The Rise of Alien Warfare

February 25, 2015 Topic: Security

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. 


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