THE WAY AHEAD: Resilience, defense, and the architecture of American renewal
Civil defense. Influence monitoring. Enhanced unconventional warfare capabilities. New political warfare coordination. Fight for our values at home and abroad.
This article is Part 5 of Order from Chaos: The Architecture of American Renewal Comes from a Mindset of Grey-Zone Superiority — a Great Power monograph. You can read the introduction here, Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here, but you can also read each section as a separate piece.
PART 5: THE WAY AHEAD: Civil defense to build resilience. Influence monitoring to lessen infiltration. Enhanced unconventional warfare capabilities to detect grey zone threats and help design a response. A whole-of-government approach to waging and deterring political warfare. Fight for our ideals at home and abroad.
To productively engage Russia and have any hope of achieving lasting results that enhance our security and that of our allies, our mindset must change. This same shift in mindset will aid us in our approach to China, the far more significant mid-term threat. More importantly, it informs a common framework that not only addresses these two adversaries abroad, and others who will seek to emulate their tactics, but it also helps build resilience at home. Simply put: we need to focus on below-threshold threats, both our capabilities in these spaces and the clarity with which we can defend against them. Every potential target must be a part of the defense — which means if American citizens are targets, they must be enlisted as a component of the solution.
The detail in the prior sections helps frame a set of orienting principles for this new mindset:
The Kremlin relies on below-threshold conflict in many domains to achieve strategic objectives, and has found significant success in the world and against the United States. We must enhance our capabilities in these domains, and also how we monitor and assess threats in grey spaces.
The way we engage the Kremlin allows Russia to evade consequences — consequences for what was done to occupied nations during the Soviet Union, consequences for what has been done to their own people, consequences for what they do in the world on an escalating basis — which encourages them to take greater risks and accelerate disruptive activities in their near abroad and further afield. We must own our role in contributing to this state of affairs, and up-end this cycle.
Ignoring and minimizing Russian behavior creates a system that also requires us to ignore things about ourselves. We must evaluate the weaknesses that we have failed to confront, renew our strength at the seams and in grey spaces, and reconceptualize what resilience and defense are in an era of grey threats.
If we can build strength where we know we haven’t had it against Russia, this gives us a better position against China across the same domains, and it gives us an enhanced domestic fabric of resilience to better mobilize our resources and respond to threats and crises (like pandemics, extreme weather events and fires, attacks against critical infrastructure, more).
We must refocus on shaping outcomes in a state of perpetual change, not achieving an endstate.
Everyone is eager to leap forward toward China, but we won’t get China right if we fail to evaluate how we have repeatedly gotten Russia so wrong. We all know that China is the far greater long-term threat — far better resourced, more cautious, more patient, more deliberate. But this is precisely why allowing the Kremlin to continue to gnaw at us without consequences is so dangerous. It’s a roadmap for China — well, more accurately probably like the maps a pilot uses to navigate a ship up a river. It shows where we can be attacked without cost, and that there are weaknesses we seem blind to, unwilling to shore up.
Much of this revolves around a shift in mindset. Admitting our failings but remembering our significant strengths. Developing a new toolkit that enhances options to respond so that attacks and threats below-threshold can be met with an appropriate response. Better assess where we should act, and where we may need sharp capabilities and mobilization. The grey spaces are where we are losing — in the world and at home. This is where power has shifted across the past decade. This is where we must be to alter the equation.
First, remembering our strengths.
We, the collective West, have squandered the honor at the core of our trust-based system, and in the absence of friends to stand with, we’re de facto looking around for the right bully to stand behind. We’ve come to embrace the nonsense-think that we can somehow choose better relations with Russia or China, prioritize one or the other, or play the one off the other as if they do not share a joint view of a new era of global power. Russia and China send nice storytellers to sing us to sleep, and we think a good night’s sleep sounds pretty good. But in the morning, there are never ponies or magic beans waiting for us. Just miles to walk and work to do, and no shortcuts for it. The same is true of all the demagogues who want to tell us “sovereignty” is going to solve all our problems.
The math here remains pretty darn simple. The core of the allied free world — NATO nations plus Sweden, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea — are more than half of global economic and military power. This all works apiece: the security guarantee creates an environment where democracies and economies thrive, and it all has a nice network effect because of the shared values it’s based on. There is tremendous human capital and innovation within the bloc, research and academic institutions that are without equal. Living standards improve for all our citizens because of it. None of this was accidental: we purposefully built this from the ground up after WWII — essentially based on the same idea we seek to renew here, that resilient democratic societies networked by values have a survival advantage.
Sure, we all squabble like siblings, and we have widely disparate tastes in beer, and we may not always agree on how best to address the threats we face. But we’re zipping around in our gold-plated free-world flying car, counting nickels and trying to reinvent the wheel to compete with China and outlast Russia. But guys, look around — we’re in the flying car. We don’t need a wheel. We’re never going to agree on everything — but I hope we’d rather all stay here in this flying car than slog around with an algorithm deciding if our citizen score is high enough to keep us out of a “re-education camp,” or if we deserve a loan, an education, or the ability to leave our country. We, for sure, are not perfect. But we cannot, after everything, let this be the model we blindly allow to set the course to the future.
It’s so easy to lose sight of how the weaponization of small disruption heralds an era of significant upheaval — but what’s at stake here is impossibly vast. The 20th century will be remembered as a time of global wars and broader movements to expand freedom and representative governance. This was not just a project of the West, though the alliances and institutions we have built make it more resilient here (we hope). Perhaps we were miserable stewards of this expansion of freedom, assuming this endstate was so desired that it would require little maintenance. Perhaps a lot of things.
But right now, the 21st century is poised to be the era that undoes all of that. There are a lot of forces changing the balance of power in that direction — and it’s possible the pandemic may be the pivot point from which we tip into the abyss. Data-driven, tech-enabled digital authoritarianism. The fracture of our minds beneath the constant onslaught of information, including coercive and untrue information pushed in front of us by algorithms and wanton propaganda peddlers. The creation of impossible wealth — and the consolidation of that wealth and the power it represents into hands that often seem less interested in the elevation of more people, if not utterly detached from the idea that laws must govern and tax all men. The coming automation of work and war and medicine, which basically no one has stopped to evaluate from the perspective of: what is the role of government for its citizens in this totally new world? If we aren’t willing to work through our problems and be an alternative to the bullies, they’ve already won the century.
Second, focus on shaping outcomes.
Not much has changed since the fugue-time before Trump’s inauguration four years ago, from the perspective of our strategic objectives — and what that means is that we have lost so much valuable time. We need to reorient our mindset to shape outcomes in an uncertain and disruptive era — because if we don’t, someone else sets the rules for whatever comes next. We need to reinvest in our alliances as projections of our values — because they are the guarantee of our prosperity and security. We need to elaborate a new architecture of influence and power projection that can better identify, offset, and incur costs against below-threshold threats from a range of adversaries, especially great power competitors — because this persistent grey zone conflict is the great leveler, and right now that is working against us. We still need a better strategic union of our hard power and our soft power that identifies the best and simplest tools for a specific project — because both sides are essential to ensuring the full potential of the other.
The Biden administration won’t launch from that point back in 2016 when the alarms were sounding, and we can’t pretend that’s where we are. In the intervening time, not only have we conceded ground to the Kremlin, but we’ve opened space for China. Warfare (actual warfare) is starting to look pretty different. Hard Brexit happened. Hong Kong’s democracy protests were dismantled under COVID. The pandemic has changed everyone — well, the West more than anywhere else — and in far too many places it will expose that not all men are yet viewed as equal. Trump spent four years telling our allies that we might not show up, so probably they should make their own deals with Russia and China — and they did. Our adversaries and competitors weren’t on vacation while an entire presidency was lost to navel gazing and burning down our own house.
There is so, so much disruption coming — AI, automation, the end of work, the internet of things, surveillance everything, automated warfare, CRISPR and designer DNA, pandemics, climate shifts and climate refugees — and we have to face it with a sense of who we are and what is right, and with friends at our side.
The doubt between us will remain — but there is no option but standing together. The doubt between us will remain — until we, the United States, bring new steel to the equation. Until we help define again what the joint benefit of our alliances is, and rekindle the system of trust required for collective defense and shared values to be powerful. Until we rebuild some core consensus at home that this is important and necessary work.
The really bad news for American conservatives is that many of the niche topics they have chosen to be the framing of their domestic identity battles will be key venues in which America will face off against other great powers in the coming decades. It’s not just that conservatives are on the wrong side, but they haven’t even given themselves a seat at the table — a phenomenon witnessed again and again as the Trump administration walked away from tables.
For example, it doesn’t really matter if American conservatives believe in climate change: global leadership on solutions and offsets to climate crises will be a key arena where China will strive to persuade that their model of wealth without freedom, of centralized control, can more efficiently address significant challenges at scale than democracies can. It will be a key arena where they teach other aspiring autocrats to use crisis response as a framing for how to deny freedom to their people and maintain control. It will be a key area where they continue to seduce billionaires and lull progressives and greens into believing that there is a moral case to make on climate leadership that is enough to warrant a blind eye toward their war against ethnic Uighurs, plus other religious and ethnic minorities, and the data-driven oppression of all their people. We must be at this table — standing with our democratic allies, representing the kinds of American industry and innovation that thrive in tackling this domain — if we want to be anywhere. Likewise, key aspects of competition for the thawing Arctic — on which Russia and China are laser-focused to gain access to a next generation of strategic resources, wealth, and mobility — will play out in part at this same table.
It doesn’t matter if American conservatives believe in COVID-19 or vaccines: “vaccine diplomacy” is an incredibly simple area in which our presence will expand clout and credibility in the world — particularly in cooperation with allies like Canada and the EU — and one where Russia and China are eagerly outpacing us. This is an easy space in which to build goodwill, and a silly place in which to lose influence. And I think 2020 has shown why an organized concept of global health security — the ability to monitor and respond to emergent pathogenic threats before they show up on our shores — is something we would want to re-invest in.
In countless other ways, American conservatives have latched on to the talking point of great power competition while kneecapping their ability to compete, or to sell that competition to their base— the same Gadsdenization of power abroad that the party has wrought on itself at home. The mob attacking the Capitol didn’t just loathe Democrats — they were out to get Republicans too. This is not a shocking endstate for a political party that fomented a base around the idea that government is never going to do anything meaningful for you.
President-elect Biden has been clear in articulating his top-line foreign policy priorities, and the views of the team he’s tapped to lead these portfolios are reasonably well-established. The broad parameters of this are positive, especially a focus on alliances and attention to the ambitions and machinations of great power competitors in different theaters. That we can aspire to have a “foreign policy for the middle class” is a true and necessary sales point for the American audience — but leadership in a values-based world with a generational time horizon will come into conflict with immediate household interests, and navigating this tension will be critical. Weird new-century equivalency and isolationism find loud advocates in both political factions in America — extremes that increasingly align in media and argumentation, with significant investment going toward think tanks and others who will argue the case. And those seeking to reap the benefit of the Trump cult will compete to echo his sentiments and postures on these issues, which his followers are deeply cultured to believe.
Biden knows what he stands for in this lane, but he will have to hold fast and be adaptive. There cannot be another “reset” with an adversary that has used such opportunities only to weaponize our goodwill against us while they buy time for a next attack. This is a time to think creatively about our own influence and assessment capabilities, and how we can better deter and respond to below-threshold, grey zone threats. To do that best we need more, and not less, assets and possibilities on the board.
A simple framing to move ahead
The Russian attack on our elections, on our populace, exposed a lot of seams. The irregular Trump presidency exposed more. So did the pandemic. From all of this fracture emerges a clear framing of a strategic approach for the United States that unifies a foreign and domestic strategy of mobilization towards 21st century resilience and defense. And I think this is the key factor: the mobilization of resources and talent.
Just as Russia slunk home after the August War, had a come-to-Jesus with itself about how it mostly went sideways, and then planned for how to close those gaps — we need to have a much-delayed after-action assessment about why we are so vulnerable to influence campaigns and below-threshold threats at home, and why we in turn aren’t so great in deploying or countering them abroad, and then make detailed plans to close all these gaps.
At home, we lack resilience — in any measure of that word — as we drown in cynicism and doubt and division and perceptions that are not fully aligned with reality. We’ve lost our sense of ourselves, of our connection to each other, of a shared belief in any common project. The Russian attack and the pandemic in particular have exposed this failure of resilience, which we witnessed in so many instances of institutional fragility, a total lack of mobilization capacity — no framework that oriented American skills, volunteerism, or ingenuity toward solving any of the problems we suddenly faced. This was inexcusable, and it softened the ground for the intense backlash that became a pathway to denying election results.
So what do we do? There are a hundred things that need to be done, but there are two that are essential for the new administration at home.
First, the government has a duty to evaluate malign foreign influence campaigns targeting Americans, American business, and American institutions, and communicate clearly to the public and to those being targeted what this looks like and what these campaigns aim to achieve. This must be done by nonpartisan entities that can speak with the authority of the government. An Office of Influence, or something akin.
One area where this is absolutely critical is informing the public and media organizations about the narratives and information campaigns being wielded by malign actors to sway American perception. We saw some initial signs of progress with this from CISA during this past election, but building trust in such institutions — and knowing how to understand what they communicate — takes time. This is an absolutely vital need that goes far beyond election interference: simply put, knowing more about how our adversaries seek to manipulate us can help us take a breath and less reflexively engage information in ways that further accelerate division for no purpose. Maybe if we all better understand how adversaries work to divide us, weaken us, then we will be less inclined to use these techniques against each other — or else held more accountable if we do.
But this goes far beyond influence in the information domain. We need government capacity to better assess all the other kinds foreign influence campaigns that for too long we have turned a blind eye to. Clumsily over these past years, there have been efforts to explain why it may not be a good thing to take donations and investments from Russian oligarchs or to have them as clients, as they are enlisted in the Kremlin’s strategic influence operations. There have been brute efforts to communicate the same on Chinese telecoms and cultural initiatives at American universities. But a slew of recent arrests of academics and government experts accused of taking money from China in exchange for their sensitive research shows how much deeper this compromise has become — and how much more urgent it is to alert academics and their institutions to what such approaches are about. Done piecemeal and in public, it allows denial and builds resentment. Far better for government agencies charged with evaluating this influence to proactively communicate these risks to the targets, and then report to Congress on patterns of such influence and where vulnerabilities are exposing our people to recruitment, our intellectual property in critical areas to theft, and our judgment to clouding.
The easy money defines an expansive range of influence operations — but the compromise creates layers of national security risks for us. We’re past the stage where this is a matter of disclosure and review for those with security clearances or access to sensitive programs. It’s a broad threat, and the potential targets should be made aware of what this looks like. And it goes beyond science and innovation — or do we with think financial relationships between China and the entertainment industry and professional sports aren’t buying silence when they aren’t outright earning praise? Are we helping explain what the consequences of this could be for those enjoying the free money?
Recent events have also made it clear that active duty troops and veterans are a frequent target for foreign information and influence campaigns. The Pentagon and the service branches need to take this threat seriously, because online information campaigns are targeting and radicalizing men and women in uniform — just as they are other Americans. But this obviously takes on an increased urgency in this community: a psyoper who themselves believes conspiracies and disinformation can’t do their job for the US military, and neither can a soldier who can no longer discern who the enemy is.
Said simply: governments, and adversarial governments in particular, strategically target Americans with state-led campaigns, and we need a state-led effort to evaluate these as potential threats to help defend our people and institutions. This is a pressing national security priority in every domain. Government has a duty to document patterns of influence and infiltration and explain them clearly to the public and institutions. Right now, it’s a giant grey area of intelligence collection and authorities and knowledge that sits awkwardly between agencies, if at all. This is an arena where great power competition occurs. We need a centralized interagency body, or a new agency that brings together necessary capabilities, dedicated to evaluating American vulnerabilities, strengthening the targets, and providing information that will allow for legislative fixes, where needed.
But we also need resilience that is bottom-up rather than top-down, engaging the citizenry. This problem has at least one straightforward solution: we need real, national civil defense organizations. So many Americans are willing to serve when their community and nation calls — and in this past year of crisis, many were surprised that no one seemed to imagine asking. We need to train and organize civilians in key skillsets, holding readiness exercises to prepare for various kinds of crises and thinking creatively about the areas where mobilization will be needed so that when the moment comes, these cadres know what to do, and people trust them to do it. Medics, cyber expertise, information campaigns, logistics, intelligence, engineers, food aid and relief — rope in capable Americans willing to serve, and train those who are willing to be ready. Build rosters of people whose capabilities we know and have enhanced — people who can do things like administer vaccines, or coordinate and distribute aid during unexpected crises, and then the people who understand what all these capabilities sets are and how to effectively deploy them from within communities.
There are great examples that we can borrow from amongst our allies, in particular in the Baltic states and Sweden, of how civil defense and civilian reserves leverage native assets into national strength. There are great domestic examples of what this can look like — we need look no further than wherever it is that Chef Jose Andres is this week, feeding thousands for pennies with the network of chefs he has built. Simple, smart mobilization capacity that trains skills that can fill gaps on short notice. This builds resilience, but also provides opportunity and benefits for many people when done nationally and as a national project. It raises civic awareness and, by allowing civilians to serve more readily, contributes to a shared national identity that is born from service culture. For civil defense, this also builds community, and shows more people what their role is, where they fit — makes people feel a bit less unmoored and in search of conspiracies to explain things to them. It can siphon off energy that is right now going in unhelpful directions.
In brief: we put it back together by putting it back together, building structures that address the vulnerabilities and deficits that have been exposed in painful detail over these past years. It’s a first step toward addressing so many deep fractures — but one that could yield significant rewards. A living civics lesson.
Abroad, on the other hand, we need to look at all the places where below-threshold competition and influence operations by our great power competitors are shaping views and outcomes — and we need to make sure that we are more effectively designing unconventional campaigns where they are needed. We need to develop a centralized, coordinated capacity to orient all levers of US power to respond to non-conventional threats. A new method of American political warfare — a term which no one loves, but which is essential. This is a basic approach that we can start to integrate into our overall planning as we rebuild our diplomatic corps, assess where special operations and Special Forces best fit, and better define the roles for hard power and soft power in increasingly complex environments where small, quick initiatives are vitally important.
But these grey zone capabilities — how we detect, understand, and counter influence, and where we need effective operational capacity — have to be a top priority for how we build a global great power competition strategy. This warrants a longer discussion of its own, but below are a few parameters to consider.
Force drawdowns that ideologically made sense four or eight years ago need to be re-evaluated in a new context, and should not occur until the necessity and limits of hard power are reassessed with full access to refreshed intelligence. The Obama administration relied heavily on special operations deployments and drones, but not every problem can be addressed with these capabilities, especially when pushing renewed engagement is a critical priority but our diplomatic ranks are depleted. Our situational awareness is less when we retreat to our shores across wide oceans, where it is easier to believe that geographically remote problems are also strategically distant when they are not, and from which the threshold for action on those problems becomes higher.
Additionally, too many of the critical developments we need to follow are far from capitals and diplomatic halls, and intelligence about them often comes from longterm relationships maintained by various aspects of our military. While the military shouldn’t be the primary tool for every problem set, it’s more than just a hammer looking for nails. This is particularly true of Special Forces, whose unique training and intelligence capabilities should be better integrated into how we assess and plan the forward-deployment of assets beyond just the military into complex environments. There are good examples of recent success in this regard, particularly in the Baltic states and Syria.
Assessing great power competition in intelligence terms is a bit like pointillism: if you’re too close, it’s just a jumble of dots with no meaning, and if you’re too far, it’s a beautiful picture disconnected from any meaningful ground-level awareness. We need multiple vantage points along this spectrum. As we rebuild our diplomatic core and recruit a new generation of military and intelligence personnel, we should allow for deeper area expertise — be it region- or country-specific, or capability-specific (like psychological, information, or cyber operations; tracking illicit finance arrangements. We must better allow for promotion and advancement within specific tracks of expertise.) This will also support our need for better cross-theater threat assessments, in particular relating to patterns of influence and operations by great power and non-state adversaries. And while we of course must compete by integrating AI into our defense planning and intelligence assessments, we must also enhance human intelligence capabilities and sharpen operational intelligence from the ground, in particular with a mind to offset the manipulation of data and perceptions that are increasingly common in the digital realm.
Finally, if we talk about values, we must still fight for those values, and look for others who fight for them too. In the aftermath of the Iraq war, we are failing those who aspire to enhance a free world, and failing ourselves for remaining wrapped in the soft bigotry of the idea that “not everyone is ready for democracy.” We have forgotten that we can create space for these brave actors, incentivize the creation of inclusive and competitive systems, help people think creatively about what power means in their own societies, and how to get it and better represent the interests of more people. We must support democracy and democrats, and those willing to take up the hard fight for these things and for what those things mean for actual people — and not just the clinical metrics of “reforms.” “Reforms” have become a safe focus for us, but produce systems that can just as easily create cheats, oligarchs, and autocrats who can efficiently check boxes or provide the illusion of reform without actually opening up systems, as they can create a system that’s become better in any real respect. This isn’t a time for equivocation: too many aspiring democrats and democratic movements have been crushed in the past decade. Ideologues like this are an essential counter to the cynicism of transactional relationships, and an asset for us in how we conceptualize competition abroad.
Great power competition is grey zone competition. And enhancing capabilities to act in grey spaces abroad while ensuring we have enhanced resilience where our adversaries seek to target us at home will build a stronger system that strengthens our nation, our defense, and our ability to act in the world in every respect.
We need to reorient our mindset, learning to enhance our more obvious strengths with strategies geared toward building lighter, faster, more creative capabilities that can efficiently shape outcomes. We get creative about addressing systemic weakness at home. We adapt our tools of power projection and competition abroad. In both respects, it’s the human fabric that this builds the resilience and capability that is of most critical value to us.
Every fracture that our enemies have found so exploitable, every crack that Trump riggled his fingers inside and pulled apart, we must understand. We must assess the seams, and then build cohesion that will lessen all these fractures, and in that we can find an architecture of renewal. But this is neither exclusively a domestic nor foreign endeavor. The values that shield us are strongest, truest, most able to defend and unite us when we tend them at home and abroad all at once.
/end Part 5
Catch up on all the sections of Order from Chaos: The Architecture of American Renewal Comes from a Mindset of Grey-Zone Superiority, on Great Power:
Introduction: Autocracy ascends the cracks of democracy
Part 5: THE WAY AHEAD. Civil defense to build resilience. Influence monitoring to lessen infiltration. Enhanced unconventional warfare capabilities to detect grey zone threats and help design a response. A whole-of-government approach to waging and deterring political warfare. Fight for our ideals at home and abroad.
A full copy of the monograph will also be available on Great Power. It is my hope that it will orient us toward action that structures order that allows us to navigate this time of disruption, and to lead again.
An EXTRA SPECIAL THANK YOU to Great Power’s founding subscribers, who supported the writing of this monograph, and who want thoughtful American leadership, at home and abroad. —MM