Observers of international conflict often find themselves divided between two intellectual camps. On the one hand, traditional realists continue to argue that great-power war remains the gravest challenge in the twenty-first century, and they focus attention on measures of hard military power and the risk of war with old rivals like Russia, China, and Iran. On the other hand, many continue to argue that nuclear deterrence and economic interdependence have made war between the great powers less likely to erupt than ever before. Instead, they urge policymakers to focus on the shifting mélange of problems that have emerged to fill the void, including global terrorism, state failure, climate change, cybercrime, and an endless blitz of “fake news.”
However, it is becoming increasingly clear that this old debate presents us with a false dichotomy: either great-power wars remain the major strategic challenge, or policymakers should devote most of their resources to countering substate groups, low-intensity violence, and nonconventional threats like economic espionage or state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. As John Mearsheimer, the doyen of American realism, put it in a 2018 debate, “I do think that the Russians are a low-level threat in social media, but who really cares?”
Unfortunately, the trajectory of events in recent years has shown that both sides are correct. We now inhabit the world of both, one where great powers deliberately foster nonconventional and asymmetric threats on a massive scale inside opposing states in order to destabilize their societies, damage their economies, and corrode their legitimacy at home and abroad. It should be evident by now that these tactics can degrade the capabilities of otherwise powerful states, including the United States, in at least three ways.
First, anything that provokes pervasive uncertainty or requires expensive countermeasures (as nearly all of the new cyber capabilities do) raises the financial cost of governing and providing basic public goods. The entire state becomes more difficult to operate as things that used to become relatively cheap become relatively more expensive. The private sector is especially vulnerable, and recent studies have placed cumulative losses due to Chinese espionage and technological theft in excess of $600 billion. This functions like a permanent tax on American innovation, which is why FBI Director Christopher Wray has called Chinese espionage the “greatest long-term threat” to the U.S. economy, adding that the Chinese Communist Party has “mobilized all aspects of Chinese society” to “steal their way up the economic ladder at our expense.”
Second, targeted disinformation campaigns can exacerbate tension between the various factions that exist within every nation—even if they do not create it. A 2019 survey from the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service showed that over half of those likely to vote now believe that America is edging toward a civil war. Did Russia create this situation? Of course not. But can Russian propaganda efforts help shift opinion a few percentage points in the wrong direction? Perhaps. The danger is that social movements have tipping points past which they tend to become self-sustaining.
Moreover, to the extent that disinformation erodes trust and reduces social linkages, such measures destroy valuable human capital. Low trust societies have higher transaction costs and tend to be less economically efficient than high trust societies. At the outer limit, if rising levels of acrimony result in visible breakdowns of public order, then popular trust in the state itself may be undermined, creating a vicious downward spiral.
Third, especially in democratic societies, in which representatives are more or less responsive to the wishes of their constituents, an increasingly divided society can harden existing divisions between different groups of ruling elites, making it more difficult to form coherent policy responses to international challenges.
Although the extent of Russian disinformation activities and Chinese cyber espionage is now well-known, many continue to view these things as a sideshow to the serious business of great-power politics. However, to ignore the increasing deployment of nonconventional instruments of power is to miss a major way that revisionist states now seek to tilt the global balance in their favor. Nonconventional measures consume resources and impair rational policy formation on a greater scale than ever before. It is, then, fair to call this an era of attrition without fighting.
For example, there is considerable evidence that Russia deliberately intervened to help funnel large groups of migrants into Western Europe in 2016, even as it gave significant support to anti-immigrant parties in countries like France and Germany. The intention here is clear: destabilize society and raise the financial cost of maintaining domestic order and providing basic public services. Targeted political donations can also help create factions within the political structure by aiding the ascendancy of new elites who view the existing ruling class as a hostile camp, and who in turn are seen by the powers that be as deplorable reprobates. The Russian presence on social media was merely a small part of this larger strategy.
Similarly, although the full story is not clear at this point, the same motivations are likely behind China’s apparent role in supporting the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests and riots across the United States, even as they continue to suppress popular movements in Hong Kong.
These issues are directly relevant to the future of American foreign policy because, throughout history, many states have delayed or altogether failed to balance against foreign rivals, simply because elites were too divided among themselves to fashion a coherent foreign policy, or because their society had become too chaotic to govern effectively. It is harder to worry about Beijing when fires are burning in Washington. In the past, to take one relevant example, so many states tried to avoid the costs of balancing Napoleon that it took twenty-two years and seven coalitions to defeat him, and many states still did not adapt to the key Napoleonic innovation of mass conscription until the twentieth century.
In order to be successful, asymmetric interventions like those described above do not have to achieve any particular outcome. The actual effect of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election may have been trivial and will never be quantifiable. But that is beside the point. Success in this instance only requires that one be able to consistently raise the operating cost of rival states, putting their institutions through what is, in effect, a never-ending stress test. The goal is to force opponents to burn time and money while sowing as much dissent as possible and gumming up the policymaking process. Again, this is a strategy of attrition, no different in principle than Fabius Maximus’s decision to retreat rather than fight Hannibal head-on, forcing the Carthaginian general to expend finite resources until the actual battle was a foregone conclusion.
In one sense, the United States is no stranger to the use of asymmetric techniques. The USSR spent hundreds of millions of dollars during the Cold War to fund groups in the West that favored unilateral disarmament, far more than the paltry sum that Russia invested in Facebook adds during the 2016 election. Yet, this only begs the question: what is it about the contemporary situation that made this latter investment, minuscule by comparison, so effective?
It is also true that the United States engages in similar activities. Journalist David Sanger has even claimed that the American and Israeli release of the Stuxnet computer virus into Iranian centrifuges was the bellwether event that provoked the current cascade of information and nonconventional warfare around the world. Others have rightly pointed out that America’s efforts to support pro-democratic groups inside rival states and its readiness to deploy crippling economic sanctions are, from the perspective of the regime in question, indistinguishable from deliberate subversion. Arguably, however, as the world’s strongest conventional military power, the United States has been slow to utilize many of the emerging asymmetric tools in a concerted way, or even to recognize their full significance. Moreover, with its dynamic society and open public sphere, America is vulnerable in these areas in ways that China and Russia simply are not.
If “attrition without fighting” sounds like a tolerable alternative compared to the massive devastation wrought by interstate wars in the twentieth century, then it needs to be said that recent developments do not take war between the great powers off the table. The increasing use of asymmetric tools is a supplement to traditional great-power competition, not an alternative to it. Moreover, political scientists have long observed that, for obvious reasons, conflict is more likely to escalate rapidly when the survival of a governing regime is cast into doubt. This is precisely why Immanuel Kant included provisions against the subversion of other governments in his constitution for a peaceful federation. The upshot is that, over the long term, the growing use and effectiveness of asymmetric destabilization tactics might actually increase the chances of conflict between powerful states whose regimes feel under siege as never before, and whose leaders now struggle to govern societies that appear to be fragmenting from the bottom up, in part because of actions taken by adversaries abroad.