Conflict in the Age of Fractured Publics

Conflict in the Age of Fractured Publics

Instead of high-intensity wars, countries may find proxy, information, cyber, and economic warfare as more attractive ways to sustain pressure on adversaries.

As the United States finds itself sliding into conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine, commentators have invoked the specter of a “Third World War.” The confrontation between the United States and its rivals China, Russia, and Iran has undoubtedly intensified, and the possibility of a broader conflagration cannot be discounted. Nevertheless, real great power conflict is unlikely to resemble the world wars of the twentieth century. The weakness of the participating states stands out as perhaps the defining feature of the current contest. Incapable of carrying out large-scale popular and economic mobilizations, the principal rivals may have little choice but to rely primarily on proxy, information, political, and economic warfare while avoiding large-scale conventional combat.

Although the U.S. economic advantage over all other countries remains undisputed, its political weaknesses have worsened. Polls show that trust in the federal government remains at historic lows, with about 15 percent expressing confidence in the government to “do what is right most of the time.” Acute partisanship has further eroded the president’s ability to act. No crisis in the past two decades has rallied public opinion around the president. Instead, each crisis has merely provided fodder for political factions to rally supporters and lambaste their rivals. The COVID-19 virus killed over a million Americans, for example, yet the pandemic did not draw the country together. Instead, it became another occasion for mutual recrimination and partisan bickering

China, Russia, and Iran also exhibit equally severe signs of domestic weakness. To bolster flagging support, China’s government relies on relentless repression and indoctrination. Despite these efforts, public support hovers around 50-70 percent and is likely falling as the economy decelerates, prospects dim, and problems of corruption and malfeasance persist. With a shrinking population and mismanaged economy, Russia faces a grim future. Many have voted with their feet, with a million people having fled the country since the war against Ukraine began. Iran’s government remains deeply unpopular and has resorted to brutal violence to suppress waves of popular protests.

The fragile level of public support renders mass mobilization strategies, which leaders at the height of the industrial age practiced, nearly impossible. In World War II, for example, the United States and its allies, including the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, maintained defense budgets equal to 40 percent of GDP or higher. These expenses were paid for with massive tax increases, especially for those with large incomes. National conscription involving 10-20 percent of the male population swelled armies and enabled them to fight for years on end despite incurring staggering casualties. By contrast, U.S. defense spending peaked at just over 6 percent of GDP during the “global war on terror” following the devastating attacks of September 11. Russian military spending has also peaked at around 6 percent of GDP. Neither country conscripted its citizens in their respective wars. The U.S. military rotated troops back to the Iraq and Afghan theaters after brief respites at home. And despite claiming that the current war in Ukraine is a fight for “Russia’s survival,” Moscow has replenished military losses with convicts as well as poor foreigners drawn by the promise of lavish payouts in the event of a soldier’s death. Aware of the fragility of public support, contemporary countries at war have generally kept taxes low, ensured a steady flow of consumer goods, and placed the burden of warfighting on a tiny minority.

Escalation to major war accordingly looks less and less likely. Geopolitical struggle will likely take a form different from recent world wars. Key differences could include the following:

First, only a small minority of the population may be involved in the contests. The vast majority of the population in each country will remain disengaged or offer, at most, passive support. They may support a military operation, but only so long as they do not have to sacrifice anything for it. About 80 percent of the U.S. public initially backed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, opposition to conscription or higher taxes to fund the war remained so strong that the U.S. government never brought them up.

Similarly, the Russian public has expressed strong support for the war in Ukraine, but so long as it costs them little. Aware of the fragility of the support, Moscow has carried out limited conscription, mainly drawing from poorer minority regions, while largely sparing the politically important ethnic Russian population. Nor has Putin risked a general war tax on the public. The tenuousness of the public’s support places hard constraints on the ability of governments to scale up competitive efforts or sustain high-intensity war.

Second, weak and divided public support could become a persistent feature of the contest. In the United States, political opposition to support for Israel has soared as Palestinian casualties mounted in the face of bloody Israeli offensives. In Congress, Democrats have been deeply divided over the conflict, with some demanding more support for Palestine while others insist on longstanding obligations to Israel. Political opposition to U.S. support for Ukraine has increased as well. Some lawmakers have balked at the cost of U.S. defense support, which has exceeded $43 billion. Others have demanded more resources be spent on domestic security needs, such as the nation’s southern border. 

Nor is the problem confined to the United States. Although harder to see because of their authoritarian politics, America’s rivals face their own problems of divided and weak support for war. All have overseen extensive repression to control expressions of discontent, but signs of opposition still appear. Russian extremist militia groups have attacked their own military, and the neo-Nazi Freedom of Russia militia group openly advocates the overthrow of Vladimir Putin’s government. Opposition to Iran’s foreign policies has grown in ethnic minority regions that sympathize with the targets of Iran’s proxy wars. In December 2023, for example, a group of Iranian Jewish hackers shut down 70 percent of Iran’s petrol stations.

Outside of occasional terror attacks in ethnic minority regions like Xinjiang, China has experienced lower levels of opposition to its foreign policy, but that is mainly due to the fact that the country is not involved in any war. However, support for militarily aggressive policies remains low. Despite the popularity of Taiwan’s unification, for example, the overwhelming majority of surveyed citizens oppose war to achieve that goal. Ambivalence to the state’s policies can be seen in the country’s intensifying tensions with the West. Despite the state’s robust backing of Putin, a small online population openly sympathizes with Ukraine. A handful of Chinese citizens have even enlisted in Ukraine’s military to fight against Russia.

Third, governments will face a strong incentive to fight wars on the cheap. Due to their inability to mobilize the nation’s resources and populations, states may find sustaining high-intensity war especially difficult. After extensive preparation, Russia launched a major invasion of Ukraine. Still, its inability to mobilize resources has left it dependent on conscripted minorities, convicts, and foreigners for recruits and gas sales to fund operations. Incapable of transitioning to a war economy, Moscow has had to purchase arms and ammunition from former clients such as North Korea and Iran. Similarly, the United States withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan in part due to political controversies over the costs of the operations

Instead of high-intensity wars, countries may find proxy, information, cyber, and economic warfare more attractive ways to sustain pressure on their adversaries. Proxy wars offer the potential advantage of bleeding a rival without risking high casualties of one’s own military. The use of contractors, state and non-state allies and partners, and unmanned systems will also likely appeal to governments sensitive to the political perils of military casualties and for their relative cost-effectiveness, as contracts can be terminated as soon as the war ends.

Cyber and information operations could become especially important as well due to both the lower cost and potentially higher payoff of targeting disaffected enemy populations. Conversely, the U.S. government may need to commit more resources to counter adversary information operations. Measures that impose economic hardship could be another way to provoke unrest. Resources that address urgent governance concerns will also be essential to mitigate disaffection and thereby undercut the appeals of enemy governments.

The need to ensure domestic security and reduce popular discontent while waging conflict with the involvement of only a tiny minority of the population suggests a new mental framework will be required for the United States to manage the challenges posed by rival states. It is not too early to begin planning and thinking about how to ensure U.S. security in an era of fragile public support.

Timothy R. Heath is a senior international defense researcher at RAND.