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

In addition, communicational and technological change may have other effects that serve to help U.S. opponents. For example, globalization provides guerrillas with new opportunities to transmit their messages to foreign audiences and win external support—which is vital for the success of an insurgency. Meanwhile, the spread of information could itself spur a revival of American interventionism. Global news coverage and the profusion of social media make it more difficult to ignore conflicts on the far side of the globe. Therefore, the pendulum may swing back and Americans could adopt a more bellicose posture, triggering renewed alien warfare.


AMERICAN MILITARY history is the story of the rise of alien warfare. Over time, U.S. campaigns occurred in more distant lands, adversaries and allies became more culturally dissimilar, and conflicts evolved from interstate war to counterinsurgency, requiring greater engagement with foreign populations. Today, as the United States battles the Islamic State, there are signs of a new alien war, with Americans unable to even agree on the enemy’s name. In this increasingly unknown military environment, Washington has struggled both to wage war and to make peace.

The solution may seem obvious: less war and less nation building. And indeed, Washington should set a higher bar before using force. Two of America’s alien wars—Vietnam and Iraq—should never have been fought. Given America’s recent experiences, we should rarely, if ever, willingly start a major counterinsurgency campaign.

But renouncing all forms of nation building is unrealistic. In a world where nine out of ten wars are civil wars, American troops are bound to engage in some form of stabilization mission. For example, peacekeeping has a fairly successful recent record at preventing civil wars from restarting—provided the combatants consent to the presence of foreign troops. During the 1990s, the U.S.-led peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo stabilized the war-torn Balkan provinces with zero American casualties. Indeed, it is precisely because entrenched insurgencies are so intractable that it may be worth deploying troops to prevent a civil war from breaking out.

Furthermore, trying to sidestep alien wars with a “small footprint” invasion plan is especially dangerous. The George W. Bush administration, for example, realized that U.S. intervention abroad can trigger an antibody response, and deliberately sent minimal forces into Afghanistan and Iraq. But small footprints may produce the worst of all worlds: enough U.S. boots on the ground to trigger a nationalist backlash but not enough to provide security. In the rare cases where the United States must occupy an entire country, Washington should provide sufficient forces to win the peace.

The United States should also prepare for a world of complex civil wars by prioritizing cultural training and language skills within the U.S. military and diplomatic corps. Since indigenous soldiers usually know more about local values and norms than American troops, the United States should step up its capabilities at advising and enabling allied forces.

Finally, Washington should take advantage of enhanced information flows about foreign societies. For decades, U.S. interventionism expanded more quickly than the world contracted. A pause in interventionism would be a valuable opportunity to learn more about the world before the United States embarks upon its next alien war.

Dominic Tierney is an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a contributing writer for the Atlantic. His new book, The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts, will be published by Little, Brown and Company in June 2015.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Air Force/CC by-nc 2.0