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Assessment of the Role of Small Wars within the Evolving Paradigm of Great Power Competition in a Multipolar World

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Assessment of the Role of Small Wars within the Evolving Paradigm of Great Power Competition in a Multipolar World

James P. Micciche

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which ran from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.

The U.S. is scaling down the Global War on Terrorism and focusing on threats posed by a revisionist China and Russia and rogue nations such as Iran. In this context, limited military operations (small wars) will be useful in transforming counterterrorism methods, which previously dominated U.S. foreign policy, into being only one facet of a synchronized whole of government response in pursuit of U.S. policy objectives in contested spaces.

Over the past decade, the global balance of power has shifted to a multipolar construct in which revisionist actors such as China and Russia attempt to expand their spheres of influence at the expense of the U.S.-led liberal order.  The ongoing rebalance has been gradual and often conducted through a myriad of activities beyond kinetic operations as Russia, China, and regional actors such as Iran have shown a capability to capitalize on and create domestic instability as a means to expand influence, gain access to key terrain and resources, and reduce western influence.  The capacity to utilize limited military operations (small wars) as part of a focused, tailored, and comprehensive whole of government approach to deter threats and expansion from revisionist powers is paramount in promoting U.S. and Western interests within the modern paradigm.  Despite the prominent role engaging in limited operations at or more importantly below the level of conflict fulfills within the context of great power competition, it is far from a proverbial silver bullet as the rebalancing of power brings new parameters and risks that U.S. policy makers must understand before engaging  in any small war. 

Since the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United States and her Western allies have enjoyed an exorbitant amount of freedom to execute limited military operations and foreign domestic interventions due to what scholars termed the unipolar moment[1].   The 1990s saw the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) utilized as a guiding framework for Western engagement as liberal democracies intervened in the internal affairs of sovereign nations from Somalia to the Balkans to protect life and punish offenders[2].  Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States and many of her longtime allies began the Global War on Terror (GWOT) fundamentally changing U.S. foreign policy for the next two decades.  The GWOT gave rise to an unprecedented increase in U.S. foreign intervention as the specter of terrorism emerged in all corners of the globe and a series of Secretary of Defense-approved Execute Orders granted the DoD broad authorities to conduct counterterrorism operations worldwide.  

The extent to which global terrorism poses an existential threat to U.S. and other Western powers has been debated with valid and well-researched positions on both sides[3], but what is not debatable is that GWOT consumed vast amounts of the West’s material resources and attention — the U.S. alone has spent an estimated $5.9 Trillion since 9/11[4].  With the West focusing on countering non-state actors, revisionist nations began to build power and expand which became evident when Russia annexed Crimea and China began aggressively expanding into the South China Sea.  The 2017 National Security Strategy marked a turning point in contemporary U.S. foreign policy by codifying an end to the CT-focused strategy of the previous sixteen years and placing an emphasis on great power competition with near-peers, as the document declares in very clear language “…after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned. China and Russia reassert their influence regionally and globally[5].”   

Despite recent attempts by China and Russia to close the military capabilities gap between themselves and the U.S., the U.S. maintains an advantage, specifically in the global application and projection of power[6]. To overcome this disadvantage revisionist and rogue states utilize soft balancing (utilization of international structures to disrupt and discredit U.S. hegemony) at the strategic level[7] and hybrid warfare (population-centric operations that create instability) at the tactical and operational levels[8] to expand their influence and territory through activities that avoid direct confrontation.  The utilization and application of limited military operations (small wars) combined with other elements of state power can both identify and counter the aforementioned strategies employed by contemporary Western rivals while concurrently advancing U.S. strategic objectives. Within the small war paradigm, military actors have a wide range of applications that support U.S. strategic objectives that fall into three mutually supportive activities, mil-to-mil engagement, civ-mil engagement, and resistance operations.  

Persistent mil-to-mil engagements, exercises, and training missions help establish the U.S. as a partner of choice in strategically significant nations while simultaneously building partner capabilities within or adjacent to contested regions.  The deployment of Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations elements foster resiliency within vulnerable populations, denying adversaries access to key human terrain needed to conduct hybrid operations.  Resistance operations can manifest in defensive or offensive postures either supporting a partner nation from externally provoked and supported insurrection or undermining the capacity of rival nations to exert malign influence by supporting armed and unarmed opposition to the state. Military interventions are best as only one facet of a synchronized whole of government response in which the DoD might not be the lead agency.  Furthermore, as rivals compete over contested spaces the chances for escalation and international incident grows, a threat exponentially increased by the internationalization of civil wars, placing increased risk in direct military engagements. 

In the evolving context of great power competition, U.S. assets may not always be the best funded or equipped.  They will often face bureaucratic restrictions their rivals do not and potentially be deprived of access to key individuals or institutions.  These conditions will place a premium on individual interpersonal skills and international U.S. perception, so the U.S. can maintain a comparative advantage in soft power. To facilitate that advantage the U.S. will likely need to differentiate and categorize partners on not only their geopolitical importance but also the values that they represent and the company they keep.  Specifically, the U.S. will likely examine the risks of collaborating with autocratic governments whose actions have the propensity to create domestic instability and an environment conducive to hybrid warfare.  Additionally, any government with substantial human rights concerns degrades the soft power of those that the international community perceives as their partners, a perception adversary information operations can greatly amplify.

As U.S. security strategy adapts and returns to a construct that places emphasis on challenges and threats from state actors the function, employment, and role of the small war will be useful to transform from a method of CT into a strategic instrument of national power that can support long-term U.S. objectives across the globe often below levels of conflict.

End Notes

[1] Krauthammer, C. (1990). The Unipolar Moment. Foreign Affairs, 23-33. Retrieved from Foreign Affairs.

[2] Evans, G., & Sahnoun, M. (2002). The Responsibility to Protect. Foreign Affairs, 99-110.

[3] Brookings Institution. (2008, February 21). Have We Exaggerated the Threat of Terrorism. Retrieved from The Brookings Institution :

[4] Crawford, N. C. (2018, November 14). United States Budgetary Csts of the Post-9/11 Wars Through FY2019: $5.9 Trillion Spend and Obligated. Retrieved from Watson Institute:

[5] United States. (2017). The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Washington D.C. : The White House.  Retrieved from:

[6] Heginbotham, E. M. (2019). The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996–2017. Santa Monica: Rand Corporation.

[7] Pape, R. A. (2005). Soft Balancing Against the United States. International Security, 7-45.

[8] Chives, C. S. (2017, March 22). Understanding Russian “Hybrid Warfare” and What Can Be Done About IT. Retrieved from Rand Corporation :


About the Author(s)

James P. Micciche is an Active Component U.S. Army Civil Affairs Officer with deployment and service experience in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan, Europe, and Indo-Pacific.  He is currently a Master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.


As per my suggestion in my comment immediately below, by abandoning such narrow, binding and confining terms as "great powers," "competition" and "a multi-polar world" -- and by adopting, in the place of same, a broader, more-all encompassing and more-inclusive "frame" such as "conflict understood more generally" -- we may put ourselves in a better position to address the "questions of the day" (for example, as relates to "small wars"). 


The Old Cold War was defined by Hans Morgenthau as follows:

"The United States and the Soviet Union face each other not only as two great powers which in the traditional ways compete for advantage. They also face each other as the fountainheads of two hostile and incompatible ideologies, systems of government and ways of life, each trying to expand the reach of its respective political values and institutions and to prevent the expansion of the other. Thus the cold war has not only been a conflict between two world powers but also a contest between two secular religions. And like the religious wars of the seventeenth century, the war between communism and democracy does not respect national boundaries. It finds enemies and allies in all countries, opposing the one and supporting the other regardless of the niceties of international law. Here is the dynamic force which has led the two superpowers to intervene all over the globe, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes openly, sometimes with the accepted methods of diplomatic pressure and propaganda, sometimes with the frowned-upon instruments of covert subversion and open force."

(From Hans Morgenthau's 1967 "To Intervene or Not to Intervene.")

As one can see from this explanation, the Old Cold War, much like the religious wars of the seventeenth century,

a.  While indeed being wars between great powers for power, influence and control -- 

b.  Were also wars undertaken (a) to achieve such power, influence and control by (b) advancing one's own beliefs and institutions (and by preventing the advance of the -- often very different and even diametrically opposed -- beliefs and institutions of the "other").  

From this point-of-view, might we say that the Old Cold War, the religious wars of the seventeenth century (and our conflicts of today?) meet the criteria of "conflict understood more generally," for example, as defined below?    

"Whenever two individuals opine in different ways, a conflict arises. In a layman’s language conflict is nothing but a fight either between two individuals or among group members. No two individuals can think alike and there is definitely a difference in their thought process as well as their understanding. Disagreements among individuals lead to conflicts and fights. Conflict arises whenever individuals have different values, opinions, needs, interests and are unable to find a middle way." 

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

If we take the above definition of "conflict understood more generally" to heart, then does it not become much easier (and much more accurate) to see and understand "conflict" yesterday and today -- and such things as "small wars" --

a.  Less in "great power" terms,

b.  Less in "competition" terms,

c.  Less in "multi-polar world" terms and, instead,

d.  More in terms of individuals and groups (both here at home and there abroad, and both great nations and small and both state and non-state actors) having "different values, different opinions, different needs, different interests and unable to find a middle way?"

(If such is the case, then what types or kinds of "conflict resolution" should we be engaged in today -- both here at home and there abroad?)

So -- and in light of my offerings below and for the time being at least -- might we consider "small wars:"

a.  Less from the perspective of "great power competition,"

b.  Less from the perspective of "a multi-polar world,"

c.  And more from the perspective of, shall we say, "conflict understood more generally?"   

(Note:  Via a/the lens of "conflict understood more generally," you do not need to be a "great power" to engage in and/or to be a "victim" of same, neither do you need to be "competing" in any way, shape or form [you may, in fact, simply be "attacking," "expanding, "defending, "attempting to survive," etc.] nor, indeed, do you need to be part of a "multi-polar world.")


a.  By way of this such adjustment --

b.  To an understanding of "small wars" (yesterday and today?) more through a/the lens of "conflict understood more generally" -- have we not, thereby:

1.  Put ourselves on a better "footing;" this,

2.  For addressing, shall we say, "the questions of the day?"

(More on this tomorrow.)

With regard to "small wars" -- and as an alternative to the "there is no great power competition/there is no multi-polar world" conflict environment -- suggested as the foundation for understanding same today (see my initial comment below) --   

As an alternative to this such "conflict environment" model, let us consider the following alternative model -- which suggests that the U.S., in fact, (a) has no great interest in maintaining the dominant position that it retains/maintains throughout the world today and (b) only wishes, now, to significantly withdraw from the world stage:


Trump is unlikely to change his views while in office; indeed, he seems positively incapable of doing so. That means, at best, that the United States can expect either two or six more years of fecklessness, in which the country is erratic, unfocused, economically aggressive, and indifferent to the international norms and institutions that it helped create. That's not nearly as bad as the chimera of a nuclear war conjured up by some of the president's early critics. But it is scary enough.

The more disturbing sign for the future, however, is that although Trump has made nearly every aspect of U.S. foreign policy worse, he is not the sole cause of the United States' increasingly erratic, shortsighted, and selfish behavior. He has merely accelerated a trend-that of Washington's retreat from its global responsibilities-that was already developing by the time he took office and that will outlast him. Indeed, this trend is only likely to continue, since its roots lie not in passing political events but in the extinction of the living memory of World War II, a world-historical event that revolutionized U.S. foreign policy and shaped its course for most of the twentieth century.

The generation of American statesmen that shaped the postwar order had learned some hard lessons from the war. They learned from their experience with imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and, later, the Soviet Union that it was incumbent on free nations to stand up to ideologies and governments hostile to individual freedom. They learned from the Great Depression and the economic nationalism of the 1930s that beggar-thy-neighbor policies and a focus on state advantage, rather than systemic rules, could create the conditions for totalitarian ideologies to flourish. And they learned from the geopolitical chaos of the interwar years that in order to secure peace, the United States would have to step up and guarantee it through a U.S.-led set of permanent alliances and international institutions. These might not always favor U.S. policies, but American leaders recognized that they would, in the long run, favor U.S. interests.

That generation learned the right lessons, as the peace and prosperity of the last 70 years attest. Yet in truth, the foreign policy they created was alien to the United States' pre-1940s traditions, which saw the country as primarily a commercial power with little interest in global power politics, save as a means of protecting itself and preserving its sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. Breaking free of those traditions required the lived experiences of those who had witnessed the poverty of the Depression and the destruction of the war years firsthand. Today, however, those lessons are no longer living truths; they are dead dogmas, as the philosopher John Stuart Mill might have put it. Most U.S. foreign policy elites have forgotten how to make the argument for a global order that has existed for longer than most of them have been alive; many have forgotten that they needed to argue for it at all. So when Trump came along shouting, "Make America great again!" and demanding to know why maintaining the global order was worth Washington's time and effort, elites were at a loss for how to respond.


Above all, the generation that came of age during and immediately after World War II had a visceral awareness of just how terrible the world could become if the United States chose not to lead. They learned this the hard way, in a war that cost the United States over 400,000 dead and other countries millions more. Their passing, and the fading of the subsequent generation that they directly molded, is the most consequential fact of all for the future of U.S. foreign policy.

An omen of this change came on August 25, 2018, when Arizona Senator John McCain died at the age of 81. Born in 1936 to a naval officer who would go on to serve with distinction in World War II, McCain was a man shaped by the experiences of his parents' generation, which led him not only to advocate American engagement in the world but also to tirelessly represent the United States abroad. There are no votes to be won by visiting crisis zones or simply tending to alliance relationships, but McCain was indefatigable in doing those things. He has no successor in either party. Nor are there any contemporary politicians as unambiguously committed to bipartisanship in foreign policy.

Inertia is a powerful force, especially when it comes to institutions. And for the moment, it continues to constrain Trump's efforts to remake the international system along more nationalist, self-interested lines. But once he is gone, there will be no snapping back to the consensus of the 1990s or the early years of this century, which was sustained by men and women with personal memories of what the world looked like without U.S. leadership. Indeed, the erratic "America first" of today's populist right may well be replaced in 2020 or 2024 by a no less erratic "America first" of the populist left. This tendency is already visible in figures such as Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a populist Democrat who met with Syrian President Bashar alAssad in January 2017 and who later cast doubt on Assad's responsibility for his regime's chemical attacks against Syrian civilians-all under the guise of anti-interventionism.

Eventually, both may be replaced by an "America first" of the exhausted middle. This version might be marked by more moderation and a greater amount of handwringing than its left- and right-wing cousins, but its chief characteristic would be a return to the mindset of the late 1930s. The United States would engage economically with the world but react with indifference to massacres or even genocide; withdraw psychologically, if not formally, from international institutions; and convince itself that other countries could not affect its liberties or interests as long as its military remained strong.

This last belief, in particular, will be proved untrue. To some extent, foreign interference in the U.S. political process has already proved it untrue. But it will be proved untrue in other, possibly more violent ways, too, as foreign countries come to believe that they can use force in aggressive or vicious ways without provoking an American response. This has happened before when the United States has failed to lead, and the results were not happy ones. Unfortunately, those who remember those unhappy results will soon be gone. It is to be hoped, but not to be expected, that the hard lessons they learned will not go along with them."

(See the Jan/Feb 2019 Foreign Affairs article: "America’s Long Goodbye: The Real Crisis of the Trump Era" by Eliot A. Cohen) 

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

In the "conflict environment" described in my initial comment below, it could be suggested that:

a.  Such things as "small wars" today; these

b.  SHOULD NOT be understood in terms of either (a) "great power competition" or (b) a multi-polar world;" this, given that:  

c.  The U.S. is today, and is expected to remain for some time, (a) so much more powerful than our opponents and (b) so willing to retain its "world leadership" role.

In the "conflict environment" described in my new comment here, however, such things as "small wars" today; these would seem to need to be considered more in terms of the U.S. -- of its own desire, accord, efforts and design -- deciding to significantly retreat from the world stage.  

Thus, if this latter "conflict environment" is believed to be the more accurate model (America, in the 21st Century, and of its own desire, accord, efforts and design, is now in rapid, massive and comprehensive "retreat"), then should we not agree that:

a.  While the "multi-polar world" part of the "conflict environment" model may, indeed, be credible and accurate, 

b.  The "great power competition" part of this such model may need to be discarded -- or at least be re-thought -- this, given that:

c.  The U.S. does not seem to have much of a desire to "compete" today?

(And thus, in this such "America in rapid, massive, comprehensive and self-imposed retreat" conflict environment -- "small wars" -- except in our own hemisphere -- would be something that America simply would not be willing to become involved in?)

With regard to "great power competition"/"a multi-polar world," is this really the case?  The following says emphatically "No."

 ... "The Emerging Era:

The current structure of the international system is not fundamentally multipolar. It does show growing signs of multipolarity, in the reduced degrees of U.S. predominance and as several regional powers have become more assertive. Yet it also retains many elements of the post–Cold War period of unipolarity.

 Washington remains the predominant power for many reasons: its overall military superiority, its leading role in so many international organizations, its formidable set of treaty allies, and its ownership of the world’s dominant reserve currency are chief among them. At the same time, the emerging system has important elements of bipolarity: the United States and China are clearly first among equals, and their rivalry is likely to play a disproportionate role in shaping the course of world politics. Today’s world thus reflects a complex mixture of unipolar, bipolar, and multipolar elements that does not match the classic vision of a colliding set of roughly equivalent great powers.

Moreover, when states compete today, they do so mediated by institutions, rules, and norms that differ starkly from the conditions during most periods of true great-power competition. Most major powers today are firmly established industrial democracies that want stability and prosperity and harbor no meaningful territorial ambitions. A dense network of organizations, treaties, informal processes, and many other constraints regulates their relations. The postwar order, although imperfect, has produced the most highly institutionalized and norm-bound international system in history. Critically, this order is not imposed on an unruly set of troublemakers—it reflects deeply embedded economic preferences for peace, stability, and prosperity.
The resulting relations between most leading powers look very little like the typical pattern during classical eras of great-power competition. Japan, for example, does not fear India. (Indeed, they are collaborating to balance Chinese power.) The European Union does not fear Brazil, which does not fear Mexico. Many of the world’s most powerful states belong in military alliances and political unions with one another; even those that do not are collaborating extensively in areas such as trade, information security, climate, and global development. The security problems of the emerging era come not from a set of mutually suspicious great powers but from a handful of partly revisionist states, led by Russia and China, unsatisfied with their status in the international system.

The way those states express that dissatisfaction, moreover, differs significantly from the classic predominance of political-military forms of great-power competition. Because of the nuclear revolution, victorious wars of conquest are simply not a realistic option. No modern Russian Napoleon could imagine seizing the whole of Europe, because to do so would be to court nuclear annihilation. Beyond the effect of nuclear weapons, several factors—including the role of democracy, prosperity, and economic interdependence—have ushered in an age when military adventurism is strikingly rare. Today’s versions of rivalry and competition almost always play out in the economic, political, cultural, and informational spheres—not on the battlefield.

This is not to say military power plays no role in current competitions. It surely does, as a means of coercion and a backdrop to other efforts. But this is a vastly different role than military power played, for example, for France, the Habsburg dynasty, Japan, or Prussia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Anyone seeking evidence need look no further than defense-spending levels of most major powers today, which have remained stubbornly low.

The strategy of the United States’ leading rival—China—is therefore to advance its interests primarily through economic, geopolitical, and informational means. Military power certainly backs up some of China’s ambitions, such as in the South China Sea and in its belligerent posture toward Taiwan. But China’s activities today pale in comparison with earlier forms of great-power military aggression, which often involved existential threats to homelands—Germany’s fleet threatening the United Kingdom’s survival before World War I, Napoleonic France invading its neighbors, and the like. Whatever China’s objectives are today, they will not be served by a direct attack on other great powers.

The Wrong Frame:

To see the state of international relations today as a new great-power competition is not only inaccurate but dangerous. Viewing competitors as mirror images of one another—as standard-issue great powers, motivated in similar ways and subject to the same kinds of influence—prevents U.S. policymakers from making crucial distinctions. Russia and China, for example, pose very different challenges for Washington. Both seek regime security and recognition as equal powers, but Russia aims to disrupt the current U.S.-led order whereas China seeks to supplant the United States’ role at the hub of world politics.

Conceiving of the emerging era as a classic great-power competition can not only obscure important differences between competitors but also lead policymakers to overemphasize military power as an instrument to advance U.S. interests. At a time when states are likely to seek competitive advantage primarily through nonmilitary means, this view would reinforce the imbalance in U.S.strategy between military and nonmilitary instruments of power.

Finally and most perilous, a great-power competition frame risks forfeiting the immense power that comes from heading a largely aligned group of rule-following states. The United States is already showing signs that it no longer values its role as leader of the international order it has shaped since the end of World War II.

If Washington thinks of itself as one desperate, self-interested geopolitical chess player among many, grasping for temporary and transactional advantages, that role will likely further diminish. The United States would do far better to continue leading the group of nations that holds the predominant share of global economic and military power, is bound together by a dense network of institutions and remains committed to certain norms, such as those against military aggression and economic predation. To abandon this role would be to walk away from the greatest competitive advantage any great power has ever known.

This article was originally published on"

Bottom Line Question -- Based on the Above:

If the above provides us with a better understanding of what the true "conflict environment" actually looks like today,

Then how would we look at such things as "small wars" -- within this exact such alternative context?