A heartfelt introduction to Great Power

Welcome to the party, pal.

Welcome to Great Power!

Before we get started, I wanted to take a moment to explain why Great Power, and why now. 

“We are facing increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order—creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory,” former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wrote in the 2018 national defense concept. “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”

Our strategic concepts speak of the return to and need for great power competition, and they highlight the emerging importance of “below the threshold” capabilities, including things like cyberattacks and information warfare. Too often, though, these are viewed as separate subjects. 

They aren’t. 

Why is the Senate’s report on the counterintelligence investigation on the 2016 elections 1000 pages long? Why is the story about Russian bounties in Afghanistan important? Why does disinformation matter so much, and does it “do anything?” What the heck is QAnon, and how does it recruit and radicalize people? Why does the use of ‘green men’ in Portland make everyone compare them to the ‘green men’ in Crimea? How did China buy up the global supply of PPE at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic? What’s this Russian vaccine story? At the core of these stories we stumble across in the everyday news are discussions of hybrid tactics that matter deeply in the context of great power rivalries. It’s just, we don’t talk about them that way yet. And we should. 

Great Power won’t be about great power competition from the 50,000-foot halo, or from the perspective of hypersonic weapons systems and nuclear triads. It will focus on seams, and trenches, and gray areas, and resolve. On the cracks where hybrid tactics flourish, and where the targets are undefended. Where individuals have found solutions that mattered, and where nations have been smart enough to embrace them. My hope is that it will help you understand what great power competition looks like on the ground, and how we can take steps to hone and wield great power — to build resilience and operate ahead of the new rule book — in this strange century that will emerge after the churn of the coronavirus pandemic, which has revealed so many fractures in our institutions and alliances and previewed what is to come. 

Why? Because we’re still so far behind. 

Twelve years ago, on August 8, 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. At that moment, Presidents Bush and Putin and many other world leaders were in a stadium in Beijing, watching the opening ceremonies of the summer Olympic Games. Someone leaned over to tell President Bush — who had embraced the reformist government in Georgia that had emerged from the 2003 Rose Revolution, and pushed to get Georgia and Ukraine into NATO — what had happened. It was exactly what the Georgians had been warning would happen. No one wanted to believe it, but now it was here. Among the endless rows of seats filled with cheering fans waving mini-flags, Bush confronted Putin — the first of many encounters about the unfolding war that would happen with the Olympics, international symbol of amity, as a backdrop. Putin does like to put on a good show.

Later, Russians officials would openly discuss how carefully they had constructed the information campaign around the August war — an information war they did not win. And it was this failure to win in the information domain that created the space for the negotiation of the ceasefire agreement between Russia and Georgia by French President Sarkozy, ending the war in 5 days, on August 13, with Russian tanks just 30 kilometers from the Georgian capital.

This should have been the wake-up call. Instead, we all went back to sleep. The West heaved a sigh of relief, went on about their day, and learned none of the necessary lessons about the reality of President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist intentions and what was needed to contain them. (Well, not all of the West. The Baltic states and Poland and Sweden would continue to ring the alarm.)

The Kremlin, however, sulked away and had a come-to-jesus about what had just happened. They didn’t lose the war — but they didn’t really win it either. They came out of it focused on two sets of challenges that they started to address in the subsequent years.

The first was how to overhaul the tired, clunky, unreformed Soviet-era conscript army, which generally hadn’t performed as expected in Georgia. From this emerged three lines of focus: on obsession with military logistics; heavy reinvestment into defense industries to produce new weapons systems and other materiel; and bypassing the need to fix a million-member military by focusing instead on building significant special operations-like (or at least, special operations-lite) capacity that could accomplish at-scale operational objectives.

Second, though, was rebuilding the expansive system of tools and tactics that allowed political objectives to be achieved without needing the tanks — the political warfare toolkit. From this came the intense focus on building information capabilities through huge investments in state media and proxies; a renewed wave of relationship building with disruptive political parties and other organizations across Europe; new foreign investments in business and culture by the newly-consolidated oligarch class; and a focus on all the new tricks and technologies that would make intelligence gathering, influence, and infiltration so much easier.

As the tools of political warfare were rolled out, tested, honed, and refined in the period between mid-2010 through 2012 — under cover of “the reset,” while the Kremlin was enjoying all kinds of goodies from the grab-bag of engagement initiatives that probably accelerated the development of their new hybrid toolkit — not many people were paying attention. But I had started working with Georgia just after the war, and had a front row seat to what this looked like, felt like, as the Kremlin systematically re-established influence in Georgian politics and society. 

And then came Syria, a living Russian arms-expo-turned-logistics-hub-to-points-east-and-south. And then came the “green men” (soldiers of no insignia) and the invasion and annexation of Crimea, and then the invasion of eastern Ukraine by “proxy” forces. And suddenly, everyone cared a hell of a lot about what Russia had been up to since that ceasefire agreement was signed in 2008. Not much of a ceasefire, really.

I had to learn a lot of this the hard way — by standing in front of it, and, more often than not, getting run over by it. It is the texture of those losses that hammered the lessons home — that lifted the veil of disbelief through which most Americans and non-post-Soviet westerners get to view the Kremlin’s actions and behavior. My teachers and companions in this education were Georgians and Estonians and Lithuanians and Ukrainians and Moldovans who had also learned firsthand the costs of not learning fast enough — learned what the Kremlin is willing to do to achieve even small strategic gains that sometimes don’t make any sense. It is this set of stories and experiences that I rely on when trying to explain why it matters when we ignore the Kremlin’s behavior — when we ignore how their playbook is learned and replicated and adapted by other adversarial powers like China. 

My sincere hope is that more people can benefit from these lessons without having to gain them in the same gauntlet. And so, here is Great Power, which will bring you unconventional stories and perspectives on unconventional conflicts so we can all be better prepared for the coming decades of great power competition. 

Great Power will explore questions like these: 

What does the pursuit and deployment of great power look like for those on the frontlines of these confrontations? Which allies should we be learning from and leaning on, and how can we bring others along with us?

How do emergent technologies and capabilities — machine learning, AI, genetics, 5G, quantum computing, renewed space race, mechanization, etc — inform and realign great power competition as it occurs across multiple fronts?

What is the role of formal vs informal operations, particularly when we are trying to understand how Russia and China project power and influence in our systems?

What are the costs of getting great power competition wrong, and do we know the faces of the fallen?

Where are the seams — the weak points — where adversarial tactics are succeeding, or where we should be focusing, and why? 

How does all of this inform the global engagement strategy of a new American administration — how can we, as military leaders and combatant commanders have begged us, better use the other/non-military levers of Americans power to achieve strategic objectives?

We are at an inflection point. We know that in 3 years, 5 years, 10, 20, we will look back and remember this time of upheaval — but right now, I think most of us are uncertain from what vantage point we will view these events.

It’s time to get our heads back in the game. My hope is that Great Power will offer perspective on how to do that. 


Molly McKew 

Lead author of Great Power