Small Wars Journal

What Is “Political Warfare”? (Congressional Research Service Report)

Wed, 01/11/2023 - 9:05am

Thank you Congressional Research Service.  Finally someone in the US government with the guts to recognize the existence of political warfare.
We should not forget that as we follow the dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means, our adversaries believe politics is war by other means.  Or as Mao said, "politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed."
Here is my summarized way to think about this:
Irregular Warfare is the military contribution to Political Warfare
Political Warfare is the essence of the gray zone in strategic competition
Competitive Statecraft at the national level is required for effective political warfare
The 3 page document can be downloaded HERE.

What Is “Political Warfare”? 


Background Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his seminal book On War that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Historically, in Congress as well as in the broader policy community, the term political warfare described the synchronized use of any aspect of national power short of overt conventional warfare— such as intelligence assets, alliance building, financial tools, diplomatic relations, technology, and information dominance— to achieve state objectives. It was coined in the late 1940s by George F. Kennan, a key architect of U.S. strategy during the Cold War, as the United States began to come to grips with the challenge presented by the Soviet Union (USSR). As he wrote in his 1948 State Department memorandum Organizing Political Warfare:


We have been handicapped … by a popular attachment to the concept of a basic difference between peace and war … and by a reluctance to recognize the realities of international relations— the perpetual rhythm of struggle, in and out of war…. Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations … range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures, and ‘white’ propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements, ‘black’ psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.



Popular terms used to describe this phenomenon in the current international security environment include strategic competition and gray zone competition or conflict. Yet political warfare, according to some scholars, is not mere rivalry or competition but is also a form of war: its objective, like that of every other form of war, is to impose one’s own will on the opponent in order to achieve strategic objectives, to conquer and destroy the opponent’s will to resist.


In the United States, the military dimensions of this competition garner significant attention and resources. Yet if political warfare is an adequate lens through which to view this strategic competition, the nonmilitary aspects of the competition might prove equally if not more important, particularly as competitors deploy robust political warfare strategies.



Diplomatic Tools 

The Biden Administration appears to be increasing funding of at least one element of political warfare. Its FY2023 International Affairs budget, which supports U.S. embassies and diplomatic activities as well as foreign assistance, requested $66 billion—17% above the FY2022-enacted level—with increases across a wide range of programs and accounts, from global health security to climate change to development finance.


Read the entire report at the link HERE.