How do the liberal democracies prevail in dealing with their authoritarian competitors?

By Robbin Laird

The challenge posed by competitors such as modern China and Russia is both significant and different from what we have seen both in the recent past and during the Cold War.

We are in a fundamentally different historical era. Russia is not the Soviet Union.  And China is not Mao’s PLA.  There are lessons learned from the past and domain knowledge, which can be leveraged in the migration in back to the future to harvest the best but leave the rest, such knowledge is to be leveraged not slavishly copied.

We must also try and learn what we don’t know.

Effective military organizations around the globe respect what Secretary Rumsfeld once sagely focused on “the unknown unknowns”

This problem was put very clearly in a recent interview with the Royal Australian Air Force head of their Air Warfare Centre , which is totally focused on joint warfare as the driver for change.

Throughout the interview, he was very clear on the importance of breaking out of legacy patterns and thinking and finding ways to train for the future fight with the force you are crafting and respect what one doesn’t know.

“Our senior leadership, including myself, has never grown up in the combat environment which is now evolving rapidly. We need to unlearn as well as learn to shape an effective way ahead.”

“The change is to effectively shape a future force structure based on where you need to go, rather than what you have inherited?

I would add that this is not just true for the military but for civilian strategists, policymakers and politicians.

What is the nature of conflict we are facing posed by peer competitors?

How do compete more effectively?

How do we protect our way of life?

How do we prevail in the conflict with the illiberal societies?

As the Chief of the Australian Navy put it bluntly: “We are not looking at conflict between platforms, or segments of the military against adversaries.

“It is a fundamental test of conflicting approaches to conflict and to warfare.”

This comment put the challenge where it needs to be, namely, the demand set is broadening as the range of tools for conflict also increase; and the potential impact from miscalculations are ramping up with the consequences for prolonged armed conflict among peer competitors.

What is clear now is that a new phase is beginning which requires clear-headed analysis and preparation of tools sets, which can effectively protect the ways of life and strategic interests of the liberal democracies.

The tectonic plates are shifting and the liberal democracies need to think carefully about the prospects and consequences of these profound changes between (and within) nations, and how best to respond to this new world order (or disorder).

Security threats have unleashed national reactions with various nations seeking to rebalance their position in the global order, and seeking to work with clusters of either like-minded states, or with states capable of providing key needs.

It is not exactly the return of nationalism, for that has not been absent in any case, but is clearly the return of security and defense concerns as a priority, and these concerns are always led by states seeking allies, partners or friends, or “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” types of partners.

Put in other words, the return of hard power combined with various other tool sets is being exercised to try to reshape the global situation to the advantage of the illiberal powers.

The nature of the threat facing the liberal democracies was well put in last years Finnish Defence White Paper: “The timeline for early warning is shorter; the threshold for the use of force is lower.”

What is unfolding is that capabilities traditionally associated with high-end warfare are being drawn upon for lower threshold conflicts, designed to achieve political effect without firing a shot.

Higher end capabilities being developed by China are Russia are becoming tools to achieve political-military objectives throughout the diplomatic engagement spectrum.

This means that not only do the liberal democracies need to shape more effective higher end capabilities but they need to learn how to use force packages which are making up a higher end, higher tempo or higher intensity capability as part of a range of both military operations but proactive engagement to shape peer adversary behavior.

The non-liberal powers are clearly leveraging new military capabilities to support their global diplomacy to try to get outcomes and advantages that enhance their position and interests.

The systems there are building and deploying are clearly recognized by the Western militaries as requiring a response; less recognized is how the spectrum of conflict is shifting in terms of using higher end capabilities for normal diplomatic gains.

To be blunt, the distinction which Joe Nye suggested between hard and soft power is being changed by the military revolution. 21st Century military systems are really about hard power redesigned to be more useful in supporting political objectives, which if one wants to call that soft power then I am not sure the distinction has meaning.