Subversive Statecraft

The Changing Face of Great-Power Conflict

A rebel fighter in Baluchistan, Pakistan, March 2006 Scott Eells/The New York Times/Redux

The U.S. security and intelligence communities are buzzing with talk of the return of great-power competition. Beijing and Moscow increasingly vie for influence on the global stage. China is remaking the map of Southeast Asia, rolling out infrastructure projects across the developing world, and creating new regional and global institutions. Russia’s intervention in the Middle East and in eastern Europe has restored its geopolitical relevance. And in Washington and other Western capitals, policymakers and pundits fret that Chinese and Russian competition with the West could, before long, give way to conflict.

Should great-power conflict come, however, it will bear little resemblance to the traditional interstate wars that analysts study, that academics teach, and for which militaries train. Those wars rarely occur anymore, and that is a good thing for humanity. Instead, conflict plays out indirectly, through a kind of proxy warfare called “foreign subversion.”

Foreign subversion is a

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