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.

Eurasia.

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 Consequences of Democracy

“This is political Jihad perpetrated by the Democrats.” James Woods of 80’s movie character actor fame and more recent but less entertaining conservative tweet fame tweeted.

He’s right.

Though, I’ve been through Jihad up close a few times. And it’s a little different. I think the word he’s searching for is actually opposition. But I’ll give him a pass because Against All Odds still holds up.  Continue reading

Settling for Different

In a little less than six weeks this past winter, the Republic of Korea, South Korea as we say it here in the States, impeached their president and arrested the CEO of Samsung, the country’s largest corporation because of an influence peddling and bribery scandal that involved both.  It was the South Korean equivalent of impeaching Donald Trump and arresting Apple’s Tim Cook. It was kind of a big deal.

One might think that the sacking of arguably the nation’s two most important people would signal deep societal problems in South Korea. Nothing could further from the truth though. What South Korea just signaled to the world, in addition to their strong market driven economy and highly inclusive democracy, is that they are a government of laws, for the people. And that no one is bigger than the cause. And no one is safe from the consequences of upsetting it.

As recently as 1974, in America, many of us felt the same way. While Watergate was a personal failure for Richard Nixon and a handful of others close to the scandal, the accountability exacted on the nation’s highest office was one of our our great triumphs of democracy. The most powerful man in the world lost his power because he covered up the fact that a few men broke into a rival campaign office during an election that he won by one of the largest landslide margins in American history. The crime, literally, was an inconsequential action that had no tangible impact on a single outcome. But the intent threatened democracy. And in America, that meant you had to go. We were after all, a government of  laws, for the people.

We’ve been at that promise for 240 years. And though we think of ourselves as a “new people” relative to Europe and Asia, our government is old. As standing democracies go, no one is older. We Americans have had a long time to game the system. And though it’s still pretty good at enabling life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for many Americans, our government gets used to do quite a bit more than that these days. Corporations use it to seek rent. The media uses it to sell advertising. Individuals use it to grab or broker power. And as those groups get better and better at those things over time, the promise of why we started, begins to weaken. Until it weakens to the point where we’re no longer confident it will do what we’ve sacrificed so much to insist that it does.

When you invest the level of resources in and grant the broad powers to an entity like the United States Federal Government, a loss of confidence isn’t a small problem. It’s a dire one. Which is where this really starts to get a little fuzzy right now. Because I just said that the system is rigged. And that it needs a shock to it to change. And my argument is going to get confusing for many of you when I say the next thing. Donald Trump cannot continue to lead our government behaving the way that he is now.

One of the great risks of upsetting the status quo in government is that you replace it with something worse. My great critique of the candidacy of Donald Trump and then his presidency is that one does not generally learn how to serve others after they sit down at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. And what little trust we have left in our government is that even if the people we trust it to can’t do enough good, we, the people still hold enough power to keep them from doing too much bad.

When you fire the Director of the FBI while his organization is actively investigating your campaign for collusion with a foreign power, the optic alone, is enough to break that trust. When the Attorney General recuses himself from the investigation because he’s a part of it, then actively interviews candidates to lead the organization that conducts it, that doesn’t help either. It’s starting to feel less and less like the executive branch of our government believes that it answers to the people.  Or at a minimum, they don’t care if it appears that way. Both are unacceptable.

Different isn’t the same as better. The American standard, is better. Settling for different means that you’re comfortable with worse. And I’m not. The world is watching. And they’ve been waiting a long time for the American people to feel this bad about their government.

War is a Choice

War is a lot of things. It’s brotherhood and sacrifice and heroism. It’s one man giving his life to save others. It’s an entire society mobilizing towards a common and just end. It’s the free people of the world drawing a line in the sand against the encroachment of tyranny and casting it into the dustbin of history. It’s a struggle, to the death, in the name of good and freedom and liberty.

These are the things we need to believe about war in order to fight it. And service towards those ends is what we need to believe in order to honor those we ask to fight it for us. Because if you can’t then you run the risk of being reminded of exactly what war is.

Beyond the abstract visions that we sell ourselves to do it, war is a very real and terrible thing. War is the taxi driver in East Timor taking me 20 minutes out of our way to show me the sea wall on which his parents were lined up and shot. It’s the cooler sitting next to my desk full of the body parts of a teenager who blew himself up. It’s me looking at it uneasily, waiting for the technicians to come and take it away to try to identify him. War is the dozen women and children he killed the day before at a funeral. That’s what war was for me. I got off easy.

Because war is much worse.

It’s the 40 thousand civilians—men, women and children- killed by Nazi bombs from the sky in England during the blitz. War is the 300,000 Chinese killed in the Rape of Nanking. War is the 120,000 civilians killed during post invasion Iraq. And now war is the death squads going house to house in Aleppo killing women and children by the dozens. War is all of those things. Whether we sell those parts, or not.

War is one other thing. It’s a choice.

No matter how much we spin it. No matter how much we believe that our safety and the future of our society is at stake, war is always a choice. If the forces of evil are at our doorstep, inside our borders, marching on the capital itself, the movement to fight is a choice. Sometimes it’s the best choice. Sometimes it isn’t. But the iron die is never actually cast, no matter how much we need to believe it was. And the progression towards arms is never inevitable.

War is always a choice.

We point to the isolated atrocities of war as outliers. We think of them as extreme and rare cases to plug into our overall calculus of choice. They give us comfort, knowing there will never be another like it. There was only one My Lai massacre. There was one Abu Ghraib. There was only one Batan Death March. There was only one Andersonville. Those singular events are isolated. And they will never happen again. But the consistency of those sort of events are as much a part of modern war as artillery or tanks or ships. Rest assured, when we mobilize and march to war, someone somewhere will be sitting in their house in fear, having never lifted a finger to harm anyone, and they will be killed. It might be a stray bomb. It might be an accidental target. It might be a death squad or a chemical attack.

Sometimes it’s our fault. Sometimes it isn’t. But it’s going to happen. And it happened because somewhere someone chose it to in the name of something reasonably sellable-security, democracy, capitalism. Though the specifics of the horror are impossible to predict, the certainty of horror is not.

Aleppo has fallen. And the aftermath, death destruction and human tragedy in the streets, is the ultimate end to how modern cities fall in war. It was no different in Berlin. It was no different in Fallujah. And it wouldn’t have been any different in Tokyo, had we not avoided it by annihilating others from above with nuclear destruction. There will be blame to go around. There will be calls for war crime inquiries. And there will be calls for us to act.

To volunteer once again.

Man is a sentient, warring animal. We are capable of committing horrible transgressions in the name of our interests. And we are capable of feeling every ounce of pain it gives us. And now, as the grim events in Syria play out on our televisions and our social media feeds, we need to feel it. All of it. Because we should never miss the opportunity to account for the true costs of war. All of its death and suffering and cruel unfairness. And balance that against the true weight of our gains. And reflect honestly about what side of the ledger holds the most value.

So don’t turn away too quickly. And don’t point to other peoples as unique in their destruction. This is a habit of man. But it’s also a choice. And in these times of fresh tragedy, it’s important to remember that when we decide what to do next.