If I may, let me be provocative for a moment. We may have been too hasty to dismiss an idea raised by Hillary Clinton. Having read the title of this article, it is likely no surprise which, but I shall state it more plainly – we require a broader perspective of warfare, and Clinton may have been correct in her assessment that a government sanctioned hack or digital attack of some kind – does qualify as an act of warfare. The term war has been defined variously, so I shall take one of the most famous examples: that of Von Clausewitz’s On War; (Book 1, Chapter 1, 1909) wherein it is defined as: “…an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will”. It is also, however, “…a duel on an extensive scale [where] …each strives by physical force to compel the other to submit to his will.”
I shall pose a question then: if it is possible to achieve the desired unilaterally acquired ends, without the necessity of outright physical violence, is it still warfare? I would suggest that it is, yes.
Our collective sensitivity to organised outright violence as an aggressive action, and act of warfare deserving of a response has been heightened over time. So too has, at various times, the sensitivity to perceived imminent threats, or threats to the international order, such as that presented by the Second Defenestration of Prague, the French Revolution, and Russia’s involvement in the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. However, in all of these cases, the objective has been to remove a government. What about if this is achieved without state sanction?
The picture here becomes immediately more murky, as in the case of the Barbary pirates of Algeria, the central government being either unwilling or unable to stop raiding for slaves by Algerians was seen as reason enough to annex Algeria to France in 1830 – which did stop the raiding. Meanwhile, in the case of the banana republics of Honduras and Guatamala, the coup d’etats of national governments with the tacit approval of the US government are typically not considered wars, or warfare.
Next there is what is commonly referred to as a proxy war, which we are somewhat more sensitive to – wherein a party or faction is supported, often with arms, in order to achieve the desired objective of government replacement.
Finally then, there is the last type, wherein a government is toppled or instated without violence – such as in the case of Boris Yeltsin, who was aided by the CIA, and the long list of widely accepted examples of election interference, along with all of the other instances which are less readily acknowledged – perhaps because they are still relevant to the state of play at time of writing.
A further wrinkle was raised earlier however, that if a private individual or faction is operating from within the control of a state, possibly furthering the strategic aims of the state, and the state does nothing to impede these activities, can that be considered an act of warfare?
The haziness of these relationships becomes an important tool to those involved in these decisions, as they are surely well understand, but if the strategic result is the same – unilateral acquisition of power, or concessions, then we surely must consider it as existing on the continuum of warfare.
With this context established, however, we are able to put to rest the myths that pervade around the supposed peacefulness of the late 20th and early 21st century. The needs of the state did not change, but the methods and options available did. Both the US and the USSR in particular engaged in a lot of this kind of activity, that much is uncontroversial, but there are two additional dimensions to this which might be. Firstly, this clearly changes the nature and structure of warfare. Far from the mass citizen armies of the 19th and early 20th centuries, if the desired aims can be achieved via subterfuge instead; using extensive information networks, internal disloyalty, and one or two highly leveraged individuals – then the dynamics of warfare have taken on a significantly more elitist quality in the vast majority of cases. And secondly that; in effect, warfare can be conducted with much less reliance on public opinion, or even public knowledge. An army, instead, becomes one tool among many available to a government which is not necessarily estranged – but has the capacity to become increasingly distant from those it rules.
There are a number of reasons for this development, I dare say. As previously alluded to, developments in communications and information technology have allowed for much more precise applications of force, and a more complete understanding of where to apply it. In combination, the fractured and internally divisive nature of democratic and republican government creates many natural avenues and cover for these activities under the guise of genuine opposition. Therefore the explosion of republicanism in this same period from the late 20th century into the early 21st, and associated rise in the aforementioned style of warfare are – if not related, then certainly complementary to one another. Mutually so, because a useful strategy for ensuring the constant possibility of launching an attack of the former kind remains an extant option should the government and population remain internally divided. Conversely, then states with more internal unity, and authoritarian governments are much more resistant to these attacks, not only because the resources at their undisputed disposal are more numerous, but all other things being equal; they can more easily identify where an attack is taking place, due to the sudden appearance of, for example: an extremely well funded and highly skilled opposition group.
Possibly the most famous example of this defensive advantage is displayed in 1917 Russia with the German-sponsored arrival of Lenin, among other revolutionaries supported in the same manner. This was understood, and correctly identified as a threat at the time, but the government had been weakened so much by that point that the attack was ultimately successful (though with a lot of other relevant factors playing a part). Conversely, in post-war Japan, on the assurance that the leftist parties were receiving funding from the USSR, the US gave funding and support to the centre-right Liberal Democratic Party to maintain US influence. I have deliberately tried to avoid claims of more recent election interference, as that particular accusation has become a popular one to level for political reasons over the last few years, but I don’t doubt that in light of what I have already laid out, at least some of these accusations are correct, or perhaps even more than are accused – for a competently executed attack would not be detected.
One final point to note is that, despite both this described form of precise warfare, and conventional warfare; falling into the same category of unilateral extra-legal state-level action, they are typically handled as separate entities. This can be explained in a number of ways, with possible explanations including; the timeline of the development of these capacities, to the siloing of capabilities to minimise the hard power of particular officers and/or bureaucrats (particularly when those capabilities include controlling the outcomes of elections and toppling governments). With this in mind, however, it is a restriction which has the effect of creating two distinct organisational perspectives (and thus institutional pressures on policy outcomes) which will view the issue through very different lenses. For example, being that the purpose of both the current war in Afghanistan, and the Iraq war were ostensibly a change in government, then a unified command structure may have come to the conclusion that a more limited application of force would have been more efficient, and possibly even more effective. In addition, it may have averted whatever internal political pressures were taking place which would have pushed for the deployment of military assets and personnel.
To conclude then, pending further discussion on this topic; warfare ought to be considered as unilateral action (or lack of action) taken by a government in aid of strategic aims. Therefore, matters of election or government interference via espionage, conventional warfare, or selective legal prosecution (in some cases) ought to all be considered within the purview of warfare. Integration of all of these capabilities will therefore likely yield a great deal in effectiveness and efficiency of achieving strategic aims. Institutional barriers may exist, due to the reluctance to centralise such power, but doing so will clearly grant a strategic advantage. As well as the obvious counter-intelligence efforts, undisputed, centralised, and non-elective governance provides a significant defensive capability, and thus a strategic advantage within this paradigm. Going forward, therefore, all other things being equal, republics and democracies will face a competitive disadvantage, and risk becoming a battle-ground between groups wishing to capture the government – to the strategic disadvantage of the republic.