Sovereignty and the New Total War

National security analyst Gregory Copley says that urbanization is eroding national sovereignty and producing a new, amorphous form of warfare based on identity groups

Image Credit: World War II poster, Office of War Information/Wikimedia Commons

Suppose they gave a war and nobody realized it. This 21st-century spin on the title of US anti-war activist Charlotte Keys’s 1966 article in McCall’s Magazine could come to define the concept of modern warfare, where kinetic operations form only a small part of an ongoing and all-encompassing conflict. Or, as Gregory Copley puts it in his new book, The New Total War of the 21st Century and the Trigger of the Fear Pandemic, “Suppose they gave a war and everybody came.”

The notion of a total war that escapes popular notice may seem hard to swallow. However, the evolution of warfare in the modern era has led to this very situation, Copley argues. The premise of war itself has changed to incorporate a wide range of activities that are not always perceived as hostile actions of a belligerent power. Moreover, the hierarchical structure of sovereign Western societies, where citizens with a national identity follow leaders (often merely managers), is fragmenting under the pressures of urbanization and technology into a multitude of identity and interest groups with more focused loyalties.

Military analyst and author David Kilcullen has pointed out that powers large and small challenge the military dominance of the West by expanding the definition of war. In Copley’s view, the totality of war itself has undergone a transformation that transcends the state-on-state conflicts that have defined our concept of war for hundreds of years. Essentially, war has become amorphous. In The New Total War he writes,

In short, warfare in the 21st century has assumed many forms, including:

  • Amorphous conflict, which occurs in waves of activities within and between societies, and often engages market forces, transnational crime, and all the tools of information dominance, as well as proxy, hybrid, and conventional (state-run) warfare;
  • Nation-state versus nation-state (or blocs of states against blocs of states);
  • Societies (sub-groups of national populations) against other elements of their own society and against social elements of other nation-states;
  • Governments against segments of their populations;
  • Population groups against their governments; and
  • Variations or combinations of these themes.

This list in itself is not particularly controversial. After all, there have been wars, civil wars, and insurgencies since the dawn of human civilization. However, Copley, president of the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA), emphasizes that the grassroots nature of the new total war involves the mobilization of identity groups based on demographics that may act independently of state structures or may act as a high-pressure force for bending state structures to their will. He contends that whereas 20th century wars have been largely dominated by the state, social groups among the population will dominate the conduct of the new total war in the 21st century.

“There is one purpose to war as a strategic competition, and that is the imposition of will upon your opponent and also the imposition of will upon your own society,” Copley says. “The reality is you want an outcome, and the outcome is you want to win. You want to control the geography, resources, wealth, and power.”

Civil societies have reached a point where groups have the means to pursue these goals independently of the state. For centuries, conventional conflicts between states have increasingly engaged populations in the support of war efforts, thus preparing their mobilization and participation in warlike activities. Throughout the 20th century, total wars were largely hierarchical, with sovereign states organizing their populations into the supply chains and home fronts required to sustain kinetic operations in the field on a protracted basis. However, Copley says that the 21st century has seen the erosion of authority and trust in national governments, at least in the West. At the same time, populations have come to see themselves as being as well informed and well educated as their leaders. So, who needs the hierarchy?

The Road to Total War

According to Copley, the development of total war in our modern conception of the term grew out of military necessity. He looks back to Napoleon Bonaparte as the first exemplar of this form of conflict.

“Napoleon had that grasp of grand strategy, and he also had in his fist all the elements of society, both military and civil, so that he tended to see his activities as not just kinetic operations,” Copley says. “So along with kinetic, battlefield success, there was governance, social reforms, and cultural development. He wanted to take a total social view of the conflict in terms of subduing, dominating, and profiting by the outcome.”

In order to compete with Napoleonic France—and eliminate the threat that brand of progressivism posed to their monarchist regimes—the various coalitions that arose to oppose it adopted L’Empereur’s military innovations and domestic organizational methods over time. But in the race to adapt the state to total war, Napoleon’s chief foe, Great Britain, was actually the pace setter. The British achieved levels of industrialization and economic sophistication that France was never able to match. As the United States was to show roughly 150 years later during the Second World War, numbers and mass production proved decisive.

The combination of mass mobilization and industrial production in support of kinetic operations came to define the total war experience in World War I. Copley says that the combination of 19th-century military doctrine with 20th-century military technology produced physical stalemates. On the Western Front, the stalemates resulted in continent-spanning trench systems. If operations were more mobile on the Eastern Front, there were not necessarily more decisive. This physical stalemate gradually drew more and more resources from the civil society so that the war became more protracted. 


Gregory R. Copley

“Technology should have given a decisive ability to one side or another to achieve early success, and it did not,” Copley says. “We saw this gradual embrace of a total industrial society and all peoples in it whose efforts were bent towards supporting an army in the field. The same thing applied to World War II.”

Erich Ludendorff, who ended up as Germany’s effective majordomo by the end of WWI, is credited with coining the term “total war” in his 1935 book, Der totale Krieg. In many ways his has become the popular definition of total war, where maximum military violence is brought to bear on an enemy, supported by a complete mobilization of the home front.

“He still didn’t get it,” Copley says, adding that the military and industrial formulations overlooked more important aspects of war-making that had arisen in the wake of the Great War, such as the increasing sociological complexity of Western societies. He said that it wasn’t until the publication in 1938 of Die Wehrwirtschaft des totalen Krieges (The Economy of Total War) by Austrian economist and military strategist Stefan Possony—subsequently translated into English as To-Morrow’s War—that the West had a coherent definition of total war that looked at the whole of a society’s strategic economic bases as well as its social and demographic bases.

Along these lines, Copley says, the truly decisive total war of modern times was the Cold War. While some might say that the contest between the Western and Soviet blocs does not qualify as a war because the two sides did not shoot at each other in earnest beyond proxy conflicts—which were certainly kinetic enough for the people involved—Copley counters that war is not about the process of war. It is about delivering outcomes.

War All around Us

The outcome of the Cold War was clear for all to see . . . or was it? Certainly, the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of its Warsaw Pact bloc represents a clear victory for the West. However, Copley points out that in many ways the real victor was the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). “Who is reaping the rewards?” he asks. “Arguably the CCP has benefited most from the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

The United States had successfully detached communist China from the Soviet Union through a series of diplomatic initiatives and economic incentives. The subsequent rise of China and its advent as a rival to rather than a partner of the United States is one of the key military, economic, diplomatic, and social realities of the 21st century.

In certain circles, the rivalry between America and China is already being referred to as Cold War II. However, Copley says the conflict is evolving along more varied, even amorphous, lines. One difference he points to is that Chinese President Xi Jinping, unlike postwar Soviet leaders, has recognized that you can’t sell what amount to laughable ideological slogans in the West.

“The way you address Western society is in terms of the banality of Western society, and that is you appeal on transactional terms,” he says. “You actually avoid the psychological nonsense and just go straight for the jugular: here’s some money.”

Urbanization and Sovereignty

The real danger in this approach, Copley says, is that societal trends in the West have favored urbanization, at least up until the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. In his estimation, urbanized populations have a stronger globalist perspective and a weaker nationalist connection with flag and country. This represents one of the key points of conflict in the 21st century, and it exists independently of nation-states that may wish to exploit this pressure point. After all, Copley says, society—not the state—will dominate the conduct of the new total war.

The role of sovereignty in determining the fate of nations is a persistent theme for Copley. In Sovereignty in the 21st Century and the Crisis for Identity, Cultures, Nation-States, and Civilizations (ISSA, 2018), he set forth in detail his thesis that interests of urbanized populations tend to support short-term, materialist goals that encourage the free flow of trade goods and people across all-but-irrelevant borders. The process of urbanization in the 20th century, he says, was largely driven by the necessity of total war economies that depended on centers of manufacturing and logistics to support massive armies in the field. These cities persisted as centers of economic growth, educational opportunity, and cultural flowering in the interwar and postwar years. The growth of cities as centers of wealth and power in their own right occurred in contrast with—and even opposition to—the rurally based “flyover” population, which remains more interested in the geographic integrity and security of the nation.

Copley describes a clear divergence of interests between urbanized populations with a globalist outlook and rural populations that tend to be more traditionally nationalist. Globalist, in this context, is distinct from globalism, which he defines as support for the development and maintenance of the physical and financial infrastructures needed for global trade. Urbanized globalists, in his worldview, seek prosperity and security in identity groups that transcend sovereign states with their hierarchical structures. Copley notes that urbanized globalists also control the means of communication—and thus the flow of information—in the form of networking technology and media.

Thus, the very process or urbanization that supported US efforts in the total wars of the 20th century can now be seen as diminishing the sovereignty of the nation in the new total war. In Sovereignty in the 21st Century, Copley writes,

Many nation-states are under threat of change. Even by the late 1900s, it would have been hardly conceivable to challenge the inviolability of the US federation. By 2018, it was far from inconceivable for US citizens to discuss the possibility of the secession of this state or that from the Union. The situation, structurally, within the US was taking on a strong resemblance to the processes underway in 1860–61, in the lead-up to the secessionist war against the Union by the southern states. Indeed, there were, by 2018, very few nation-states in the world that did not face the suggestion, if not the threat, of secessionism or some form of irredentism.

Regional preferences and frictions in the United States and even within states do spur discussions of secession, particularly in election season. While a lot of this is blowing off steam, the underlying point remains: that national sovereignty has fractured into interest groups with the resources and technology to organize themselves in the absence of national direction.

At the same time, the COVID-19 lockdowns and the subsequent mass protests against perceived police brutality in many cities, accompanied by skyrocketing crime rates, have caused some to question the long-term status of key urban centers. Even before the pandemic and unrest, the New York Times reported, cities were losing their allure owing to the high cost of living and other factors. Is it possible that the process of urbanization has reached its peak and is now in reverse?

Copley points out that the developed world is already facing core population decline and shrinking markets. If they are not yet in irreversible decline, certainly the populations of many large cities are shrinking, as research from the Brookings Institution shows. If this decline has been masked by immigration and local economic opportunity, the flight from the pandemic and now possibly crime has stripped away any cover. At the same time, the technologies that enable people to work remotely also enable them to remain socially connected and organized.

But interest groups retain the ability to impose their will even if cities are losing population. Moreover, people that move away from cities do not necessarily shed their urbanized ideologies. Nevertheless, dislocations caused by the pandemic, urban unrest, and economic uncertainty could prompt a resurgence in national sovereignty. Copley says societies typically look to national leadership in times of crisis. He notes the recent rise in populist nationalism in America—embodied in the presidency of Donald Trump—and elsewhere in the world, exemplified by Brexit in the United Kingdom, Recep Erdoğan’s Turkey, and Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. The ongoing, multifaceted total war of the 21st century will tend to produce a nativist reaction from those segments of a society favoring a national identity.

“Urbanization has tended to obscure what identity security meant to most people,” Copley says. “There is a return to identity politics—even though politicians decry identity politics. The question is, to what degree and what identity?”

With population decline comes the transformation in economic models that are based on a perpetual growth of market size. In a sense, this represents an opportunity for the United States, Copley says. He adds that America has shown itself to be ideally suited to adapting to new economic conditions, citing the success of its private space sector.

“We have to come up with new economic models that are geared towards profiting from a declining market size,” he says. “It is absolutely possible to cope with declining market size, but it is very different from the whole approach that led to the offshore basing of manufacturing. That was geared ideally to lower manufacturing costs and retail process by commoditizing everything. Now we are backing away from that.”

Shrinking markets and populations are just two of the factors that will define the conduct of the new total war of the 21st century, Copley says. If economic uncertainty may lead to a revival of traditional sovereignty, that is just another factor to consider. Regardless of the relative fortunes of the great powers, the technologies of the modern world have increased the number of nonstate actors and their abilities to engage on multiple fronts: kinetic, cyber, economic, electronic, and social.

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