The 2020s: Predicting the Future of Defense and Global Conflict

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Protesters march during a flash mob protest in Hong Kong, on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. Hundreds of masked protesters gathered at Chater Garden in central Hong Kong on Friday to rally against police brutality and show their support for students who have been arrested during the ongoing anti-government demonstrations. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Protesters march during a flash mob protest in Hong Kong, on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. Hundreds of masked protesters gathered at Chater Garden in central Hong Kong on Friday to rally against police brutality and show their support for students who have been arrested during the ongoing anti-government demonstrations. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

It seems only yesterday that we were celebrating the beginning of a new millennium. The Cold War had ended. China and India had opened their economies to the rest of the world. World trade was booming, and the advent of digitization and the Internet was transforming scores of industries and creating all kinds of new opportunities. Two decades later, it feels like much of the optimism that accompanied the beginning of the 21st century has been dissipated. The world seems a darker, more dangerous place.

America appears to be beset by adversaries on all sides, trapped in prosecuting never-ending wars and suffering from an acute sense of military overreach. The benefits of globalization and the wonders of digitization have proven to be a mixed blessing, creating new industries but also destroying millions of jobs and leaving scores of Americans worse off than they were before. The American electorate is more polarized than at any time since the Civil War. Around the world, social unrest from Hong Kong to Paris and from Santiago to Tehran underscores the fragility of civil society and the growing instability that surrounds it.

What will the 2020s bring? In all probability, more of the same. Here's a look at several trends that are likely to accelerate over the course of the next few years. This is by no means a comprehensive listing. That would be far too long a list for this modest column. It is rather an exploration of the unintended consequences of some of the trends shaping the modern world.

The Export of Authoritarianism and State Control

When China's "Bamboo Curtain" finally came down and Beijing opened up its economy to the developed world, the expectation was that a modernized, technologically advanced China would herald the development of a more open democratic society, one in which civil liberties would be protected and expanded, where the reach of government would be diminished and where a more open free enterprise system would be allowed to flourish free from government intervention or control.

Great Britain ensured, when it negotiated the transfer of Hong Kong to China, that there would be a long enough transition period to facilitate a gradual convergence between the two political systems. This expectation was underscored by Beijing's reference to "one country, two systems." In time, it was expected, China would become more like Hong Kong. That isn't happening. Indeed, the opposite is true. Beijing is trying to make Hong Kong more like China. That strategy has precipitated 10 months of protests that have brought Hong Kong to its knees and led to a sharp economic downturn.

To be sure, there are several factors that have fueled the protest movement in Hong Kong, not just Beijing's heavy hand. In contrast to countries like Singapore, with which it shares many similarities, the Hong King government has done a poor job of moving the economy up the value-added ladder. There are still plenty of jobs in Hong Kong, but starting salaries have failed to keep up with a rising cost of living, especially when it comes to housing. Diminishing economic prospects have been a major factor in galvanizing the protests.

A technologically sophisticated China has not made Chinese society more open; instead, it has allowed Beijing a far more sophisticated and insidious toolbox to control public opinion and civilian behavior. From the mass monitoring of social media posts to using AI to predict anti-governmental sentiments and behavior, Beijing is rapidly creating a dystopic infrastructure of control that makes Orwell's 1984 seem benign by comparison. What is more troublesome, is China's willingness to export this capability to other authoritarian regimes around the world.

Nor is China the only country seeking to export the tools that make its authoritarianism possible. Iran is also becoming a facilitator of governmental coercion. Iran has become a major arms exporter. More importantly, its organization, training, financing and arming of local militias has become a model for how it can buttress authoritarian allies. From Damascus to Caracas, local militias inspired and shaped by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force have helped keep Iranian backed governments in power.

This is not entirely new. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets did the same thing; often relying on Cuban proxies as their stand-ins. What is new is the combination of arms, personnel and sophisticated, AI driven technology to create an unprecedented degree of governmental coercive control. If the survival of the Maduro regime is any indication, it's working.

The Growing Anonymity of Military Conflict

One of the most significant evolutions in the history of military conflict has been the ability to project military power and therefore engage an opponent at a distance. Catapults and arrows have given way to intercontinental ranged air and naval power and, most of all, missiles. Robotics and drones have allowed boots on the ground to be replaced with remotely controlled proxies. Taking military personnel out of harm's way is desirable but it has an ominous consequence: the growing anonymity of military conflict.

By the end of the decade, it is likely that many of America's adversaries will be operating drone air forces and possibly drone armies and navies. Such forces are not necessarily anonymous, but they can be. Pair that with the use of proxies like local militias, non-state actors, private i.e., for hire mercenary armies and unofficial actors like the Kremlin's infamous "little green men," and the conduct of warfare may no longer be a visible conflict between two states but increasingly something that occurs in a grey zone of accountability and attribution.

In such a situation the dividing line between the military and civilian space, between combatants and noncombatants, becomes blurred and often undefinable. This has certainly been the experience of the American military engaged in counterinsurgency operations, but this model of engaging, state and nonstate actors, proxies and mercenary third parties both officially under state sanction and anonymously will increasingly be the norm in military conflicts around the world.

That was certainly the model in Russia's takeover of Crimea and the de facto seizure of the eastern portion of Ukraine's Donbass basin. It has also been the model for projecting Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. An additional consequence of such conflicts is that the dividing line between military conflicts and criminal acts becomes equally blurred. America's military alliances around the globe were not designed to do with these kinds of situations. That doesn't mean they are not still relevant, but it does mean that the way they function and the deliberative and decision-making procedures will need to change.

Years ago, I found myself at a NATO conference sitting across at dinner from a colonel in the Soviet military. Over the course of the meal he peppered me with questions about American football strategy. It was obvious that he had an in-depth knowledge of the game, the sort of experience you would expect from a college level or professional coach, or one of their assistants, and far above my knowledge.

When I asked him how he had amassed such a detailed knowledge of football, he replied, "you cannot understand the American military if you don't understand American football; America fights its wars the way they play football." He then added, "that's why you lost in Vietnam. You brought a football team to a soccer match." The military conflicts of the future, even those against near-peer rivals, are likely to be soccer matches rather than football games, fought on a field whose dimensions are unclear, whose rules are unspecified against a team not wearing the same uniforms.

The Growing Role of Economic Warfare

Over the last decade, the U.S. has resorted increasingly to economic warfare, principally by imposing sanctions, denying access to the American-controlled international financial system, and banning foreign companies access to American technology and the ability to operate in the U.S. Weaponizing economics is not entirely new. Franklin Roosevelt imposed sanctions on Japan in 1941, banning the export of American petroleum and scrap steel, to punish Tokyo for its takeover of French Indochina. In an increasingly interdependent and globalized world, however, economic warfare has become a far more potent weapon than in the past. With the U.S. representing a quarter of global GDP, getting on the wrong side of the U.S. government economically can have devastating consequences.

The use of economic warfare has obvious advantages. It avoids putting American soldiers at risk. It is a lot cheaper than the conduct of military operations. It avoids the collateral damage of military conflict, unless of course you are the one being sanctioned. Moreover, as the U.S. experience with Iran is demonstrating, sometimes economic sanctions are more effective in creating desired outcomes then the use of military force.

On the other hand, the use of economic warfare can at times be too easy, which can lead to it being used in inappropriate ways. The deployment of U.S. military forces overseas is subject to Congressional checks and balances, albeit not always followed or enforced. In theory, economic warfare is also subject to such checks and balances, but in reality those constraints are far looser.

A president can impose tariffs by issuing an executive order that the pricing practices of a foreign industry pose a threat to American national security, without having to ever prove why this is the case. Witness the Trump administration's imposition of 25% tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum. Moreover, while economic conflicts between countries are subject to a broad range of international agreements, formal dispute resolution in such instances is often slow and protracted and does not present an effective response. Often, the prevailing party finds the victory a Pyrrhic one when weighed against the damage done.

Take the Trump Administration's recent threat to impose punitive tariffs on French wine as part of an ongoing trade dispute with the European Union. France is America's oldest ally. Washington has certainly had its share of disputes with Paris, but despite those frictions and disagreements, no recent administration has ever seriously considered a military conflict with France. Imposing 100% tariffs on French wine is the economic equivalent of bombing Bordeaux or Champagne. In fact, it's worse. If you sent bombers over Bordeaux you would take out some Chateaux, but most would survive. A punitive tariff is an ultimate doomsday weapon because it affects everyone.

The use of economic warfare as a corollary to U.S. foreign and military policy will increase in the years ahead because it offers significant advantages to the alternatives, even if it means there is a risk that it will be used too readily and against the wrong parties.

Forget about "Top Gun;" it may be "Top Sommelier" that will fight America's future conflicts.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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