Not Dead Yet

Numerous voices have claimed that the day of conventional war is over. For years, these voices have predicted that “war amongst the people,” or “hybrid war,” or “gray zone operations,” or “distributed security missions,” are the new face of war. But conventional war—however it may be changing—may not be as dead as some believe. Danger is already emerging from the confluence of several unfolding trends. 

The Information Age

The industrial age occurred roughly from 1760-1950 to replace the agricultural age. The world of 1950 didn’t look anything like that of 1760. The factory system changed the way people lived, how families related, and how money and fortunes were made. These changes affected religions, governance, and economies. Citizens of 1950 got their information differently from those of 1760, traveled differently, and fought their wars differently. Demographics shifted, ecologies changed, as did education and almost every other aspect of social and political life. Just as the domestic landscape changed, so did the international environment. The late 18th century international system did not look like that of the mid 20th century.

The American, French, Russian, Mexican, and Turk revolutions were fought in this period as were the American, Russian, Spanish, and Chinese civil wars. The War of 1812, the Boer War, in addition to both World Wars, and the Korean War were also fought in this period—and these are only the major wars. The point is that tectonic shifts of this magnitude create upheaval. The world is at the beginning of just this kind of major shift, one that will last for some time. All should expect that competition, conflict, and war—even conventional war, though it will surely be fought and wage differently than anyone expects—will increase in likelihood, and the U.S. and its allies should prepare accordingly.

Global Competition

Current global competition is stiffening. The current system was put in place after World War II and designed to help prevent the catastrophe of major inter-state war as well as promote a political and economic system in which individual human rights and political communities could thrive. No one can doubt that these arrangements have benefitted significantly the United States and its allies. Equally without doubt the system has benefitted many other nations, but not all. This system is under significant stress.

Revisionist powers—Russia, China, and Iran—are trying to rewrite the international order to their benefit.

Revisionist powers—Russia, China, and Iran—are trying to rewrite the international order to their benefit. They aim establish centers of power which will reduce the power and influence of the United States and its Pacific, European, and Middle Eastern allies. Revolutionary powers—Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the like—are trying also to upend the international order. They aim first to depose states they call “apostates” and replace them with a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate defined so narrowly that most Muslims reject that view as Islamic at all. Then they hope to expand this initial caliphate into Europe, Asia, and North and South America. As fantastic and impossible as this vision may seem to us, it has been an attractive vision to many and a source of significant motivation and violence. Finally, the rogue power of North Korea is also stressing the current international arrangement, creating the instability they need to remain in power.

Right now, this competition is below the threshold of conventional, nation-state conflict. No one should expect, however, that the threshold will hold forever—especially if the power of nuclear and conventional deterrence erodes any further. 


State actors on the global stage have grown used to nuclear and conventional deterrence keeping most conflicts below the threshold of conventional war.  But nuclear deterrence does not appear as strong as it once was. North Korea, at least so far, seems undeterred in its progress to expand its nuclear arsenal and delivery means. Iran progressed significantly in developing a nuclear capability, though now it may be on a different—but perhaps temporary—tack. And Al Qaeda and ISIS have not given up their hope to acquire a nuclear capability of some sort. 

Nuclear deterrence was augmented by the deterrent value of massive conventional Cold War military forces facing one another in Central Europe and its flanks as well as those ready-to-mobilize and reinforce. Following the end of the Cold War, fear of taking on the United States in a conventional war had kept competition and conflict below the threshold of conventional war. The deterrent value of American conventional prowess, however, is fraying. 

...defense modernization budgets and service acquisition programs have taken a back seat to the near-term readiness requirements associated with fighting our post-9/11 wars...

With very few exceptions for the past 15 years, defense modernization budgets and service acquisition programs have taken a back seat to the near-term readiness requirements associated with fighting our post-9/11 wars. The size of America’s armed forces does not match our national strategy or our global commitments. Already defense analysts are describing areas in which Russian or Chinese capabilities overmatch those of the United States. Furthermore, our inability to end the post-9/11 wars on terms favorable to the U.S. reduces the credibility of U.S. deterrent capacity in the eyes of potential adversaries. Should fear of American dominance dissipate sufficiently, the calculus of competition will surely change.

Part of that calculus is based upon U.S. capabilities. In this area, potential competitors have already developed new military strengths against our weaknesses. Part of the calculus is also based upon will, American will as well as that of our allies. Alliance cohesion is not just a force multiplier, it’s a significant “will-multiplier.” Whether U.S. and allied will is strong enough to withstand the kind of pressure and competition that is already building, however, is an open question.

Economics and Governance

When economies start to shrink, or when their growth is constricted relative to expectations, negative societal and political dynamics are triggered. People look for “those responsible.” The result is, on the mild end, social disruption and political turmoil; at the other extreme is revolution and regime change—whether from the street, the gun, external actors or proxies. Globalization, a product in large part of the information age, promised to raise all boats. For many, this promise came true. For many others, not only has it not come true but for them the promise resides in the “never going to happen” category.

Globalization, a product in large part of the information age, promised to raise all boats...not only has it not come true [for some] but for them the promise resides in the “never going to happen” category.

The “never going to happen” category exists in both developed and developing countries. In developed countries those who were solidly in the middle class but who have slipped because of the widening gap between rich and poor, associated with the loss of jobs due to advanced technologies, are coming to believe their rising boat will never happen. In developing countries the overeducated and under-employed already believe it will never happen for them either.  In both, the loss of hope has become a powerful force demanding change. Such a force is often the breeding ground for unrest, nationalism, repression and assertive-authoritative governance, and other social forces that are a breeding ground for potential intra-state conflict and inter-state conflict.  

The world has seen such conflicts arise already: across North Africa and the Middle East. These conflicts have spilled over:  refugees in Europe and America; Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, NATO, and the U.S. are now locked in an Gordian-like struggle in Syria that might sooner, or later, require a larger sword. Similar conflicts might yet emerge elsewhere, creating a “many wildfires burning” strategic environment which demands action—by whom and for what will be the key questions. War starts as much by accident as by design. The conditions for crossing the threshold of conventional war are already in motion.

American and Allied Cohesion

In the early 1990s some thinkers identified disturbing trends at play in American society. These trends are now manifested in the inability of our government to work together, the malleability of truth, as well as in the economic, social, and political divisiveness present in America. Similar trends resulted in BREXIT, and are present in other European countries. Perhaps sufficient unity will yet emerge at home and abroad. But equally possible is a trend with a long historical pedigree:  blaming internal social problems on external factors. Such blame sometimes becomes the source of conventional war, or at least for decisions and actions that have the unintended consequence of such a war.

Now is a time for steady hands.

In the classic movie, “The Search for the Holy Grail,” a cart full of dead-from-the-plague bodies is being pulled through a city. A medieval man in rags carries another man over his shoulder.  The man being carried cries out “I’m not dead yet.” So cries the voice of conventional war. Certainly the trends above, whether read individually or collectively, are neither a prediction nor a statement of inevitability. Rather, they are a warning to political and military leaders: careful. Gut reactions, off-the-cuff remarks, emotional tirades, and tough-sounding threats may ignite the already dangerous mix of trends in which we are living—so might isolationism, protectionism, and nationalism. Now is a time for steady hands.

James M. Dubik, PhD is a professor at the Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.  He recently authored Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory. He retired as a lieutenant general from the U.S. Army in 2008 following his position in Baghdad as Commanding General, Multi-National Security and Transition Command, Iraq and NATO Training Mission, Iraq.

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