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What sparks could ignite the next great-power conflagration?

Posted By Administration, Sunday, July 15, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Craig Perry has written his seventh installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece asks about what might ignite the next great-power conflagration. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

America’s great-power rivals are increasingly pursuing strategic ends through nonmilitary means, betting that competition short of conflict will advance their interests without risking nuclear annihilation. Yet they are also gearing up to project military force abroad, and defend themselves should the United States intervene to defend its interests and allies. This raises the very real possibility that Russian or Chinese adventurism—and miscalculations over American willingness or ability to respond militarily—could inadvertently trigger the next great-power war. Unfortunately, growing doubts about longstanding U.S. commitments to its allies and international norms are making this tragic outcome far more likely.

Russia has reemerged in the past decade as a formidable military power, capable of defeating neighboring states such as Georgia and Ukraine while seizing the initiative farther afield in Syria. Its theater ballistic missiles and sophisticated air and coastal defense systems dominate the Black Sea and Baltic regions, posing a worrying threat to America’s NATO allies. Similarly, the People’s Republic of China has vastly improved its offensive capabilities in recent years, projecting naval power far beyond its littoral areas while holding its renegade offshore province, Taiwan, at ever-greater risk.

These developments have substantially increased the likelihood of American forces coming into conflict with their great-power counterparts. For example, not long after Russian mercenaries launched an ill-fated attack on a U.S. outpost in Syria earlier this year, the United States and Russia nearly come to blows over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Just a month later, China deployed a nuclear-capable bomber to the disputed Paracel Islands, then dispatched warships to challenge the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation in the region. As such brinkmanship becomes more common, the likelihood of a serious—and potentially escalatory—military confrontation will only grow.

This problem is particularly acute wherever the United States maintains alliances within its rivals’ historical spheres of influence. In Europe, Moscow could quickly defeat the meager NATO forces forward-deployed to the Baltic States—former Soviet republics sandwiched between mainland Russia and its Kaliningrad exclave—while making it exceedingly difficult for the United States and its allies to retake this territory without triggering nuclear war. Meanwhile in Asia, Beijing has set a mid-century deadline for national reunification, with the People’s Liberation Army reportedly planning to accomplish this goal as early as 2020. The PLA is already poised to overwhelm Taiwanese defenses with little warning, and disrupt U.S. carrier and airbase operations as far away as Okinawa and Guam through a combination of kinetic, cyber, and electronic warfare. In both cases, America’s near-peer adversaries are positioned to seize the initiative in their own backyards while severely complicating Washington’s ability to come to the aid of its allies.

All of this presupposes, of course, that the United States remains fully committed to its far-flung network of alliances, which have been a cornerstone of its foreign policy success since World War II. The 2016 election of a U.S. commander-in-chief who repeatedly questions the value of NATO and other foreign entanglements, however, has fundamentally challenged assumptions of American resolve. President Trump’s pronouncements naturally undermine confidence in U.S. security guarantees, and this growing uncertainty may eventually embolden Russia or China to call America’s bluff. The ramifications of such a gamble would be catastrophic: if the U.S. military responds as promised, it would plunge the world into the next great-power war; if it does not, the international system that has underpinned global peace and prosperity for the better part of a century would come to an ignominious end. Either way, the future is shaping up to be a much different place than the “Pax Americana” of yesteryear.


© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  NATO  politics  war 

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Why aren’t nukes ever enough?

Posted By Administration, Monday, June 18, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Craig Perry has written his sixth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece asks an important question about nukes and their effectiveness as a deterrent. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

For all their destructive potential, nuclear weapons ushered in an unprecedented era of global stability after 1945, deterring the great powers from the kinds of internecine conflicts that risk their mutual destruction. But this period hasn’t been entirely peaceful, either, as states and non-state actors have sporadically waged more limited wars the old-fashioned way—that is, utilizing “conventional” weapons—whenever they calculate the odds of nuclear escalation are low. Consequently, powers great and small have continued to arm themselves with military capabilities of ever-increasing speed and lethality, determined to gain a decisive advantage on some future battlefield—an unfortunate function of survival in our anarchic international system.

For much of the Cold War, the United States made little effort to match the Soviet Union’s massive conventional-warfare superiority in Europe, calculating that its nuclear arsenal would be enough to offset any Soviet military advantage. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, the Pentagon embarked on a new offset strategy incorporating technological breakthroughs in precision-guided munitions, radar-evading stealth technology aircraft, and space-based communications and navigation. Rather than rely on the traditional American way of war—attrition and annihilation—this revolution in military affairs allowed relatively small numbers of highly nimble American and allied forces to defeat numerically superior adversaries, as dramatically demonstrated during such operations as Desert Storm (1991) and Iraqi Freedom (2003), while sharply reducing civilian casualties and collateral damage.

Some scholars attribute the collapse of the Soviet Union in part to its failed efforts to keep up with the West in this expensive, high-tech arms race—and for decades afterward the United States had no peers in terms of conventional military capabilities. But a funny thing happened on the way to American global hegemony: while Washington diverted resources away from cutting-edge investments after 9/11, Moscow and Beijing slowly but surely began closing the capability gap through a combination of indigenous know-how, industrial espionage, and lessons learned from U.S. military operations. In recent years, Russia and China have developed increasingly effective air defense systems to blunt America’s signature warfighting advantage, and deployed sophisticated missile systems on a variety of platforms to complicate U.S. ground and maritime operations near their territory. Such anti-access, area-denial measures complement their markedly improved power-projection capabilities now on display in Syria and the South China Sea, respectively.

Not to be outdone, the U.S. Department of Defense recently embarked on a third offset strategy to harness innovations in artificial intelligence, automation, additive manufacturing, and other fields. While traditional weapons acquisition processes have become increasingly unaffordable—with more and more money spent procuring fewer and fewer high-end aircraft, ships, and armored vehicles—this latest approach hopes to reduce costs by disaggregating marquee platforms into more specialized networked systems leveraging off-the-shelf commercial technology. Of course, this same technology is accessible to America’s rivals as well, suggesting U.S. forces will soon need to develop new defenses against the very drone swarms and other “futuristic” weaponry they are currently developing, in a seemingly never-ending cycle.

Unfortunately, such military modernization has the potential to make great-power conflict more likely, their credible nuclear deterrents notwithstanding. Both Russia and China perceive America’s superior conventional capabilities—coupled with its expanding anti-ballistic missile networks in Europe and Asia—as destabilizing, since they could facilitate preemptive U.S. attacks targeting their nuclear arsenals. Meanwhile, each country is developing its own expeditionary forces capable of quickly seizing nearby territory, then (theoretically) holding out against an anticipated U.S.-led conventional counterattack—which may embolden them to resolve a greater variety of regional disputes militarily, especially where they judge the United States unwilling to intervene at the risk of nuclear war.

This combination of mutual distrust and localized military parity is increasing the likelihood of strategic miscalculation, and undermining the logic of nuclear deterrence that has constrained great-power competition for nearly three-quarters of a century. While it remains unlikely that the United States, Russia, or China will launch large-scale attacks on each other in the coming decades, they could very well become embroiled in regional conflicts that devolve into direct military confrontation among the great powers—conflicts with the potential for a much wider global conflagration.

© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  attack  politics  war 

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Should we learn to stop worrying and love the bomb?

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, May 2, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Craig Perry has written his fifth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece looks at the Cold War and issues surrounding the atomic bomb. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

“There’s no such thing as a winnable war, it’s a lie we don’t believe anymore.” – Sting, “Russians”

The Cold War was a scary time for citizens on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The United States and the Soviet Union each wielded massive nuclear arsenals with the capacity to destroy the world many times over—and they came perilously close to unleashing these awful weapons on more than one occasion. Yet for all the anxiety this decades-long standoff entailed, it fostered an uneasy peace between the superpowers.

Once the United States demonstrated the terrible potential of the atom bomb at the end of World War II, it was only a matter of time before the Soviet Union and other would-be great powers sought to acquire their own nukes. By the 1960s, the two superpowers had so many warheads—deliverable by a triad of airborne, land-based, and submarine platforms managed by robust command-and-control systems—that neither side could launch first without precipitating a devastating counterattack. The era of mutually assured destruction had begun.

While such strategic deterrence has produced a degree of stability in international affairs, it also creates perverse disincentives for arms control. Any developments that might undermine this suicide pact—for example, by defeating incoming weapons (anti-ballistic missile systems), overwhelming missile defenses (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles), or making limited regional nuclear exchanges more plausible (intermediate-range nuclear forces)—are seen by the other side as dangerously provocative. Even the dramatic cutbacks of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the follow-on New START left Moscow and Washington with more than enough firepower to obliterate each other. In the nuclear arms race, at least, Russia remains every bit as powerful as its American rival.

Yet while mutually assured destruction makes large-scale wars between nuclear powers less likely, it paradoxically permits them to engage in smaller conflicts without fear of escalation. During the Cold War, U.S. nuclear strategy quickly evolved to deemphasize massive retaliation in favor of more flexible responses as the superpowers found themselves embroiled in numerous proxy conflicts. This stability-instability paradox also encourages nuclear proliferation among lesser powers seeking to guarantee their own regime survival. Although small nuclear stockpiles with limited delivery means may deter regional rivals (e.g. India/Pakistan), they offer no guarantee against a determined great power—and a rogue regime’s pursuit of the bomb can just as easily provoke crippling sanctions and preemptive war.

While the end of the Cold War reduced the risk of global thermonuclear war, it hasn’t done much to curb the enthusiasm of great powers to maintain and enhance their strategic forces. Shortly after the Pentagon released its 2018 nuclear posture review calling for new low-yield warheads and sea-launched cruise missiles, the Russian president publicly revealed several other weapons under development. Meanwhile, China continues to modernize its much smaller but quite capable triad as a hedge against first-use by its great-power rivals—and has likely reconsidered its previous, destabilizing support for Pakistani and North Korean nuclear ambitions.

Not surprisingly, efforts to ban the bomb—including the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—enjoy almost no support among nuclear powers and America’s NATO allies. Still, with the majority of the world’s states, the ocean floor, and even outer space now legally designated nuclear-weapons-free zones, there is a growing international consensus that nuclear warfare is beyond the pale. Despite some backsliding in recent years, the great powers are generally committed to arms control and nonproliferation as a means of preserving strategic stability—and even junior members of the nuclear club have existential incentives to behave responsibly. But whether or not you love the bomb, there’s not much point worrying about what’s become a necessary evil in our anarchic international system, which will continue deterring great-power conflict for the foreseeable future.


© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  politics  strategy  war 

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With Competition Like This, Who Needs Conflict?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Craig Perry has written his fourth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece looks at how competition could minimize conflict. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

“If you call what’s going on now a hybrid war, let it be hybrid war. It doesn’t matter: It’s war.” – Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesperson

What if the great powers really could subdue their enemies without fighting, as Sun Tzu suggested? This appears to be what Russian agents were up to in 2016 when they allegedly meddled in America’s presidential elections. According to the U.S. intelligence community and federal prosecutors, Moscow’s goals were to undermine public faith in democracy and influence the selection of the next U.S. commander-in-chief, presumably with the aim of weakening a superpower rival—or better yet, installing a favored candidate in the White House. Russians apparently were up to similar tricks in the latest French, German, and Montenegrin elections as well.

Then again, the United States and its allies are hardly innocent when it comes to interfering in other countries’ affairs—so it should come as no surprise that Moscow blames the West for much of the world’s instability, from Arab Spring uprisings to “color revolutions” across the former Soviet Union. In 2013, Gen. Valeriy Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, framed these turbulent events as a new form of warfare, where political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures are often more effective than traditional weapons. The very rules of war have changed, he concluded, and Russia’s military must adapt accordingly.

The Kremlin has clearly embraced these modern rules of war in recent years, pursuing an aggressive, whole-of-govern¬ment approach to achieving its foreign policy goals while avoiding escalation into full-blown state-on-state conflicts. This strategy of indirect action typically begins with so-called “information confrontation,” a combination of old-fashioned propaganda and modern cyber operations to shape perceptions and manipulate the behavior of target audiences. Russia’s intelligence services might then mix it up with subversive “active measures,” while the military and its proxies—ethnic compatriots, private military contractors, or even “little green men”—stand ready to up the ante while obscuring Moscow’s involvement.

Not to be outdone, China also updated its military doctrine to incorporate nonmilitary means of influence in 2003. The People’s Liberation Army’s “three warfares” strategy—encompassing public opinion, psychological, and legal warfare—is intended to control public narratives and influence perceptions to advance China’s interests while compromising the ability of opponents to respond. This approach offers China a new form of “non-kinetic” weaponry that can be combined in highly synergistic ways. For example, to advance its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, Beijing is advancing spurious legal arguments, deploying civilian flotillas, and broadcasting propaganda portraying itself as a victim of foreign powers. Sun Tzu would be proud.

There is debate in national security circles over what to call these new forms of warfare—and whether they are really all that new. Pundits have coined terms such as “gray zone conflicts” and “hybrid warfare” to describe what others chalk up to time-honored doctrinal concepts like information operations and irregular warfare. The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy offered yet another buzz phrase for this phenomenon: “competition short of armed conflict.”

Whatever we call it, there is no doubt that nonmilitary methods of warfare are becoming more commonplace, for a variety of reasons. Compared to traditional combat operations, they are relatively inexpensive, deceptively innocuous, and difficult to attribute, particularly in the cyber domain. They also carry a limited risk of escalation, as even the most audacious provocations seldom trigger an armed response—especially against a nuclear power. Perhaps most importantly, these subtle, indirect approaches can sometimes affect strategic centers of gravity—such as government decision-making and political legitimacy—that are difficult to target directly with military force. Future advances in communications technology, big-data analytics, and artificial intelligence will only further enable such competition below the threshold of conflict.

This is certainly a worrying trend, as these tactics have the potential to exacerbate social divisions, undermine confidence in democratic governance, and blur distinctions between civilian and military combatants and targets. On the other hand, the more confident great powers are in their ability to secure national interests through nonmilitary means, the more likely they are to pursue less violent and risky courses of action. In other words, competition short of conflict could very well reduce the risk of future great-power wars.

 



© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  economics  politics  war 

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Is Another Great-Power War Inevitable?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, December 14, 2017
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Craig Perry is one of our Emerging Fellows. He and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. This first article about war asks an important question for the present and the future.

“Anarchy places a premium on foresight.” – Kenneth Waltz

A century ago, with the world embroiled in what was then naively dubbed the “war to end all wars,” few people imagined a second global conflagration igniting just a generation later. Since the end of World War II, however, humanity has experienced over seven decades of relative peace, with the frequency of war deaths trending sharply downward throughout this period. This is largely attributable to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, a standoff that spawned numerous proxy conflicts but never turned truly hot. It remains to be seen whether the ongoing reemergence of a multipolar world, with potentially several states capable of exerting influence on a global scale, will lead to yet more wars among these so-called great powers.

There are good reasons to fear a return to great-power conflict. Warfare has been endemic to the human condition since the dawn of civilization, and remains the ultimate way of resolving conflicts among states even in the modern era. World affairs are inherently anarchic, with states pursuing their own advantages in a Hobbesian struggle of each against all. While the weak may occasionally band together to balance would-be hegemons, the prevailing self-help system of international relations features no permanent friends or enemies, just interests. “Countries have always competed for wealth and security, and the competition has often led to conflict,” the late neo-realist scholar Kenneth Waltz noted. “Why should the future be different from the past?”

Indeed, war has accompanied the rise and fall of great powers throughout recorded history. In his classic account of the Peloponnesian War, Greek historian Thucydides concluded that the growth of Athenian power and the fear this inspired in then-dominant Sparta made war between these city-states inevitable. This dynamic, which political scientist Graham Allison calls the “Thucydides Trap,” has ensnared rising and established powers in more than a dozen wars over the last 500 years—and it threatens to do so again as other states challenge the United States for global influence.

Such systemic, structural factors are not the only aspects of international relations that can drive states towards armed conflict. Marxists argue that capitalism compels the core, industrialized powers to compete for dominance as they exploit peripheral countries for labor and raw materials. Political scientist Samuel Huntington suggested it is culture—rather than ideology, politics, or economics—that is shaping patterns of conflict, with the Western belief in the universality of its values leading to clashes with rival civilizations. Constructivists similarly believe ideas shape international relations, as each state perceives world events in its own peculiar way.

So why should the future be different from the past? With nearly 200 sovereign states around the globe, it seems inevitable that at least some of them will come into conflict in the coming decades—and great powers will occasionally intervene if only to enforce international law or for some other ostensibly noble purpose. Yet it is far from certain that these great powers will again come to blows with each other, for several reasons. While anarchy will continue to characterize international relations for the foreseeable future, a number of developments—including nuclear deterrence, globalization of trade and investment, relevant international institutions, shifting social norms, and widespread competition below the threshold of war—are incrementally reducing the likelihood of another great-power conflict. Will these trends be enough to prevent the eventual outbreak of World War III?


© Craig Perry 2017

Tags:  power  strategy  war 

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