Here’s the Defining National Security Question of Our Time

We asked 20 experts whether great powers might ever go to war again.

“The world war is a form of war that the whole world should face up to.” This is what a professor at the PLA National Defense University argued in China’s regime newspaper, and it captures well the dilemma of our times. Such blunt discussions of great power war is either overheated rhetoric—or a harbinger of bad times to come.

U.S. and China leaders recently met in Washington for high-level talks and public displays of cooperation. And yet as the diplomats dined with smiles, the Pentagon boosted research on China’s military, launching an initiative that all but mirrors the Cold War effort against the Soviets. The Pentagon’s chief operating officer, Bob Work, explained that the military “cannot overlook the competitive aspects of our relationship, especially in the realm of military capabilities.”

The same kind of duality played out across the Atlantic. At their recent Brussels meeting, NATO leaders lobbed verbal threats at Russia and announced a new military rapid deployment force in response to Moscow’s moves in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the latest version of Russia’s defense doctrine calls NATO the “No. 1 threat” to national security. And yet alliance ministers also reported that their collective defense spending would shrink for a third year in a row, with just five of 28 member countries meeting the desired 2% of GDP. (Among the five is Greece, thanks only to its crashing economy.)

These issues strike to the heart of perhaps the biggest contemporary question of international relations and the future of war: Is the era of Big Wars over, or is it back?

One academic school of thought believes war between the great powers need no longer be worried about. Its proponents offer two primary lines of thinking. The first is that the world has fundamentally changed, thanks to normative and societal shifts that have rendered large-scale war a thing of the past—or as Steven Pinker put it, it has “gone out of style.” The second, less optimistic about humanity, argues that war has simply been reduced to insurgencies, terrorism, or low-level hybrids, leaving traditional warfare something of an “irrelevance.” A representative article in the Washington Quarterly argued that while the last decade has seen low-level conflicts from Afghanistan to the Philippines, we are seeing at a broader level “The End of War as We Know It”—or at least classical interstate conflict as we once knew it.

But there is another academic school of thought that questions this new orthodoxy, arguing against both the normative thinking and the data used to build these arguments. Its proponents assert that, as strategist Colin Gray puts it, war is not just “a permanent feature of the human condition,” but that “interstate war, including great power conflict, is very much alive and well.” Indeed, they argue that the statistics actually show that great power wars are cyclical—and that instead of living in a “long peace” in the first half of the 21st century, we’re just about due for another major dustup. 

These back-and-forth claims are far from a purely academic debate. How you think about the risks of great power war shapes your policy preferences in everything from grand strategy to defense budgeting and planning. For example, Henry Kissinger has argued that U.S.-China relations “are heading for confrontation rather than cooperation”; as if in response, a Brookings Institution report cited Kissinger’s diplomatic legacy as a reason that America’s next president should not go “in search of enemies.” Similarly, in China, a leading strategic thinker has claimed that “Sino-American competition will be the defining game of the century” and its military has produced a film that argues “Conflict and struggle with the American hegemonic system is inevitable on the path of China’s national rejuvenation.” In turn, its Vice Premier Wang Yang recently insisted that “neither of us could afford the cost of noncooperation or even all-out confrontation.”

This question is shaping not just relations between states, but even between military services. In China, visions of the future of war are central to the debate between admirals and generals about whose service will be most important, a competition that will guide new doctrine, military spending, and even civil-military relations. In turn, the question of whether a war was possible with China was cast this week in a Politico expose as the reason why personal relations among the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs have chilled. “There’s always tension between the service heads,” a currently serving JCS officer says, “but this was on an entirely different level. [Army Chief of Staff General Raymond] Odierno looked at his Navy and Air Force colleagues as plotting against him—and the Army.” Air Force and Navy leaders have embraced the notion of a great power war, in which they would play a larger role and lay claim to larger slices of the budget pie, while Odierno has argued back that the Pentagon “does not need to invent a scenario, or an adversary, or formulate a new problem than those being presented around the world today.”

There is as yet no definitive answer to this defining question of the future of war. But to gain further insight, we talked to 20 experts in fields ranging from defense policy and the military to law and communications. We asked: Will the future of war see a return to great power conflict? What would distinguish such a conflict from the wars of today? 

The result was an interesting and atypical phenomenon: most of the people we talked to believed it to be a risk, but also hoped they were wrong. A world war is the one thing that experts don’t want to claim they predicted correctly.

Rosa Brooks, New America fellow and professor at Georgetown University School of Law; former counselor to the defense undersecretary for policy.

Yes. Never underestimate human folly. The “end of war” has been proclaimed repeatedly. War always roared back. We’ve had a mere 70 years without a war between great powers. In the sweep of human history, 70 years is the blink of an eye. Do I expect an imminent new great power war? No—but as Monty Python noted, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” either. 

Steven R. Corman, professor at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University (ASU) and director of the Center for Strategic Communication.

With respect to China, two things stand out from a narrative perspective. First, China declined in the 19th and 20th centuries from its former glory as a world power and leader in technological innovation, production, trade, and agriculture. Chinese view this as humiliating, and the “decline” narrative creates powerful motivation for reversal. Second, China consistently frames its efforts in the South China Sea as an effort to recover historical sovereignty, indicating that it sees this as a means for achieving the reversal. This, in combination with a recent military build-up, suggests China would not hesitate to go to war against anyone that opposes its efforts. In this context, the “war is inevitable” comment seems ominous.

Sharon Burke, senior fellow at New America; former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for operational energy.

The Future of War is here: we are already in a great power conflict with China. The key question is whether we will just keep fighting low-intensity skirmishes in cyber and outer space and wielding economic weapons against each other, or will it go kinetic? We may well find non-kinetic war is just as effective in achieving political aims, and perhaps even as destructive in some ways. The other question is whether Russia will build more than gas pipelines with China, an alliance that would be an unpredictable flashpoint. So, while we spin our wheels in the world’s civil wars, China is biding its time. If they can hold together domestically, the future may well belong to them.

Kevin C. Desouza, associate dean for research at the College of Public Service & Community Solutions and a professor at ASU’s School of Public Affairs.

Great power conflict is already underway. While kinetic engagement will remain small and focused, larger-scale engagement is occurring in cyberspace. Data, intelligence, and network superiority will be the new barometer on which we judge winners and losers of conflicts. Our conceptualization of great power conflict will also undergo major revision from kinetic engagements that are temporal and spatially bound to cyber-economic engagements that are have limited, if any, time and space constraints.

Laura Dickinson, professor at George Washington University Law School and a Future of War fellow at New America.

The U.S. president’s expanded power to initiate force unilaterally without Congress’s consent could increase the risk of great power war. The use of drones, automated weapons, and contractors enhances the President’s ability to act by reducing casualties and enabling legal arguments that military action doesn’t require Congress’s blessing— even though such engagement can escalate into deeper conflict. 

Christopher L. Fussell, senior fellow at New America and a principal at the McChrystal Group. He has spent the past 15 years as an officer in the Navy SEAL Teams.

It’s inevitable that we’ll return to interstate conflict, unless everything about long-cycle historic patterns suddenly ends. But let’s also bet that rational actors will maneuver to avoid full-scale war, given the severity of consequences. So the real question is — what does deterrence look like during the next state-on-state conflict cycle? As opposed to 20th-century deterrence (where scale, efficiency, and broad coalitions were critical), dominant players in the 21st century will be those that are able to develop highly adaptive global networks (economic, cyber, military, diplomatic, etc.). Great powers will need to network with sub-state entities as part of their grand strategy. Deterrence will require a more complex set of tools designed to impose prohibitive costs both on nation states and non-state actors.”

Mark Hagerott, nonresident fellow at New America and distinguished professor of cyber security at the U.S. Naval Academy. A retired Navy captain, his experience ranges from nuclear engineering to security force assistance/advising to Afghan Army, Air Corps, and police programs.

 “Great power conflict” that involves armies and air forces and navies attacking and defending across geographical regions may be a relatively low-probability event. But what is happening now may be a unidirectional form of such conflict: local/state governments and national guards daily defend against nation states; e.g., critical infrastructure from penetration and possible exploitation by nation states. With technology of today, Great Powers can virtually take the offense and penetrate a national border and strike directly at a target. This is not symmetrical “great power conflict” but now a form of great power offense vs. local defense, a de-federalization of defense wherein defense is a very local affair and great power actions are offensive in nature. 

Drew Herrick, Future of War fellow at ‪New America and Ph.D student in international relations and methods at George Washington University.

War is a political tool. As long as competition exists between great powers then deliberate or inadvertent war will remain a likely outcome. This is especially true if we consider conflict that does not involve the United States or think realistically about the rise of other states to great power status. The interesting question quickly becomes: what will be the scope of great power warfare and how will states fight? I think we will primarily see lower-level conflict and a deeper integration of electronic warfare, offensive cyber operations and information warfare especially at the tactical level.

Heather Hurlburt, director of the New Models of Policy Change project at New America. She has held senior positions in the White House and State Department and worked on Capitol Hill and for the International Crisis Group.

As technological and information revolutions eat away at governments’ tools for maintaining their legitimacy, the risk of great powers’ falling into war as a “logical” response to political pressures rises. Key questions: will the availability of force short of war and cyber conflict, as well as more traditional proxy warfare, drain off those pressures? Are both the U.S. and Russia—though not China, Brazil, India—irreversibly on tracks which reduce over time their non-military avenues for responding to pressure and pursuing national interests—Russia because of economic decline and the U.S. because of the military’s superior ability to withstand the overall erosion of our political decisionmaking institutions?

Ioannis Koskinas, senior fellow at New America and CEO of the Hoplite Group. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2011 after a twenty-year career in special operations.

The notion of “big war” is interesting but mostly an argument that’s used for a military and industrial complex that favors the “big army...big air force...big navy” solutions. The last war we won ended in 1945, but our thinking about “big wars” is, in many ways, stuck in 1945. We cannot continue to plan for the big war of the century and keep losing the wars of the decade…Some say that the war in the Pacific is going to be over resources, i.e., Spratley Isles. If we care so much about war with China, why did we fight to give Afghanistan a chance as a modern state so that Afghanistan can give China a chance to exploit its minerals? We pay for security with blood and treasure and others benefit from it. In terms of wars, I’d say we need to forget “war on terror” and I’d like to declare war on stupidity...

Michael Lind, co-founder of New America; former editor or staff writer for the New Yorker, Harper’s, and The National Interest; author of multiple books, including The American Way of Strategy.

Direct conflicts among great powers will continue to be less likely than cold wars fought among major powers by means of arms races at the top of the conflict spectrum and cyber-sabotage and cyber-espionage at the bottom, with proxy wars and trade wars in between. Cold wars are ultimately wars of economic attrition, with the objective of raising the costs to the adversary until there is a policy change or regime change. Because of the rapid diffusion of technological innovation, technological offset policies represent wishful thinking. The coalitions with the greatest industrial, financial and demographic resources combined with protracted political consensus will tend to prevail.”

Doug Ollivant, senior fellow at New America. A retired US Army officer, he served as a director on the National Security Council, counterinsurgency advisor in Afghanistan and leader of the team that wrote the 2006-7 Baghdad “surge” plan.

Great power competition is inevitable. Great power war is not. While deterrence and economic integration don’t always deter war, they help, and outright war between great powers remains unlikely. In the world as we know it, competition kept at lower levels of violence is far more rational behavior. The most likely forms of competition remain the lower-level conflicts utilizing proxy insurgent and/or hybrid forces that we see today, combined with not-quite-war activities such as the recently revealed OPM cyber “hack.”

But unlikely does not mean impossible.

Matthew Pinsker, ASU Future of War fellow, Brian Pohanka chair of Civil War history at Dickinson College, professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, and director of the House Divided Project.

One of the deeper lessons of history is that conflict, especially great power conflict, rarely shows itself clearly. We use labels like World War I, World War II or Cold War, but they are just shorthand for messier realities. We are currently in the midst of such a messy reality. Years from now, we might well realize that we have already entered a period of great power conflict played out in a series of hybrid wars, proxy wars, cyber wars, and even limited wars. Regardless, policymakers need to consider and prepare for the possibility that important elements of this turbulent current era are actually being driven by underlying tension among the world’s great powers.

Daniel Rothenberg, professor of Practice, School of Politics and Global Studies at ASU and co-director of the Future of War project at New America.

War has always escaped easy definition, with current understandings defined by expectations built upon our understanding of the past, both recent and distant. Yet we interpret what has occurred through selective stories often driven by how we wish to see the present. While it may be impossible to predict the future of war – whether “great wars” or “small wars” – making sense of current and near-term conflict requires a new language and new narratives for processing the brutality of what we know to be true today, as half of Syria’s population is displaced by violence with the world watching, and as large portions of the world’s population live in complex, ungoverned places where profound insecurity defines daily lived experience.

Tom Ricks, senior advisor at New America, Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post reporter, author of best-selling books about the U.S. military including Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.

Despite everything that has happened in the last 13 years, I retain enough confidence in the American spirit to believe that the U.S. military eventually will adapt sufficiently to the 21st century so that it is able to deter a big war from breaking out. But keeping fingers crossed.

Paulo Shakarian, assistant professor of computer science at ASU who specializes in data mining and artificial intelligence. He served two combat tours with the U.S. Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

I think the place that great-power conflict will most likely occur is in the cyber domain. The trends that indicate this include the facts that major weapons systems are more computer-driven than ever before, infrastructure internal to great power nations become increasingly digitized, great power economies become dependent on technology, and the Internet and social media become a necessary part of daily life. What we see today is major international actors – in particular the U.S., China, and Russia are all attempting to shape this new battlefield through the acquisition of “cyber weaponry” (the development of malware and exploits), infiltrating computer systems of adversaries, and various shows-of-force in the cyber-domain. This build-up, combined with perceived asymmetric advantages of cyber, increase the likelihood of a more rapid escalation in cyber-space that would be less likely with purely kinetic weapon systems.

Sheldon Simon, professor at ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies.

As a specialist on Asian international politics, I don’t see great power wars in the world’s “foreseeable future.” The disputes among them are not of the kind that lead to war as a way of determining territories and control of resources and populations. There is, however, once again the possibility of proxy conflicts in which one or another great power has smaller state clients who do have conflicts that are ideological, resource, and/or territorially based. The South and East China Seas fall into this latter category as well might the future of Crimea or Ukraine. However, I still think the possibility of these escalating to great power wars is slim. More likely are conflicts essentially within the “third world,” currently generated extensively by radical Islam. Efforts by Western countries, led by the U.S., to constrain these conflicts may well involve great powers in limited warfare as the US currently engages in both Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan (as well as Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan). From the American viewpoint, this could be a form of “death by a thousand cuts” if it escalates.

Peter W. Singer, strategist for New America, consultant for DoD and the intelligence community, and the author of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.

Almost exactly a century ago, crazy concepts like “flying machines,” “under sea boats,” and “land ironclads” appeared in novels, while Andrew Carnegie dedicated his new Palace of Peace with a speech predicting that the end of war was “as certain to come, and come soon, as day follows night.” Yet a real war emerged out of a crisis and the real airplane, submarine, and tanks were fighting in it. Likewise today, the wars of the Middle East could be looked back upon as equivalent to the Boer Wars and other small wars of that period. There is a real arms race and real tensions. War is by no means inevitable, but the once unthinkable is again thinkable. A conflict could start by an accident—two planes accidentally smashing together over an uninhabited island that no one should really care about—or through a deliberate choice in the 2020s to reorder the global system. The risks of World War III may seem like something in the distant past, but as the Rolling Stones sang in Gimme Shelter, “It’s just a shot away.”

Anne Marie Slaughter, president of the New America Foundation, former director of policy planning, State Department, and dean of the Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

We could be very easily heading for a “Sarajevo moment,” in which an accidental incident between China and a U.S. ally, or the U.S. itself, escalates quickly, fanned by domestic politics, treaty commitments, and the perennial fear of “loss of credibility if we don’t respond.” Remember that before 1914, Cobdenites thought that global trade interdependence had made war obsolete. We could also find ourselves with another Sudetenland if Russia were foolhardy enough to try to invade one of the Baltic states and European publics refused to back their governments in honoring their NATO commitments. War rarely seems rational until crises develop their own logic.

Ian Wallace, senior fellow and co-director of the Cybersecurity Initiative at New America, formerly a senior official at the British Ministry of Defence and the British Embassy.

Don’t forget about the nukes! At least one of the reasons that recent history has been free of large-scale major state conflict has been the fact that those states have been understandably fearful of escalation towards a nuclear exchange. In the Cold War that dynamic set the stage for covert actions and proxy wars, often vicious but nonetheless “contained.” In the modern era, those tensions are often being played out in cyberspace. With nuclear weapons still looming in the background, to date major powers appear to have exercised restraint in their cyber actions, at least above a certain level. There remains risk in such a system because our global information networks are complex and open to instability and unintended consequences. But the nuclear/cyber dynamic may well drive us towards a future where all-out war between major states is less of a concern than a lower level type of conflict: closer to home than before; and below the level of actual “war,” but above that which existing international legal frameworks can manage.