A new great game is underway. The United States’ unipolar moment is coming to a close. As a hegemon on borrowed time, we must compete to secure our interests. China offers an alternative vision of the future. Russia seeks a return to faded glories. Iran envisions a fundamentally different Middle East. Regional powers like Turkey, India, and Brazil chart their own, independent paths into the future.
Confronted with global uncertainty, America faces two critical challenges: how to understand this new environment, and how to optimize its military to compete therein. On both counts, consensus has been reached. On both counts, it is wrong.
Conceptually, we have adopted the paradigm of strategic competition. In this framing, the world is a playing field for elite rivalry. Africa is where we compete with China. Eastern Europe is where we counter Russia. The Middle East is where we battle to maintain a marginally favorable status quo, in the face of a hostile Iran and opportunistic encroachment by Russia and China alike. Southeast Asia (and, remarkably, Latin America) are places where we attempt to check Chinese expansion.
At first glance, this may seem logical. Our geopolitical interests are contested by a short list of opponents. They are our competitors, and it is a competition we must win. Our focus, consequently, is on their objectives, capabilities, words, and deeds.
This opponent-centric worldview has set the US military on a distinct trajectory. The buzzwords of the day are “lethality” and “large-scale combat operations.” Hardly a press conference goes by without a reference to technological innovation and force modernization. We are zeroed in on our competitors, whom we seek to deter or, in the event of escalation to armed conflict, defeat in a head-to-head clash, abetted by futuristic weapons platforms.
If we maintain this course, America will continue its twenty-first-century losing streak—and there will be a tragic continuity to our inevitable decline and fall. Our post-9/11 strategic debacle (which each of the authors witnessed firsthand) was born of a mentality that focused overwhelmingly on adversaries and threats, at the expense of understanding the context in which they had metastasized.
We lost the war in Afghanistan, not for lack of ability to best the Taliban in open battle, but because we failed to understand Afghanistan itself. Most critically, we failed to grasp the societal dynamics that enabled the Taliban to shrug off two decades of cutting-edge kinetic power, and that rendered useless our half-hearted attempts at nation building. In Iraq, we proved unable to navigate a maze of societal and political fault lines, while being repeatedly outmaneuvered by Iran (who leveraged a superior contextual understanding of their neighbor, which more than compensated for their comparatively meager resources). Time and again, throughout the “Global War on Terrorism,” our enemies adapted and regenerated, sustained via root structures deep within local communities and social networks—root structures that the US military failed to investigate, understand, and disrupt.
It is a truism that all politics is local. Domestically, Americans grasp this instinctively. For reasons unknown, we have systematically failed to operationalize this in our foreign policy. This is the failure that must be corrected in order to recalibrate American foreign policy and military strategy.
Our current strategic landscape must not be viewed as a contest among rival powers, where the features of the playing field are secondary. This framing is precisely backward. From the Black Sea to the Sahel to the Mekong River basin, local dynamics set the stage for the new great game. Victory will go to whoever masters those details: knowing precisely when, where, why, and how to take action—or, equally important, to abstain.
This reframing of our strategic outlook requires a realignment of the US military’s priorities. Our most urgent task is not transformation or modernization. Instead, it is to remedy a weakness that doomed our post-9/11 campaigns: the inability to make sense of facts on the ground, and to translate that knowledge into action.
The US military flounders in the human domain of conflict, with respect to foes, friends, and bystanders alike. Failure to engage with the building blocks of humanity—culture, society, politics, economics, and religion—leaves our strategies and plans untethered to reality. The result has been on display to the world for decades. The Afghan collapse provided a final exclamation point.
At present, we are engaged in global competition with China (and, to a much lesser extent, Russia). We are engaged in a regional contest with Iran. Global jihadist networks remain a potent threat. That said, we do ourselves a devastating disservice when we approach the rest of the world on the basis of its utility in these contests.
American policy in Ukraine is downstream of our rivalry with Russia. The same is true for our engagement in Iraq with respect to Iran, and across much of the Global South vis-à-vis China. We instrumentalize bilateral relationships with smaller powers in pursuit of advantage against our rivals, while neglecting the local details that define the strategic landscape. This instrumentalization is readily apparent to those on the receiving end, provoking cynicism and frustration from Kyiv to Baghdad and beyond. Ultimately, it is exploitative and self-defeating—just as it was during the Cold War, when this same mentality led us to disaster from Vietnam to Nicaragua.
The new great game will be won or lost based, above all else, on contextual understanding, partnerships, and alliances. It is not America’s responsibility to solve intractable problems in distant lands. However, we absolutely must understand said problems (as we have demonstrably failed to do over the past twenty years), so that we might manage our entanglements and the expenditure of finite resources.
Across much of the globe, this task falls to the US military. The Department of State is understaffed, and isolated from ground truth by crippling risk aversion. The intelligence community’s priorities lie elsewhere. From sub-Saharan Africa to the South China Sea, the military is often our principal point of contact with contested terrain.
If we accept that the playing field is paramount, and acknowledge that our military offers unmatched global coverage, then we must realize the need for a quite different set of capabilities than those emphasized within the current zeitgeist. The United States needs granular, actionable knowledge not only of what is happening on key terrain, but why. The military is positioned to provide these insights, but neither trained nor equipped to deliver. The Human Terrain System was decommissioned, unable to withstand a cost-benefit analysis. Capabilities like civil affairs remain marginal, unfocused, and under-resourced. The Asymmetric Warfare Group and University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies are being shut down.
There is no technological, data-driven solution: understanding at the push of a button is fantasy. People are required to make sense of the human condition. We speak of soldiers as sensors, but our frontline personnel are calibrated only to gather data, not to make sense of what they see before them. Contextual insight remains a sideshow—as evidenced by the fact that there is still no viable framework to explain contextual dynamics on the ground, nor a practicable process to develop that understanding.
Resolving this dilemma should be a top priority from the Pentagon to the White House to Capitol Hill. Globally scalable results could be achieved for far less than the nearly $10 million annual sustainment cost of a single F-35—via realignments of our intelligence architecture (to integrate contextual understanding of the playing field into our opponent-centric lens) and the adoption of fit-for-purpose investigative methodologies (to replace fundamentally unsuitable frameworks currently in place like the ASCOPE/PMESII crosswalk).
Two questions remain, however: Will the US military recognize the importance of expeditionary scouts in the new great game, with a mandate to understand the nuances of the playing field? And, if so, will it divert expenditure away from unreasonably expensive technology and weapons platforms (which are all too often obsolete before they are actually fielded) and invest in relevant and timely capabilities?
Colonel Arnel P. David is a US Army strategist assigned to the NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. First Sergeant Sean A. Acosta is a civil affairs noncommissioned officer, and was the US Army’s 2018 NCO of the year. Dr. Nicholas Krohley is the principal of FrontLine Advisory.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Thomas Calvert, US Army
Thank you, COL David for your insightful and thorough piece. I visited Ghana a few weeks ago and one cannot fail to notice significant footprints of China on the local economy. From road construction to shopping malls, notably named China Malls. For a long time, the United States has been a country that most Ghanaians have cherished for its opportunities, freedom, and openness. From the United States Information Service for persons wanting to pursue college education in the U.S. to other agencies such as USAID, U.S. Peace Corps, and USDA for various programs. The U.S. cannot yield ground to China in Africa, both strategically and economically. The geopolitical and business opportunities in Africa cannot and should not be missed by the U.S. The cost of not doing business in Africa is too huge to be handed over to China on a silver platter. Yes, the U.S. has its domestic priorities but these cannot be accomplished by having a hands off approach to the events happening around the world, including the continent of Africa. Thank you.
Colonel David, First Sergeant Acosta, and Dr. Krohley have written an excellent article. Their wise advice should be carefully considered, as our “decline and fall” might be fast approaching.
But they leave an important question unanswered: what’s wrong with the US military? It’s far worse than not understanding Afghans, or others within the “human domain of conflict” overseas. We simply don’t understand what we’re doing to ourselves.
To illustrate the point, imagine General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower could be lifted from late 1945 and dropped into the Pentagon today. I believe he’d be shocked and horrified. He’d see that we’ve adopted Adolf Hitler’s way of war, with unreasonable expectations placed in small numbers of hyper-expensive wonder weapons. He’d instantly recognize that sustainment of those weapons during a major conflict would be impractical at best, but most likely completely impossible. He’d know that squandering petroleum independence was a massive mistake, remembering how the Third Reich was starved of fuel. He’d understand that a massive shift to electric vehicles isn’t a replacement of fossil fuels, and nothing more than political hogwash. But most importantly, he’d know that breaking the US Treasury during the prelude to war is a guarantee of crushing defeat.
If he checked in on the Army by perusing this site, he’d see many articles exhorting the transition of US soldiers to elite super-athletes, having physical abilities far beyond ordinary people. Of course, he’d perceive the urgent desire – but never the means – to transform the majority of tubby Gen Z into some kind of elite superbeings as pure silliness.
Glancing to the Navy, he’d see how the disastrous fire on the USS Miami was allowed to happen again on the USS Bonhomme Richard, despite promises of lessons learned and adult supervision. But neither exist. And their interest in obtaining MANY more aircraft carriers is more fever dream than realistic planning.
He’d see the USAF on course to smash the remnants of the US Treasury with the F-35 program, but he might not understand how F-22s finally getting so cheap to build was such a bad thing.
The USMC giving up their tanks, to prepare for new battles like Guadalcanal, where they were decisive from the Battle of the Tenaru to the Battle of the Gifu – well, you get the idea.
He’d recall Hitler dying in the fiery ruins of Berlin, and how Germany’s fight to the bitter end was only nihilistic. So he very well might call the White House and urge whoever’s in charge to surrender immediately. Then we could preserve what’s left of the United States, until maybe a generation or two from now, when there’s enough effective leadership in this country to effectively confront our adversaries.
This is a well considered article that yet again demonstrates the need to fully fund the diplomatic arm of the USG rather than have the military veer away from its core mission of hurting people and breaking things.
As a senior NCO with multiple deployments, last being AFRICOM, I dealt with varying degrees of cultural aspects that influenced HN political structures in multiple ways. Some beneficial for the US and some not. Bring that understanding of dynamic back to the soldiers stateside to train them introduced a crucial gap to me as a first line leader who’s job it is, is to train future CA soldiers. Overall the gaps in our understanding of the human “social/cultural” aspect is a major.downfall for US personnel. I have been trying to train my soldiers on the “human factor” when it comes to making decisions in and out of the field. It is extremely difficult to press upon young enlisted and officers the concepts you discuss. The false ideology of what a soldier is and adequate knowledge base seems to create a huge gap between learning and wanting to understand. I think this is developed by an ever increasing lack in experienced leadership and a centralized idea of todays military training.
From the beginning of our article above:
"A new great game is underway. The United States’ unipolar moment is coming to a close. As a hegemon on borrowed time, we must compete to secure our interests. China offers an alternative vision of the future. Russia seeks a return to faded glories. Iran envisions a fundamentally different Middle East. Regional powers like Turkey, India, and Brazil chart their own, independent paths into the future."
What we must come to understand and address, I suggest, is:
a. What is common to the efforts being made by U.S./the West's diverse foreign enemies today; diverse foreign enemies such as China, Russia, Iran, N. Korea and the Islamists? And:
b. What is common to the efforts being made by the U.S./the West's internal enemies today also; internal enemies such as those of the U.S./the West's far right?
What is common to both of these such foreign and domestic enemies, I suggest, is their desire to (a) "contain" such political, economic, social and value changes as the U.S./the West seeks to achieve both at home and abroad today (in the name of such things as capitalism, globalization and the global economy) and to (b) "roll back" certain political, economic, social and value changes that the U.S./the West has already achieved (again, in the name of such things as capitalism, etc.).
From the perspective I offer above, note how — both here at home in the U.S./the West and there abroad in places such as China and Russia — everyone (in support of their "containment" and "roll back" strategies) is appealing to such things as "traditional values."
In support of my argument here, consider:
a. First, re: my suggested U.S./Western "global change" initiative, the following:
“Since the end of World War II, the United States has pursued a strategy aimed at overturning the status quo by spreading liberalism, free markets, and U.S. influence around the globe. … the United States’ posture stokes fear in Beijing and beyond. … But at its heart, U.S. grand strategy seeks to spread liberalism and U.S. influence. The goal, in other words, is not preservation but transformation. … The United States has pursued this transformational grand strategy all over the world. … In each of these regions (Europe, the Middle East, East Asia), U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military policies are aimed not at preserving but at transforming the status quo. (Item in parenthesis is mine.) (See Dr. Jennifer Lind’s Foreign Affairs [Mar/Apr 2017 edition] article “Asia’s Other Revisionist Power: Why U.S. Grand Strategy Unnerves China.”)
b. Next, as to Russia's "containment" and "roll back" efforts — re: the above-noted U.S./Western "threat;" herein, note the appeal to such things as "traditional values:"
“In his annual appeal to the Federal Assembly in December 2013, Putin formulated this ‘independent path’ ideology by contrasting Russia’s ‘traditional values’ with the liberal values of the West. He said: ‘We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilization in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.’ He proclaimed that Russia would defend and advance these traditional values in order to ‘prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.’ ”
(See the Wilson Center publication “Kennan Cable No. 53” and, therein, the article “Russia’s Traditional Values and Domestic Violence,” by Olimpiada Usanova, dated 1 June 2020.)
c. Next, as to China's "containment" and "roll back" efforts — re: the above-noted U.S./Western threat; herein, note the discussion of China's "traditional values:"
“The neoliberal trend of thought has severely affected China’s dominant ideology and has had a serious impact on China’s Reform and Opening policy and economic foundation. [Neoliberalism] not only endangers China’s ideological security but also endangers the state’s economic security. The values of the supremacy of the individual and freedom have a negative impact on dominant Chinese values such as collectivism, equity, and justice. The theory of privatization challenges the current Chinese concept of socialist ownership and impacts the economic foundation of public ownership. Both the theory of market omnipotence and trade liberalization are in fact opposed to the role of the government and government supervision and advocate ‘de-nationalization.’ These principles have had a [negative] impact on the Party’s leadership and the socialist state system.”
(See the CSIS paper entitled “Ideological Security as National Security” by Jude Blanchette; therein, look to the translation of a May 2019 article “Ideological Security in the Framework of the Overall National Security Outlook” by Tang Aijun, Associate Professor, School of Marxism, Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party, Socialism Studies.)
d. Last, re: here at home in the U.S./the West, you already know of the tremendous effort that has been made in recent years; this, by those on the U.S./the West's far right — who, like Russia and China above — seek to use such things as (a) an appeal to "traditional values" as (b) a means to "contain" and "roll back" certain unwanted political, economic, social and/or value changes.
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
If we can come to understand what is the common factor that causes our enemies — both here at home and there abroad — to embrace
containment" and "roll back" strategies — and what common factor causes these enemies to move to "weaponize" such things as "traditional values" in these such "containment" and "roll back" endeavors — then this will go a long way, I suggest, to having us come to understand the actual "kind of war we are embarked upon."