With irregular warfare now the norm, diplomats need to take the lead in resolving conflicts, not the military.
With the end of the great military confrontation in Central Europe, world wars are unlikely to recur. In the heteropolar world order that’s arising, tensions will be generated and sparks will fly, but major powers will find non-violent ways to resolve their differences. They must, if the catastrophic consequences associated with the failure to accommodate power shifts in the 20th century – two world wars and the Cold War – are not to be repeated.
State failure in secondary areas, on the other hand, can be managed – so to speak – mainly through denial, an averted gaze, or, not infrequently, wilful blindness. Amid the residual conflicts that remain in the age of globalization, small-scale, irregular wars, such as those being waged in Afghanistan and Iraq, and asymmetrical wars, such as the Global War on Terror, have moved to centre stage. Essentially discretionary in nature, these somewhat exotic, episodic contests have pitted regular militaries against an unconventional opposition, at best with mixed results. Such types of conflict are often conflated and are becoming more common. Yet success – as expressed through greater security – has not been achieved.
Foreign ministries, among others, have not been preoccupied with assessing the meaning of these sorts of shifts, or the impact on how they conduct their operations abroad. Not so, however, with departments of defence. In 1989, a group of serving and former members of the U.S. military, mainly marines, put forth a very focused discussion of insurgency in a paper entitled Fourth-Generation Warfare (4GW).
The authors maintain that the essence of warfare has evolved from massed manpower to massed firepower to manoeuvre and now to a fourth stage characterized by asymmetry. The old linear, hierarchic, and orderly doctrines and practices must therefore be replaced by an appreciation of the unpredictable, loosely networked, and disorderly conditions so prevalent in battle today, particularly in the often remote and turbulent areas where most of contemporary conflict occurs.
The ever-evolving nature of war has been captured especially eloquently by retired British general Sir Rupert Smith in The Utility of Force. Smith maintains that the all-out struggles of the 20th century – epic trials of strength he terms “industrial war” – have been made obsolete by nuclear weapons and replaced by a battle of wills, or a “war amongst the people,” whose outcomes must ultimately be settled by political rather than military means. This was the case for conflicts in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Algeria, and Vietnam. A related lesson was painfully relearned in Iraq, and the need to find a negotiated end to NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan will almost certainly become the received wisdom there.
The sad experience with the initially inept, uncoordinated response of the international community to the recent earthquake in Haiti provides a different angle on this observation. Decades of military intervention from a variety of outside forces, followed sometimes by internationally supervised elections, have not proven a substitute for the wholesale failure of development in that nation.
Irregular warfare has become the new normal in global conflict. Its prevalence has given rise to innovative approaches to conflict management, such as the “Three-Block War” and Canada’s 3D (defence, development, diplomacy) approach to international intervention. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Defense released a new counterinsurgency strategy, and strategic studies scholars are moving to organize and codify the various new approaches.
Some see all of this amounting to a “revolution in military affairs,” a theory that originated in the U.S. and proved very popular with the Bush administration. Adherents suggest that changes in technology and organization have transformed the ways in which wars can and should be fought.
This “revolution” has not produced the results its proponents predicted. Instead, it has prompted observations that:
- The technologically strong cannot necessarily or always defeat the militarily weak, especially if the latter have the support of the local population;
- Insurgent forces can inflict (politically) significant casualties on a much better-armed opposition; vulnerability has become mutual;
- When organized militaries, regardless of their notional capacities, pursue irregular militants, victory can by no means be assured; blowback is likely;
- And tactical, real-time intelligence plus precision munitions cannot replace boots on the ground.
All of this is fine, but an even larger message seems to have been missed.
If counterinsurgency is 80 per cent political, then why ask the military to take the lead in the first place? Their resources have attracted such tasking, yet this is – or should be – a job for diplomats.
That said, policy-planning units in foreign ministries have for the most part not been engaged in thinking through the implications. This is regrettable, because political officers and public diplomacy should have a central role in addressing the drivers of contemporary conflict.