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 covert, indirect form of modern statecraft. It involves empowering illicit and armed nonstate groups that act as extensions of a sponsor state. These proxies inflict damage on target states with the aim of deconsolidating them and creating ungoverned space. Their attacks distract the target state and deny it resources, creating bargaining leverage for the sponsor.
Although subversion featured prominently in the Cold War, policymakers have only recently begun to pay attention to the problem of subversion in its updated form. This oversight has been costly to Western interests. Russian subversion deprived Ukraine and Georgia of control over significant swaths of territory. Pakistani subversion has prevented the Afghan state from consolidating any authority beyond Kabul. And Iranian subversion against the Yemeni government and against Saudi Arabia destabilizes the Persian Gulf region. With the exception of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, which Russia annexed directly, Moscow, Islamabad, and Tehran outsourced their dirty work to local proxies that proved to be highly effective extensions of their external sponsors.
For the United States, it is not enough merely to recognize that great-power conflict—indeed, most
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