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The Lost Hegemon (pt 2): The End of Conventional War

(Previously: The Lost Hegemon (pt 1) and A Post-Hegemonic Future)

Few would dispute that the American military is, far and away, the most powerful conventional armed force on the planet, even as depleted as it is by the Iraq war.

At the same time, few would dispute that this military force is, and by all signs will continue to be, insufficient to quell the insurgency in Iraq.

While this particular result has dramatic implications for the global position of the US, as well as for the political and economic future of the region (and the world), the larger meaning of this conflict is only beginning to become clear: conventional militaries, as a means of compelling a desired behavior on the part of a national populace, have become obsolete. The question now is how long it will take political leaders to recognize this fact, and adapt to it.

The reasons for this obsolescence are clear: conventional military forces appear to be unable to defeat a networked insurgency, which combines the information age's distributed communication and rapid learning with the traditional guerilla's invisibility (by being indistinguishable from the populace) and low support needs. It's not just the American experience in Iraq (and, not as widely discussed, Afghanistan) that tells us this; Israel's latest war in Lebanon leads us to the same conclusion, and even the Soviet Union's experience in Afghanistan and America's war in Vietnam underline this same point. Insurgencies have always been hard to defeat with conventional forces, but the "open source warfare" model, where tactics can be learned, tested and communicated both formally and informally across a distributed network of guerillas, poses an effectively impossible challenge for conventional militaries.

To be clear, this isn't a crude argument that networked insurgency forces are "stronger" than conventional militaries. In a stand-up fight against a modern army, whether on attack or defense, the guerillas will lose; in an insurgency, where stand-up fights are avoided, the modern army simply cannot win. But even talking about winning and losing in this context is simplistic. Networked insurgencies are best at forcing costly stalemates. When on the offense, networked insurgencies are less about compellence than about provocation (making the enemy more likely to engage in acts that horrify the populace and undermine the enemy's support); on the defense, they're less about protection than about disruption (making the enemy expend increasing amounts of force, money and attention on maintaining its own critical support systems). As a result, a networked insurgency can best be thought of as a deterrent force, promising (and able) to exact a high cost in retaliation for a perceived attack.

(John Robb's site Global Guerillas, along with his new book Brave New War, document the emergence and capabilities of the open source warfare concept, so I won't try to replicate that here. And, to be clear, my arguments here are my own, not his.)

If deterrence as a way of making conventional militaries obsolete sounds familiar, it should. Such obsolescence actually began in 1945, with the beginning of the nuclear era. The risk of escalation made conventional conflict between nuclear-armed states functionally impossible, by making it something that must be avoided. While this didn't stop the US and USSR from building up considerable conventional military forces, it meant (for example) that the Soviets could field a significantly larger conventional army than could the Americans without changing the balance of power. All of the money poured into the conventional militaries by the superpowers was functionally meaningless when it came to the threat each posed directly to the other. The Cold War military build-ups had other drivers -- power-projection against non-nuclear states (albeit with limited effectiveness), institutional bureaucracies that needed to be fed, and a conventional way of thinking that simply couldn't quite believe that the underlying system of military power had changed.

Nuclear weapons make conventional conflicts extremely unlikely between nuclear states. Historically, this meant that nuclear states could still mess around with conventional conflicts against non-nuclear states, with varying degrees of success. The growing empowerment of insurgent forces has now made conventional conflicts extremely costly and nearly impossible to win, as well. In time, this should come to make them extremely unlikely at the low end, too.*

Because this empowerment looks set to accelerate both technologically (such as with the advent of inexpensive fabbers or the proliferation of ultra-cheap, ultra-smart embedded processors and programming know-how) and organizationally (as the increased participation of various globally-distributed guerilla movements increases the pool of tactics and ways to test them), fights against networked insurgencies will only become more and more dangerous. If the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon don't sink in this time, the next attempt to use conventional military forces will lead to even costlier failure, and the next after that costlier still -- and, eventually, the fading hegemons, rising superpowers, regional badasses and so forth will finally realize that the Great Game they thought they'd been playing ended years ago.

But what's the new game? Networked insurgencies are just the latest in a long evolution of conflict. How, then, will the powerful again come to dominate the weak?

That remains to be seen, but it's almost certain to involve figuring out ways to achieve networked supremacy, rather than simple force supremacy. It will very likely be much more automated, in part due to the growing reluctance of post-industrial nations to give up the lives of soldiers, and in part due to the growing ability of semi-autonomous machines to carry out tasks beyond the capacity of the human body. Ideally, the proliferation of networked systems in the service of "politics by other means" might even allow for the development of tools that minimize casualties on all sides. (The stalled but brilliant web comic Spiders is one intriguing scenario of what that kind of world might look like.)

Despite the end of the utility of conventional force, the lack of certainty as to what the next wave of global compellence power will look like will inevitably lead to strategic mistakes. As we look ahead, it's clear that if another state -- say, China -- decides to take America's place as the leading hegemonic power on the planet by emulating the current American model of extreme emphasis on conventional force projection, that state has already become another Lost Hegemon. The system has changed, and the meaning of power has changed.

Conversely, the first group that cracks this problem has the potential to leapfrog the others in assuming the role of global powerhouse. Given the speed with which technology and organizational models are evolving, we can't assume it will be a state. Corporations seemed poised to take on that role in the 1990s; non-governmental groups are the lead candidates today. It's entirely possible that the kind of social organization that will become the next hegemonic force has yet to be invented. One thing is clear: the next superpower, whoever or whatever it is, will be the actor that finally figures out the new meaning of power.

* So what about India and Pakistan? They're both nuclear armed, and yet continue to shoot at each other. Ironically, this seems to be a result of the empowerment of insurgency. Nuclear rivals, not willing to risk the potential escalation of a conventional fight, may turn to the use of networked insurgency techniques as a way of maintaining a fight. As the power of networked insurgency continues to grow, however, even this may become untenable


Could you link to Part 1, because I can't find it.

American military force is not insufficient to quell the insurgency in Iraq.

It's an unwillingness to commit full military force, or a lack of efficient deployment of whatever amount of force is desired, that creates the inability to quell the insurgency.

Sorry, Justin. Will take care of that ASAP.

"Rip," clearly I disagree, and I'm not alone in that view. More forces on the ground may lead to more cities/neighborhoods temporarily pacified at the same time, but wouldn't change the structural conditions. Remember: the goal of an insurgency is not to defeat its enemy on the battlefield, but to make the costs of occupation unacceptably high. Arguably, more troops on the ground would ultimately only mean more targets for IEDs, more US families in anguish, and even louder calls to get out.

Does the US have the right objectives ? Is the objective to quell the insurgency ?

what does the networked insurgency achieve ? It causes trouble but it does not really benefit those who use it.

Should things like networked insurgency be managed through economic and other means similar to crime reduction, since path is not to "just win a war" (that could be done by just killing everyone in a region (which could easily be done by a standard military).

Economic competition and maximizing technological and economic benefits and opportunities seems to be the larger game. It should not be a zero sum game. So then who is or should be or needs to be an enemy ?

Iraq is a sideshow and a misguided waste of resources.

Maybe you misunderstood the term "force."

The US military could easily level Baghdad, or any town suspected of housing insurgents, with convential weapons. I'm sure if the US military completely shut the borders down, instituted martial law along with brutal interrogations and reprisals for non-compliance, and the Iraqi population was subjected to abject poverty and starvation, the insurgency would likely die out. They have to eat and get their weapons from somewhere.

"Force" is not being fully applied. I think it is important for you to make that distinction.

Now you may certainly introduce other variables into the equation like more IED targets and political unwillingness, but those are irrelevant when considering my initial point, which was that the US military is easily capable of using conventional force to not only end the insurgency, but end Iraq itself. Of course there is no political willingness to do this, but that doesn't mean it isn't theoretically possible.

Also, why the appeal to authority?

"clearly I disagree, and I'm not alone in that view."

(That's a fairly weak appeal to authority, you must admit: not pointing to anyone in particular, simply emphasizing that I'm not a lone wacko on this one.)

Rip, if you want to define force as purely the physical capacity to do violence, I agree that the US military has sufficient force to level Iraq (even without using nuclear weapons). That would, incidentally, likely be considered an act of genocide, which points to the problem with the purely physical definition: it makes no distinction between plausible and implausible actions.

Political willingness to use force has to be counted if you're talking about outcomes. Arguably, if war is politics by other means, the political context is the most important element.

And while the political willingness question very much includes domestic (US, in this case) acceptance of massive amounts of bombing, or a draft, or large numbers of casualties, it also includes the calculations of whether the escalation would actually achieve the desired political aims.

Because of the nature of insurgencies, escalations of violence -- whether the leveling of cities or the brutalization of the populace -- always hits civilians harder than it hits the insurgency. In turn, this drives more civilians into the insurgency, and makes far more sympathetic to the insurgency (where they may once have been in opposition).

In short, you're right: the US military has not come close to using its full force, in the sense of the unleashed capacity for destruction. But for me, the reason that it has not done so is more important than its ability to do so in the first place.

Eptified groups and individuals have the capacity to harry conventional superpower forces to a standstill within a civilian, non-combatant sea. Soon, smart toys like executive toy robots and helicopters will be able to deliver lethal payloads. The $100 laptop will become the guts of sophisticated armanents within a year of wide release.

This is indeed the time of global guerrillas and nobody I see in the public eye (watching the Republican "debate" as I type) understands that simple fact. They still want to fight a war along imaginary Maginot lines.

We, the readers of blogs like this, need to be the people who solve the problem of the Lost Hegemon and the hollow state first and leapfrog into our own future. We need to become global guerrillas for good, Gandhian and Kingian exemplars of peacemaking, wise as serpents and gentle as doves.

How do we practice global sociopolitical aikido, the way of harmonizing energy, force, power?

And we better do it soon.

I commend to you 'A Force More Powerful: A History of Non-Violent Conflict' by Jack DuVall and Peter Ackerman

The examples in that book refer more to strategies of passive resistance rather than guerilla warfare, but you will see that what Jamais is describing has been taking shape for a long time.

Effective insurgencies operate in a way that ensures authority can't make use of its assets (which most definitely includes force).

I appreciate you are speaking hypothetically, but levelling Iraq as you describe would make America more despicable than Al Qaedda and Saddam Hussein combined. Which is why it isn't an option.

And when brute force isn't working and you can't use any more of it, what do you do?


198 Methods of Nonviolent Action by Gene Sharp

We don't think of nonviolent responses because we are tutored in violence culturally instead.

Brute force, which is obviously relative, isn't being fully employed in Iraq, nor am I advocating its use. So there is no need for you, Tony, to state the obvious (although I may have done the same, but I didn't think that Mr. Cascio was distinguishing between force and the willingness to use total brute force).

How do the strong avenge themselves against the ungovernable weak? Through genocide. Eliminate the population. Then the insurgents have nothing left to swim in.

The population can be actively eliminated in the traditional sense of being trundled off to work-camps and gulags, or -- and this seems to me a likelier modern approach -- they can be abandoned to epidemics and starvation, blamed on the insurgents.

"We wanted to feed the city, but there were too many land-mines in the roads... so we dropped by a few months later, and woe, there just weren't any people. Wow. Shame on them for doing such terrible things to themselves."

I think it's true that a people's war will defeat a military occupation -- as long as there are people. "No people, no problems," as Stalin used to say. A Moslem insurgency wouldn't have the grandsom of Genghis Khan.

"In 1258 Baghdad was invested by a major Mongol force commanded by the non-Muslim Hülegü, a grandson of Genghis Khan, who had been sent from Mongolia expressly to deal with the 'Abbasids. The city fell on Feb. 10, 1258, and al-Musta'sim was executed shortly thereafter. Although the Mamluk sultans of Egypt and Syria later raised a figurehead or "shadow" caliph in Cairo, and after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517 the Ottoman sultans used the title caliph until the Ottoman "caliphate" was abolished by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) in 1924, the death of al-Musta'sim--the last universally recognized caliph--in fact represents the end of this great Islamic religio-political institution.

"Physically much of Baghdad was destroyed, and it is said that 800,000 of its inhabitants perished.

"Administratively the city was relegated to the status of a provincial centre. Other cities in Arabian Iraq, such as Al-Hillah, Al-Kufah, and Basra, readily came to terms with the conqueror and were spared. In Upper Iraq, Mosul was made the capital of the provinces of Diyar Bakr and Diyar Rabi'a. These provinces, like Arabian Iraq, were dependencies of the new Il-Khan Mongol polity, which was based in Azerbaijan. (The Il-Khans in turn were nominally subordinate to the Great Khan in China.)

"Although Baghdad may have retained a certain symbolic aura for Muslims, the city of Tabriz in Azerbaijan rapidly replaced it as the major commercial and political hub of the region. Mongol rule in Baghdad and Mosul generally took the form of a condominium consisting of a Muslim, Christian, or Jewish civilian administrator seconded by a Mongol garrison commander.

"Although under the Muslim Juvayni family of Khorasan (1258-85) there is some evidence that Baghdad began to recover somewhat from the devastation it had suffered at the hands of the Mongols, in general Iraq experienced a period of severe political and economic decline that was to last well into the 16th century."

Would THAT kind of military be obsolete in the 21st century?

"How do the strong avenge themselves against the ungovernable weak? Through genocide. Eliminate the population"

In other words, become a monster much worse than the enemy you face?

Bruce, think through the consequences of genocide. If the US tried to persue a policy of genocide in Iraq, would the officer corp obey? would the troops? would the american people? (i would take up arm against the government if it did,) and what about the rest of the world? economic boycot, high incentive for other nations to share nuclear, biological and chemical weapons to counter a rouge US. The cost of policy of genocide, is not worth it.

I guess my main argument is: In todays world, in order for a country to be strong it has to be legitimate. And no legitimate government can purse a policy of genocide.

And in a way, the backlash against an attempt at genocide would be part of the costs inflicted by the networked insurgency.

If genocide is the only viable option for conducting "conventional" warfare at this point -- and even that is not certain, really, given the disproportionate power of tech-empowered individuals -- then it's a serious bifurcation we're heading towards: one part of the world that faces the genocide option and turns away, and another that accepts it.

John Robb writes in email (and generously permits me to repost here):

I'm not sure that in a networked world anyone, even a networked force, can become a hegemon. It's too big, and the system resists size/dominance. Too big and you become slow. Too powerful and you become a target for others.

Don't be so quick to assume that it's America that would commit genocide to achieve political goals.

You can be guaranteed that the Shi'ites in Iraq would exterminate the Sunnis if given the chance, ie. if American troops leave and the Saudis don't invade Iraq afterwards (to protect Sunni interests).

And I would assume that the world would accept that genocide, just like they accept the genocide in Sudan, etc. For the Shi'ites and Iranians, it would be very much worth it.

Personally, I don't think that the U.S. populace or leadership would currently accept genocide as a political option.

As for Shi'a/Sunni in Iraq (and don't forget the Kurds...), while there are certainly elements within the Shi'a that would like to eliminate the Sunni, I don't think they would find it all that simple, even absent a Saudi intervention. It will be ugly when we leave, though, no matter when we leave.

The US has accepted genocide before (Indian wars) and may do so again. Certainly, we have been willing to aid governments that are committing genocidal actions, most recently I would suggest is Guatemala.

France, reportedly, faced the same kind of problem in Algeria. Famously, the commander there said he could stop the insurgents but he would have to eliminate the population in order to do it. At least they faced it squarely.

I was intentionally careful with my phrasing, -- I know that the US (along with pretty much everybody else) has engaged in genocidal practices in the past. I just think that, today, it would be a line too far.

Thanks, Jamais for carrying on a great topic. Sadly, the first thought I had after reading it was pretty much what Bruce laid out: that conventional military conquest is obsolete ONLY IF you are unwilling to obliterate populations. In the West there are supposed to be consequences for this kind of behavior, but there also seem to be plenty of exceptions (Bosnia, Darfur, Zimbabwe, perhaps Chechnya?) where a willingness to just kill everyone nets an aggressor something it values. The lesson Western nations should take is the one you ascribe but there are plenty of folks who may be taking the other lesson as well: we can't expect to be able to tame those barbarians, so we'll just have to kill them all. Unless the good guys are willing to step up to the plate and make that strategy ineffective, aggression will continue.

Related to the lost hegemon is an analysis that I have made where China passes the USA on an exchange basis in 2020

7.5% a year currency appreciation. 2.9 yuan to one US dollar.

This is plausible since the Euro appreciated 65% against the US dollar over the last seven years. The japanese yen appreciated 400% from 1971 to 1995.

The economic and political pressure is for Yuan appreciation.

China has chosen to stop accumulating US dollars. The Yuan will defacto become a reserve currency with China reinvesting in Yuan assets.

URL provides paper on subject written in 95-96 USMC Command and Staff. Perhaps of interest.


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