Assessing the Fungibility of U.S.-Soviet Competitive Strategies

James P. Micciche is a U.S. Army Strategist and Civil Affairs Officer with deployment and service experience in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan, Europe, and Indo-Pacific. He is currently the G5 at the Security Forces Assistance Command and can be found on Twitter @james_micciche. 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:  Assessing the Fungibility of U.S.-Soviet Competitive Strategies 

Date Originally Written:  February 13, 2021.

Date Originally Published:  March 22, 2021.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that replicating Soviet Cold War strategy will not guarantee the United States success vis-à-vis China in 2021.  Rather than simply replicating Cold War strategy, the United States’ time would be better spent developing a deeper understanding of itself, its rival, and the operating environment. 

Summary:  Nations build successful competitive strategies around a comprehensive understanding of themselves, their rivals, and the environment in which they compete. As the United States and China enter a geopolitical rivalry there is merit in studying the strategy the United States implemented against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Albeit earlier success, the geopolitical environment of 2021 limits core tenets of U.S. Soviet strategy, requiring a more precise knowledge of the modern milieu to succeed.

Text:  Over the past decade U.S. foreign policy has increasingly focused on a rising geopolitical rivalry between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In 2011, the Obama administration implemented a “pivot to the pacific[1],” establishing a cooperative policy to counter rising Chinese influence throughout the region. The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy, which mentions China 36 times, directly outlined both the global and regional challenges China represents to “American security and prosperity[2].” In his first foreign policy speech President Biden declared his administration will, “take on directly the challenges posed to our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China[3].”  

Sino-focused policy and rhetoric from three consecutive U.S. Presidential administrations has led policymakers, academics, and even the media to declare the United States and China are entering, or already in, a new Cold War. Codifying the relationship between the two powers as Cold War 2.0 creates a dangerous perception that implementing the same strategies used throughout the U.S.-Soviet Cold War will lead to a successful outcome for the United States over China.  While there is much utility in studying the competitive strategy utilized by the United States that contained Soviet expansion and facilitated the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) one cannot simply re-operationalize previous USSR-focused tenets against China and expect similar results.  J.C. Wylie warns of crafting strategy based solely on past success, “such a theory does not necessarily account for what could have happened but did not, and the theory cannot be applied to future events with consistent rigor[4].”  

The lack of fungibility of Soviet-era U.S. Policy to modern Sino-U.S. competition is predicated on the vast differences in the strategic operating environment between the two time periods. Due to the information age, hyper globalization, geographical differences, and the decreasing utility of military force many of the domain-specific advantages that the United States enjoyed in its 40-year struggle with the Soviet Union no longer exist or are in fact now beneficial to the PRC. This lack of domain-specific advantages nullifies portions of the successful U.S. competitive strategy utilized against the USSR which according to Gordon S. Barrass “was based on exploiting America’s sustainable comparative advantage[5].” 

To craft a comprehensive competitive strategy against China U.S. policy makers must understand the USSR and the PRC are different agents, as is the modern United States compared to the United States during the Cold War. Most importantly though, any successful strategy must first define and then operationalize the constraints, challenges, and opportunities that the strategic operating environment presents. 

The Cold War began in the aftermath of the Second World War in which most of Europe and large parts of Asia had suffered immense damage to infrastructure and staggering loss of life. Out of this geopolitical situation emerged a bipolar balance of power between the two nations best positioned at the end of the war: the USSR and the United States. Inversely, the rise of the Sino-U.S. rivalry has occurred in one of the most stable and peaceful time periods in modern history in terms of the number of interstate conflicts. Japan and Germany highlight how dissimilar the starting points between these two rivalries are as those two nations barely had functioning economies in 1947 and now represent the 3rd and 4th largest in terms of Gross Domestic Product[6].  In fact, scholars debate the very balance of power of the modern paradigm with scholastic descriptions ranging from unipolarity[7] to nonpolarity[8],a drastic difference from the bipolarity of 1947-1991. 

The development and expansion of the liberal rules base international order following World War 2 created an underlying hegemonic structure the Soviets were not part of. Instead, the USSR championed an ideological alternative system. Due to hyper globalization and its inclusion in multiple organizations and instruments of the liberal world order, China has become an integral and interdependent part of the global economic and diplomatic network. A revisionist actor who benefits from the same system as its primary competitor will attempt “rules-based revision[9]” by changing the system internally for its benefits, something the USSR could not attempt in the Cold War due to its isolation from and competition against the American led system. For example, in 2019 China accounted for the largest amount of U.S. imports and was the third largest destination for U.S. exports[10], a level of economic interdependence that was unheard of between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and a limiting factor to the types of strategies the U.S. can use against China, particularly in an environment in which military force is not as fungible as it once was[11].

Another marked difference is the ideological exportation of the USSR and the PRC. Throughout the Cold War the USSR and its allies attempted to export communism and while China is a “communist” nation it has not taken up the charge of fomenting a global socialist revolution since the USSR’s fall and in fact been a major part of global capitalism.  Rather, China exports a form of autocratic ideology through loans, projects, and technology enabling authoritarian regimes and leaders to stay in power and establishing corrupt and beneficial relationships for China across the globe especially in developing nations.

The final variance between the two periods is the diffusion of national barriers in the information age. Propaganda and information operations were significant facets of U.S. and Soviet strategies, but their effects were mitigated and diffused by national barriers.  In 2021 states bypass borders directly targeting select populations of rival states. This capability is not uniform and creates a glaring asymmetry between democracies and autocracies as the latter uses the former’s inherent liberties to “cut, razor-like, into the fabric of a society, stoking and amplifying existing divisions[12].” 

The successful competitive strategy the United States operationalized against the USSR in the latter half of the Cold War was predicated on detailed understanding of not just the adversary but more importantly the strategic environment. As the United States reenters a period that some are labeling a new Cold War, it will not succeed as it did against the USSR without redeveloping a comprehensive understanding of itself, its adversary, and the paradigm before it applies any previously successful framework.


[1] Manyin, M. E., Daggett, S., Dolven, B., Lawrence, S. V., Martin, M. F., O’Rourke, R., & Vaughn, B. (2012, March). Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s” Rebalancing” Toward Asia. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS WASHINGTON DC CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE.

[2] Trump, D. J. (2017). National security strategy of the United States of America. Executive Office of The President Washington DC Washington United States.

[3] Biden, Joseph, (2021, February 4). Remarks by President Biden on America’s Place in the World (transcript). The White House.

[4] Wylie Jr, J. C. (2014). Military strategy: a general theory of power control. Naval Institute Press. Pg. 58

[5] Barrass, Gordon. (2012) U.S. Competitive Strategy During the Cold War. Mahnken, T. G. (Ed.). (2012). Competitive strategies for the 21st Century: Theory, history, and practice. Stanford University Press. 86-87

[6] World Bank, World Development Indicators, (2019), GDP (current US$){Data file}.

[7] Sears, Nathan A. (2016). China, Russia, and the Long ‘Unipolar Moment.’ The Diplomat,

[8] Haass, R. N. (2008). The age of nonpolarity: what will follow US dominance. Foreign affairs, 44-56.

[9] Goddard, S. E. (2018). Embedded revisionism: Networks, institutions, and challenges to world order. International Organization, 72(4), 763-797.

[10] Office of the United States Trade Representatives. (2019). The People’s Republic of China. Country and Regions.,was%20%24345.2%20billion%20in%202019.

[11] Baldwin, D. A. (1999). Force, fungibility, and influence.

[12] Walker, C., & Ludwig, J. (2017). From ‘soft power’to ‘sharp power’: Rising authoritarian influence in the democratic world. Sharp power: Rising authoritarian influence, 8-25


Assessment Papers China (People's Republic of China) Cold War Competition Economic Factors Governing Documents and Ideas James P. Micciche Soviet Union United States

U.S. Below War Threshold Options Against China

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

James P. Micciche is a U.S. Army Strategist and Civil Affairs Officer with deployment and service experience in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan, Europe, and Indo-Pacific. He is currently a Command and General Staff Officer Course student and can be found on Twitter @james_micciche. 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:  As China rises to become a Great Power and other nations lack the will to counter this rise via armed conflict, options below the level of armed conflict are required.

Date Originally Written:  July 20, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  September 21, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes the United States must increase its capability and efforts to compete with China below levels of armed conflict.

Background:  The 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) specifically identifies China as a revisionist competing against the United States. The NSS describes the objectives of revisionist nations as, “contesting our geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor[1].” Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth identify China as the driving force of a systemic realignment, “the system has shifted from 1 superpower plus X great powers to 1+1+X, with China occupying a middle category as an emerging potential superpower[2].”

Significance:  China currently avoids directly challenging U.S. hegemony and instead utilizes two primary strategies to expand influence and advance objectives below levels of conflict.

The first strategy, “Three Warfares,” seeks “to break adversary resistance and achieve Chinese national objectives with little or no actual fighting[3].” The three “warfares” are public opinion, psychological operations, and legal warfare. The first two warfares attempt to dominate the information domain and the third warfare targets both international and national structures as a means to make them more conducive to Chinese objectives.

The second strategy uses China’s growing economic power to expand China’s political power.  This expansion is done through a combination of debt-laden investments, economic coercion, and predatory liberalism, which describes how China weaponizes market access to suppress public criticism from companies and nations alike[4].

These two strategies mutually support each other as predatory liberalism enables information dominance facilitating further coercive economic expansion enabling systemic changes to legal structures. Former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster described this vanguard of Chinese expansion as “a delegation of bankers and party officials with duffel bags full of cash[5],” rather than the traditional military elements of national power associated with historical revisionist expansion. This paper will provide three options to degrade China’s capability and deter their will to execute the aforementioned strategies.

Option #1:  The United States resurrects previous capabilities in an effort to dominate the information environment.

China’s Three Warfares and economic programs are predicated upon dominance of the information environment which is “comprised of and aggregates numerous social, cultural, cognitive, technical, and physical attributes that act upon and impact knowledge, understanding, beliefs, world views, and, ultimately, actions of an individual, group, system, community, or organization[6].” The United States is unable to compete within this environment due to a lack of bureaucratic coherence and leadership[7]. In this option, the United States recreates an Information Age version of the United States Information Agency (USIA) empowering it not only to counter malign Chinese efforts but also potentially propagate messaging into China itself against an autocratic state that severely restricts external information access to its citizens.

Risk:  Establishing an empowered and aggressive USIA could lead to an increase in China’s use of psychological operations, sharp power, and media manipulation against the U.S. and other regional partners. There are also legal concerns regarding U.S. Government filters on speech, press, or information consumed by U.S. citizens.

Gain:  Reestablishing information dominance enhances U.S. soft power globally and fosters resiliency against Chinese manipulation both domestically and abroad. Gaining the capability to target domestic Chinese populations as a form of punitive deterrence restricts China’s aggression across the whole spectrum of competition.

Option #2:  The United States reestablishes and expands the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with nations throughout the Indo-Pacific region that excludes China.

This TPP 2.0 would specifically address intellectual property rights, Chinese foreign direct investment review processes, and provide smaller nations access to development funds through USAID, The World Bank, and similar organizations. TPP 2.0 would expand from the original 11 signatories to include India, the Philippines, and South Korea.

Risk:  By utilizing their quasi command economy and authoritarian state structure, China could attempt to take substantial economic losses to create an alternative structure to counter U.S. efforts. There might be apprehension from potential TPP 2.0 members due to the unilateral withdraw from TPP by the Trump administration in 2017 placing the United States at a disadvantage in negotiations.

Gain:  TPP 2.0 would provide preferential treatment to U.S. goods, thus increasing market access. It would improve the economies of small Indo-Pacific nations, fostering resiliency to Chinese economic coercion. TPP 2.0 would deny China access to benefits unless it discontinued intellectual property theft, predatory FDI practices, and other malign economic behaviors. Increased trade costs and potential exclusion would undercut much of the funding needed to complete Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects. TPP 2.0 enables the creation of alternate supply chains and offshoring options outside of China allowing U.S. firms to protect intellectual property while still reducing costs to U.S. consumers and remaining globally competitive.

Option #3:  The United States harasses and impedes China’s terrestrial expansion.

Chinese competition below levels of conflict includes land and sea-based building programs ranging from constructing artificial islands within the South China Sea to infrastructure projects associated with the BRI initiative. The United States could take overt and covert actions to drive up the costs of Chinese expansion. Overt efforts include funding local environmental and cultural heritage groups that oppose Chinese projects and foster local resistance, which increase regulatory or construction costs. Covert efforts include incentivizing maritime proxies to harass and impede the use of Chinese paramilitary maritime militia in the South China Sea.

Risk:  If direct U.S. funding of proxies becomes known, there could be irreversible damage to the United States’ reputation and advantages in soft power and the information domains. Funding or supporting proxies can lead to secondary support for nonstate actors that seek to destabilize regional partners as well as China. Any escalation in the South China Sea could lead to armed conflict.

Gain:  Increasing Chinese costs could severely restrict their capability to continue expansion and complete projects per agreements with host nations. Combining overt resistance campaigns with coordinated messaging enables the United States to degrade China’s soft and economic power. Directly confronting Chinese maritime militia with similarly designed forces presents a unique geopolitical challenge with few positive outcomes.

Other Comments:  These options are not mutually exclusive and can be utilized in conjunction with other elements of national power to support competition below levels of conflict.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Trump, Donald J., National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Executive Office of The President Washington DC Washington United States, 2017, 27

[2] Brooks, Stephen G., and William C. Wohlforth. “The rise and fall of the great powers in the twenty-first century: China’s rise and the fate of America’s global position.” International Security 40, no. 3 (2016): 7-53, 43

[3] Livermore, Doug. “China’s “Three Warfares” in theory and practice in the South China Sea.” Georgetown Security Studies Review (2018).

[4] Cha, Victor, and Andy Lim. “Flagrant Foul: China’s Predatory Liberalism and the NBA.” The Washington Quarterly 42, no. 4 (2019): 23-42.

[5] McMaster, H. R., “How China Sees the World,” The Atlantic, (2020), accessed April 22 2020,

[6] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment (JCOIE), Department of Defense, Washington DC (2018)

[7] Cobaugh, Paul, “Combat Ineffective: Ethical Influence, the Broken-down Rusting Vehicle of American Power” Narrative Strategies, (2020) accessed April 23 2020,

2020 - Contest: PRC Below Threshold Writing Contest Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) China (People's Republic of China) James P. Micciche Option Papers United States

An Assessment of the Global War on Terror via Deterrence Theory

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.  He can be found on Twitter @james_miccicheDivergent 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:  An Assessment of the Global War on Terror via Deterrence Theory

Date Originally Written:  December 27, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  January 20, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that the 2017 National Security Strategy marked an end to the Global War on Terrorism.  Based upon this belief, it is important to start assessing U.S. policy during the Global War on Terrorism era through multiple theoretical lenses and practical frameworks to understand its successes and failures.

Summary:  The Global War on Terrorism’s goal was deterrence based — preventing terror attacks against the U.S. and extending that deterrence to other nations through a policy of denial and punishment. While the U.S. element of this goal was successful, the extension part was not as both terrorism deaths and the number of attacks from 2015-2019 still exceed pre-Global War on Terrorism levels, raising questions about the validity of deterring terror.

Text:  On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda conducted a series of coordinated attacks on the United States marking an emergence of a new era of American foreign policy. Nine days later before a joint session of Congress, President George W. Bush declared, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated[1].” Bush’s speech ushered in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), a construct that would define the lens and transactional medium through which U.S. policy makers would shape foreign policy for the next 16 years.

The 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) codified Bush’s charge by clearly defining that to achieve its strategic interests the United States will: “strengthen alliances to defeat global terrorism and work to prevent attacks against us and our friends[2].” In addition to the overarching principles within the NSS, two additional policy documents guided the initial operationalizing of the GWOT, the National Strategy for Homeland Security and the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. The former focused on preventing terrorist attacks within and against the United States while the ladder established a strategy to “Identify and defuse threats before they reach our borders[3].” These two documents outlined the GWOT’s foundational objectives that endured throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, a narrow goal of protecting the America and Americans and a comprehensive objective of averting international terrorist attacks by both defeating named terrorist organizations and preventing new ones to form.

Despite the 2006 NSS’s declaration that “terrorists cannot be deterred[4],” the foundational documents above clearly establish objectives based on deterrence. At its core, the GWOT sought to prevent a specific behavior, terrorism, against the United States and partners by means of both core tenets of deterrence, denial and punishment. Deterrence, simply put, is an agent preventing another agent from undertaking unwanted action or behaviors. The vast majority of deterrence theories identify two primary methods through which nations can deter others from taking undesirable actions — denial and punishment. The former increases the cost of conducting unwanted behaviors and decreases the chance of their success while the ladder threatens punitive action against agents who engage in such behaviors. Furthermore, it is important to analyze the scope of a nation’s deterrence efforts by defining if they are direct and concentrated only on preventing action against the nation itself or extended beyond national borders to other agents[5].

The GWOT utilized a bifurcated approach of denial by first directly hardening the United States homeland from terrorist attack by establishing new government agencies and implementing laws and structures that denied terrorists the opportunity to attack the United States. Secondly, the United States extended the GWOT to third parties by proactively attempting to deny terrorists the economic, social, and cultural conditions needed to thrive and form through development and democracy building efforts. Concurrently, the United States waged an aggressive punitive based deterrent policy against those that engaged and supported terror, including state actors, attempting to extend deterrence globally. If one is to examine the amount of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding that Congress authorized as part of the aforementioned efforts, it becomes clear that DoD-led punitive deterrence was the emphasized and preferred method throughout the GWOT. Of the nearly $2 Trillion spent on the GWOT-related OCO funding from 2001 to 2019 the U.S. Government allocated 92% towards DoD efforts, 8% for the U.S. Agency for International Development and Department of State development programs, and less than 1% on Department of Homeland Security and Coast Guard operations[6]. Punitive deterrence presents unique challenges against non-state actors who have no territorial sovereignty and often coexist with neutral civilian populations making preemptive and disciplinary action a calculated risk as it has the potential to support recruitment and propaganda narratives and counter ongoing denial efforts. Furthermore, punitive and preemptive actions against state actors also present the prospective of creating instability and under governed spaces conditions in which terrorist organizations form and thrive.

If one is to assess at the goal of extended global deterrence then the GWOT failed to achieve its objective as global terrorism related deaths were almost three and half times higher in 2017 (26,445) than in 2001 (7729) with numbers of attacks following similar growth rates[7]. Additionally, the GWOT period saw the rise of new violent extremist organizations such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State, despite ongoing extended denial efforts and punitive strikes and raids. Furthermore, two nations at the center of U.S. GWOT efforts, Afghanistan and Iraq, have remained the most impacted by terror despite nearly two decades of U.S. efforts[8]. Even longstanding U.S. treaty allies such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries have had their terror rates increase during the GWOT period. Despite the overall increase in global terror rates throughout the GWOT period, the past four years (2015-2019) have witnessed a decline in both deaths and number of attacks but still exceeds pre-GWOT levels.

The GWOT goal of direct deterrence has been far more successful than its extended counterpart as there have been no attacks on U.S soil that are comparable to the scale of 9/11. Moreover, from 2002 to 2018, North America experienced 431 terrorist attacks and 317 related deaths, only Central America and the Caribbean saw lower rates with 212 and 164 respectively; for comparison, Europe experienced 4290 attacks and 2496 deaths during the same period[9]. Despite the relative success of preventing terrorism compared to other regions, the United States still experienced deadly terrorist attacks from across the spectrum of ideologies such as the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 and El Paso shooting of 2017.

In closing, assessing the GWOT through the lens of deterrence presents mixed results based on the scope of efforts; direct deterrence achieved far greater outcomes than extended efforts with less allocated funding. Furthermore, the GWOT raises questions about the validity of deterring non-state actors through punitive measures, the prospects of waging war against a tactic, and if a given level of terrorism is a constant risk within the modern world. U.S. Africa Command’s 2019 strategic priority of reducing terror threats to a “level manageable by internal security forces[10]” highlights a strategic shift in thinking and the acceptance of inherent levels of global terrorist activity.


[1] Gregg, Gary L. “George W. Bush: Foreign Affairs.” The Miller Center. (retrieved 29Nov19)

[2] Bush, George W. , National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Executive Officer of the President, Washington DC, Washington United States 2002

[3] Bush, George W., National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. Executive Officer of the President, Washington DC, Washington United States 2006

[4] Bush, George W., National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Executive Officer of the President, Washington DC, Washington United States 2006

[5] Mazarr, Michael J. Understanding Deterrence. RAND 2018

[6] Mazarr, Michael J. Understanding Deterrence. RAND 2018 McGarry, Brendan W. and Morgenstern, Emily M. “Overseas Contingency Operations Funding: Background and Status.” Library of Congress. Washington D 2019

[7] McGarry, Brendan W. and Morgenstern, Emily M. “Overseas Contingency Operations Funding: Background and Status.” Library of Congress. Washington D 2019 Global Terrorism Database

[8] Institute for Economics & Peace. Global Terrorism Index 2019: Measuring the Impact of Terrorism, Sydney, November 2019. Available from: (accessed 20 Dec 2019).

[9] Ibid

[10] Waldhauser, Thomas. United States Africa Command Posture Statement. Washington DC: DoD, 2019.

Assessment Papers Deterrence James P. Micciche Violent Extremism

Options for Deterrence Below Armed Conflict

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.  He can be found on Twitter @james_miccicheDivergent 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:  As military competition below armed conflict once again becomes the norm, the U.S. requires deterrence options.

Date Originally Written:  November 17, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  December 23, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that traditional nuclear deterrence will not suffice in the current national security paradigm as it is focused on mainly deterring nuclear war or major conflict, which are the least-likely situations to occur.

Background:  In June 2019, the United States Military’s Joint Staff published Joint Doctrine Note (JDN) 1-19 “The Competition Continuum.”  The JDN further developed and refined the non-linear/non-binary continuum that defines the perpetual state of competition that exists between nations .  This perpetual state of competition was originally proposed in the “Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning (JCIC)[1].” Within the JDN continuum the Joint Force, in conjunction with other elements of national power (diplomacy, economic, information, etc.), simultaneously campaigns through a combination of cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and armed conflict to achieve desired strategic objectives including deterring actions and goals of rival states. The continuum represents a shift in U.S. military doctrine from a counterterrorism-centric security strategy to one focused on competing with a spectrum of international agents and actors.

Significance:  While not an authoritative document, JDNs generate and facilitate the creation and revision of joint and service specific doctrine. Therefore, the continuum proposed by the JDN will be integrated and operationalized by planners and doctrine writers across the Department of Defense (DoD). Within the JDN’s continuum, competition below armed conflict is not only the aspect that most regularly occurs, but also the most challenging for the DoD to operationalize. The JDN further refines the JCIC language by describing campaigning through competition below armed conflict as a protracted, constrained, often imbalanced, and diverse construct predicated upon a deep understanding of the operating environment where the joint force seeks to execute three newly codified tactical tasks: Enhance, Manage, and Delay.  Despite clarifying the language of competition below armed conflict, the JDN fails to provide concrete examples of the concepts implementation to include the Joint Force’s role in deterrence which is vaguely described “Deterrence in competition below armed conflict is similarly nuanced [to deterrence by armed conflict} and perhaps harder to judge[2].”  This paper will provide three options for planners and doctrine writers to employ deterring rivals through competition below armed conflict per the guidance outlined in the JDN and JCIC.

Option #1:  Persistent Presence.

The United States, at the behest of partner nations, overtly deploys conventional ground forces to key strategic regions / locations to prevent aggressive incursions from rival states in fear of causing U.S. casualties and invoking a potential kinetic response. This same principle is applied to the regular exercise of freedom of navigation though global commons that are considered vital to U.S. interests.

Risk:  Conventional U.S. force presence adjacent to competitor nations potentially escalates tensions and greatly increases the risk of armed conflict where U.S. personnel forward potentially face overwhelming force from a near peer competitor. The logistical and personnel requirements to deploy conventional forces forward are high and can lead partner nations to become overly dependent on U.S. forces thus creating enduring U.S. expenditures. The presence of a large U.S. footprint can facilitate competitor information operations focusing on delegitimizing the efficacy of host nation government / military possibly creating domestic instability, and prompting anti-U.S. sentiment amongst the population.

Gain:  There have been successful historic and contemporary applications of deterrence by presence from a proportionally smaller U.S. force compared to rivals. Examples include U.S. / North Atlantic Treaty Organization forward presence in Europe during the Cold War as part of a successful deterrence strategy against larger Eastern bloc forces and the recent expansion of Turkish, Syrian, and Russian forces into Northern Syria upon the departure of a small footprint of U.S. forces in October of 2019. Presence can also facilitate collaboration and interoperability between U.S. and regional partners supporting the two other elements of the competition continuum cooperation and armed conflict.

Option #2:  Civil Resiliency and Civil Engagement.

Many of the United States’ principal competitors attempt to advance their interests and achieve their objectives through various forms of population-centric warfare that seeks to instigate and capitalize on domestic instability. To deny access to, and mitigate the ability to influence populations needed to advance such a strategy, the Joint Force utilizes Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations capabilities to identify populations tied to key terrain and in conjunction with other elements of national power fosters civil resiliency to malign influence.

Risk:  Fostering civil resiliency in populations vulnerable to or targeted by malign influence operations is a long-term undertaking requiring enduring programming funds and command support to be effective. Assessments of population-centric operations are difficult to quantify making the establishment of measures of performance and effectiveness exceptionally difficult and impeding the understanding of effects of enemy, friendly, and partner actions within the complex system of the human domain.

Gain:  A population-centric engagement strategy facilitates interagency coordination enabling the utilization of multiple elements of national power to counter malign efforts by adversaries and simultaneously propagates U.S. soft power. Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations elements have exceptionally small personnel footprints and low logistical costs and can promote cooperation with host nation counterparts. Military-civil engagement programs and projects often permit personnel to operate in regions and nations where competitors have an established advantage.

Option #3:  Proxies and Regime Fragility.

Today, the United States’ chief competitors and their allies are regimes that are authoritarian in nature[3] and therefore all share the primacy of maintaining regime power as their supreme interest. The Joint Force can exploit this distinctive feature of authoritarianism and utilize clandestinely-supported proxies and / or focused information operations to threaten the domestic stability of autocrats taking actions against U.S. interests.

Risk:  Creating instability comes with many unknown variables and has the potential to produce unwanted secondary effects including expanding conflicts beyond a single nation and engulfing an entire region in war. There remains a long history of the United States equipping and training proxies that later become adversaries. If direct U.S involvement in a proxy conflict becomes publicly known, there could be irreversible damage to the United States’ international reputation degrading comparative advantages in soft power and the information domain.

Gain:  Operating through either a proxy or the information domain provides managed attribution to the Joint Force and increases freedom of maneuver within a normally constrained competition environment to threaten rival leadership in their most vulnerable areas. Working with proxies provides both an easy exit strategy with very few formal commitments and leads to little risk to U.S. personnel.

Other Comments:  The above listed options are not mutually exclusive and can be utilized in conjunction not only with each other but also together with other elements of the competition continuum to achieve an objective of deterring unwanted competitor actions while concurrently promoting U.S interests. The U.S. cannot compete in an omnipresent manner and ts planners would do well to pragmatically choose where and how to compete based on national interests, competitor action/inaction, available resources, and conditions within a competitive environment.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Joint Chiefs of Staff (2018) Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning. Retrieved from

[2] Joint Chiefs of Staff (2019) Competition Continuum (Joint Doctrine Note 1-19). Retrieved from

[3] The Economist Intelligence Unit (2018). 2018 Democracy Index, The Economist Intelligence Unit. Retrieved from




Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) Deterrence James P. Micciche Option Papers

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 :

2019 - Contest: Small Wars Journal Assessment Papers Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) Great Powers James P. Micciche

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