Thinking Again About Contemporary Conflict

Thinking Again About Contemporary Conflict

Dr. Max G. Manwaring

Recently, President Clinton opened the summit meeting of world leaders at the United Nations and urged the gathering to prepare national and international institutions for a new age in which unilateral and multilateral forces will have to “reach regularly and rapidly inside national boundaries to protect threatened people.” [1] In that context, the president was responding to the realities of the so-called “new world disorder.”

The primary verities and implications of the new world disorder are clear. First, the world has seen and will continue to see a wide range of ambiguous and uncomfortable threats in the “gray area” between war and peace. These threats and challenges are the consequences of root cause pressures and problems perpetrated and/or exploited by a variety of internal and international political actors. They are manifested by transnational illegal drug trafficking, organized crime, corruption, terrorism, warlordism, insurgency, civil war, regional wars, humanitarian problems such as large-scale refugee flows and famine, and the horrors of ethnic cleansing. The spillover effects of these gray-area phenomena ultimately place demands on the international community, if not to solve the problems, at least to harbor the victims.

In addition, and at the same time, the United States has vital interests in the internal social, economic, and political well-being of a number of countries and regions in the new global community. When what mattered most were military bases, preserving access to sea lines of communication, choke points, raw materials, and hydrocarbons, and denying those assets to the Soviet Union or its surrogates, the United States could generally ignore internal conditions in other countries. Now, this country is also seriously concerned about the development of democratic and free market institutions and human rights; cooperation on shared problems like illegal drugs, the environment, and refugees; and the ability to buy U.S. products–and must concern itself with nontraditional internal national and regional well-being. Thus, the United States is embroiled in a world of dangerous uncertainty in which time-honored concepts of national security and the classical military means to attain it, while necessary, are no longer sufficient. Clearly, the contemporary global security environment has become more complex.

We can see that complexity in several ways. First, the definition of “enemy” and “victory” is elusive and the use of “power” to secure, maintain, and enhance vital interests is diffuse. Underlying these ambiguities is the fact that contemporary conflict is more often than not an intrastate affair that international law and convention are only beginning to address. It is part of one society against another. In these “teacup” wars, there is normally no formal declaration or termination of conflict, no easily identified human foe to attack and destroy, no specific territory to take and hold, no single credible government or political actor with which to deal, no legal niceties such as mutually recognized national borders and Geneva Conventions to help control the situation, no guarantee that any agreement between or among contending authorities will be honored, and no specific rules to guide leadership in a given “engagement” process. Thus, this aspect of the global security environment is not only complex, it is ambiguous.

Second, as a consequence, there is a need to redefine “enemy,” “power,” and “victory.” The enemy is no longer a recognizable military entity or an industrial capability to make traditional war. The enemy now becomes “violence” and the causes of violence. Power is not simply combat firepower directed at a traditional enemy’s military formation or industrial complex. Power is multi-level and combined political, psychological, moral, informational, economic, societal, military, police, and civil bureaucratic activity that can be brought to bear appropriately on the causes as well as the perpetrators of violence. And, “victory” is no longer the obvious and acknowledged destruction of military capability. Victory, or success, is now–more and more, and perhaps with a bit of “spin control–defined as the achievement of stability and a “sustainable peace.”

Third, these ambiguities intrude on the “comfortable” vision of war in which the assumed center of gravity has been enemy military formations and the physical capability to conduct war. Clausewitz reminds us, however, that “in countries subject to domestic strife…and popular uprisings, the [center of gravity] is the personalities of the leaders and public opinion. It is against these that our energies should be directed.” [2] Thus, in contemporary intranational conflict, the primary center of gravity changes from a familiar military concept to an ambiguous and uncomfortable political-economic-psychological-security paradigm.

Fourth, the conflictual means to secure, maintain, and enhance interests abroad have become multidimensional, multilateral, and multiorganizational. Conflict is no longer a military to military confrontation. Conflict now involves entire populations. Conflict now Involves a large number of national civilian and military agencies, other national civilian organizations, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and subnational indigenous actors involved in dealing in one way or another with complex threats to security, peace, and well-being. As a result, an almost unheard-of unity of effort is required to coordinate the multilateral, multidimensional, and multior-ganizational paradigm necessary for successful engagement in the contemporary interdependent world. That ideal has never really been achieved in the past. Nevertheless, in this new and infinitely more complex global security environment, governments and their functional agencies, the various nongovernmental organizations, and the div erse international organizations involved in the pursuit of stability, peace, and well-being must find ways and means to work toward a more effective unity.

Finally, contemporary nontraditional “conflict” is not a kind of appendage–a lesser or limited thing–to the more comfortable military paradigm. It is a great deal more. As long as opposition exists that is willing to risk all to violently take down a government and establish its own, there is war. This is a zero-sum game in which there is only one winner. It is, thus, total. In The Centurians, Jean Larteguy vividly captures the difference between traditional warfare designed to achieve limited political, economic, or territorial concessions and the totality of the type of threats we confront today. He contrasts the French (i.e., traditional) and the Vietminh (i.e., total) methods of securing vital interests.

“It is difficult to explain exactly, but it is rather like [the card game] bridge as compared to belote. When we [the French] make war, we play belote with 32 cards in the pack. But the Viet Minh’s game is bridge and they have 52 cards–20 more than we do. Those 20 cards short will always prevent us from getting the better of them. They’ve got nothing to do with traditional [military] warfare, they’re marked with the signs of politics, propaganda, faith, agrarian reform…What’s biting [the French officer]? I think he is beginning to realize that we’ve got to play with 52 cards and he doesn’t like it at all… Those 20 extra cards aren’t at all to his liking. [3]”

These are the realities for now and into the next century. As the United States and the U.S. Army transitions over the next months and years to deal more effectively with the requirements of the 21st century, it might be a good idea to contemplate the problems of threat and response in the terms outlined above. The threat in not doing so is straightforward. Unless thinking and actions are reoriented to deal with those realities, the problems of global stability and security will resolve themselves–there won’t be any.


(1.) New York Times, September 7, 2000, p. 1.

(2.) Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 596.

(3.) Jean Larteguy, The Centurians (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1961), 181-82.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Reserve Officers Association of the United States

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group