When Yevgeny Prigozhin attempted to overthrow the Russian government with his mercenary company, the Wagner Group, Western observers gleefully described the near-coup as proof of President Vladimir Putin’s weakness. But a more careful consideration suggests self-congratulation may be less warranted than worry. Russia’s political weaknesses are severe but exacerbated by three features widely shared by large, industrialized countries, including the United States and China: 1) a weakening state, 2) the privatization of violence, and 3) the increasing power of non-state groups and identities. These features pose difficult but manageable challenges during peacetime and relatively small-scale combat operations. However, the same features could prove combustible under the pressures of a major war. The potential for an armed insurrection of some type can no longer be regarded as unthinkable.
Central governments around the world are experiencing declines in legitimacy owing to their inability to ensure equitable services and opportunities for their citizens amid slowing economic growth and worsening inequality. The United States and Europe have experienced upheaval over police misconduct, receding social welfare benefits, and waning economic prospects. China also faces severe inequality, threadbare social welfare benefits, and diminishing opportunities but has avoided mass protest at the cost of relentless repression and political indoctrination. Yet the outbreak of anti-Xi protests over the Zero-Covid restrictions showed the limits of Beijing’s iron-fisted approach. Across the industrialized world, discontent simmers.
The privatization of violence exacerbates the problem of weakening legitimacy. The state’s eroding monopoly on violence is occurring in the form of violence by criminals and other private actors, as well as through a deepening dependence on military contractors. In the United States, violence committed by criminals, lone gunmen, and political extremists has terrified populations and eroded confidence in law enforcement. Distrust of authorities has, in turn, motivated individuals to procure their own weapons to protect themselves. China’s level of violent crime remains as high as that of the United States, with news frequently carrying reports of knife-wielding mass killings. Collusion between the police and mafia gangs has further eroded public confidence in local authorities.
The weakening legitimacy of nation-states carries profound consequences for the militaries that serve them. As a state’s legitimacy declines, so does the willingness of young people to fight for them. Militaries have little choice but to rely on well-compensated professionals and, increasingly, contractors. About half the personnel serving in U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were contractors, for example, and virtually all of China’s overseas security operations are undertaken by contractors. Thus, states are experiencing a decline in their monopoly on violence and a loosening grip on their armed forces.
Third, the declining legitimacy of central governments and the privatization of violence coincides with the increasing appeal of non-state groups and identities. For many citizens, ethnic, religious, pop culture, and other identities and groups have become more compelling than patriotism. Subnational and transnational identity groups can wield outsized influence thanks in part to the amplifying effect of digital media. As trust in the government erodes, such communities may view authorities as obstacles or even predators. In the United States, armed militia groups have threatened elected officials, for example, while in China, minority groups have lashed out violently against the state’s repression, and clientelism increasingly dominates local politics and industry.
Fragmentation goes beyond non-state actors. Subnational governments have become more resistant to national authority as well. In the United States, political polarization and persistent low trust in the federal government have exacerbated problems of defiance by state governments. Armed militias and aggrieved individuals occasionally threaten government authorities, as happened in the stunning attempts to kidnap Michigan’s governor or in the attack on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s husband. China’s provinces routinely defy Beijing’s demands to curtail counterproductive economic practices that compound debt problems. Chinese officials have also struggled to control defiant populations in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong. And prospects for compelling Taiwan’s subordination appear more remote than ever.
The combination of weakened states, the privatization of violence, and the growing power of non-state and subnational groups, governments, and identities raise new security risks for all states. These trends have long wrought havoc across the developing world but also increasingly menace the developed world. The perils remain modest in peacetime because a developed state’s resources suffice to ensure an uneasy stability. For similar reasons, small-scale military operations that demand little in terms of additional taxes or conscripted labor also pose little threat to national stability. After all, President Putin faced little danger when he waged myriad minor conflicts from 2008–2014. China similarly managed a brawl with India on its border and has carried out various gray zone operations in the first island chain with little threat of instability. And the United States has for years sustained relatively small-scale operations, particularly in counter-terrorism, after scaling back its large-scale commitments in Iraq in the face of widespread war wariness.
However, shocks or immense strains can expose lingering vulnerabilities. In the United States, the devastation inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with considerable upheaval, culminating in the unprecedented January 6, 2023 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of infuriated citizens. In China, the accumulated stress of rapid growth, acute inequality, and pervasive corruption fueled hundreds of daily local protests beginning in the 1990s. To cope with the unrest, the internal security budget surged and, since 2010, has exceeded the defense budget. The ruthless Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai exploited discontent by cultivating a political style that antagonized Beijing. Alarmed, Chinese leaders eventually brought about his downfall. Moreover, Xi Jinping has carried out a massive crackdown under the banner of “anti-corruption” while enforcing brutal repression and relentless political indoctrination to deter further challengers and control unrest.
Large-scale war between two of the wealthiest powers in the world could push these states past their breaking point. Many war games explore the scenarios where U.S. and Chinese military forces collide in the South China Sea. But the political risks of war may not appear until well after those hypothetical clashes. Russia’s military forces performed poorly, but Putin’s control remained intact during the first few months of the invasion. Difficulties arose when the country exhausted its pool of professional troops. When unenthusiastic conscripts performed disappointingly, Moscow turned to Wagner’s contract soldiers, who exploited their leverage. Other military leaders subsequently challenged Moscow’s authority, and Putin’s grip has accordingly appeared doubtful.
Similarly, the United States and China would likely require more trained troops after their initial clashes. Although much attention has focused on the challenges of replenishing munitions and weapons, refilling the ranks of highly trained troops could prove even more problematic. Military service remains widely unpopular in post-industrial societies, partially because their militaries already rely so heavily on well-compensated professionals and contractors. A war involving massive casualties and a decline in living standards—as a U.S.-China war would almost certainly entail—would probably erode popular support for the two governments even further.
Replenishing troops would require either conscription or contractors. The United States might favor contractors to avoid the political upheaval that might accompany conscription. China, by contrast, might probably favor conscription over the politically perilous expedient of recruiting contractors who felt little obligation to the Chinese Communist Party. Russia’s experience suggests the former could offer better battlefield performance at the price of doubtful control. In contrast, conscription might offer stronger political control at the cost of uncertain battlefield performance. And with available resources committed to the war effort, fewer would be open to address domestic needs. An unpopular war by a government incapable of meeting the needs of the people would be extremely vulnerable to political upheaval. The spread of domestic disorder and violence would only sap support for the government even further. Amid such a volatile condition, a few disastrous battles or unexpected setbacks could be enough cause to spark intrastate violence or an armed rebellion.
Whether private groups, contractors, or elements of the national military might risk violence amid a large-scale U.S.-China war is unknowable. But there are sound reasons to be concerned. Throughout history, warfare has frequently consisted of a considerable commingling of interstate and intrastate war. The industrial age in which consolidated, unified states experienced secure home fronts while waging major war remains historically abnormal. Russia’s case suggests this anomalous period may be ending. Russia’s institutional weaknesses are far graver than those of the United States or China. Still, the past few years show that the United States, China, and other major countries have significant political liabilities of their own. In a large-scale war, the danger that violent civil conflict, military insubordination, or popular rebellion could erupt cannot be discounted. Organized domestic violence could take different forms. Disaffected non-state actors could exploit the uncertain environment to challenge authorities. Alienated communities could attack other communities. Emboldened political rivals could attempt to seize power. Such dramatic actions are commonplace in fragile developing countries today. They could emerge in some form in the United States or China if weakened by the stresses of a major war.