The New Risks of Integrated Competition

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 institutions.

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.


Review: The Dawn of Eurasia

“A bump in the road for America’s longstanding march of progressive Western Liberalism or a pivot back towards ethnocentric nationalism, Americans find themselves at a crossroads.”

That’s from the blurb on the back of my book, Sixteen, published this past summer. It was a collection of essays I wrote as the 2016 election unfolded. More than anything else, the book is an anthology of rational thoughts that, once compiled as a foundation of belief, led me to the wrong conclusions about early 21st Century America. The spirit of the book is to spend some time with the contrast. “A Rational Account of an Irrational Election” as the subtitle says.

Added to the growing list of things about the world I assumed over the last few years that were either incomplete or plainly incorrect is that quote from the blurb on the back of the book. In this case, wrong is too strong. Directionally, it isn’t. Incomplete is more accurate. It lacks context. Context Bruno Maceas’ 2018 book The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order can help provide.

Published this past January, it’s the best book I read this year.

Maceas, a Portuguese political strategist who served as the Secretary of State for European Affairs in Portugal during the height of the European financial crisis, had a front row seat as the cracks in the European Union, visible to critics but seamless to those of us swept up in the globalist strain, began to widen in the face of the EU’s first global financial crisis. Clearly informed by experience, he has an interesting perspective as to the order of things.

What’s significant to me as an American political writer is that Macaes wrote a book about the world order that does not include, in fact even scarcely mentions, America. Moreover, the exclusion is not to be taken as a criticism or even an indictment of America’s future. But a shift in focus to somewhere else. Somewhere more dynamic. A search for the middle of the world, if we were simply not allowed to say anymore, that it was universally understood to be the West.

The book is beautifully readable. The story is told through a journey over land from the ends of the Eurasian super continent. As a veteran of America’s 21st century wars in Middle East and Afghanistan, my eyes and energy have been focused elsewhere. So, Macaes journey took me to places I couldn’t find on a map that I knew nothing about. He believes they will be at the center of our next hundred years of the world’s economic and political development.

Macaes opens the door, lets you in and invites you to consider that perhaps, you’ve been thinking about shape of the world the wrong way.

He doesn’t believe that the world is heading in a singular direction. That Fukuyama’s end of history, the place where all civilizations meet in democratic liberal hegemony, is not a thing. Instead, the world is entering into a different phase of integrated competition, where the tracks laid down by globalism–trade, capital flows, technology, the internet, social media–all remain in place as a new sort of battle ground. The wars of the future will be fought within those domains. And the spoils will not be of territory or the subjugation of others, but through dominance of regional influence and markets.

Within this definition of future conflict, the division of states no longer lives along the fault lines of East and West. But instead along the delineation of modern or traditional. In a world where the line of demarcation from Europe to Asia was not one of geography but instead a difference in modernization of technology and culture, when modernization is uniform, so is the dawn of one unbroken region.


Russia, China, India and the EU all will engage in a grand struggle of integrated competition for dominance. Somewhere, America will fit in. But it will not be the center of the world. Nor will Europe. Nor China. Where exactly, is the stated purpose of the journey of the book. The unstated purpose reads, at least in some part, that the future we will be many things. One happy global family is not one of them. And it’s time to start figuring out where that struggle will play out. And by which rules it will be played by.

This is the diagnosis Trump-ism got right. This was the illness Obama/Clinton and the other American Neo-Liberals ignored in hopes that the world simply moved towards the destination they believed it would. Like the medieval physician though, who knew the symptoms and the end result of a terminal disease but not the cause, the cultural leaches and blood letting Trump-ism applies to modern America are more likely to kill the patient than the disease itself.

It’s hard to see how xenophobic rhetoric, deprecation of state institutions and division within an already diverse population make America a more competitive player in this integrated game.

Which brings me back full circle in the journey of ideas Bruno Macaes started me down. The Dawn of Eurasia paints a plausible and beautifully described picture of a new world order. One that, based on current events, cultural trajectory, economic growth and population demographics seems nearly certain. A future of integrated competition is upon us. Trade wars, cyber espionage and democratic meddling are here now. And they’re not going away.

Perhaps we can take some solace in the fact that the objectives of World War III will be to win a trade war instead of Nuclear Holocaust.

As an American, the cautionary signal is in the wind though. In a world where the powers of the future don’t want to join our club and simply behave themselves in order to gain the good graces of the founding member of the liberal democratic fraternity, we need to figure out how to insist on effective execution of our state responsibilities; a task  difficult to envision with existing management.

Bruno Macaes has given us a different thought to think and delivered it to us from places most of us have never thought about. In understanding the world of the future, or at least understanding the rules in which the game will be played, one would do well to start with The Dawn of Eurasia. 

The Coming Storm

Between 1974 and 1991, thirty nations around the world formed democratic governments where there were not democratic governments before. It was what we now call the third wave of democratization. The first wave started within a generation of American independence, as suffrage and liberal humanism took hold in Europe. The second wave was after World War II and the defeat of nationalist fascism in Europe and Asia. Today, planet earth is about 40%, democratic if you hold the standard of true liberal democracy without including democratic autocracies like Russia or Venezuela.  Continue reading

American Vision: Revised Edition

My mother’s favorite poet was Robert Frost. She kept a book of his poems with illustrations on our old wooden bookshelf in the living room of our house in New Jersey. There were a handful of books on that bookshelf that I would pull down and thumb through from time to time. One was a compilation of photographs of Lincoln. Another was an illustrated account of the Kennedy assassination. Another was the story of our accomplishment of space flight. They were huge books, about half the size of me with colorful pictures, worn dust jackets and coffee stains. She’d gotten them in college in the 60’s. They sat on that shelf for decades. Some of them are still there, though she’s long since passed.

Stopping by Woods On a Snowy Evening By Robert Frost

I remember the picture of a tree on the page with Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. It looked like the tree in my front yard. I would read that poem over and over again. There was something about the end of it that just stuck in my head. The part about the woods, “lovely dark and deep.” And the part about life, “miles to go before I sleep”, twice said.  There was beauty in that described moment of peace. And the realization that it was fragile and fleeting and that there was work ahead that made it more so. One last breath of fog in the cold night air while your feet stay still in the snow. And then it’s back to the business of life. Less beautiful. More permanent.

Life moves on. The future is our only constant. And no matter how beautiful or still or comfortable the peace of now might be, you cannot stay in it. The instant you realize it is the now you’re experiencing, it becomes the past. And you must move on. There’s work to be done.

Elections aren’t what make democracy great. They are a messy, imperfect means to an end. Accountability is what makes democracy great. And elections are the best measure of that accountability that we have to do that thing that is so hard to do. Since the days when we wandered out of the woods and onto the planes and further still over the horizon, the process of choosing who we allow to leads us has been hard, costly and not always for the best. The way we do it in America has yielded strong outcomes for centuries though. But it is not what makes us great. The greatness comes in between. After we choose. After we begin our journey again. We’ve got quite a bit of road ahead of us to cover. We’ve got miles to go. No sleep in sight.

There is a world beyond our current myopic focus. Our politics or the Jihad of a small group of foreign, hateful, religious zealots have distracted us. The world is about to remind us that those things weren’t quite the magnitude of threat we’ve faced in the past. What lies ahead, the rhetorical promise of a new arms race and the rise of an eastern power with enough resources to dominate the world for centuries, are far more serious threats. Threats that will force us to remember a time when Russian field commanders had nuclear weapons release authority for the payloads being placed in Cuba, 90 miles from our shores. Or when global imperial powers had the capacity to cripple our military with equal or greater military might of their own. And nothing the last president did, or the one before him or the next one is at fault. It’s the ebb and flow of a global species in which there is rarely a singular power that remains singular for very long.

It’s time to pick our heads up. There are sails on the horizon. And we’ve got work to do.

It’s been 45 days since the American people elected Donald J. Trump president. And it’s another 30 until he is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America. We’ve had enough time to reflect on what the election says about us. And what it says about the state of our political discourse. And what it says about our culture. We’ve taken our deep breath in the cold dark woods. And it’s time to move on. And it’s time to move past the what and why’s of what happened. It’s time to ask the better question. What do we want from a Donald  J. Trump presidency? What do we want for America? The answer is pretty straight forward.

I don’t want him to fail. I don’t want him to be the disaster that would prove secretly delightful to those of us who so strongly opposed his candidacy. That justification can only come with four years of failure. Four years of worse outcomes for the American people. Four years of a weaker country amidst the backdrop of a rising China and a belligerent Russia. I don’t want that and neither should you. What I want out of a Trump presidency is the same thing I would want out of any presidency. Success.

Success is a weak word. It hasn’t done the work. The work of success begins with a narrow vision of what right looks like in the end. And if you don’t have one for America, then you haven’t done the work.  And you don’t know anything about the effectiveness of her direction. And if your vision is 1950’s American, it’s a bad one. Success starts with a vision. So I’ll share with you mine. Because a great 21st century America needs to start moving forward in earnest. A great 21st Century America accomplishes the following, no matter who sits in the oval office or what ideas they have about America and her people:

  • 25 Million new jobs created over the next ten years. China is on the hook for ten million a year. They’re still in catch up mode. We can win with a quarter of that.
  • Balance the federal budget by 2030. If you refuse to accept any other outcome, it can be done. But you are going to have to re-define your reality of taxation and government services. If you can’t, your future is already decidedly less great.
  • Eliminate fossil fuels within 75 years. Not through regulation. Through innovation and a better way. 100 years from now people need to laugh at their grandparents for digging dead things up from the ground and burning them for power. Pay attention to what Elon Musk is doing. And root for him to succeed.
  • A complete overhaul to modernize American infrastructure by 2025. I don’t mean repair. I don’t mean upgrade. I mean build again. Better, more innovative, more American. We win with better things and a better way of life.
  • Manned space flight to Mars by 2035. If it sounds silly, then I’d ask you what happens when a people reach their ceiling? They atrophy, or they blast through it. I’m for the latter. Again, watch Musk.
  • Put science, treatment and doctors back at the center of American healthcare. Get shareholders out of the game. Do that in any sustainable way possible.

That’s not an exhaustive list. You could probably find other things. But it’s a start. And we have to start. That’s what a vision looks and sounds like. That’s what making 21st century America great looks like.  It’s more than a red hat and a snappy saying. It’s hard work.

There’s something refreshing about turning away from the messy footprints behind us that got us where we are and turning towards a goal. It’s cathartic. Because you spend time thinking about what you want. So much of American mind-space for the last 18 months has been focused on what we don’t want. It’s time to move on. And move forward.

If you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who the president elect alienated with his campaign rhetoric or personal behavior, I’m not going to ask you to just get over it. But I am asking you to have a vision for what you want. Not simply what you don’t. And it’s entirely fair to assume that in order to realize that vision, it’s mandatory to build some foundation of unity where Americans aren’t living in fear of each other or the government. And if that can’t be done with Mr. Trump, then step one on the vision, is choosing a new leader. So be watchful. We are a nation of people. But we are a government of laws-laws that exist for the betterment of our people. No one is above them. We didn’t elect a king. Only a president.

It’s time to get going now. Feet moving over the snow again…miles to go before we sleep. Miles to go before we sleep.