The real enemy in modern war is our one-dimensional history
One-sided, long-held beliefs about warfare, government, and politics have created a grand strategic flaw in common definitions of power and security
Carl von Clausewitz, Max Weber, and Thomas Aquinas walk into a darkened, old bar and order a glass of Kopskiekelwein, a Negroni cocktail, and a glass of wild fruit wine, respectively. The rest is history, and we may be living in an era of endless war because of it.
Clausewitz told us “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” and the world largely still sees it that way. Max Weber promulgated that a nation state holds the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, and most countries cling to the idea so ferociously that they view terrorist attacks as an existential threat to global world order. Aquinas wisely crafted the Just War Doctrine to entreat humanity to make the destructive forces of warfare a last resort for settling political and societal conflicts. Separately, these three doctrines have stood up well over time. But just as the combination of these theorists’ hypothetical cocktails would make for a horrible hangover, so are the implications of these theories having been combined over time.
With war’s death and destruction, it is understandable why Aquinas would want it to be a last resort. When blended with Clausewtiz’s theory that war is not wanton violence but a means for policy, however, warfare becomes an intoxicating solution to what seems like every intractable political conflict. Moreover, the combination of theories leads to an entrenched assumption that physical might—the ability to defend against or project overwhelming violence—is the most definitive form of power. If it is a “last resort,” there is nothing left to try, reducing the desire for innovative solutions or de-escalation.
Similarly, the mixture of Clausewitz’s ideas with Weber’s leads one to believe in the sanctity of a nation state as the ultimate decision-making body. If the nation state is the authority that chooses when, how, and for what reasons people will go to war, potentially condemning an entire generation to bloodshed and economic hardship, then it would seem logical to trust it for other societal and political decisions. This is a frightening concept when the decision to go to war is limited to a few individuals, if not one man, leaving throngs of people likely to suffer without a say in whether war was the last resort or if the objectives were worth it. Moreover, the endurance of the Westphalian model has duped us into believing that nation states are essential for global order and stability. The idea that other models could be better seems to escape our inebriated imaginations.
The other side of history
The reason these historical theories hold such sway over us is because we have allowed them to become the default definitions of national security, governance, and global stability. We no longer challenge their validity, but the only history we know is the history that has been recorded. A painfully self-evident comment until you recognize that history was overwhelmingly recorded by men who, without malice, mistook their experiences, observations, and analyses as representative of all humankind. Yet, actual history reveals a two-sided experience that included just as significant a contribution to socio-political concepts from “woman the gatherer” as from “man the hunter.”
In 1966, seventy-five international scholars held a symposium at the University of Chicago and produced the study, “Man the Hunter.” They concluded that “man’s universal hunting way of life” was responsible for a “crucial stage of human development,” solidifying the mythology that man’s experience is representative of all experience and that our understanding of society, politics, conflict, etc., derive from “man the hunter.”
Trailblazing female anthropologist, Sally Slocum, challenged that conclusion with, “Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology.” Slocum uncovered that the skills and tools of gatherers evolved other crucial aspects of human development, including strategic planning and collaboration to overcome food shortages and weather disruptions; expansive teaching of communal norms and forms of communication; and of course, lengthening the bonding time with offspring to solidify belonging and trust.
One can argue persuasively that without the ability to destroy the proverbial saber-tooth tiger, the gatherer’s work would be unnecessary. Nonetheless, what the gatherers were doing for most of human history – as hunter-gatherers lasted nearly 2 million years whereas modern agrarian society is at best 10,000 years old – evolved what today is called governance. From a gatherer’s perspective, good governance requires bonding, collaboration, education, and the protection of all to ensure adequate resources for human wellbeing. In other words, there is so much more to creating a safe, secure, and enduring sense of wellbeing than locking the windows and doors. And without wellbeing, why bother saving ourselves from the saber-tooth tigers?
Modern power competition should draw lessons from herstory
The one-sided, long-held beliefs about warfare, government, and politics have created a grand strategic flaw in common definitions of power and security. Physical strength is not the ultimate form of power. It may take the global coronavirus pandemic to wake up the world to the fact that security is transcendent and it is provided by other means than military might. Furthermore, the legitimate actors who can provide this security not only exist outside the nation state framework, but also increasingly are more capable and trustworthy.
Societal security is not limited to defending borders and preserving nation states. It extends to broader capacities to influence behavior and beliefs on a more personal and powerful level. Influence is a force so entrenched that it is more enduring than the destruction of war. To influence a person is to leave a part of yourself alive in them and a legacy that can last forever. Every parent, teacher, and religious leader knows this. It is essential that policymakers and citizens alike re-examine their assumptions about the value of might and grasp the enduring power of influence so instinctive in gatherers.
Globalization and the Internet enable people to connect and invite influence — based on social, emotional, faith, and other self-identifiers — in ways far outside the political structures that for millennia had dictated the physical limits of precisely those connections. Individuals are bonding to others around the globe instantly, at will, and without any reference to political structures or nation-state borders.
In this era of rapid technological advancements, politics has not kept pace with the profound impact that technology has on so many important aspects of our lives—well beyond where we live. Advances in technology are implemented without extending invitations to government for regulation. Competition drives innovations so fast that bureaucracies associated with nation states are too slow to engage in meaningful ways. As a result, corporations—and even empowered individuals or “influencers”—hold sway over massive societal issues.
Responses to the global coronavirus pandemic is a current example of the decreasing value of governments and the increased value of the private sector. While some governments have sought to control the flow of information as a substitute for the capacity to stop the disease, many private sector companies, global nonprofit organizations, and wealthy or knowledgeable empowered individuals have stepped in to ensure transparency of information and to fill gaps in capabilities to arrest the pandemic and reassure their communities.
Similarly, the primary foreign power struggle of 2016 between the United States and Russia occurred substantially within Facebook’s realm, and it was up to Facebook to handle the threat that Russia posed to America’s democratic republic. Social media platforms are redefining how humans interact and creating the rules and norms without the direction or assistance of governments. Traditional political powers are slow to comprehend the threat to their relevance from this revolutionary trend in part because they are not typically run by digital natives—at least not yet.
In this technologically advanced, globalized world, influence is the most significant form of power and it flows at high speed in many forms. Actors who increasingly originate outside traditional political structures and who are able to project influence that transcends identities will be powerful. As power struggles anchored in influence become more prominent, they will call the purpose of traditional warfare further into question. It may be that we find ourselves already in endless wars today because physical power and politics are not as relevant to humankind as they once were, and that fact is least understood by the very political structures that decide to go to war—nation states.
Without having to defer to political parties, presidents, monarchs, or despots to tell people who they are, they have less need and perhaps less desire for nation states to structure their lives. After all, what is more fundamental to your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness than your identity? So how will we settle power struggles in the diffusion of a world dominated by this new socio-political structure of “identity-ism” – identities that are so strong that they can bind communities across oceans and borders, but at the same time create bitter divisions within even the closest families?
Identity resilience in the age of influence conflict
The answer comes back not surprisingly to individuals, starting with what information and from whom an individual invites influence. After all, there is nothing as free as one’s mind. A woman who consistently fears sexual assault does not have the luxury of physical safety, which is why so many women reject the notion that the physical domain is the epicenter of security. Despite the vulnerability of her body, however, she can remain secure in her own identity and free to deny any long-term influence by an assailant on her wellbeing. Never underestimate the strength of an independent mind and soul in a broken body.
Identity resilience is the neutralizer for influence conflict—from a personal to national scale. Security is built by taking ownership of one’s own thinking and choosing to deny the influence of a threat on one’s character—even when the attack is unstoppable. This kind of security can resist provocations and exhibit the fortitude to let some insults and threats go unanswered. When an individual has a strong sense of identity, malign external influence is irrelevant. This is as true for America as it is for the kid being bullied on the playground.
America has allowed the last 20 years of a global war on terror to reduce its national identity to what it is against, rather than what America stands for. Terrorist attacks are horrible and will forever be tragedies, but they do not threaten the continuity of the U.S. Constitution nor America’s national identity, unless Americans let them. As Abraham Lincoln said, “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
In this era of globalization where everyone is free to choose her or his identity, U.S. leaders across the public and private sectors should clarify what it means to be an American to Americans first, before promoting an American way of life to others. America has been destroying its national identity with divisiveness, intolerance, incivility, hatred, and even violence. Who would want to emulate that? Adversaries will continue their attempts to weaken democracy and can only be effectively stopped when Americans set aside the different interpretations they hold of the Constitution, and instead, celebrate the unity in their loyalty to it.
The strength of identity resilience in an American context is that it can celebrate the Constitution’s system of checks and balances and the refusal to allow a temporary majority to otherwise sacrifice the rights, wants, and needs of the minority. By placing unity above the spoils of majority victory, Americans show gridlock to be a strength, not a failure or weakness. By embracing self-restraint, Americans secure the freedom of each and every citizen to exercise her or his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—the fundamental purpose of U.S. democracy.
But with this freedom comes responsibility, and the need for discipline, tolerance, and courage in the face of uncertainty. As the framers put it in that classic Cold War treatise, NSC-68, “the free society does not fear, it welcomes, diversity. It derives its strength from its hospitality even to antipathetic ideas.” Those qualities of tolerance and forbearance will be essential in confronting the challenges of modern power struggles. They require patience, commitment, courage and the most difficult attribute of all, faith.
With over thirty years of public service to the U.S. Constitution through six presidencies, I have seen America rise as one identity to meet many challenges, as well as suffer the wounds of many tragedies. The national security community—military and civilian alike—willingly put their lives in harm’s way without questioning the worthiness of supporting and defending their American way of life. Those of us who serve have profound faith in our system of governance.
If national security professionals can endure these hardships and still have faith in that system, then perhaps Americans from all walks of life could celebrate the ties that bind us over the offenses that separate us. The authors of NSC-68 weaponized tolerance to enable all Americans to play a role in destroying totalitarianism: “the free society values the individual as an end in himself, requiring of him only that measure of self-discipline and self-restraint which make the rights of each individual compatible with the rights of every other individual.”
Choosing this course takes great courage, especially in an Internet age marked by ever-shortening attention spans and the satisfaction of exacting immediate retribution for perceived grievances. But if one’s identity is strong, it can endure attack without having to respond with attack. If one’s identity is worthy of respect, it is capable of respecting others. If one’s national identity is freedom-loving, then its citizens can tolerate divided opinions and beliefs.
So, while Clausewitz, Weber, and Aquinas enjoy their ancient cocktails quietly in the dark corner of the bar, imagine a group of young American women opening the door to let the sunlight in and ordering a round of craft beers for everyone.