid maybe twice as much as their salary back home, but they don't have any benefits, so if they get hurt, they get bandaged up at the scene, but they get kicked onto the street. There's no retirement, etc. But the tier-one guys, if you're working for the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—everybody wants to work for the UAE because they're really generous—you can get five grand a day or something. I've heard different stories. It's hard to open people's bank statements.

So it depends on what kind of tier you're in. Those guys—and they're mostly guys—come from someplace. There is no basic training for mercenaries. They come from a national army, a national intelligence service, or a national police service sometimes. That's how they get recruited. And because it's an illicit industry, it's all word of mouth.

Let's look at the Haiti operation this past summer. You had a team leader who calls up his friends in a certain Special Forces unit in Colombia, which is very good, who had just gotten out, saying, "Hi, I need you to do something for me." Then he calls out some logistics guys, and he says, "I need you to do something for me." Those two teams did not talk, which is one of the reasons they had a problem in Haiti, and that is part of the cut-out system.

Lastly I would say that because it's a word-of-mouth industry, the way this industry works is it's siloed into three groups based on language. You have the Russian speakers, the English speakers, and the Spanish speakers. They have some smaller ones like Hebrew and French speakers, but those are the three biggest ones. There are a lot of charlatans in the space, and there is also a lot of adventurism. When I was in the industry—there's no single reason why people get involved. It's all over the map. People in this industry are complex just like people outside this industry, but it's a growing industry, and we've seen it grow tremendously in the last 30 years.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I want to mention that its growth, something we talked about when we spoke earlier at the conference, was that nation-states—and Nick, you alluded to this—are giving up their role as nation-states, to protect your citizens, to protect your borders. You alluded to this return to the Middle Ages.

Looking out 20 to 25 years, are we going to look very, very different? Is the idea of a nation not even going to be something that we believe in today?

SEAN McFATE: It's a great question. This trend, this cleavage between states having the monopoly of force, which is a classic Weberian definition of a state, the cleavage was really accelerated by the United States of America in the Iraq War. As you recall in 2003, when the United States went into Iraq, policymakers like Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz, thought this would be a short and easy war. How many times have we heard that in history—"It'll be a short and easy war?"

When it turned out not to be a short and easy war, policymakers were left with three bad political choices. They could either: leave Iraq and cede the battlefield to terrorists, which would be political suicide for the Bush administration; they could have a Vietnam-like national draft, because we didn't have enough volunteers to fill the all-volunteer army, but that would have been suicide politically as well; or, they could have make up the difference by hiring contractors, and that's what they did, first a little bit, but as the wars crawled forward it became a lot of it. So by 2011 most of our military footprint was contracted. Just to be clear, only about 10 to 15 percent were trigger-pullers. Most of those contractors were fixing trucks and cooking food. In World War II that was all done by soldiers.

Once we had done that, we had de facto legitimized this industry, and we can't wag our finger at Moscow and say, "Don't use private military contractors." We can't do that to anybody in the world. Even though it's illegal, people are doing it because of all these sly advantages I was discussing with Nick.

The other thing is that now, after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, you have all of these out-of-work contractors who are looking for new work, and that's our problem. When I was in graduate school, my thesis advisor was Ash Carter, who became the secretary of defense. I remember way back I was asking him: "What happens to Blackwater when the United States is done using them?"

His response, which was really indicative of Washington thought, was: "Oh, they'll just go home and become civilians again," as if they are cheap army reservists from World War II. That's not what contractors do. They find new clients.

So we are starting to see these contractors who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of whom were not Americans, turning up in Yemen, in Libya, in Syria, in the Congo, in Venezuela, all these hot spots, and they're also starting to work for the private sector, and they're working for the 0.001 percent of the global wealthy and multinational companies, and we are going to get to a point in the decades to come where warfare will not just be the exclusive privilege of nation-states but of the superrich, and they all have international interests that they will want to defend regardless of international law.

Already we see this. When Shell Oil pulls into the Gulf of Guinea in Africa, do you think that just because they are "substate" they don't wield political power over Nigeria, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea? Of course they wield power, and now they are going to be armed and dangerous because this trend is slowly devolving, and we are going to get back to what really is normal, where warfare is a commodity in a marketplace, a marketplace for force with supply and demand, and it responds not to laws of war but to the laws of the marketplace.

It's like Clausewitz meets Adam Smith, and that's not how our four-stars are thinking about war. They're still thinking about World War II-style warfare. They're thinking about a war in the Straits of Taiwan and ignoring all the other things that don't look like war that China is doing or like the Wagner Group.

That's the future of war, where it's going to become much more messy, where participants will be superrich and not just states. I don't think mercenaries are going to be a threat to the United States of America or Western Europe, but they're going to be a threat—when we think of states we always think about the top 30 or 40. We never think about the bottom 160, and mercenaries could become a praetorian guard in some of them or take them over or whatnot. So I think we are going to start to see warfare that will be increasingly privatized like the Middle Ages, and it will change who, how, and why people fight, which will profoundly change international politics and relations.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is a great place to end this conversation. I hope we haven't scared our listeners but given them many things to think about, including perhaps a new career—Nick, I thought you were fishing a little bit.

Thank you so much for joining us today.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.

SEAN McFATE: My pleasure. Always a pleasure to talk to both of you.

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