The curtain on the second act of the original American drama fell at Gettysburg. Four score and seven years earlier, the audience of history had been introduced to the cast of characters and the struggle from which they emerged; the founders; the American people; the idea of liberal government struggling to cast off the yoke of the crown. But there on the battlefield in Pennsylvania, where the bodies of thousands of America’s sons rotted in the July heat, America had reached the depths of her struggles. Months later, Lincoln asked aloud the question that hung heavy in the air.
Would liberal government survive?
Government for the people, by the people did not perish from the earth though. In time, America thrived. The nation grew in wealth and influence. Liberal government conquered fascism and liberated Europe. American scientists split the atom and broke the bounds of gravity to walk on the moon. American activists labored through the messy work of expanding civil rights. And as the curtain fell on the final act of the story of America, the dramatic scene of a collapsing Berlin Wall played out. The last of America’s adversaries had been vanquished. The end of the journey was reached. All that was left was the curtain call.
Fukuyama called it “the end of history”.
Within roughly the same passage of time between the end of the Cold War and today would fit the Bolshevik Revolution, the armistice of World War I, the rise of Nazism, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, all of WWII from the invasion of Poland to Nagasaki, the establishment of the Jewish State in Israel and the rise of Communist China.
Much can happen in 30 years.
21st Century America hasn’t quite come to grips with all that has though. And if a new narrative has been developed, so far, it’s a poorly written one. The characters haven’t been appropriately introduced. And the struggle from which they emerge, not effectively defined. My experience serving as a post-Cold War Naval officer shows the stark contrast between where I spent my time and where the antagonists of the new American drama would eventually be found.
In 2007, about the time that the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community pulled me off of a collapsing Wall Street and back onto active duty, the U.S. Special Operations Command was beginning to think, in earnest, about the world of modern Irregular Warfare. The attacks of 9/11 had awoken Americans to the threat of non-state actors. And American leadership responded by engaging in two active wars in two separate theaters of operation. One had no government to overthrow. The other had one that would not last the first month of invasion by U.S. forces. The struggle that America had been lured into, and somehow is still engaged in, was one against non-state actors in an asymmetrical engagement. Deeper understanding of this sort of “irregular warfare” was required.
In September of that year, weeks before I reported to my post to lead the operations department at a newly commissioned irregular warfare command in NSW, the Department of Defense published the Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept (IW JOC). It was the first publication my skipper handed me when I reported; my perpetual REF A as we built out the command. It contrasted this new version of warfare against the conflict the U.S. military had been engaged in for generations. It was a force that had spent the last half century with its eyes searching the horizon for Soviet tanks rolling across the Vulda Gap. The focus was shifting to something else then; the populations of the regions in which American forces had been more recently engaged. Our task was to establish both kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities that would allow U.S. forces to shape the environments in which they operated. To strengthen those political or institutional domains that aligned with our interests. Or to weaken those that didn’t.
The first edition of the JOC defined Irregular Warfare by its contrast to conventional warfare in that it “focuses on the control or influence of populations, not on the control of an adversary’s forces or territory.” With U.S. military forces occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, the JOC illustrated the threats of the day that were front of mind. “Perfect Storms of failed governments, ethnic stratification, religious violence, humanitarian disasters, catalytic regional crisis and the proliferation of dangerous weapons.”
By 2010, a revision to the JOC highlighted the growing concern about technology advances and the risks they posed and included not only non-state, but state actors as threats. “Advances in technology and other trends in the environment will render such irregular threats ever more lethal, capable of producing widespread chaos, and otherwise difficult to counter.”
The focus, however, was still on how American forces would conduct IW in foreign environments. And what capabilities they’d need to do it. There was still little to be said about the growing threat of the future environment and the growing relative threat past enemies would pose within it. Mitt Romney was nearly laughed out of the 2012 presidential election when he said that Russia was the greatest threat America faced.
That was so 1980. Or maybe it was 2020.
Whether Romney was right on purpose or simply because he needed a hill to stand on that wasn’t already taken is less important than the incredulous response he received. It was unbelievable to think that Russia was our greatest threat. And the only harm China could do to Americans was stealing manufacturing jobs as they continued to industrialize and grow en route to becoming something that resembled America. Americans were consumed by the Global War on Terrorism for a decade, wringing our hands over a threat that was mostly eliminated when the TSA mandated locks on the cockpit doors of commercial aircraft.
As for me, I served in one of the most active communities in America’s 21st Century war, specializing in irregular, asymmetrical warfare. Yet I knew nothing about Russia. I knew less about China. And I had no sense that we were already deeply integrated into the next great American struggle.
Outside our borders, the narrative was clearer. The journey of the previous 30 years had been one of global integration, from many to one. Europe united as one economic system. The Chinese economic growth miracle ushered in access to the World Trade Organization. Russia developed into an irreplaceable energy exporter with a strong 21st century version of the old politburo. And while the neoliberal narrative explained American victory over the Soviets with anecdotes like America has never fought a war with a country in which there were a McDonalds, something was conspicuously missing. That something was the promise of one global liberal society.
The last 30 years has taught us that populations are less flexible than economic incentives. And governments more interested in pursuing their own interests. There’s a bit of irony in the notion that the dream of free markets fueling liberal expansion being sabotaged by rational actor nations pursuing their own interests through competition. Clear is the need for a more serious discussion about the journey we’re about to embark on as a liberal American society competing in global competition with adversaries not quite as vanquished nor assimilated as we may have thought. And more importantly, the tempting IW target that the American people, stewards of Western Liberal belief, represent.
America used to be able to lock its enemies out. Now they’re here and inside the global ecosystem that has few externalities and they’re playing by their own rules. That America is spending any political capital on something as anachronistic as a physical wall to stop foot traffic is telling. That it is a feature of American contemporary politics and not a bug, is dangerous.
It’s an extreme thought but perhaps directionally correct to say that World War III may be upon us. Just not the way we thought it would be, with ICBM raining down upon us or mass mobilization of military forces at the boarders. It’s playing out as IW within the context of global integration. And the population under the most pressure is the American one. Now the risk of “failed governments, ethnic stratification, religious violence, humanitarian disasters” feel less like problems of a far-off land. And more like the front page of the local newspaper. If modern conventional warfare is the sledgehammer that breaks the rock, IW is the water that seeps into the cracks and waits for the long winter to freeze and destroy it from within. As a society of deep demographic diversity, a troubled history or racial inequality, a cultural divide between traditional and metropolitan populations and an inherent mistrust of government, America has many cracks. And many groups that could benefit from them splitting wide open.
There’s a version of the script of this new American drama that includes a second act closing on an America threatened by a rising China, an emboldened Russia and a weakened Europe. And while an internal struggle for the soul of our nation once urged our leaders to ask aloud if this liberal democracy would last, an external one will force us to ask it again. America’s fate won’t be decided by something as tidy as victory on a battlefield in a sleepy rural Pennsylvania town. It will be decided by how well liberal democratic society, and the rule of law that it was built upon, stands up to the external pressures of the 21st Century.
Whether one views Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and ensuing administration as a “witch hunt” or not breaks largely along political lines. That it was even something to be investigated is remarkable though. One could not have mounted a similar investigation into campaigns of the distant past. And though it’s possible, even likely, that Russian interference had any measurable impact on the outcomes of American democracy, that they were able to get into the room in the first place, is different than the past. Before, the enemy was over the horizon. Today, our old adversary is neither vanquished nor distant.
As for China, we’re presently engaged in a trade war with the country that makes most of the things our American companies sell to Americans. The CFO of Huawei, the world’s largest supplier of phone and internet equipment, is undergoing extradition hearings to the U.S. in Canada after being detained earlier this year. She faces charges of bank fraud, trade secrets theft and sanctions evasion. Huawei sells more cell phones than Apple, who also assembles their iPhones in China, and we’re arresting and attempting to extradite their CFO. A reality where America and China walk hand and hand into the free-market sunset together hasn’t seemed further in my lifetime. Real conflict with China though, will require an economic unwinding that is difficult to imagine. Perhaps the greatest IW campaign ever launched is the one that resulted in China holding a billion dollars of U.S. debt and a trade surplus another half as large more.
These are all manifestations of a new globally integrated competitive reality. A reality of a new type of irregular warfare. A reality in which America is in as precarious a position as we’ve been in since we found Soviet missile sites off the coast of Miami. America has never needed the functions of society that are most effective to respond to existential threats more.
American Democracy does not count efficiency nor effective precision of policy as strengths. Instead, its institutions, formed these last two and a half centuries within the framework of a rare, living liberal constitution are the strongest line of defense against the influence of adversaries that benefit from a diminished America and liberal society at large.
It’s hard to imagine a more effective outcome for those engaging in an IW campaign against America than the destruction of trust within the American government, civil institutions and the American people we’re experiencing today. The strength of democracy is accountability. It shields the electorate from tyranny and the deprecation of the rule of law. American civil institutions and the dedicated civil servants that serve within them are not a swamp. The American free press is not the enemy of the American people. The circles Americans draw around who they decide is on their side needs to be much broader than current leadership has been able to deliver.
In reality, there is no singular narrative. No beginning or end of history. No curtain call. There’s simply a world in integrated motion, filled with billions of people who can experience good or bad outcomes. And leaders they hold accountable to adhere to the principles they’ve maintained for generations to foster trust between those governing and those being governed. In America, that trust is eroding quickly at a time when it’s needed most. And there’s little honest reckoning with just how dangerous that is.