The New Rules of War: Victory in an Age of Durable Disorder
(Sean McFate, January 30, 2019)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Some of the principles of warfare are ancient, others are new, but all described in The New Rules of War will permanently shape war now and in the future. By following them Sean McFate argues, we can prevail. But if we do not, terrorists, rogue states, and others who do not fight conventionally will succeed—and rule the world.
Dr. Sean McFate is an author, novelist and expert in foreign policy and national security strategy. He is a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. His newest book, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder, will be released on January 22, 2019.
Recently, he was a Visiting Scholar at Oxford University’s Changing Character of War Program. He was also a think tank scholar at the RAND Corporation, Atlantic Council, Bipartisan Policy Center, and New America Foundation.
McFate’s career began as a paratrooper and officer in the U.S. Army’s storied 82nd Airborne Division. He served under Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, and graduated from elite training programs, such as Jungle Warfare School in Panama. He was also a Jump Master. Then McFate became a private military contractor in Africa. Among his many experiences, he dealt with warlords, raised small armies, worked with armed groups in the Sahara, transacted arms deals in Eastern Europe, and helped prevent an impending genocide in the Rwanda region.
McFate co-wrote the novels Shadow War and Deep Black, part of the Tom Locke series based on his military experiences. New York Times #1 bestselling author Mark Greaney said: “I was blown away…. simply one of the most entertaining and intriguing books I’ve read in quite some time.”
He also authored the non-fiction book The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order, which explains how the privatization of war is changing world order in the 21st century. The Economist called it a “fascinating and disturbing book.”
For another perspective on the future of warfare, see Bill Gertz’s Westminster talk, iWar: War And Peace In The Information Age.
Tonight, I am very happy to welcome our speaker, Sean McFate. I think the best way of introducing him other than saying that he is a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service is to read a few lines of self-introduction that I found on Amazon with the advertisement of the book about which he is going to speak tonight, which is titled, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder. That’s a very optimistic title, I think.
So, I am quoting Sean McFate here, “I see war differently. I have traveled to 65 countries, some places where war never ceases. I have served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division and then as a private military contractor in Africa. Some would call me a mercenary, an intellectual one at least. I studied at Brown, Harvard, and the London School of Economics, doing my PhD in international relations. Now, I’m a professor of war studies, strategy, and foreign policy. The question that drives me is why does America keep losing wars to weaker powers? I write books to explore and answer this question.”
Let me basically stop there to mention some books that Sean McFate has written, including the Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order. He is also co-author of a couple of novels. So, please join in welcoming Sean McFate.
I wrote this book – I was talking to some of you before – because I was frustrated, as this alluded to. I wanted to know… We have the best military, we have the best troops, we have the best technology, we have the most money, yet we lose to inferior foes and the question is: what’s the problem? What’s the problem? That was the puzzle I sought to answer in this book.
And this book is not a dry, abstruse academic tome. It is not some wonky think tank white paper. It is written so that my mother could read it. It is written- She’s read it. She’s become an amazing PR agent for me, but I wrote it so that everybody could read it. I wrote it for an audience that was beyond the Beltway and I wrote it to help push a conversation that I think has been subterranean but gaining momentum for some time now.
And I ask some hard questions, so for example, we will get to an answer to the puzzle, at least my example, in a little bit. Let’s start with what’s going on in the news right now: Venezuela is burning, literally. Once the richest, most opulent country in South America has become the Somalia of that continent.
As you know, we have two presidential candidates, Maduro and Guaidó, and we are in this sort of international limbo about who is the real president not just a Venezuela one. Guaidó is being supported by the U.S., by much of the EU, and much of Latin America. Maduro is being supported – well, first of all by the military – but also by Russia, China, and Turkey.
One could almost boil it down and say it’s ideological, autocracy vs democracy, and maybe that is what is going on here, but that’s not the point [of] why I raised this.
Just a few nights ago, Russia sent in mercenaries for Maduro. These are not the lone guys with Kalashnikovs in the Congo jungle that you see ridiculed in Hollywood or villains in comic books. This is the Wagner Group. The Wagner Group or the Wagner Group is a Russian mercenary company, although their people could be from anywhere. That’s the thing about being a mercenary. It could be anywhere. They’re in Ukraine, Syria, Central African Republic, now Venezuela, and this is not a lightweight group.
So a year ago, a year ago, they almost killed a lot of American troops. It’s not really known, it’s public but it’s not really known. A year ago, we had Delta, Rangers, Special Forces, Green Berets, and Marines and Kurdish forces defending an oil facility or a gas facility in eastern Syria and they were attacked by five hundred of these guys. And the Delta called in aviation support to beat them back. They called in B-52s, F-15s, Apache helicopters, Predator drones, AC-130 gunships, and still, with our best troops and our best aviation, it took them four hours to beat back 500 mercenaries.
What will happen when they have to face 5,000 mercenaries? Even an undefeated military can lose. They attacked our American troops with tanks, artillery, and armored personnel carriers with great precision and knowledge. These weren’t rabble. This is not ISIS in high luxes. This is the Wagner Group and there are others out there like it.
This is the future of war. It will not be midway in the South China Sea. This is the future of war and we’ll get back to this too. So, when I ask you today what are today’s biggest threats and we could spend two hours at least on this, the normal panoply of horrors takes shape, right? People talk about China, Russia, these are not enemies or adversaries, you know, Iran, ISIS or similar fighters. Not just them, you also have narcos, Venezuela, genocide, North Korea, and those these threats are bad, they are not the worst.
The worst threat is systemic. It is what is helping give rise and velocity to all these threats and that threat is something I call durable disorder. Durable disorder is a systemic threat. It is an emerging global system that can contain problems but not solve them. It is the retreat of the Westphalian order, retreat of states everywhere. It’s leaving behind a system of entropy, a system of persistent conflict. It is what we see today. We perceive it as chaos. We perceive it as the sky is falling, let’s invest in more sky. Right?
It’s not something we can put back together but it’s also not new and this is something we have to remember, it is not new. Most of the history of the world order – such as you can even say there’s a history of it – is disorder. This idea of a, you know, Westphalian system of nationstates that keep some semblance of global stability is arguably only a few hundred years old. It’s not timeless and universal.
But before that, before – people typically say the Peace of Westphalia, although that, I would argue is a reification – it’s what this gentleman was dealing with, Machiavelli, alright? This is what he lamented in his time: persistent conflict, entropy, lack of strong sort of centralized authorities, a war of all against – let me go back here. In the Italian Wars, which is where he was living, you’ve got to think about it like northern Italy was like Afghanistan is today. People had loyalties. It wasn’t to the state of Italy, that made no sense. It was loyalties to your public or you were Catholic versus, you know, Protestant or something like that. Mercenaries marketed warfare. There was supply and demand in the market for war and as Machiavelli complained, because mercenaries don’t work themselves out of work, soldiers became beasts and people became prey. It was perpetual war all the time and it wasn’t just the mercenaries, it was their masters too.
We’re seeing this today. It’s not just mercenaries but today, 50% of all peace agreements fail in five years. The majority of countries are fragile or failed. The number of armed conflicts has doubled since World War II. You can see what’s going on here. So like we’re having forever wars where people think forever wars are normal. I talk to students, Georgetown students, they think that forever wars, that’s just the way it is now.
That’s unfortunate. We have privates in Afghanistan who were born after 9/11. And I know some of you here have [served]. There are multiple generations of families serving in the same theater of war, right? We’re seeing the return of mercenaries. We’re seeing the rules-based order collapse under collapse and retreat. Now, this is the environment that gives rise to ISIS, that allows Russia opportunity or Turkey opportunity. Those who understand this, those who exploit durable disorder, will prevail. And those who do not, will be exploited.
And that’s the concern because right now we have a foreign policy in large part that wants to put Humpty Dumpty back together. Now, there are some like Bob Kagan, who thinks that’s doable. There are others who think that’s hubris. For a reason at this point in our historical cycle, we’re going through one of chaos, you know, it’s not going to be the 1991 unipolar moment that many had imagined, right?
So here’s the issue. It’s that we have a new kind of world order with a new kind of warfare. So conventional war was the warfare of the Westphalian order, think about strong interstate conflicts fought by their militaries. It’s a war of Clausewitz. And we still cling to this paradigm today. So today, when you say there’s going to be a war with China and Russia, why do they always assume it’s going to be conventional? Why is that assumed? Why is that assumed? It won’t be.
We live in a post-Westphalian era, we have a post-Westphalian way of war, and that’s what this book’s about. How do you fight and win in a post-Westphalian era? Because this doesn’t work. And the first rule of the ten rules is that conventional war is dead, which obviously is a glove on the ground to most of the people in the Pentagon, a glove on the ground.
The question is are we already at war with Russia and China? Are we already at war with Russia and China? They’re at war with us. Now, we will get to this in the Q&A. You’ll see where I’m going with this.
But the issue is one of the rules of war is there’s no such thing as war or peace. Both co-exist always. We like to think of war and peace like pregnancy: you either are or you’re not. Right? That war is the failure of peace. When war is declared, everybody marshals up and fights, serves in the military and fights, just defeats the enemy. You kill the most enemy, you take their territory, you fly your flag over their capital, and then you pull out the USS Missouri and have a peace treaty, right? And we’re desperately looking for a USS Missouri moment with ISIS, the Taliban, Russia, and China. It’s not how wars are fought anymore. That’s not how they’re won anymore, and that’s why we struggle. That’s why we struggle.
So what war is doing in this new sort of durable disorder is that it’s getting sneakier. It’s getting sneakier, alright? We’ve been here before. Think about the Cold War. We’ve done this before in the Cold War. War is going from Clausewitz to Sun Tzu, and victory in the future belongs to the cunning and not the strong. Think about those Crimeans, right?
So, for example, Crimea. Crimea was interesting. Russia had the military might, using old rules of war, they could have blitzkrieged through eastern Ukraine, seized much of the Donbass region, gone right into Crimea. But they didn’t do that. What they did instead is they used covert means, spetsnaz special forces, mercenaries, which can do zero footprint operations, proxy militias that are separatists, propaganda, and persuasion, right? I mean they blew a Boeing 777 out of the sky. Why isn’t he at The Hague, right? So why did they do that? Why did they do that?
Because we live in a global information age and the Kremlin is smart enough to know that plausible deniability is more potent than firepower. How can the U.S. rally the world to defend Ukraine when the basic facts of the conflict are in question? That’s war getting sneaky. So by the time the conventional war weapons pulled up to Sevastopol, like the Destroyers, it was a fait accompli and the world was like “WTF?”
Now, the experts saw this, there were intel people who saw it, but policymakers and others – the rest of the world couldn’t be motivated enough to do because they were still debating is it war, is it not war. That’s not the point. War and peace; it’s not an or equation, it’s an and equation.
Another is China in the South China Sea. We are investing, we’re buying aircraft carriers at $13 billion a copy. That’s before aircraft and sailors, and we want to buy two at least. We’re buying submarines, eight or so. We’re investing in F35s, F35 fighter jets.
Now, something about the F35. The F35 program cost $1.5 trillion. That’s more than Russia’s GDP. In two long wars, how many combat missions have they flown? Zero. Zero combat missions. The worth of any weapon is its utility. You don’t have to have a PhD to know that. I was a grunt. You know that dog don’t hunt.
Now, they will say, oh, we had combat missions. The last like couple months the Pentagon has been sending them over to fly sortees against mules or something in Afghanistan. I don’t know. Oh, it’s a combat mission, and my retort to that is, look, $45,000 a flight hour, that costs more than the E3 fixing the thing. If the enemy can’t shoot back, it’s just a live fire exercise. That’s all it is.
We invest in all this because right now we’re saying we need to deter China, we need to deter China. Well, guess what? China has no aircraft carrier groups and they’re taking the South China Sea one island and one ally at a time. How are they doing it? They’re playing by the new rules of war. They know there’s no such thing as war and peace, this rule I keep on hammering at the moment.
What they do is they do aggressive things right up to the brink of what we consider to be war and then they stop, and then they keep what they capture. You do that for enough time… they have a strategy of gradual incrementalism that’s winning the South China Sea, and it’s not because they have a superior military. They don’t. It’s not deterrence. Deterrence as we think of it is old rules of war. Deterrence does not work in the new rules of war.
And of course, the return of mercenaries, the return of marketized conflict. These are ex-Seals, ex-Green Berets, and some other ex-U.S. servicemen, who are acting as mercenaries, as an assassination squad, hired by a Middle Eastern monarchy to go after political foes. We’ve seen a rise of mercenaries always in the shadow work. Wars go into the shadows. In Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, and they are very powerful. Think of the Wagner Group. They are very powerful and it’s not just the Wagner Group, so think of Nigeria.
Boko Haram, we all know Boko Haram. [It] steals young girls to rape them, really. They call them “wives.” For six years the Nigerian military could not contend with this group. Now, the Nigerian military is not a weak military. Nigeria is the regional hegemon of West Africa. For six years, and in 2015 they secretly hired mercenaries to assist their military to go after Boko Haram, and those mercenaries got rid of them in weeks. And they showed up, again, not with Kalashnikovs, they showed up with MI-24 hind helicopters. These are flying Russian gunships. And also they rented special operations units. That’s what’s happening. It’s global, it’s rising.
War has moved on and we have to move on too, but we’re not. We are not. We are mired in the past, so when people think in this town about the future of war, they think of World War II with better technology. Right, they think of Tom Clancy. I have some good friends who write novels on this. It’s basically like Tom Clancy, but 2019. They imagine robot wars. Rather than Normandy, the landing craft, you know marines and army swarming out, you have robots doing it, and we’re investing lots of money in this. The F35, which I discussed. They have things like C130s, dropping out drones or hypersonic missiles. It’s war by robot. They imagine Midway in the South China Sea, that’s why you have to have all of those carriers. War is not fought this way.
They imagine some version of like Skynet from Terminator, you know A.I. A.I. is a lot of hype. It’s a lot of hype. I think it has a lot of potential, but you ask cyber people what’s cyberwar, you ask ten cyber people, you get twenty answers. The only thing they can agree on is ones, and zeroes, and space, and then, when they can’t explain what it is, they’ll say it’s all classified. And then you say, no, tell me something. They’ll say well, they’ll take down the powergrid. Now, people have been promising that for twenty years, but actually, rodents are a bigger threat to powergrids.
Squirrels, they’re the public enemy number one, squirrels. There is data on this. It’s in the book. I spent too much time on Google searches I guess. But there’s a lot of hyperbole around it. Now, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to it, but we’ve got to separate the signal from the noise. We can be savvy consumers of these things.
Let me explain to you what war is – not as we see it or want it or want it to be – war as it is. The Mueller probe, whether you agree with it or not, Russia is definitely trying to manipulate elections in Western Europe, the Brexit, here. The only question is how successful are they. Is it just a trifling, pathetic attempt or was it significant? That’s a national discussion we may be having in the months ahead. But the point is is that there are strategies for the weak to win against the strong. We don’t study them in our war colleges very often, but they exist.
One of them is this, especially for democracies, which are vulnerable to it. Who cares about the sword if you can manipulate the arm that wields it? That is strategic thinking. We’re thinking about carrier groups and they’re thinking about changing out our commander-in-chief or this, using conventional weapons in an unconventional way.
So in the old rules of war when the Soviets wanted to send NATO and Western Europe a message, they would usually use munitions, kinetic force, utility of force, and what they would like to do is they would have this massive military exercise on the border of East and West Germany, Zapad 81, 150,000 troops all lined up, ready to go in to the Fulda Gap or whatever. And they said, don’t worry NATO, it’s just a military exercise, and NATO, of course, its pucker factor is pretty high. Well, what if it’s not a military exercise? It would disunite, it would cause friction in Europe, it would disunite it.
Now, new rules of war, when the Kremlin wants to disunite Europe, they don’t mess with old, plebeian tactics like military exercises. They do it as a feint just to sort of get us riled up. They bomb civilian centers in Syria to help create a tidal wave of refugees to crash on the shores of the EU that result in Brexit, that result in rightwing parties. You know the Soviets would have loved to achieve such success. New rules of war, old weapon system, new rules of war.
How about this? Did you know that China owns Hollywood? When was the last time you saw a movie with China as the villain? They can only be superstars. I think Tom Cruise speaks some Mandarin now. Think of that. Think of the coup of that. Think about it, right? Everywhere, right? So this is like a softpower coup. They can shape the narrative of their own future, using our tools. I know. I’m a fiction writer. You cannot make a bad movie or book about China.
This, the reason we don’t get this is because not that we have a bad military, it’s because we have strategic atrophy. Our own strategic thinking is ossified, it’s unevolved. We think of war as if it’s conventional in a post-conventional war age. Our strategic IQ is low and that’s why we’re struggling. As I said earlier, we have the very best. This is not in question. Everybody agrees. Even our adversaries would agree on this. That’s not the problem. We’re trying to do combat overmatch at the tactical level, third offset strategy, investing in more hardware, investing in more technology. It’s the very definition of insanity. It is insanity, and this bother us – or it should – because even an undefeated army can lose. The Romans thought themselves pretty pretty – to use a tautological term – until 410 and things all went down the drain after that.
So the reason I wrote this book is because we have to learn how to win in an era of durable disorder, and we can. We don’t have to be doomed to forever wars, and so what I came up with are ten rules, principles, ideas – I don’t want to get stuck in the semantics of rules – about how to do this, how to win in an era of durable disorder. It will make the traditional warrior’s head explode, but that’s to be expected. That’s a metric of success. It is not the type of warfare that we see coming out of Hollywood depictions, which glorify conventional war, a vision of war, it’s not the type of war that we train in the military, but it’s what our enemies are doing, and they are succeeding and we are not. And so, I wrote this book to start to create a national debate on what we need to do to win or else. So with that, I will turn it over to your Q&A and we can discuss any and all rules as you wish. Rather than me trying to explain them all to you over the next hour, let’s just have a discussion about it. Thank you.
Thank you very much. My first question I guess would be in this book or in your teaching at universities, do you begin from a premise of who are we? What is it that we are trying to defend? Maybe you do. And then how did we get through this entire lecture without once mentioning Islam or the global jihad?
Well, the last question first. We could spend a lot of time on any one of the threats out there. The bigger point I’m making is they’re all flourishing in the context of global disorder. Global disorder, some parts are more disordered than others, so Africa, vast swaths of the Middle East, and parts of South Asia are disorderly versus Eastern Asia, North America, and Western Europe are not so disorderly, and I would say Latin America is disorderly.
We could discuss any one of Russia, North Korea, global Islam or the threat of violent extremism, but we do talk about grand strategy in this book because we don’t have one. Without a grand strategy, we are a rudderless ship. How do we know who we are? How do we know what we stand for? How can we achieve it? The problem today is that we don’t articulate what victory is. But how can you create a strategy to achieve it if you don’t explain what it is?
And we send our soldiers into places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and that’s unfair to them. You can’t send them to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and say, defeat global jihad. You can’t operationalize that if you’re talking to an E5 NCO. So I would like to see this question of like who are we, what are we going to stand for, but it’s got to be a national discussion. Look at NSC 68 as an example. It’s from the Cold War. We lack that. I suggest how we can achieve that in this book. We can have a larger question about global jihad if you wish to.
Thank you very much. I like the way you set it up and much of what you said. The initial setup or the early setup you talked about the world of disorder, the world system, and I thought that was extremely interesting.
You mentioned the unipolar moment, which is the way it’s usually described, and the generation of disorder that’s come since. That’s what I’d like to go to. I would say there’s always been an element of unipolarity since the 1500s. The Atlantic area was unipolar while Europe was multipolar. There’s always been a bipolar element within the multipolarity in Europe. There’s always been a main opposition.
What happened in 1991 is the unipolar element became predominant. It has not maintained that nearly as well since, but I would say it’s still very much there, so it’s not gone. What I think is very interesting is very few people in America supported unipolarity. Almost no one in fact.
The only government plan said to be for unipolarity, which was one simply to prevent any government from becoming as strong as America, which is not the same thing as maintaining unipolarity. It’s a different thing. It was a misunderstanding.
There was massive opposition in our own academia to the very thought that there could be unipolarity, and what seems to me the primary generator of disorder as I’ve observed in the decades is our own intelligentsia wages battles of power against us. It’s uncomfortable with us dominating the world and it welcomes adversaries to us building up power in order to have a balance within which it can maneuver. I wondered why you think we’ve gone to such disorder from what seemed like a possibly unipolar order.
That was a lot to take in Ira. I will do my best to address it. So I would agree with you that the unipolar moment may be more of a fiction than a reality. It was articulated with some very optimistic scholarship in the early 1990s, and that a strategy of primacy, which was the 2002 National Security Strategy, had pros and cons to it, and whether primacy is both desirable, feasible are two different questions.
So if you were to restate your question in one sentence though, what would it be? That we have sought to create multipolarity and that has brought about disorder? Is that what you were suggesting?
A large part of our society has done so and every president elected since then has run on a platform of diminishing America, Republicans and Democrats alike.
Well, I think some of that may- You’re talking about 2008 and beyond, right?
Or before then. Even Clinton ran on that. He didn’t believe it though.
Well, regardless, I do think that our future is going to become more multipolar. What got us here could be a debate. We need to have some sort of grand strategy to negotiate our position in the world, starting with fundamental questions like what do we stand for, right? Though I think the idea of us using primacy to keep everybody down I think that has passed, especially since we’re, in my opinion, using an ossified set of rules for how global competition really works. Global competition looks more like this and I’m not sure that the international relations that surround Westphalia, which is mostly what political science really is, is serving us very well, so I’m pessimistic about- We have to move our thinking beyond and yeah, I wish I could be more optimistic about that. Thank you. Sorry.
I was wondering if you could expand on rule 4 there, hearts and minds do not matter.
Thank you Joe. Yes, go ahead.
It seems that, you know, information ops or South China Sea, it’s all about attacking an opponent’s will.
How is that not hearts and minds?
So that’s a great question. I’m glad that you asked it because in the chapter I explain this. We all know the three levels of war, right? Tactical, operational, and strategic. At the strategic level, hearts and minds are everything.
The first four rules are really debunking where we are like what we get wrong, let’s break bad habits, and the next five through ten are what we need to do in the future. So rules one through four are like get rid of that, breaking bad habits and rules five through ten have to be new habits.
And rule four is breaking the counterinsurgency mentality that we have in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which served us so poorly, and that was at the tactical and the operational level. And this explains why that doesn’t work, and in a nutshell, it’s this, it’s that populations are not bribable. The strategic logic of COIN is bribery.
So think of it this way: China goes to Detroit and says, okay Detroit, you’re suffering. We will give you free healthcare, free schools, and a football stadium, all free, but you’ve got to go Communist. Now, the people of Detroit will do exactly what the people of Afghanistan did and the people of Iraq did, which was say we’ll take all your stuff. We’re not going to go Communist. No thank you. But that’s the strategic logic of COIN, it’s bribery. And we could go further into it, but we need to stop thinking that people are bribable.
And by the way, FM 3-24, the COIN manual, was based, mostly plagiarized, on David Galula. David Galula was a French Tunisian officer. He was active from ’44-1961. Our COIN manual was based on him, but his job, what he was trying to figure out was this: how do you defeat Mao and how do you reestablish colonial rule, French colonial rule, not a democracy, not nation building, colonial rule. It’s completely incompatible with the military’s mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was doomed to fail, doomed to fail.
So I use rule number four to discuss specifically COIN and not the larger context of strategic influence, which is like Hollywood is now bought by China, which is vital. So I’m glad that you asked that question so I could clarify that. Thank you.
Thank you very much. Speaking as an old Cold Warrior, you remember army tactics. You remember El Salvador and Sandinistas in Nicaragua. You remember Castro in lower Africa. All of this were plausible deniability. All of them acquired territory. We still have Sandinistas. We still have African countries that are not friends of ours because they were actually taken by the Cubans. So what’s new now? I spent twenty-five years of my life, fighting against these army tactics and the same things. I remember when the Communists were going to win in Italy and Italy was going to go red. None of this is new, it seems to me. We saw that before, we confronted it, and we beat them.
Right, then why are we investing in F-35s? So I agree with you. I say in the introduction of this book that some of these rules are ancient, some are new, and I like to use examples from like Guatemala ’53, which you remember, do you not? So we need to do more of that.
Now, Guatemala ’53 you have to be very, very careful about because we are a democracy and one of these rules is number nine, shadow wars will dominate. Think of Cold War for shadow wars. A shadow war is like what Russia did in Ukraine. War is going underground. The idea is one of the ways to beat the U.S. is that if you keep us guessing whether it’s a war or not, you can exploit the area in that space between war and peace. We used to have the skillset. We’ve lost it. We have lost it.
Now, we need some old Cold War warriors to get back on their game and help us think strategically because look what, I’ll be very measured with this example because it’s also a lot of problems and ethical problems, but in 1953, President Arbenz was elected – well, he was elected before that – in Guatemala, and the CIA ran a shadow war to trick him into leaving.
And one of the rules here, victory is fungible, to another hard ire question here earlier tonight before all this started. Victory is fungible means that there’s many ways to win and there’s many ways to lose. One of the ways to win – this is what China’s doing against us right now – is you convince the enemy that it’s hopeless to keep on fighting. You sap their will to win.
And that’s what the CIA did with Arbenz. They psyched him out. He fled the country of Guatemala, thinking that a huge rebel military was going to sweep into Guatemala and kill him and his family, and that was all phantasm. That’s what we need.
We used to do this. The problem we have – it’s a good problem to have – is that we learned in the 1970s from the Church Commission that secrets and democracy are not compatible, so if war is going underground, how do we go with it without losing our democratic soul? And I’m very clear about that in the book, but I don’t offer an outright solution because that’s a different book entirely.
I just finished watching a series of “Pacific War.” We’re just waiting there. We used flamethrowers into the caves and we didn’t care whether they burned down or not. Now you read in the paper when one of the soldiers is going to shoot, whether we have an F-35 or not, he has to consult with a lawyer, and before he can shoot now, he has to get permission.
Well, I don’t want to sit here on YouTube and advocate carpet bombing, but I will say this, that Clausewitz, his first, seminal book On War he is very frank, and he says that kindhearted solutions to war just get more people killed, which is something I put in my book as well, and I think there is a lot of evidence for this. I remember I was a soldier. I remember like you know soldiers going to Bosnia, they couldn’t do anything without their JAG lawyer on their elbow.
And so one of the things I also talk about in rule number four, hearts and minds, is do you know what really wins insurgencies? It is brutality, and there’s three things that win insurgencies. I’m not saying they’re ethical, but if you’re going to engage in counterinsurgency, you should have the stomach for it. And the three things are this: one is brutality. Think of the Roman-Judeo War of 68 AD. The Romans had an insurgency, the Jews, and what they did was they committed genocide, essentially, and that fixed the problem.
The other thing you can do is you do export, so during Chechnya in the 1940s, during World War II, the Chechens were rising up against Russia, and what did Stalin do? He forcibly took them out of their homeland and spread them across the eleven time zones of the Soviet Union. So they became a minority in someone else’s homeland to neuter the insurgency or you do import models, which is what China’s doing in Tibet. You import so many Han Chinese into Tibet that Tibetans become a minority in their homeland.
Now, if you’re really clever, you do all three at once, which is exactly how we settled the American West. We waged genocide against the Native American Indians, we had white settlers come in, and we moved Native Americans to Reservations in other places, and it worked. This is also what Morocco did in Western Sahara. It’s what China’s done in Tibet. It’s what Sri Lanka has done against the LTTE, although I guess that was just phase four, more genocide.
But this whole rainbows, unicorns of COIN, winning hearts and minds, frankly it’s bullshit that gets people killed and that’s why I have rule four, but I have to separate it from the strategic influence of Hollywood and other things.
…of problems in the West, and what it seems to be is a lack of will in Europe and in the United States to defend its own culture, inviting Muslims in, denying justice to your own people. One of the German Parliamentarians said she hoped Germany disappeared and in Sweden, one of the Parliamentarians said well, the Swedes have no culture, which must come as a surprise to them. And now we have people in this country who want to import the Third World for their own political power, so the West is losing its will to survive.
Well, that’s a great question. It’s a little bit beyond the purview of this book. One of the things that I have mixed feelings about is the all-volunteer force that we have in this country. As a vet, I like most love the all-volunteer force. I do not want the conscripted army of the ’60s.
I do wish we had national service and it need not be military. I think whether you’re serving in uniform or you’re driving an ambulance or you’re serving as an orderly in a hospital, whatever. I think there are many ways to serve because I think one of the elements that we’re losing in durable disorder is nationalism. We’re seeing that everywhere.
And nationalism, by the way, as an ideology is also not timeless and universal. At the end of the 18th century is started to come up and now maybe it’s waning with durable disorder. It’s tied with the Westphalian order. You could argue there were elements of nationalism during the Hundred Years War between France and England, but I think nationalism as we think about it that’s more of a modern phenomenon.
The reason I say the all-volunteer force is because when you have an all-volunteer force, when you have less than 1% of the population serving in uniform, it creates moral hazard for policymaking. It lowers the barriers of entry, so people are very eager to say let’s go to war against so-and-so, but they themselves do not have to serve, and I think if people had more skin in the game, we might be more savvy to what we defend if that makes sense. So that’s why I would personally favor a scheme of some sort of national service so that people get touched by what people sacrifice for in World War II and what we may be giving away today.
I’m Jeremiah. Thank you for your thoughts. I was wondering, I don’t know who said this, perhaps you do, but someone said that an armored division is like a tuxedo, you don’t usually need one, but when you do, that’s the only thing that will work.
That’s probably Rommel.
But what I’m getting at is you’ve got all our near peer rivals, Russia, China, and us, we’re all investing in these weapons systems, 5th generation bombers and fighters. Russia is investing in new artillery, new armada tanks. If these weapons systems are so obsolete, why do we have so much invested in them? Do you think perhaps you’re overstating the line of conventional warfare and conventional deterrence?
I don’t. I think it’s very possible we can have conflict in the future that will have elements that will be conventional, but that’ll be a small part of the conflict, right? And I don’t think conventional weapons are decisive. If there’s one lesson in the last seventy years of war, it is this, it’s that technology is not decisive in war.
So think about it. We have luddites defeating technologically-advanced militaries for seventy years. You have, you know, in France in Indochina and Algeria, we have Britain in Palestine and Cyprus, we have the Soviets in Afghanistan, which was a mortal blow to the Soviet Empire, we have the U.S. in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, we have the UN everywhere. Why do we still think technology is the solution? Right? I mean how does the humble roadside bomb still a thing if we’ve got tank divisions?
I do think that conventional weapons – you know, first of all, it’s a lot of buck for a little bang, you know, and Russia cut its military budget recently. Our military budget is bigger than all of the military budgets of the next eight nations combined.
I mean at what point do we have to sort of say we’re okay, our F-15 is better than anything else out there, so why do we need an F-35? Why do we need fighter jets at all? Our last strategic dogfight was in the Korean War. Alright, so saying we might need it some day, people also argue we need to have a defense system against an asteroid. An asteroid could hit us and that would be an end of civilization event, but does that mean we should spend trillions of dollars on trying to defeat an asteroid that may or may not happen?
So this is the difficult decision of defense planning, but my position is that we need to be more honest with how effective these weapons are and you can see like what our adversaries are doing that could be very effective. So yeah, this is a concern that a lot of people have raised and I disagree with it but I think it’s one that’s common. Okay, thanks.
Thank you very much. I’ll probably get to the answer for this hopefully when I read the book, but I want to start at the beginning and finish at the end. You say conventional war is dead.
So what is nonconventional victory actually look like?
You know when it comes to war theorists there are lumpers and splitters, right? And I am a lumper. Splitters are the ones who want to chop it up. They want to take a taxonomy of the phenomenon and this is like the hybrid war crap, you know. There’s all this, there’s conventional, there’s unconventional, there’s irregular, there’s this whole spectrum, and for me, I dispense with this. I’m a lumper.
Wars aren’t politics and the whole idea, I say this at the beginning, is that there’s no such thing as conventional vs unconventional war. There’s just war. There’s just war and conventional war is actual warfare. We all know the difference between war and warfare. War never changes, its nature is bloody, it’s violent, but warfare is always changing, it’s how we fight, the technology, you know, leadership, geopolitics.
Conventional war should actually be called conventional warfare, so I want to get us outside of the trap of having neat bins to sort of put things in like is that conventional war, is that unconventional war, and then how do you know you won, what is victory. I think that is the guts of your question.
So rule ten is victory is fungible and again, what this means is that there are many ways to win and there are many ways to lose. In conventional war it’s very simple. It’s like kill enemy, take territory, fly over their enemy headquarters. That’s like 1945 Berlin. That’s not how war is fought anymore, so when Israel went after Hezbollah in 2006 in Lebanon, they achieved all of that, yet they lost the war.
They lost the war because they were playing with the old rules and Hezbollah was playing with the new rules and Israel, which I had the privilege of spending three months there, researching a book last year, has learned. They are a learning military. In many ways they are similar to us in their strategic with the pros and the cons of our strategic culture, but they came out with a 2015 new IDF strategy, which they just updated last year, which is more new rules. And they have this concept about the campaign between wars, which is the missy bits between is it war or is it peace.
And, you know, one of the things about ‘victory is fungible’ is that you can only win by achieving your war objectives, but sometimes you can win by denying your enemy their war objectives. Sometimes all you’ve got to do to win is just survive, which is what Hezbollah did, so what you can’t do is move the goalposts, which is what we do in Iraq, what we do in Afghanistan, and history is never fooled by that.
So I think what I’m asking for is we have to have a nuanced vision of what victory is so we know how to achieve it and it can’t just be either go off the blue sky, do good things, which is sort of the, you know, the hand wave strategy or it’s something like, you know, poor General Allen was like defeat and deter ISIS, but you have like here are your three infantry platoons, you know. It’s a nuanced question and we don’t have nuanced thinking around it. We have strategic atrophy, but I hope rule 10 the chapter would be more articulate than I was just with you with such a nice question.
Thank you very much for a stimulating talk. Number 6, ‘Mercenaries Will Return’, does that mean Erik Prince will rule in Afghanistan or mercenaries in general? If they’re a tool, then who controls these people and what happens? Do they just disappear with no claim of authority or responsibility for the wreckage they leave behind such as Fallujah and so forth. So how do you control an independent force?
You don’t. You don’t. This is a scary thing. This is what Machiavelli was railing against. You asked about mercenaries. So right now Eric Prince is trying to sell Donald Trump on a plan to replace all U.S. troops with mercenaries in Afghanistan. Furthermore, he has said that 6,500 mercenaries can solve Afghanistan in less than a year on the cheap.
Now, if you believe that, I’ve got some bridges to sell you, but you know, I’m not the real estate guy. I’m actually supposed to go debate Erik Prince at Oxford in a couple weeks on this topic and he and I are kind of frenemies you might say. Not everything he says is wrong though. I will say that.
Well, where is he right then? Where are the advantages of using mercenaries?
So, first of all, for America, Erik Prince is the hood ornament for something much bigger and more complex than Erik Prince, so we have to disaggregate Erik Prince from a larger industry. And it’s not just a U.S. industry anymore. It used to be a U.S. industry when the U.S. was the sugar daddy, buying all the paramilitary firms in the world to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. We had market power. We could have dictated rules of road, we did not. The reason did not is because we weren’t thinking strategically.
And I remember asking – when I was at Harvard my graduate advisor was Ash Carter, and after Fallujah in 2004, the Blackwater guys got hung up, I asked him like well, what does it mean that the U.S. is hiring all these mercenaries? I mean, how do you control them? What’s going to happen when we’re done? Aren’t they private sector actors? They’re going to find new clients and then what happens?
And Ash looked at me, he’s like, no, they’re just going to go home. This is the problem of strategic atrophy. He was thinking of them like they’re cheap reservists, right, strategic atrophy. And of course what happened is that they’ve gone everywhere, so the proverbial horse is out of the barn. We have a genuine free market for force and you can’t control them because it’s the one commodity that cannot be regulated.
So I talked to people who were like well, well, let’s have international law. I’m like international law, you’ve got to be kidding me because who’s going to go into Syria or Yemen and arrest all those mercenaries? The UN? The Marines? No, they’re not. Also, mercenaries will kill your law enforcement dead. How can you regulate something that will kill your law enforcement?
So we have this hiatus of 150 years. I mean mercenaries are the second oldest profession in the world and for 150 years, they went underground and we thought they were gone forever. They only went underground in the 1850s, okay? But we grew up in sixth grade reading that only nation-states can have armies, only can wage war. That’s not how history has worked, militaries have worked. It’s largely been privatized. Look at Machiavelli.
Now, they’re resurrecting with durable disorder. You can’t fix that. They are changing the way we fight. Because suddenly now anybody who has enough money can wage war for any reason they want, the super rich become superpowers. And guess what, the Fortune 500, random billionaires, are more powerful than most of these failing states in the world. War is going to look very different in our children’s era, you know, than in our grandparents’ era, and mercenaries are just one manifestation of durable disorder, of persistent conflict because mercenaries do not work their way out of a job. Think of mercenaries as really bad house contractors. You want to do your kitchen over again and it’s going to be like really cheap and one week, and it’s like, you know where I’m going with this, right?
So this is the problem and of course if we replace all of our troops with mercenaries in Afghanistan, that is the green light. We already can’t wag our finger at Putin, saying ‘you can’t use mercenaries against Venezuela’ because we’ve been using them so much in Iraq. We don’t think of them as mercenaries, but the rest of the world looks at Blackwater as mercenaries and they technically are. I mean you have armed civilians running around doing paramilitary things. That’s a mercenary. Let’s not be fancy. Academics can be fancy about it, but we should not. We should be honest about it, yeah.
Thank you Dr. McFate. It’s good to see you again.
Yes, you too.
In Rule #5 you talk about the best weapons and obviously the direction of your book is focused on the military instrument and the use of military cover, but you helpfully widen the aperture a little bit when you talk about National Service, so what are some of the kind of emerging resources we can mobilize that would help us approach these problems very differently than continuing to go back to the Eisenhower military-industrial overwhelming use of force?
Right, well, thank you for asking that. We’ve been focusing on the military a lot right now, but the book is actually much bigger than the military. War is more than warfare and warfare is more than killing, right. And if you look at information, how it’s used, how it’s weaponized today, that matters more than firepower, and I’m not saying that as a good humanitarian, I’m just trying to look objectively at modern war. The book also actually has a lot of solutions, which I haven’t gotten to. One of the solutions is we need a grand strategy and I talk about what are the elements of a grand strategy and I deal with grand strategic skeptics of which there are many now in this town.
Another thing I talk about is we need strategic education. We need to rethink that. First of all, there are no war colleges in the civilian sector, right, because it’s un-PC. Our war colleges now are mostly old rules of war. They’re teaching Clausewitz. Our adversaries are reading Mao. Go figure. Why do we wait fifteen years before we educate an officer in strategy? The way it works right now is if you get commissioned in the military, you think tactics for fifteen years, then you go to a war college and you think strategically. Let’s bake that into when they’re like twenty years old, right?
Also why do we think only military people can be strategists? Maybe some of our more cunning strategic thinkers are not to be found just in the ranks. Maybe we should widen our aperture about where to find talent, creating a program for strategy and oh, by the way, the State Department doesn’t do any of this. So we have a huge deficit of strategic education and we wonder why we have strategic atrophy, so I spent a lot of time in the book talking about how we can fill it, but more needs to be said and not by me. I’m sort of opening up the gate to it, but we need to improve our strategic IQ and that starts with education. And the way we’re doing it right now is – there are some fine individuals, but institutionally, they’re few and far between.
My question is war is changing actually like you have Boko Haram and you have Al Qaeda attacking as non-state actors, but they’re acting as state actors by using political coercion, economic means, and so forth actually, but what about the civilians? How are they being protected and how are they being classified because international rules don’t apply to them because technically it’s not war. You know what I mean? So how are they being protected under the new rules of war?
So the law of armed conflict, the laws of war – different than the rules of war – the laws of war are purely old rules of war. They are meant to regulate Westphalian war, interstate conflict, and arguably they never have, you know, arguably they never have. So I very upfront kind of dispensed with that in the book, saying like civilian protection is important, but if we keep using this framework of international public law, we will continue to lose.
Getting to your point, sir, about carpet bombing, which I was making a joke of, you know, carpet bombing was invented not by the Nazis in the blitz, it was invented by the British in World War II who justified it using laws of war. Rules 6, 7, and 8 are a bundle, okay? If you have more mercenaries, that’s supply. Rule 7 is new powers will rule. That’s demand. That’s like billionaires. I mean did you know that sixty-two people on the planet own half the world’s wealth? You know, I mean like, now that they have mercenaries, they’re going to defend that wealth, and they’re not just going to have to call up their Presidente Maduro or somebody else. They’re going to do it by themselves.
Same with extractive industries. You know ExXon Mobil, they are tired of being shaken down by corrupt states. Now that they have mercenaries, they’re going to start using them and already they are. This stuff is happening right now. These rules are not science fiction. They’re happening right now in zones of disorder.
So if you have mercenaries, private armies, and private, you know, authorities if you will, you will have wars without states. It’s going to happen. State in the future will become booty and prize for war. They won’t become the drivers of it. It’s already happening in Latin America. El Salvador, Guatemala, they’re narcostates. They are prizes to be won in wars with much more powerful actors who don’t fly flags. All of these rules are happening right now. None of this stuff is actually in the future. It just looks like the future because most of us are all kind of mired in the past at least when it comes to warfare.
Robert R. Reilly:
Thank you very much, Sean. If I may take the privilege of asking the last question. It strikes me that the Chinese claim of sovereignty over the South China is one of the most audacious strategic moves that in any normal time would have possibly precipitated a war.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland is small compared to what the Chinese pulled off in the South China Sea. Now, what could have stood them down on that? It strikes me that with their development of hypersonic anti ship missiles, their militarization of those sites, etc., etc., they are saying we dare you, and the dare could only have been met with all those conventional military force weapons that you have been ridiculing.
Okay, good question. This goes this gentleman’s earlier question about isn’t it nice to have a tuxedo tank battalion, right?
Robert R. Reilly:
But specifically if you could address the South China Sea.
I will do the South China Sea. So China has a Monroe Doctrine of their own. They have a strategy to get the U.S. out of the region. It’s something that sadly most China experts in this town do not know about because most China experts in this town were like two years ago they were ISIS experts, and two years ago they were something else experts. You have this rotating expertise thing.
But if you read the China Three Warfare Strategy, this is the three warfares. One: influence. It’s like buying Hollywood, it’s doing you know media influence and not just within their own country, but abroad. It’s a soft sell. Two is economic power, you know, and that’s finding new markets, and we’re seeing how they’re using instruments of economic power.
And three is lawfare, lawfare. That is, you know, reinterpreting international law outrageously to their benefit. I mean almost in your face, right? I think the Philippines and Vietnam sued them in the International Court of Justice. China lost and they said so what? Right? And you talk to generals and they’ll say, you know, we could take care of all those islands in one afternoon, so why don’t we? Why don’t we do that? Because China’s playing this game and they’re keeping it what the Pentagon calls – which I think is kind of a hilarious name – below the threshold of war. That’s China’s strategy, right? We need to be savvy to the game that they’re playing. I think we are here, but there are a lot of people who are not, right?
And that if you look at the Cold War, we had this as well. There was a problem of escalation. They’re a nuclear power, but I don’t think that’s the deterrent thing. I think that you could ask about the political will or is America really going to go to war over as one CIA Director said, “Rocks covered in seagull shit”? That’s the bigger question. This is not the Rhineland. This is not in the middle of Central Europe with a power that twenty years earlier did World War I. It’s a little bit more ambiguous and they’re using Sun Tzu and we’re thinking some other way. So I think that you know if the idea is that you think there’s going to be a shooting war, maybe there will be a shooting war, but I think they’re winning fairly well by using things that are say, you know, rule 5 here. So that’s why it could happen that way, but it hasn’t been happening that way so far. I don’t see much evidence that it will happen that way, although you know it could. I’m not going to say it could never happen. Never say never. Our carrier groups are not deterring them at all.
Robert R. Reilly:
Let’s say we were playing Sun Tzu. If we played Sun Tzu also, how would we have prevented them?
Oh, okay, I didn’t understand. In the book in rule 9 I talk about waging shadow wars and shadow wars favor autocracies because autocracies can centralize control, they can control the media, they can control everybody, you know. Beijing’s doing this as well as Moscow. As America, we don’t do that. We don’t control our companies the way Beijing controls its companies and this makes shadow wars hard for Americans, but autocracies also have vulnerabilities.
In number 5 and 9 I talk about the power of denigration, and one of the things about autocracies is that usually you have a big dog on top with all these ambitious, sycophantic dogs around the side who want to be big dogs someday. How do you help them take down the big dog for you? To do that doesn’t require you know destroyers, it requires a different type of savviness, so I think we should fight Sun Tzu with Sun Tzu and try to find ways to disrupt their system. I mean Russia is trying to disrupt our government at the strategic level. We’re talking about tactical level Bradley Fighting Vehicles and stuff. Same with them. They are trying to disrupt us at top levels and we need to play back. We did this in the Cold War. Let’s do it again.
So we have the expertise, we just don’t have the will to do it because maybe some people a. think it’s impolite to do it or we don’t have the savvy to do it. I don’t think we have the savvy to do it, but they’re vulnerable to all sorts of things. I mean also you know Sun Tzu’s says the very best strategy is to attack your enemy’s strategy, and I think what you have to do is you know for some place like Beijing, the way you make strongmen fall internally is you make them look not so strong, so find ways to create political opposition inside their own camp, outside their own camp, but it’s not about firepower. It’s about other manipulations. That said, I don’t want to say that [unintelligible] are obsolete. I’m just saying we don’t need to invest as much in that. We should invest in other things as well. That’s what I’m trying to get at. It would be better intelligence. It all comes down to information. War is becoming epistemological. So with that I will end it.