Reviewed in the United States on March 25, 2020
This is an excellent book. Dr. David Kilcullen is a former army Lieutenant Colonel. He is now a university professor and was a counter-insurgency adviser to General David Petraeus and Condi Rice. The Dragons in this story are China and Russia. In many cases, the “snakes” are bands of “terrorists” and non-state armed groups. What is clear from this book is that China, Russia, and the Islamists view the US as the enemy. Kilcullen provides a good overview of the current military threats. He analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of potential adversaries and how their military tactics have evolved since the 1990s.
In the early 2000s, the media often told us that the US had the most powerful military in history. Kilcullen believes that the US reached the peak of its military power in 2003. After initial success in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US got dragged into forever wars. In the 1990s, young soldiers who were trained for “state-on-state” warfare found themselves in complex operations such as those in Somalia and Kosovo, and after that in “wars of occupation” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kilcullen argues that there has been a waning of Western military dominance since 2003. American battlefield dominance hasn’t counted for much in recent conflicts as our adversaries have learned how to fight us.
The war on terror has cost $6 trillion and the US has little to show for the money spent. Kilcullen suggests that the US can’t carry on spending this sort of money indefinitely, especially after the recent pandemic. He is worried about the implications for the West if its military dominance comes to an end. He believes the Washington foreign policy and national security establishment, which has grown up in an era of American exceptionalism and indispensability, is in denial that the military balance of power may be changing.
The Pentagon seems to be preparing for a war with 1940s Germany or the Soviet Union. It buys, trains, deploys and fights according to rules that don't apply anymore. Kilcullen explains how America’s rivals have adapted their tactics to cope with America’s superiority in conventional warfare. Our potential adversaries have concluded that engaging in traditional World War 2 type battles, like Saddam Hussein tried to do, would be a mistake. Saddam acquired most of his equipment from the Soviets and it was not good enough. The Russians and Chinese observed Saddam’s defeats and have developed new tactics and weapons.
Kilcullen invents the word “liminality” — non-military tactics where the “actor seeks to remain below the enemy’s detection threshold”. Examples include “hackers, cyber militias, relationships with organized crime networks . . . propaganda tools” — plus alliances with political extremists or separatist groups and “perhaps even those involved in presidential campaigns.” Where the West “considers these non-military measures ways of avoiding war, Russia considers them part of war itself.” He implies we may already be at war with Russia and China, but we don’t know it.
Kilcullen argues, state and non-state threats have increasingly come to resemble each other, with states like Russia adopting non-state techniques and non-state actors now able to access levels of precision and lethal weapon systems once only available to governments. Russia downsized its bulky military formations to more nimble battalion tactical groups (BTGs). The resulting BTGs have been effective in Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria. Russians have started to use mercenaries combined with special forces. He also believes they plan to use battlefield nuclear weapons.
Kilcullen explains why the Russians feel aggrieved at the West and why they don’t trust us. He believes the move was partly caused by Western encroachments following the West’s failure to uphold US secretary of state James Baker’s assurance in 1990 to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO, in exchange for German unification, “would not shift one inch eastward from its present position.” Russia’s side of the story is rarely explained in the media. The Russians elected a strongman in Putin, and we have a new Cold War. The reality is that Russia is constantly testing NATO’s readiness in Scandinavia, the Baltic, and the UK.
Kilcullen explains China’s gripes. He claims it wants to become a global great power and believes the US is holding it back. The Chinese have often felt humiliated by the West. In the 1990s the US bombed its embassy in Belgrade and two US carriers were sent to Taiwan in 1996 to deter Chinese aggression The Chinese have developed ballistic missiles which they hope will be able to take out America’s carriers. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, are two Chinese colonels who write about military strategy. They are not impressed with America’s high-tech military and expensive equipment, they claim it has become an addiction: “An American-made bomber is like a flying mountain of gold, more costly than many of its targets.”
America’s carriers cost $13 billion apiece but have rarely featured in recent wars. The Pentagon wants to build nine more. The F-35 fighter has cost $1.5 trillion to develop and has never been used in combat. Each one costs about $120 million. Kilcullen believes the US really needs more submarines, SEALS and anti-ship ballistic missiles. He argues it needs fewer carriers. He is not a fan of tanks either. He points out that in Iraq, Abrams tanks costing $9 million apiece were disabled by IEDs that cost $30 to make.
Kilcullen argues that Western military methods have proven increasingly ineffective: “our repeated failures to convert battlefield victory into strategic success or to translate that success into a better peace — is a key reason for the seemingly endless string of continuous, inconclusive wars that have sapped our energy while our rivals prospered, tied us down while new threats gathered, and contributed to internal unrest across the world.” US allies are also less willing to commit to America’s forever wars, they also believe that the US will always protect them.
Kilcullen argues that the US should reduce its international ambitions and recommends an “offshore balancing” strategy. This basically involves a retreat from regime change wars and liberal interventionism. He advocates “disengaging from permanent wars of occupation, ceasing any attempt to dominate rivals or spread democracy by force, and focusing instead on preserving and defending our long-term viability.” Kilcullen suggests that the US should avoid conflicts unless they directly affect the US. He wants to build up the military rather than squander resources in far-flung wars of choice. Kilcullen does not believe the US has an obligation to protect all of NATO’s members.
Do the American people still want to play the role of global policeman? They voted for Trump who promised a more isolationist foreign policy and fewer regime change wars. Kilcullen argues that although Obama and Trump both wanted to pull back, pressure from within Washington would not let that happen. Obama favored managed decline, but Hillary Clinton and John Kerry fought against it. Washington is an imperial capital. Many jobs in its think tanks, intelligence agencies, defense lobbying firms, and the Pentagon depend on the American empire. Ordinary people don’t really get to decide on foreign policy it is left to the elites.
Kilcullen argues that we can learn lessons from what happened to ancient Rome. Ironically the book was written before the recent pandemic. The empire in the West collapsed in 486, as its military power faded. We now call the eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire. It was more robust and survived until 1453. Its military strategy and foreign policy evolved over time to deal with emerging threats. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian’s brilliant general Belisarius recaptured much of Rome’s western empire, including Rome itself, but Byzantium could not hold onto the territory it won. In 542, the bubonic plague hit Constantinople and the army. It was carried by rats from China. The fatality rate ranged between 40 and 70 percent. Historians argue about the extent to which Justinian's Plague weakened the empire. Afterward, Byzantium settled for more modest military ambitions and just surviving. Kilcullen suggests we should consider doing the same.
If the US does abdicate its current global role, what would happen? Australia exists as a Western democracy because it was protected firstly by Britain and then the US. Would it be allowed to survive as an independent liberal democracy if China-dominated Asia? Kilcullen also visits Norway’s border with Russia and observes that the Russians have ten times as many troops in the frontier zone as the Norwegians at any given time. Without US support, Norway could quickly be overrun. There is a Norwegian mini-series on Netflix called ‘Occupied’ which assumes that the Russians occupy Norway. The threat of invasion would probably result in Norway coming under Russian control/influence. The EU has also relied on the US to defend its borders. The West has assumed that the US will always be there to defend it, but it may have to make alternative arrangements.