Sean McFate, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder (HarperCollins, 2019)
Why does the United States get war wrong? Why does its use of force rarely achieve national security objectives? And how can this situation be remedied?
The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder, by Dr. Sean McFate, takes on the mammoth task of addressing these questions. In doing so, it becomes an exceptional new entry into literature examining modern warfare. The New Rules of War outlines contemporary trends, contextualizes them within a broad historical continuum, and lays out the ways, means, and ends for navigating this turbulent near-term future. McFate’s latest title is a must read for national security practitioners and warfighters of all ranks. More broadly, The New Rules of War confirms the ongoing demise of the Westphalian state and conventional war as it is presently known; whether America and its allies can adapt is crucial to their security, if not their survival.
McFate’s background is singular among scholars in this field. He is a former servicemember, serving as a paratrooper and officer in the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and later graduating from the Jungle Warfare School in Panama. He is also an academic, graduating from Harvard University and the London School of Economics and Political Science, and is presently a professor of strategy at the National Defense University. Uniquely, and perhaps most importantly, McFate is a former private military contractor with extensive experience around the world. To appreciate his perspective, readers should look to an article published early in his academic career: “I Built An African Army.”
So how does McFate answer those big questions about why the United States get war wrong and how to fix it? He begins by arguing that the country has suffered from “strategic atrophy” and has failed to recognize that current circumstances are neither solely war nor solely peace. He acknowledges that grand strategy is rarely articulated formally and requires a historical review to confirm its existence, but nevertheless contends that it is observable in a country’s general vector, borne of its origin, geopolitical circumstances, interests, and values.
Prior to 1945, the United States sought to cultivate its economic strength and capitalize on its geographical insulation from Europe. After 1945, American strategy entailed containing the Soviet Union politically, economically, militarily, and ideologically, around the world—a strategy successfully executed by successive administrations over five decades.
But after the peaceful conclusion to the Cold War, America’s grand strategy has been . . . what, exactly?
America’s post–Cold War unipolar moment enabled the extension of a US-led liberal international order—until it didn’t.
America neither extended democracy nor preserved its dominance. Instead, authoritarianism returned, nation building failed, and China emerged as a strategic competitor. Regardless of the grand strategy undertaken, McFate emphasizes that the principal utility of one should be to foster coherent policy making and, by extension, predictability in international conduct. The latter is paramount because today’s international security environment is utterly unpredictable.
McFate characterizes the current unpredictability as “durable disorder.” Specifically, Cold War bipolarity and post–Cold War unipolarity have been succeeded by a fluid distribution of power in which actors of all types capitalize on (or instigate) power vacuums or regional instability. Durable disorder does not result in war as we typically conceptualize it, but neither does it constitute peace—not when ISIS claimed control of 81,000 square miles straddling multiple countries and committed genocide, Russia annexed Crimea, and China incrementally expands its claims in the South China Sea.
In McFate’s pointed words, “In modern and future wars, there is no war or peace—only war and peace.”
As such, framing national security as a war–peace dichotomy is a sure path to continued frustration abroad. State actors have not been deterred by massive budgets and the procurement of tanks, carriers, and aircraft and punitive victories over terrorists and insurgents have been marred by years-long failed stabilization operations.
The New Rules of War states that American decision makers will have to develop capabilities calibrated for both, and among other of the book’s recommendations to that end, a few stand out. First, McFate argues for the continued expansion of special operations capabilities, particularly the kinetic types represented by the teams that eliminated Osama bin Laden and rescued a civilian ship captain from Somali pirates. Second, he makes the case for the implementation of the perennial promise to expand and integrate expeditionary civilian capabilities.
McFate’s strongest argument in favor of these recommendations is that they could be easily funded by simply canceling one order of F-35 fighters—and keeping the change.
One original recommendation entails establishing an “American Foreign Legion.” Akin to the French version, this force would be composed of foreigners recruited globally and led by US officers, and then deployed to chaotic areas critical to the national interest. An American Foreign Legion, McFate suggests, would mean never having to rely on poorly trained indigenous forces or spend years winning hearts and minds.
An additional recommendation reflects McFate’s unique background and is what truly distinguishes The New Rules of War from other books: he writes that the United States should incorporate private military contractors into its arsenal. Unlike other scholars, McFate has been personally involved in a variety of contracted missions and can credibly attest to the substantive and effective role played by armed contractors.
The New Rules of War comprehensively explains how military contractors have played an under-recognized but remarkably effective—and cost-effective—role in trouble spots around the world, from ridding Nigeria of Boko Haram to helping Russia partition Ukraine. The market includes ground, sea, and cyber forces, and contractors’ proven value is even recognized by terrorists, who have the option of hiring Malhama Tactical, the “Blackwater of Jihad.”
McFate acknowledges that private military companies are disdained because they have no political loyalties and are driven by the profit motive. His response? That’s great—America has deep pockets and can buy just enough loyalty. All markets are vulnerable to manipulation and America has the political incentive and market heft to own this one. The New Rules of War lists three dozen stratagems to guide how the United States can exploit the market—all familiar to aggressive Wall Street types ruthlessly obsessed with the bottom line.
Scholars and policymakers may be disquieted by the proposal to use contractors because it would further cement the erosion of the state’s monopoly on the use of violence. Acknowledging the concern, McFate points out that “durable disorder” calls for such a change. After all, he explains, durable disorder itself is not new, but rather a return to a pattern that characterized the world prior to the Treaty of Westphalia.
Before the mid-seventeenth century, power was distributed variously among kingdoms, empires, republics, papacies, caliphates, religious sects, warlords, duchies, city-states, cartels, bandits, and, yes, very powerful mercenaries. The New Rules of War is replete with examples illustrating the similarity between the present and the medieval period.
The distinctions between war and peace were blurred then as they are now.
If conventional war is dead, then how—to revisit the original question—can the United States get war right and use a reorganized military force to achieve national security objectives? McFate responds by reiterating first principles.
Clausewitzian dogma holds that war is the violent continuation of politics by other means. However, Clausewitz is a child of the Westphalian era and fails to conceive of war beyond its confines. Prior to Westphalia, no rules existed, and increasingly, rules are ceasing to exist again.
Echoing military theorist John Boyd, McFate notes that Clausewitz, the consummate Westphalian strategist, is resigned to coping with the fog of war, while the revered non-Westphalian strategist Sun Tzu—to whom McFate turns for inspiration—is eager to amplify it.
Per Sun Tzu, all warfare is based on deception, and so McFate argues America must enhance its counterintelligence capabilities. Amid durable disorder, “shadow wars” and “black ops” will be frequent. America’s adversaries are making their best attempts to achieve their aims with plausible deniability and the United States should be equally capable. As The New Rules of War declares, “Victory belongs to the cunning, not to the strong.”
McFate acknowledges that America will be disadvantaged because accountability and transparency are fundamental attributes of representative government. The country’s past experience with covert activities has been brief and has encompassed both great successes and disastrous failures. American intelligence prevented communist electoral wins in Western European countries after World War II and overturned regimes in Guatemala and Iran. However, such successes also induced greater recklessness abroad and eventually illegal activity at home.
Despite the resurrection of intelligence capabilities after 9/11, decision makers are still leery of endorsing covert disinformation and counter-narrative activities. Notwithstanding this legitimate concern, The New Rules of War warns that “the West needs to learn how to fight in the shadows without losing its soul, or it will continue to get sucker punched by autocracies.”
Beyond shadow wars, McFate’s conclusions denote a broader existential challenge for the West.
America’s success in navigating a post-Westphalian world will be consequential because it is the modern heir to the Westphalian framework and has accepted the mantle of defender of the free world. Trust, accountability, and transparency are embedded in its founding documents and fundamental to its existence.
In stark contrast, authoritarian regimes and revolutionary insurgents thrive on deceit. In the former, power is held among a small cadre unaccountable to its public; in the latter, authority rests with a core bound by dogma, ideology, greed, and the glorification of violence. The opinion of affected populations is irrelevant. Without trust, America’s adversaries possess no soul to lose, no morality to transgress.
America—and the West more broadly—identified this elementary difference as a source of strength and confidence during the Cold War. As President Ronald Reagan memorably declared, “The only morality [the Soviets] recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that. . . . We operate on a different set of standards.”
Unfortunately, Western Europe, in the aftermath of two world wars and the Holocaust, has been demoralized, guilt-ridden, and essentially debellicized, averse to raising even modest defenses. Meanwhile, since the Vietnam War and Watergate, Americans’ trust in their political and economic institutions and their leadership—and increasingly, in each other—has diminished. In the present day, the very morality of the country is fiercely debated. The role played by the Russian disinformation shadow war in the 2016 presidential election is a case in point—and has worsened political polarization.
Implementing the sound and innovative recommendations in The New Rules of War will improve the nation’s prospects for security amid durable disorder. The book greatest value, however, is that it takes important steps toward reframing the strategic debates on which America’s future security will hinge.
Jordan Prescott is a private contractor working in defense and national security since 2002. He published a blog, House of Marathon, about American politics, international security, and popular culture, from 2008 to 2016. He has additionally worked in the securities and media fields.
Image credit: Sgt. Taylor Hoganson, US Army
Why does the U.S. get war wrong? That’s an interesting question that has been studied well, and I think the Pentagon already knows the answers. The AK-47, RPG, RPK, ZSU-23-2, and RPD are the main weapons that the U.S. Army has to deal with, always has and probably will be for the foreseeable future. Only in the past few decades have the U.S. Army and USMC matched the firepower and protection levels against these threats.
So throw in threat tanks, IFVs, APCs, artillery, SAMs, etc. and one will find that the U.S. DoD’s assortment of land weapons dates back to the 1980s Cold War Era of design. Even the MPF Light Tank is a dated design from the 1990s, roughly 20 years ago. Threat nations have developed a wide assortment of newly designed armored vehicles to match Western threats and create new threats that the West has yet to counter, such as the T-14 Armata and the BMP-T “Terminator” Urban Assault Tank. The West has no match for features and capabilities.
And then there are the “Threat Superweapons” that still have no counter from the West: hypersonics, nuclear-powered torpedoes, ballistic missiles, supersonic anti-ship and cruise missiles, Carrier-killers, long ranged missiles, nuclear powered icebreakers, flame and thermobaric weapons, ECM/EW cyber, anti-stealth radar and long range SAMs, spying, sonic waves, etc. The West has no counter to these threat weapons and probably won’t for the foreseeable future unless there are remarkable breakthroughs.
Furthermore, the U.S. often exports its best weapons to some allies of dubious loyalty. Javelin ATGMs went to an Eastern Bloc nation and could be captured and reverse-engineered. MRAPs were sold to the Middle East, captured by the Rebels, and used against allied nations, not to mention the welding technology got stolen. SINCGARS radios were captured. M1A1 Abrams were captured, mainly because the U.S. has no other tank to export (no Light Tank and no M60 MBTs), and small arms were captured or airdropped and floated to the enemy. Often, the allied nation has the best version of our weapons that even the U.S. DoD doesn’t have: F-16 Block 70s, F-15SAs, Patriot PAC-3s, MEADs, etc. Of course some of the best and most sensitive technologies have been removed, but still, a F-16 Block 70 is superior than a F-16 Block 40.
Some allied nations are also weak in their firepower and offensive philosophy. Some NATO nations have frigates, not cruisers, and some main ships have the heaviest armament being a 40mm cannon, not a 127mm gun. 40mm isn’t powerful enough in many wartime situations.
Finally, only now is the U.S. DoD countering some of the threat systems out there with longer ranged artillery and weapons, stealth aircraft, drones, robotics, newer and faster helicopters, more firepower, nukes, SHROADS, newer designs, better armor, upgrades, Readiness and maintenance, and advanced technology.
As long as the U.S. keeps a technological and firepower edge, and doesn’t export its best weapons or have the data stolen, the U.S. will maintain the superiority over the rest of the world’s militaries.
– Overwhelming speed and mobility (hypersonics and supersonic cruise missiles, insurgents, motorcycles, Technical pickups, armor, planes, etc.)
– Overwhelming range (SAMs, missiles, artillery, 7.62mm and 14.5mm ballistics, etc.)
– Overwhelming firepower (AK-47s, RPGs, RPDs, IEDs, MLRS and tube artillery, ballistic missiles, mines, missile boats, etc.),
– Overwhelming numbers (human wave attacks, tanks, planes, artillery barrages, mines, insurgents, Technicals, paradrops, etc.)
– Overwhelming combined arms (SAMs, IFVs, tanks, small arms, NBC, Paratroopers, SOFs, etc.)
– Overwhelming camouflage (stealth, night raids, sneak attacks, ambushes, hidden concealment, hidden caches, etc.)
– Overwhelming dispersion (Group cells, hidden caches, networks, ambush squads, mass attacks, etc.)
– Overwhelming intelligence (cell phones, double-agents, spies, populace, scouts, crime networks, stealing data, POWs, etc.)
– Overwhelming ruggedness (AK-47, planes, armor, soldiers, insurgents, Soyuz, etc. They can go days without maintenance, rest, or service in harsh extremes)
– Overwhelming adaptiveness and versatility (T-55s to T-14s are still in service. The U.S. just has the M1. Advanced Electronic Warfare and countermeasures. The Russian and Chinese arsenal of weapon choices is huge compared to the U.S. and the West. The poorly armed and armored M113 still remains the premiere exported U.S. APC to some allied nations whereas the Russians can export the heavily armed and armored BTR, BMP, BMDs, and Armatas IFVs with more firepower and armor than the M113…four IFV Russian choices to one U.S. APC).
Combined, these are the aspects that the enemy uses to win wars against the U.S. and the West, even if guerilla tactics. These tactics have remained the same throughout WW2, Korea, Vietnam, the Drug War, and the GWOT. These tactics have been utilized by Threat Forces in Bosnia, Rwanda, Gulf War, Somalia, Iran-Iraq War, Libya, Ukraine, and Syria. While they don’t always win wars for the Threat Forces, these are often utilized and practiced and give Western foot soldiers a much harder time. The low cost of combat for Threat Forces also causes huge amounts of money and resources expended by the West to counter small numbers utilizing the above tactics
There appears to be an evolving dynamic to the "strategy of war" debate between the "Clausewitz forever" and "Anything other than Clausewitz" factions. (Gross oversimplification, I know, but still . .).
How about this – theyre both right, when applied in relevant situations.
One doesn't need to go back to the middle ages to find historical examples relevant to todays world. The 100 years after Waterloo were rife with nonlinear conflicts in Africa, India, Asia and South America, including some US actions. Remember the Moro's in the Phillipines.
Post WWII, what about Greece; the British experience in Malaysia, ir the French and US experience in Vietnam. (Remember Vietnam)?
Lastly, "private military contractor" is a polite name for mercenary. Outsourcing the military role is a risky path. See Late Roman Empire, or even France.
Gee Pete … your input is so wrong on so many levels that it just isn't worth addressing overall. I did like the article though.
I think the proposed strategy is a recipe for disaster, conflicts and disorder and chaos of highest order world over.
What do we think, if USA could use these contractors for its purposes why not China, Russia or any other country. You just have to pay more to the contractors. The business will flourish and who will be the biggest sufferer, the humanity, the mankind. I have serious doubts about the mental state of the writer. One day he could pickup a gun, go out in a busy market and start shooting the innocent people just to satisfy his thirst of blood. Sorry to say that.
And what about the high moral and ethical values of US society. How can the people of this great country support such a war mongering ideas.
I find the position of such contractors very much same as terrorists who will be ready to kill people anywhere in the world for money.
I wonder why such a violent person would be employed in NDU, only to polute the minds of American soldiers?
The US does not get war wrong on a military level, the nation gets it wrong on a political level. We now fight to limit casualties among the civilians surrounding the enemy. We fight to limit damage, we fight to hold back and not utterly destroy an enemy. Those decisions come from the people in the White House.
Funny a private contractor making the argument for more private contractors to conduct war.
This argument that we basically need to subvert our values to fight the enemy is an old one and one that never really tracks: you can’t obtain legitimacy if you act like the enemy you are suppose to be against
We are not failing at arms but failing at aims. What are they?
What are our national goals?
I think that’s where we get war wrong.
We are not being defeated on the battlefield including by insurgents.
We win then leave or hand over our gains at the peace table. We do not leave behind little Americas. No.
What are our national goals?
As for losing our soul if we want world Empire under whatever guise then our soul and almost certainly the Republic is the price, a conflict and drama now in the open. We have to decide.
I want the Republic which I’ll submit is Empire enough. The continental united states are the richest and most geographically secure lands on earth.
If we’re failing abroad its not a failure of arms but a failure of aims.
Quit assuming that everyone in the US Defense establishment is a sincere, yet misinformed, patriot that can be educated to win wars. Next you will be proclaiming that the leftist pelosi neo-communist gang will be more ethical if they are taught to read the US Constitution. "BS!" MacFate should have mentioned the huge number of ideological miscreants embedded in "elite" America who want a "people's soviet democracy" established here. In the meantime they have emasculated the US military with "rules of engagement" and an emphasis upon soldiers enduring hate spittle right in the face, as they watch real heroes being discriminated against as blood-thirsty thugs and nazis. The US military is run by Clintonista generals. If you want to understand that terminology read all about the US military's "new concept", borrowed from the Italian Army, of "Buying Victory" by bribes coordinated with lies by fake news hypocrites, unnecessary retreats presented as victories, and the pointed dumbing down of US combat officers. The Clintonistas "hate" a lot of things that a penchant for war-fighting will discourage. They want comfort, air conditioning, black racism, WWI conventional tactics, Colonels and above to risk freely enjoy the flesh of lower caste men and women soldiers and a lot of other caprices that are disgusting. It reminds me Kaiser Wilhelm disgustedly watching a meeting of his effeminate General Staff, face-painted like democrat congressmen, and dancing in women's clothes while exhibiting an uncalled for fixation on flirting with enlisted men. Have you ever wondered why the US military is so secretive about its officers of General rank, and above ? How many "really" wear panty hose under their creased trousers? America has a corrupt army and the center of that corruption is the three military academies and the special military educational colleges for higher commanders, like the War College and Fort Leavenworth. The US military is rotten and must be investigated continuously!
Quit assuming that everyone in the US Defense establishment is a sincere, yet misinformed, patriot that can be educated to win wars. Next you will be proclaiming that the leftist pelosi neo-communist gang will be more ethical if they are taught to read the US Constitution. "BS!" MacFate should have mentioned the huge number of ideological miscreants embedded in "elite" America who want a "people's soviet democracy" established here. In the meantime they have emasculated the US military with "rules of engagement" and an emphasis upon soldiers enduring hate spittle right in the face, as they watch real heroes being discriminated against as blood-thirsty thugs and nazis. The US military is run by Clintonista generals. If you want to understand that terminology read all about the US military's "new concepts", borrowed from the Italian Army, of "Buying Victory" by a fecal collage of bribes coordinated with lies by fake news hypocrites, unnecessary retreats presented as victories, and the pointed dumbing down of US combat officers, read the publications disseminated by various military 'Strategic Training Schools." The Clintonistas "hate" a lot of things that a penchant for war-fighting will discourage. They want comfort, air conditioning, black racism, WWI conventional tactics, Colonels and above to risk freely enjoy the flesh of lower caste men and women soldiers and a lot of other caprices that are disgusting. It reminds me Kaiser Wilhelm disgustedly watching a meeting of his effeminate General Staff, face-painted like democrat congressmen, and dancing in women's clothes while exhibiting an uncalled for fixation on flirting with enlisted men. Have you ever wondered why the US military is so secretive about its officers of General rank, and above ? How many "really" wear panty hose under their creased trousers? America has a corrupt military and the center of that corruption is the three military academies and the special military educational colleges for higher commanders, like the War College and Fort Leavenworth. The US military is rotten and must be investigated continuously!