There has been much talk in recent years about the decline of the West. Fareed Zakaria has written, in generally favorable terms, of a “post-American world” where the very success of the West’s global agenda of economic uplift and political liberalization has, by definition, enabled the rise of others and thus the relative decline of the United States and its allies. He starts his book The Post-American World with the hopeful assertion that this is “not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else,” a sentiment that already sounded overly optimistic in 2008 but is even less convincing after the global financial crisis, Libya, Syria, Crimea, ISIS, the European migration crisis, the 2016 election, Brexit, “Russiagate,” and the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Jonah Goldberg’s book Suicide of the West, a rebirth of tribalism, populism, nationalism, and identity politics is destroying American democracy. Goldberg begins his concluding chapter by quoting the late columnist Charles Krauthammer, arguing that “decline is a choice.” Zakaria and Goldberg come from different frequency bands on the political spectrum, and while neither is focused mainly on military matters, both tend to link what happens in the US with the fate of a broader West, and both understand Western military decline as tied to a general trend.
Whether or not Western decline is inevitable in geopolitical or world historical terms, it seems clear that the utility of the current Western military model is fading. The propensity to lose effectiveness over time is probably inherent in any successful military system. The more successful any particular method becomes, the greater the selection pressure it imposes on adversaries and therefore the faster they adapt in response.
The model of battlefield dominance that the US demonstrated in the 1991 Gulf War transformed the environment for everyone else—allies and adversaries alike. That model has peaked; the shortcomings attending US strikes at the onset of the Iraq War in 2003 showed it has been eroding as others have figured out how to fight us.
Rather than doubling down on what is no longer working so well or “embracing the suck” by making our peace with decline, the West has the opportunity to embark on a new model of military and political postures that could support its significant, if not dominant, role in the foreseeable future. I submit that such a new model would start with selective learning from the enemy, since many of the technologies and tactics adopted by our adversaries are also open to us.
I absolutely do not advocate the brutality, fanaticism, corruption, or authoritarianism of these adversaries, by the way. I merely note that many of their methods are neither good nor bad in themselves. Western democracies could adopt or modify some of them without compromising our values and ethics or destroying the things that make our societies worth fighting for.
Turnabout Is Fair Play
Russia, China, and certain lesser powers like Iran and North Korea have learned how to advance their interests without triggering a military response from the US and its allies through misdirection and pursuit of activities that are not perceived as militarily threatening. More than just opportunism, these strategies support well-planned and carefully executed operations that are a hybrid of non-military and military actions that often confound Western leaders.
Russia has shown itself adept at devising and fielding strategies for shaping the international political environment to its liking in the face of Western military superiority. These strategies include escalating a crisis to de-escalate via Western concessions to avoid conflict, creating political leverage through limited-objective surprise attacks (as in the Republic of Georgia in 2008 and the Crimea in 2014), using military means to achieve political objectives and vice versa, and emphasizing creative ambiguity rather than fully covert activity.
These same strategies would make sense for the West with its deep well of intellectual and material resources. Moreover, Russian advances in weapons systems such as hypersonic missiles, electromagnetic pulse weapons, thermobaric (heat-and-blast) munitions, and other specialized weapons are also worth studying and, ironically, are thingsRussia likely lacks the resources to exploit fully, whereas we could.
China engages in non-military or “trans-military” war operations that are designed to advance national interests while being hard to detect as military actions. These include building and occupying islands in disputed waters, investing in strategic foreign real estate and port facilities, hacking and industrial espionage, and myriad other economic and political activities. China’s expanded conception of warfare—mobilizing different types of national power well outside the traditional military-owned domains—is something that Western countries already do in theory but which could benefit from better planning and organization.
Indeed, there are a number of obvious opportunities for the West to emulate and beat its competitors at their own game. For instance, much has been made of China’s increasingly sophisticated surveillance state, its ability to take in and process vast amounts of personal and behavioral data about Chinese citizens inside and outside the country, as well as the government’s use of facial recognition, social credit scores, and mandatory smartphone apps to keep extensive tabs on each citizen’s every move. If this is true, then China has very helpfully created a portal into its own internal conditions that (one might speculate) every Western signals intelligence (SIGINT) agency and foreign intelligence service could hypothetically be seeking to hack and exploit.
Another way we might selectively copy our enemies’ adaptations would be to use the connectivity and remote engagement capabilities that allow rival powers to influence—and terrorists to radicalize—individuals in our own societies. There is no technical limitation (though there are legal and policy restraints) on the ability of unconventional warfare organizations within Western militaries to reach out and mobilize friendly individuals and groups in otherwise closed environments.
The Russians (and Chinese) Love Their Children Too
Beyond selectively copying our enemies, we could consider selectively targeting their vulnerabilities. For example, Russia and China are far more sensitive to casualties than they might superficially appear to be. Aversion to bloodshed in the societies of our potential enemies runs deeper than the state propaganda organs admit.
Russia’s use of “little green men,” patriotic volunteers, and private military companies in Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, and elsewhere exposes Moscow to risks when these poorly controlled para-state actors commit atrocities (as in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17 in 2014). Conversely, the Kremlin’s reluctance to acknowledge such groups can create significant backlash when they suffer casualties—as happened to the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by a close confidant of President Putin. Wagner may have lost up to 218 employees, who were killed during a battle with American-backed Kurdish forces in Syria in early 2018. Russia was unwilling to acknowledge their presence and therefore unable to call off US air strikes, despite the existence of a US-Russian hotline aimed at de-escalating potential conflicts.
As for China, its one-child policy has made the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) an army of “only sons.” Writing in Foreign Policy, former Defense Department official Drew Thompson reported that by 2006, only-children made up “more than half of the force, up from just 20 percent a decade earlier, giving China the largest-ever military with a majority of only-children.” Even since the cancellation of the policy in 2016, China’s birth rate has continued to fall and shows no signs of returning to replacement rate, causing Chinese researchers to observe that aging, rather than overpopulation, is China’s main demographic challenge.
Chinese parents’ understandable reluctance to lose their “little emperors” in anything less than a major national emergency imposes significant limits on what China can do with its forces and on how many casualties it can tolerate. Over time, an aging population may discourage military adventurism. In any case, China might therefore become as casualty-averse as the United States. Indeed, unwillingness to accept mass casualties in conventional conflict may be an internal or subconscious driver for the kinds of non-military war operations advocated by certain Chinese strategists.
Regardless of which non-traditional tactics the West chooses, we need to get out of our defensive crouch. What’s more, we must stop regarding such hybrid operations as abnormal or problematic activities outside the bounds of acceptable practice in war and instead dive into them as a new, potentially advantageous operating environment ripe for exploitation. I am reminded of Australia’s leading jungle warfare expert, Brigadier Francis “Ted” Serong, who observed on arriving in Vietnam in 1962 that “conventional soldiers think of the jungle as being full of lurking enemies. Under our system, we will do the lurking.”
Win the Peace
Finally, we must stretch our concept of successful strategy beyond battlefield dominance. As we have seen, the Western way of war is really a way of battle—an operational style—rather than a strategic system. Repeatedly since the Cold War, our armed forces have defeated enemies on the battlefield, only for our governments to fail to translate those battlefield successes into advantageous, enduring strategic outcomes. Broadening our approach would mean creating new capabilities within civilian agencies (or repurposing military capabilities developed for tasks like counterinsurgency) to enable that translation.
Civil-military officials—whom we might call envoys—appropriately trained and able to meld intelligence, diplomatic, economic, informational, and military tools into a single local strategy would be essential in this strategic system. They must be empowered and supported from home capitals and able to draw on designated funds and resources specific to their missions. Developing these envoys would require a shift in mindset among many (if not all) Western diplomatic and military services. But if correctly constructed, such a system could generate integrated teams able to shift seamlessly between military-led operations during crisis and war and civilian-led activities during competition short of conflict.
At the end of the day, maintaining our technological edge in many areas combined with a willingness to think creatively about how to use our strengths off the battlefield to achieve our goals will help position us to give our enemies a bandwidth problem. More specifically, if we can foment the kind of internal challenges that soak up a lot of cost, attention, and effort for our adversaries, we can help delay or divert them from operations directed against us. Moreover, we can remain a potent player in international affairs, sustain our institutions, and prevent the further strategic decline that pundits fear and rivals hope for.