Great Power War Is Here to Stay

But instead of great global struggles of the last century, powers today are more likely to fight more limited on again, off again “long wars”

Instead of the large, global conflicts, future great power wars will likely involve intermittent flare ups of violence. Image Credit: Dmitri Otis/Getty Images

In April 2001, I attended a briefing outside of Tel Aviv on the Israeli Arrow anti-missile system. Afterwards, I asked a senior Israeli Air Force official about new Russian missiles being developed to circumvent the Arrow. “We are a small country,” he replied, indulgently. “We can only afford to equip to fight the threats we face right now.”

The idea is that you have to “buy in” at some point and equip for the threats at hand. There were Russian-made intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the hands of a number of Israel’s enemies, including Syria and Iran, and the Arrow was developed at great expense to defeat those. You can think about what might happen years in the future (indeed, new and better Russian missiles were in the works), but you may not have the budget to counter those threats right now.

The United States is not a small country. However, as it drifts closer to conflict with peer powers, it is not demonstrating the pragmatic outlook it needs to prevail in the wars that may arise going forward. If history and current events are any guide, the U.S. is ill-prepared to fight the threats it faces right now and also does not seem to be taking those threats seriously enough to make them policy priorities. Perhaps lawmakers and military planners are counting on time and America’s ingenuity and industrial capacity to successfully respond to those threats, just as it has been able to do in the past.

But the next great power war and those that come after are not likely to offer those opportunities. These wars will be marked by “long wars,” explosions of rapid violence where one side gains (or does not) and that then simmer for an extended period of stalemate ending in an armistice (or, less likely, a solid settlement), or that flare up again into conflict. This is not a world in which the U.S. has demonstrated much facility. Indeed, critics of “forever wars” will not be happy in this world.

Wars of the Future

Already, competition is heating up over who will set the rules in the new world order. Former superpower Russia has recently been revealed to be a husk of its former self, albeit one with a huge nuclear arsenal and an ability to defeat or at least grind down smaller neighbors in exhausting wars. Its former rival and now erstwhile ally China is a military and economic juggernaut, although an inexperienced one, with advanced and numerous weapons and specific great power goals. Europe is discovering that it can be powerful as a united entity if it applies its vast economy to war-making. Meanwhile, India is teetering on the brink of great power status, and Brazil and Indonesia have that potential as well.

In the new world of great power competition, the U.S. needs to leave behind many of its cherished assumptions about the international order. Many of these have been useful, while others have been comforting or even self-deluding. In any event, here are three factors that America should consider going forward:

  1. The global order shepherded by the U.S. for the benefit of all is fading. It used to be that powers outside the mainstream defined by this order were deemed “rogue states” that could be contained or defeated. Now it is more accurate to describe the world as multi-polar with competing visions of order and enforcement. Combinations of opponents are more than capable of defying U.S. power and overturning its interests.
  2. Nuclear deterrence is losing its potency as a preventer of conventional armed conflict between great powers, even as it may yet retain its ability to keep those conflicts from escalating into strategic nuclear exchanges. Clashes occur between nuclear-armed nations (e.g., India-Pakistan, China-India). Great power tensions over regional issues, such as those between Russia and NATO or China and the U.S., make armed conflict between nuclear-armed peer powers not only possible but likely.
  3. U.S. diplomats cannot count on international standards to help support their positions. Like it or not, realpolitik is back. While opposing world views may exist with regard to human rights, free trade and other issues, future wars will involve very specific regional goals. U.S. negotiators will have to substitute these standards for thorough and dispassionate analysis of opponents and sitting down with enemies to manage conflicts or prevent them in the first place.

If the U.S. is going to remain competitive, if not prevail, in the conflicts of a multi-peer-power world, it is going to have to come to grips with this new reality at some point soon. This is going to require a very difficult focusing on where the threats are, and moving, eliminating and developing military power specifically to meet these threats. We are not at all ready for this at the moment.

Choosing Hills, One at a Time

In many minds, the U.S. should be thinking very specifically about how to counter China because China is equipping and girding itself specifically to defeat the U.S. and any coalition it might assemble. Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official and co-founder of the Marathon Initiative, a nonprofit think tank specializing in strategic analysis, says the U.S. must put a real effort into countering China, if only to deter it from acting on its increasingly aggressive anti-U.S. rhetoric. The best way to do this is to implement a more deliberate and proactive strategy, rather than simply reacting to Beijing’s bellicosity or making token gestures, as it is doing now.

“There are three core missions of the U.S. armed forces at this stage,” Colby said. “One is being able to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan because that will allow us to protect our other allies in the region; two is modernizing the nuclear deterrent and dealing especially with Chinese breakout of deployed nuclear weapons; and three is sustaining a low-cost counterterrorism effort. An additional mission that I say should be narrower, because the Europeans should be doing most of the work, is the conventional defense of NATO.”

In his recent book, “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict,” Colby devotes a chapter to developing a military strategy to counter China in a limited war. His prescription is for the U.S. to refocus its strategic goals rather than expanding its military to meet threats on a global basis. The U.S. is no longer in a position to spend its way into maintaining its global power status against all comers. As a result, military planners must focus production, deployment and training on the one key theater—the Indo-Pacific—even at the risk of reducing capability in other theaters. This is what allies are for.

“Hopefully, procurement is downstream from strategy,” Colby said. “If the strategy is that I should be able to beat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan at a reasonable level of cost and risk, the strategy is telling me I have to accept risk in other theaters. So, I am going to pull forces out of the Middle East. I’m not going to give Central Command forces whenever they want. I’m going to get rid of military equipment that is not relevant to this strategy.”

While acknowledging that “limited war” might sound like a contradiction to modern ears, particularly given the popular assumption that great power wars are likely to become nuclear ones, Colby maintains that the fact both sides possess survivable nuclear arsenals means a total war would necessarily lead to grievous loss on both sides, if not total societal collapse. This means China is more likely to engage in a series of limited wars against the U.S. and its allies for limited objectives.

This is not to bang the drum for war with China. That war is likely coming, drums or no. Nor is it a plea for greater defense spending; the U.S. spends a fortune on defense as it is. More important is that the Pentagon focus its strategy and equip and train forces to pursue that strategy.

The war in Ukraine has shown that U.S. and Western conventional arms technology is fine. It’s much better than anything the Russians have. Chinese technology is largely based on Russian (and Soviet) designs. And while it may be counted on to perform much better than its forebears, the U.S. probably has enough of an edge to begin producing massive numbers of superior weapons at the current technology without greatly expanding the budget.

Suddenly, the War’s Over (Until the Next One)

Wars between great powers will not necessarily escalate into “World War III,” which is often used interchangeably with “global thermonuclear war.” It is much more likely that great power conflicts will bloom and die down, becoming the “long wars” of historical precedence, such as the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th centuries between England and France, and the Napoleonic Wars roughly 400 years later that featured the same principal combatants plus allies. In other words, wars will involve flare-ups over regional issues in between intervals of relative peace, even normalized relations.

The irony is that diplomatic settlements to any of these component conflicts in the next great power war probably could be worked out prior to the onset of hostilities. For example, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that a settlement between Russia and Ukraine could have been negotiated before Russia’s invasion. Michael J. Ard, writing in Discourse Magazine, notes that immediately before the war began, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had “publicly denied that Russia planned to invade, and he had been openly willing to surrender land for peace and abandon his country’s quest for NATO membership.”

However, once the shooting started, many treated Henry Kissinger’s comments on settling the war using a “land for peace” approach like a turd in a punchbowl because it dampened their enthusiasm for resistance. But Kissinger is right. It’s either some kind of accommodation or Russia will grind through more lives and territory until a settlement is reached, as they are doing now.

Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor emeritus of war studies at King’s College, London, says the example of the Russo-Ukraine War serves to illustrate the dangers of going to war on any scale because of the resulting unintended consequences.

“You have had to recognize the possibility of this war since the end of last year,” says Freedman, who has been chronicling the war on Substack. “It was a stupid thing to do, but it nonetheless happened. I don’t think any precedents are being set for new wars because it turned out not to have been a very good idea. That’s going to have a big effect when the dust eventually settles on how we think about circumstances in which people go to war.”

Like Ard, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, professor of politics at New York University and a proponent of game theory, also argues that the issues of most wars can be worked out without any actual fighting.

“Normally if you have a contest with the threat of war, we know that however the war turns out, however it is settled, whatever deal is ultimately agreed to, in principle, could have been agreed to before the war happened while avoiding all of the costs of the war,” he says.

Nevertheless, Bueno de Mesquita cautions that there are problems that make it difficult in the real world for opposing leaders to find the sort of settlements that might seem intuitive to other parties. For example, it is very difficult to incorporate nonmaterial aspects such as prestige and perceptions of power into the negotiations. Also, the intensity of motivations of the opposing sides and acceptance of risk by their leaderships must be factored in.

“A lot of people had assumed that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was in the typical range of risk-taking for leaders of governments, whereas he was far more risk-acceptant than most are,” Bueno de Mesquita said. “What that means is that the deal that might have been struck before gets adjusted in a non-obvious way because of the risk acceptance, so that the bargaining space may close or shift. Unfortunately, people didn’t think about it sufficiently carefully, including, as it turns out, Mr. Putin.”

If You Want To Win

Diplomatic efforts to contain wars with settlements should factor in the technological constraints on how long, widespread or intense a given round of warfare can be. Modern weapons are too expensive and too few in number to enable armed forces to fight on a global scale and achieve useful results. Indeed, Russia ran through its dedicated missile stocks in its failure to quickly secure Ukraine, and the U.S. is rapidly depleting its own stocks of certain missiles in an effort to keep Ukraine afloat.

For this reason, great powers may wage wars for limited territorial gain or political advantage while supporting the main theater of action with attacks elsewhere to achieve strategic effect, such as interfering with enemy production and resupply. This is also the reason wars will tend to occur as periodic episodes in relations between the great powers rather than the regime-destroying, civilization-remaking Gotterdammerung clashes of the 20th century’s world wars.

Gotterdammerung. No man’s land during World War I. Paul Nash (British, 1889-1946), “The Menin Road”/Imperial War Museum

Modern wars between great powers will be short, at least by the standards of the last century . They will not be ongoing, globe-spanning conflicts that reorganize the world order in five years. But each incidence of war, which seems so unusual now, will end in a negotiated settlement. And the stage will be set for another flare-up. We have to get used to that, and we are not, although perhaps events in Ukraine have given us a foretaste.

“We would run out of a lot of munitions, too,” says Marathon’s Colby. “We would probably have to trigger a war footing. And this is one of the reasons why a war might be quite protracted in the sense that you could have bouts of intensity, particularly early on. And unless that was decisive, you would either be inclined to settle and lick your wounds or the war would go on, but there would be a period while the sides tried to regenerate their munitions and their platforms.”

A key U.S. vulnerability is its military-industrial base, which is not geared to produce large numbers of complex weapons per year and has bottlenecks that can easily choke off production of certain systems altogether. Colby says his favorite example of this vulnerability is the Lockheed Martin Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), which he says is the sort of weapon the U.S. would like large stocks of to counter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The U.S. is ramping up production this year with an output of less than 50 missiles, with a total of 137 missiles expected through 2025.

“Why can’t we make 500 per year?” he says. “Well, the missile is physically produced in Troy, Alabama, and they are the only ones who make it. There are only a certain number of people who know how to do it. That’s a reality. I would love to quintuple LRASM production, but there are constraints.”

As Colby explained in the first essay in this two-part series, limited production of the best weapons to meet a strategic goal is only part of the problem. The single points of failure in military production and supply chains invite attacks, either through long-range strike weapons, cyberattacks or sabotage. One likely characteristic of future great power wars will be attacks on the U.S. homeland in support of regional campaigns to achieve territorial goals. The U.S. must prepare itself to be hit and hit hard by non-nuclear attacks. In addition to focusing on a military strategy that is in keeping with its capabilities, the U.S. has to consider ways to avoid single points of failure in its supply chains.

If the world is entering a new period of great power conflict, perhaps the good news is that history may offer us a way out of those wars or even a way to prevent them before they happen. As NYU’s Bueno de Mesquita and Kings College’s Freedman have pointed out, many of the issues driving the Russian invasion of Ukraine could have been worked out ahead of time, even if either side might have considered some pills too bitter to swallow. Would these provisions have been more bitter than the loss of life and livelihoods in the war itself?

A new generation of diplomats skilled in history, game theory and realpolitik will be needed if we are going to be able to manage the great power wars that are coming. We are still focusing on nonsense, like the shark attacks right before 9/11. The great power wars of the new world order are right in front of us, and the time to prepare for them is now.

This essay is the second in a series of two pieces on the future great power conflict. The first essay focused on how the taboo against great power conflict has faded.

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