The Rise of Alien Warfare

From the War of 1812 to today’s campaigns in the Middle East, both Washington’s enemies and the local populations have become steadily less familiar in terms of language, religion and social traditions. 

March-April 2015

Negotiating peace is particularly challenging during a civil war. Most internal conflicts end in a decisive victory for one side rather than a peace treaty. When two countries stop fighting, their armies can pull back to recognized borders. But after resolving a civil war, the combatants are often supposed to live and even govern together. Why would the rebels give up their guns if they fear the regime will renege on any deal? Even the basic logistics of talking to insurgents are difficult. The enemy may not speak English. It may not have a home address. And its envoy could be a suicide bomber.

It is also more difficult to reconcile with opponents after an alien war. Of course, reconciliation is not always an appropriate goal—especially if the adversary is truly extreme like Al Qaeda. But with most enemies, a modus vivendi or even a durable peace is possible. After all, every single U.S. opponent in a major war from 1812 to 1945 is now an American ally: Britain, Mexico, the Confederacy, Spain, the Philippines, Italy, Germany and Japan.

Rapprochement with culturally dissimilar opponents after 1945 has been a far more challenging proposition. After the United States fought China in Korea, it took over a quarter of a century to normalize relations with Beijing. Washington was slow to recognize the Sino-Soviet split that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and continued to believe in the theory of monolithic Communism. Finally, in 1979, the two sides established diplomatic relations. Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping arrived in the United States on a goodwill visit and famously donned a Stetson hat at a rodeo—symbolically bridging the cultural gulf.

Reconciliation after the Vietnam War was a similarly tough road. The United States and Vietnam share a core national interest in checking a rising China. Flush with victory, however, Hanoi bungled the process of rapprochement by demanding billions of dollars from the United States in “reparations.” Meanwhile, Washington resisted détente by helping to propagate the myth that Vietnam was secretly holding American prisoners of war. Finally, in 1995, with the support of Vietnam veterans like John Kerry and John McCain, President Bill Clinton established diplomatic relations with Hanoi.

Rapprochement with China and Vietnam was relatively straightforward compared to the challenges of reconciling with North Korea. Even sixty years after the Korean War, there has never been a peace treaty, and the United States has yet to grant full diplomatic recognition to Pyongyang.

Peacemaking involves the creation of new narratives that emphasize common bonds. This task is much easier when the former enemies share mutual values. After the War of 1812, for example, Britain and the United States highlighted the broader Anglo-Saxon English-speaking family. But cultural overlap is missing with alien adversaries. No American enemy since 1945 aspires to copy Western humanism and democracy. What shared values exist between the United States and the Taliban?


ARE AMERICA’S future wars destined to become even more alien? The answer is probably no. For the United States, alien warfare may have peaked.

First of all, the tide of U.S. interventionism is likely to ebb. In one sense, there is nowhere to go but down. Trying to mold the clay of Afghan society represents the most alien military endeavor imaginable. How can the United States match this kind of ambitious project?

Furthermore, in the coming years, Washington will probably avoid sustained nation building in distant lands. Negative memories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have triggered an “Iraqistan syndrome”—a popular aversion toward prolonged stabilization missions. In addition, the shift to a multipolar international system, with the rise of China, India and other countries, could introduce new international checks that temper American adventurism.

Warfare will also become less alien because of greater information flows about foreign countries. Globalization, communicational change and technological innovation provide new sources of knowledge about international allies and opponents. We live in the Age of Information: a time of NSA snooping, Wikileaks and Facebook. In 2002, there were about five exabytes of data online. Today, this amount of data is created every two days. As a result, Americans will probably know more about Afghan society in 2030 than in 2000.

But this raises a puzzle. The spread of information did not begin with the Internet. Technological and communicational change has heightened the flow of knowledge about foreign societies for centuries. Americans had far more data available about Afghanistan in 2001 than they did in 1901—when they might have struggled to even locate the road to Kabul.

If Americans grew steadily more knowledgeable about foreign countries, why did U.S. wars become increasingly alien experiences? The answer is that American interventionism expanded more rapidly than the flow of information. In other words, the last two centuries saw a race between globalism and globalization—and the decisive winner was globalism. American GIs leapt into distant conflicts more quickly than information flows could narrow the gulf of ignorance.

American interventionism is now likely to pause for breath—allowing information flows to catch up. If Washington displays more restraint, the spread of knowledge will make conflict less alien. All else held equal, greater awareness of adversaries should produce more effective military and diplomatic strategies. But the ebbing of alien warfare is unlikely to herald a return to the glory days of military victory. For one thing, conflict will likely remain dominated by civil wars, where Washington often struggles on the battlefield, rather than interstate wars, where the United States usually wins decisively.