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. 


[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 :

[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:

[5] United States. (2017). The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Washington D.C. : The White House.  Retrieved from:

[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 :

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

Assessment of the Threat of Nationalism to the State Power of Democracies in the Information Age

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 Threat of Nationalism to the State Power of Democracies in the Information Age

Date Originally Written:  April 9, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  May 20, 2019.

Summary:  Historically, both scholars and political leaders have viewed nationalism as an advantageous construct that enhanced a state’s ability to both act and exert power within the international system.  Contrary to historic precedence, nationalism now represents a potential threat to the ability of modern democracies to project and exercise power due to demographic trends, globalized economies, and the information age. 

Text:  At its very core a nation is a collection of individuals who have come together through common interest, culture, or history, ceding a part of their rights and power to representatives through social compact, to purse safety and survival against the unknown of anarchy.  Therefore, a nation is its population, and its population is one measure of its overall power relative to other nations.  Academics and policy makers alike have long viewed nationalism as a mechanism that provides states an advantage in galvanizing domestic support to achieve international objectives, increasing comparative power, and reducing the potential impediment of domestic factors within a two-level game.  Globalization, the dawn of the information age, and transitioning demographics have fundamentally reversed the effects of nationalism on state power with the concept now representing a potential threat to both domestic stability and relative power of modern democracies. 

Looking beyond the material facets of population such as size, demographic trends, and geographic distribution, Hans Morgenthau identifies both “National Character” and “National Morale” as key elements of a nation’s ability to exert power. Morgenthau explains the relationship between population and power as “Whenever deep dissensions tear a people apart, the popular support that can be mustered for a foreign policy will always be precarious and will be actually small if the success or failure of the foreign policy has a direct bearing upon the issue of domestic struggle[1].  Historically, scholars have highlighted the role nationalism played in the creation and early expansion of the modern state system as European peoples began uniting under common identities and cultures and states utilized nationalism to solidify domestic support endowing them greater autonomy and power to act within the international system[2].  As globalization and the international movement of labor has made western nations ethnically more diverse, nationalism no longer functions as the traditional instrument of state power that was prevalent in periods where relatively homogenous states were the international norm.  

Key to understanding nationalism and the reversal of its role in state power is how it not only differs from the concept of patriotism but that the two constructs are incompatible within the modern paradigm of many industrialized nations that contain ever-growing heterogeneous populations.  Walker Connor described patriotism as “an emotional attachment to one’s state or country and its political institutions” and nationalism as “an attachment to ones people[3].”  A contemporary manifestation of this concept was the rise of Scottish Nationalism during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum that was in direct opposition to the greater state of the United Kingdom (patriotism) leading to the prospective loss of British power.  Furthermore, the term nationalism both conceptually and operationally requires a preceding adjective that describes a specific subset of individuals within a given population that have common cause, history, or heritage and are often not restricted to national descriptors. Historically these commonalities have occurred along ethnic or religious variations such as white, Hindu, Arab, Jewish, or black in which individuals within an in-group have assembled to pursue specific interests and agendas regardless of the state(s) in which they reside, with many such groups wishing to create nations from existing powers, such as Québécois or the Scots.  

The idea that industrialized nations in 2019 remain relatively homogenous constructs is a long outdated model that perpetuates the fallacy that nationalism is a productive tool for democratic states.  The average proportion of foreign-born individuals living in a given European country is 11.3% of the total population, Germany a major economic power and key NATO ally exceeds 15%[4].   Similar trends remain constant in the U.S., Canada, and Australia that have long histories of immigrant populations and as of 2015 14% of the U.S. population was foreign-born[5].    Furthermore, projections forecast that by 2045 white Americans will encompass less than 50% of the total population due to a combination of immigration, interracial marriages, and higher minority birth rates[6].  The aforementioned transitions are byproducts of a modern globalized economy as fertility rates within Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations have dropped below replacement thresholds of 2.1[7] the demand for labor remains.

One of the central components of the information age is metadata. As individuals navigate the World Wide Web, build social networks, and participate in e-commerce their personal attributes and trends transform into storable data. Data has become both a form of currency and a material asset that state actors can weaponize to conduct influence or propaganda operations against individuals or groups whose network positions amplifies effects.   Such actors can easily target the myriad of extra-national identities present within a given nation in attempts to mobilize one group against another or even against the state itself causing domestic instability and potential loss of state power within the international system.  Russian digital information operations have recently expanded from the former Soviet space to the U.S. and European Union and regularly target vulnerable or disenfranchised populations to provoke domestic chaos and weakening governance as a means to advance Russian strategic objectives[8].

As long as western democracies continue to become more diverse, a trend that is unalterable for at least the next quarter century, nationalism will remain a tangible threat, as malign actors will continue to subvert nationalist movements to achieve their own strategic objectives.  This threat is only intensified by the accessibility of information and the ease of engaging groups and individuals in the information age.  Nationalism in various forms is on the rise throughout western democracies and often stems from unaddressed grievances, economic misfortunes, or perceived loss of power that leads to consolidation of in-groups and the targeting of outgroup.  It remains justifiable for various individuals to want equal rights and provisions under the rule of law, and ensuring that systems are in place to protect the rights of both the masses from the individual (tyranny) but also the individual from the masses (mob rule) has become paramount for maintaining both state power and domestic stability.  It falls on citizens and policy makers alike within democracies to promote national identities that facilitate patriotism and integration and assimilation of various cultures into the populace rather than segregation and outgrouping that creates divisions that rival states will exploit. 


[1] Morgenthau, H., & Thompson, K. (1948). Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace-6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[2] Mearsheimer, J. J. (2011). Kissing Cousins: Nationalism and Realism. Yale Workshop on International Relations, vol. 5.

[3] Connor, W. (1993). Beyond Reason: The Nature of The Ethnonational Bond. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 373 – 389.

[4] Connor, P., & Krogstad, J. (2016, June 15). Immigrant share of population jumps in some European countries. Retrieved April 7, 2019, from Pew Research Center:

[5] Pew Resarch Center. (2015). Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S. Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065. Washington DC: Pew Rsearch Center.

[6] Frey, W. H. (2018, March 14). The US will become ‘minority white’ in 2045, Census projects. Retrieved April 8, 2019, from The Brookings Institution :

[7] World Bank. (2019). Fertility Rate, Total (Births per Women). Retrieved April 9, 2019, from The World Bank Group:

[8] Klein, H. (2018, September 25). Information Warfare and Information Perspectives: Russian and U.S. Perspectives.Retrieved April 6, 2019, from Columbia SIPA Journal of International Affairs:

Assessment Papers Information Systems James P. Micciche Nationalism