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The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder

Sean McFate
January 30, 2019

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About the speaker

Some of the principles of warfare are ancient, others are new, but all described in The New Rules of War will permanently shape war now and in the future. By following them Sean McFate argues, we can prevail. But if we do not, terrorists, rogue states, and others who do not fight conventionally will succeed—and rule the world.

Dr. Sean McFate is an author, novelist and expert in foreign policy and national security strategy. He is a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. His newest book, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder, will be released on January 22, 2019.

Recently, he was a Visiting Scholar at Oxford University’s Changing Character of War Program. He was also a think tank scholar at the RAND Corporation, Atlantic Council, Bipartisan Policy Center, and New America Foundation.

McFate’s career began as a paratrooper and officer in the U.S. Army’s storied 82nd Airborne Division. He served under Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, and graduated from elite training programs, such as Jungle Warfare School in Panama. He was also a Jump Master. Then McFate became a private military contractor in Africa. Among his many experiences, he dealt with warlords, raised small armies, worked with armed groups in the Sahara, transacted arms deals in Eastern Europe, and helped prevent an impending genocide in the Rwanda region.

McFate co-wrote the novels Shadow War and Deep Black, part of the Tom Locke series based on his military experiences. New York Times #1 bestselling author Mark Greaney said: “I was blown away…. simply one of the most entertaining and intriguing books I’ve read in quite some time.”

He also authored the non-fiction book The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order, which explains how the privatization of war is changing world order in the 21st century. The Economist called it a “fascinating and disturbing book.”

For another perspective on the future of warfare, see Bill Gertz’s Westminster talk, iWar: War And Peace In The Information Age.


Robert Reilly:

Tonight, I’m very happy to welcome our speaker, Sean McFate. I think the best way of introducing him other than saying that he is a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service is to read a few lines of self-introduction that I found on Amazon with the advertisement of the book about which he is going to speak tonight, which is titled, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder. That’s a very optimistic title, I think.

So, I’m quoting Sean McFate here, “I see war differently. I’ve traveled to 65 countries, some places where war never ceases. I’ve served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division and then as a private military contractor in Africa. Some would call me a mercenary, an intellectual one at least. I studied at Brown, Harvard, and the London School of Economics, doing my PhD in international relations. Now, I’m a professor of war studies, strategy, and foreign policy. The question that drives me is why does America keep losing wars to weaker powers? I write books to explore and answer this question.”

Let me basically stop there to mention some books that Sean McFate has written, including the Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order. He is also co-author of a couple of novels. So, please join in welcoming Sean McFate.

Sean McFate:

I wrote this book – I was talking to some of you before – because I was frustrated, as this alluded to. I wanted to know… We have the best military, we have the best troops, we have the best technology, we have the most money, yet we lose to inferior foes and the question is: what’s the problem? What’s the problem? That was the puzzle I sought to answer in this book.

And this book is not a dry, abstruse academic tome. It is not some wonky think tank white paper. It is written so that my mother could read it. It is written- She’s read it. She’s become an amazing PR agent for me, but I wrote it so that everybody could read it. I wrote it for an audience that was beyond the Beltway and I wrote it to help push a conversation that I think has been subterranean but gaining momentum for some time now.

And I ask some hard questions, so for example, we will get to an answer to the puzzle, at least my example, in a little bit. Let’s start with what’s going on in the news right now: Venezuela is burning, literally. Once the richest, most opulent country in South America has become the Somalia of that continent.

As you know, we have two presidential candidates, Maduro and Guaidó, and we are in this sort of international limbo about who is the real president not just a Venezuela one. Guaidó is being supported by the U.S., by much of the EU, and much of Latin America. Maduro is being supported – well, first of all by the military – but also by Russia, China, and Turkey.

One could almost boil it down and say it’s ideological, autocracy vs democracy, and maybe that is what is going on here, but that’s not the point [of] why I raised this.

Just a few nights ago, Russia sent in mercenaries for Maduro. These are not the lone guys with Kalashnikovs in the Congo jungle that you see ridiculed in Hollywood or villains in comic books. This is the Wagner Group. The Wagner Group or the Wagner Group is a Russian mercenary company, although their people could be from anywhere. That’s the thing about being a mercenary. It could be anywhere. They’re in Ukraine, Syria, Central African Republic, now Venezuela, and this is not a lightweight group.

So a year ago, a year ago, they almost killed a lot of American troops. It’s not really known, it’s public but it’s not really known. A year ago, we had Delta, Rangers, Special Forces, Green Berets, and Marines and Kurdish forces defending an oil facility or a gas facility in eastern Syria and they were attacked by five hundred of these guys. And the Delta called in aviation support to beat them back. They called in B-52s, F-15s, Apache helicopters, Predator drones, AC-130 gunships, and still, with our best troops and our best aviation, it took them four hours to beat back 500 mercenaries.

What will happen when they have to face 5,000 mercenaries? Even an undefeated military can lose. They attacked our American troops with tanks, artillery, and armored personnel carriers with great precision and knowledge. These weren’t rabble. This is not ISIS in high luxes. This is the Wagner Group and there are others out there like it.

This is the future of war. It will not be midway in the South China Sea. This is the future of war and we’ll get back to this too. So, when I ask you today what are today’s biggest threats and we could spend two hours at least on this, the normal panoply of horrors takes shape, right? People talk about China, Russia, these are not enemies or adversaries, you know, Iran, ISIS or similar fighters. Not just them, you also have narcos, Venezuela, genocide, North Korea, and those these threats are bad, they are not the worst.

The worst threat is systemic. It is what is helping give rise and velocity to all these threats and that threat is something I call durable disorder. Durable disorder is a systemic threat. It is an emerging global system that can contain problems but not solve them. It is the retreat of the Westphalian order, retreat of states everywhere. It’s leaving behind a system of entropy, a system of persistent conflict. It is what we see today. We perceive it as chaos. We perceive it as the sky is falling, let’s invest in more sky. Right?

It’s not something we can put back together but it’s also not new and this is something we have to remember, it is not new. Most of the history of the world order – such as you can even say there’s a history of it – is disorder. This idea of a, you know, Westphalian system of nationstates that keep some semblance of global stability is arguably only a few hundred years old. It’s not timeless and universal.

But before that, before – people typically say the Peace of Westphalia, although that, I would argue is a reification – it’s what this gentleman was dealing with, Machiavelli, alright? This is what he lamented in his time: persistent conflict, entropy, lack of strong sort of centralized authorities, a war of all against – let me go back here. In the Italian Wars, which is where he was living, you’ve got to think about it like northern Italy was like Afghanistan is today. People had loyalties. It wasn’t to the state of Italy, that made no sense. It was loyalties to your public or you were Catholic versus, you know, Protestant or something like that. Mercenaries marketed warfare. There was supply and demand in the market for war and as Machiavelli complained, because mercenaries don’t work themselves out of work, soldiers became beasts and people became prey. It was perpetual war all the time and it wasn’t just the mercenaries, it was their masters too.

We’re seeing this today. It’s not just mercenaries but today, 50% of all peace agreements fail in five years. The majority of countries are fragile or failed. The number of armed conflicts has doubled since World War II. You can see what’s going on here. So like we’re having forever wars where people think forever wars are normal. I talk to students, Georgetown students, they think that forever wars, that’s just the way it is now.

That’s unfortunate. We have privates in Afghanistan who were born after 9/11. And I know some of you here have [served]. There are multiple generations of families serving in the same theater of war, right? We’re seeing the return of mercenaries. We’re seeing the rules-based order collapse under collapse and retreat. Now, this is the environment that gives rise to ISIS, that allows Russia opportunity or Turkey opportunity. Those who understand this, those who exploit durable disorder, will prevail. And those who do not, will be exploited.

And that’s the concern because right now we have a foreign policy in large part that wants to put Humpty Dumpty back together. Now, there are some like Bob Kagan, who thinks that’s doable. There are others who think that’s hubris. For a reason at this point in our historical cycle, we’re going through one of chaos, you know, it’s not going to be the 1991 unipolar moment that many had imagined, right?

So here’s the issue. It’s that we have a new kind of world order with a new kind of warfare. So conventional war was the warfare of the Westphalian order, think about strong interstate conflicts fought by their militaries. It’s a war of Clausewitz. And we still cling to this paradigm today. So today, when you say there’s going to be a war with China and Russia, why do they always assume it’s going to be conventional? Why is that assumed? Why is that assumed? It won’t be.

We live in a post-Westphalian era, we have a post-Westphalian way of war, and that’s what this book’s about. How do you fight and win in a post-Westphalian era? Because this doesn’t work. And the first rule of the ten rules is that conventional war is dead, which obviously is a glove on the ground to most of the people in the Pentagon, a glove on the ground.

The question is are we already at war with Russia and China? Are we already at war with Russia and China? They’re at war with us. Now, we will get to this in the Q&A. You’ll see where I’m going with this.

But the issue is one of the rules of war is there’s no such thing as war or peace. Both co-exist always. We like to think of war and peace like pregnancy: you either are or you’re not. Right? That war is the failure of peace. When war is declared, everybody marshals up and fights, serves in the military and fights, just defeats the enemy. You kill the most enemy, you take their territory, you fly your flag over their capital, and then you pull out the USS Missouri and have a peace treaty, right? And we’re desperately looking for a USS Missouri moment with ISIS, the Taliban, Russia, and China. It’s not how wars are fought anymore. That’s not how they’re won anymore, and that’s why we struggle. That’s why we struggle.

So what war is doing in this new sort of durable disorder is that it’s getting sneakier. It’s getting sneakier, alright? We’ve been here before. Think about the Cold War. We’ve done this before in the Cold War. War is going from Clausewitz to Sun Tzu, and victory in the future belongs to the cunning and not the strong. Think about those Crimeans, right?

So, for example, Crimea. Crimea was interesting. Russia had the military might, using old rules of war, they could have blitzkrieged through eastern Ukraine, seized much of the Donbass region, gone right into Crimea. But they didn’t do that. What they did instead is they used covert means, spetsnaz special forces, mercenaries, which can do zero footprint operations, proxy militias that are separatists, propaganda, and persuasion, right? I mean they blew a Boeing 777 out of the sky. Why isn’t he at The Hague, right? So why did they do that? Why did they do that?

See the rest of his talk here…

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