Assessment of the Role of Small Wars within the Evolving Paradigm of Great Power Competition in a Multipolar World

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.


James P. Micciche is an Active Component U.S. Army Civil Affairs Officer with deployment and service experience in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan, Europe, and Indo-Pacific.  He is currently a Master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessment of the Role of Small Wars within the Evolving Paradigm of Great Power Competition in a Multipolar World

Date Originally Written:  April 25, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  June 17, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is an Active Component U.S. Army Civil Affairs Officer with deployment and service experience in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the Indo-Pacific.

Summary:  The U.S. is scaling down the Global War on Terrorism and focusing on threats posed by a revisionist China and Russia and rogue nations such as Iran. In this context, limited military operations (small wars) will be useful in transforming counterterrorism methods, which previously dominated U.S. foreign policy, into being only one facet of a synchronized whole of government response in pursuit of U.S. policy objectives in contested spaces.

Text:  Over the past decade, the global balance of power has shifted to a multipolar construct in which revisionist actors such as China and Russia attempt to expand their spheres of influence at the expense of the U.S.-led liberal order.  The ongoing rebalance has been gradual and often conducted through a myriad of activities beyond kinetic operations as Russia, China, and regional actors such as Iran have shown a capability to capitalize on and create domestic instability as a means to expand influence, gain access to key terrain and resources, and reduce western influence.  The capacity to utilize limited military operations (small wars) as part of a focused, tailored, and comprehensive whole of government approach to deter threats and expansion from revisionist powers is paramount in promoting U.S. and Western interests within the modern paradigm.  Despite the prominent role engaging in limited operations at or more importantly below the level of conflict fulfills within the context of great power competition, it is far from a proverbial silver bullet as the rebalancing of power brings new parameters and risks that U.S. policy makers must understand before engaging  in any small war. 

Since the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United States and her Western allies have enjoyed an exorbitant amount of freedom to execute limited military operations and foreign domestic interventions due to what scholars termed the unipolar moment[1].   The 1990s saw the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) utilized as a guiding framework for Western engagement as liberal democracies intervened in the internal affairs of sovereign nations from Somalia to the Balkans to protect life and punish offenders[2].  Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States and many of her longtime allies began the Global War on Terror (GWOT) fundamentally changing U.S. foreign policy for the next two decades.  The GWOT gave rise to an unprecedented increase in U.S. foreign intervention as the specter of terrorism emerged in all corners of the globe and a series of Secretary of Defense-approved Execute Orders granted the DoD broad authorities to conduct counterterrorism operations worldwide.  

The extent to which global terrorism poses an existential threat to U.S. and other Western powers has been debated with valid and well-researched positions on both sides[3], but what is not debatable is that GWOT consumed vast amounts of the West’s material resources and attention — the U.S. alone has spent an estimated $5.9 Trillion since 9/11[4].  With the West focusing on countering non-state actors, revisionist nations began to build power and expand which became evident when Russia annexed Crimea and China began aggressively expanding into the South China Sea.  The 2017 National Security Strategy marked a turning point in contemporary U.S. foreign policy by codifying an end to the CT-focused strategy of the previous sixteen years and placing an emphasis on great power competition with near-peers, as the document declares in very clear language “…after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned. China and Russia reassert their influence regionally and globally[5].”   

Despite recent attempts by China and Russia to close the military capabilities gap between themselves and the U.S., the U.S. maintains an advantage, specifically in the global application and projection of power[6]. To overcome this disadvantage revisionist and rogue states utilize soft balancing (utilization of international structures to disrupt and discredit U.S. hegemony) at the strategic level[7] and hybrid warfare (population-centric operations that create instability) at the tactical and operational levels[8] to expand their influence and territory through activities that avoid direct confrontation.  The utilization and application of limited military operations (small wars) combined with other elements of state power can both identify and counter the aforementioned strategies employed by contemporary Western rivals while concurrently advancing U.S. strategic objectives. Within the small war paradigm, military actors have a wide range of applications that support U.S. strategic objectives that fall into three mutually supportive activities, mil-to-mil engagement, civ-mil engagement, and resistance operations.  

Persistent mil-to-mil engagements, exercises, and training missions help establish the U.S. as a partner of choice in strategically significant nations while simultaneously building partner capabilities within or adjacent to contested regions.  The deployment of Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations elements foster resiliency within vulnerable populations, denying adversaries access to key human terrain needed to conduct hybrid operations.  Resistance operations can manifest in defensive or offensive postures either supporting a partner nation from externally provoked and supported insurrection or undermining the capacity of rival nations to exert malign influence by supporting armed and unarmed opposition to the state. Military interventions are best as only one facet of a synchronized whole of government response in which the DoD might not be the lead agency.  Furthermore, as rivals compete over contested spaces the chances for escalation and international incident grows, a threat exponentially increased by the internationalization of civil wars, placing increased risk in direct military engagements. 

In the evolving context of great power competition, U.S. assets may not always be the best funded or equipped.  They will often face bureaucratic restrictions their rivals do not and potentially be deprived of access to key individuals or institutions.  These conditions will place a premium on individual interpersonal skills and international U.S. perception, so the U.S. can maintain a comparative advantage in soft power. To facilitate that advantage the U.S. will likely need to differentiate and categorize partners on not only their geopolitical importance but also the values that they represent and the company they keep.  Specifically the U.S. will likely examine the risks of collaborating with autocratic governments whose actions have the propensity to create domestic instability and an environment conducive to hybrid warfare.  Additionally, any government with substantial human rights concerns degrades the soft power of those that the international community perceives as their partners, a perception adversary information operations can greatly amplify.

As U.S. security strategy adapts and returns to a construct that places emphasis on challenges and threats from state actors the function, employment, and role of the small war will be useful to transform from a method of CT into a strategic instrument of national power that can support long-term U.S. objectives across the globe often below levels of conflict. 


Endnotes:

[1] Krauthammer, C. (1990). The Unipolar Moment. Foreign Affairs, 23-33. Retrieved from Foreign Affairs.

[2] Evans, G., & Sahnoun, M. (2002). The Responsibility to Protect. Foreign Affairs, 99-110.

[3] Brookings Institution. (2008, February 21). Have We Exaggerated the Threat of Terrorism. Retrieved from The Brookings Institution : https://www.brookings.edu/events/have-we-exaggerated-the-threat-of-terrorism/

[4] Crawford, N. C. (2018, November 14). United States Budgetary Csts of the Post-9/11 Wars Through FY2019: $5.9 Trillion Spend and Obligated. Retrieved from Watson Institute: https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2018/Crawford_Costs%20of%20War%20Estimates%20Through%20FY2019%20.pdf

[5] United States. (2017). The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Washington D.C. : The White House.  Retrieved from: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf

[6] Heginbotham, E. M. (2019). The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996–2017. Santa Monica: Rand Corporation.

[7] Pape, R. A. (2005). Soft Balancing Against the United States. International Security, 7-45.

[8] Chives, C. S. (2017, March 22). Understanding Russian “Hybrid Warfare” and What Can Be Done About IT. Retrieved from Rand Corporation : https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/testimonies/CT400/CT468/RAND_CT468.pdf

Assessment Papers Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) Great Powers James P. Micciche Small Wars Journal Writing Contest

Great Power Interaction: United States Options Towards Iran

Phillip J. Giampapa is a personnel security assistant contracted with United States Customs and Border Protection.  Prior to that, Phillip was a civil affairs specialist with the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and is currently an Officer Candidate in the Washington, D.C. Army National Guard.  Phillip has operational experience in Afghanistan and Qatar, as well as familiarity with the Levant and Gulf Countries.  He can be found on Twitter at @phillipgiampapa.  The views expressed in this article do not represent the views or policies of his employer, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.  


National Security Situation:  United States’ interactions with Iran under the Trump Administration.

Date Originally Written:  June 6th, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  August 7, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of a United States policymaker advising the Trump Administrations on possible options towards Iran.

Background:  In the Middle East, the Trump Administration has signaled its preference to strengthen relationships with the Sunni Gulf states by way of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  By strengthening relationships with the Sunni Gulf states, as well as announcing an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the United States appears willing to continue isolating Iran.  This has the potential to exacerbate tensions with Iran, which if one views it through an international relations theory lens, Iran will attempt to counteract actual or perceived Saudi (read: Sunni) influence gains to maintain balance in the region, as well as prevent loss of Iranian influence.

Iran has a variety of proxies, as well branches of its armed services serving in countries throughout the Middle East.  This is illustrated through the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, as well as deployment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria and Yemen.  This does not include the activities of the IRGC in other countries that include Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan[1].  Iran’s military adventurism throughout the Middle East serves to advance the foreign policy agenda of its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei[1].  Put succinctly, the foreign policy agenda of the Supreme Leader is the expansion of Iranian (read: Shia) influence throughout the Middle East to serve as an ideological counterweight against the expansion of Saudi/Wahhabi ideology.

Recently, on May 20, 2017, Iran held a presidential election.  The incumbent, President Hassan Rouhani, won re-election by receiving 57% of the vote[2].  Mr. Rouhani is seen as a reformer in Iran, and he is expected to attempt most of his proposed reforms now that he is in his second term.  How many reforms will actually take place is anyone’s guess, as is the influence Mr. Rouhani will have on IGRC policy, but it will be a factor that should be considered when considering the United States’ approach to great power interactions.

Significance:  The Middle East will continue to be a region that perplexes United States policymakers.  United States’ Allies will continue to be confused as to policy direction in the Middle East until more fidelity is provided from Washington.  Iranian meddling will continue in sovereign nations until it is addressed, whether diplomatically or militarily.  Furthermore, Iranian meddling in the region, and interference in the affairs of sovereign nations, will continue to destabilize the Middle East and exacerbate tensions in areas where conflict is occurring, such as Syria and Yemen.  A complete withdrawal of the United States’ presence in the region would likely create a stronger vacuum potentially filled by an adversary.  As such, the United States must choose the option that will provide the strongest amount of leverage and be amicable to all parties involved in the decision.

Option #1:  Maintain the status quo – the United States continues to strengthen Sunni states and isolate Iran.  Through maintaining the status quo, the United States will signal to its allies and partners in the Middle East that they will continue to enjoy their relationship with the United States as it exists in current form.  President Trump’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia signals this intent through proposed arms sales, announcing the establishment of a center to combat extremism, and the use of negative language towards Iran.

Risk:  The risk inherent in pursuing Option #1 is that the window of opportunity on having a moderate, reform-minded person as President of Iran will eventually close.  Through isolating Iran, it is likely they will not be keen on attempting to make overtures to the United States to reconsider the relationship between the two countries.  Since the United States is not going to pursue a relationship with Iran, other countries will seek to do so.  The risk of missed economic opportunities with an Iran that is an emerging market also has the possibility of closing the window for the United States to be involved in another area where it can exert its influence to change Iranian behavior.

Gain:  Through maintaining the status quo that exists in the Middle East, the United States can be sure that pending any diplomatic, political, or international incidents, it can maintain its presence there.  The United States can continue to nurture the preexisting relationships and attempt to maintain the upper hand in its interactions with Iran.  The United States will also remain the dominant player in the great power interactions with other countries in the Middle East.

Option #2:  The United States strengthens its relationship with Iran through moderate reformers and building relationships with moderates in Sunni states to provide shared interests and commonalities.  Given the propensity of nation-states to expand their power and influence, whether through political or military means, it is likely inevitable that conflict between Iran and the Sunni states will take place in the near future.  If a relationship can be built with moderates in the Iranian government as well as Sunni states, it is possible that commonalities will overlap and reduce tensions between the different powers.

Risk:  The risk exists that neither rival will want to have the United States attempting to influence matters that may be viewed as neighborly business.  The possibility also exists that neither nation would want to build a relationship with the other, likely originating from the religious leaders of Iran or Saudi Arabia.  Finally, the worst-case scenario would be that any type of relationship-building would be undercut through actions from independent and/or non-state actors (i.e. terrorist groups, minority religious leaders, familial rivals from ruling families).  These undercutting actions would destroy trust in the process and likely devolve into reprisals from both sides towards the other.

Gain:  Through interacting with Iran, the United States and other powers can establish relationships which could eventually allow the opportunity to address grievances towards existing policies that serve to inflame tensions.  It is also likely that by having a partner in Iran, instability in the Middle East can be addressed in a more effective manner than is currently being done right now.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] REPORT: Destructive role of Irans Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the Middle East. (2017, March). Retrieved June 06, 2017, from http://www.eu-iraq.org/index.php/press-releases/item/851-report-destructive-role-of-iran’s-islamic-revolutionary-guard-corps-irgc-in-the-middle-east

[2] Erdbrink, T. (2017, May 20). Rouhani Wins Re-election in Iran by a Wide Margin. Retrieved June 06, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/20/world/middleeast/iran-election-hassan-rouhani.html?_r=0

Great Powers Iran Option Papers Phillip J. Giampapa United States

Call for Papers: Options or Assessments for Great Power Interaction

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Summary:

Divergent Options is calling for papers assessing or discussing options that Great Powers, Nations, Organizations, Groups, or Individuals have regarding Great Powers.  While there are different definitions or theories behind what a Great Power is, Divergent Options is not wedded to any one of them.

Please limit your article to 1,000 words and write using our  Options Paper or Assessment Paper templates which are designed for ease of use by both writers and readers alike.

Please send your article to submissions@divergentoptions.org by August 4, 2017.

If you are not interested in writing on this topic we still welcome individual articles on virtually any national security situation an author is passionate about.  Please do not let our call for papers cause you to hesitate to send us your idea.  We look forward to hearing from you!

A Few Questions From Twitter Followers & Elsewhere to Inspire Potential Writers:

What countries are Great Powers and why?

Which Great Powers are on becoming more powerful and why?  Which Great Powers are declining and why?

What role should Great Powers or one specific Great Power have in the world?

On what issues should Great Powers attempt to lead the world?

How can nations band together to protect their interests from a Great Power?

How can nations work with a Great Power to pursue their interests?

What is more important to a Great Power, individuals, administrative behavior, or the constraints of the international system?

What are options for Great Power cooperation on counterterrorism / stability / peacekeeping / counterinsurgency in the age of “America First?”

Call For Papers Great Powers