Emergence: The Changing Character of Competition and Conflict


In On War, 19th century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz differentiated between the enduring nature and a changing character of war unique to each period. Yet contemporary scholars and practitioners often fail to begin their analysis of modern military strategies by answering the question: What is the character of war, broadly defined?  How do political actors use military forces to advance their interests? From the use of quadcopters by ISIL to Russian information warfare targeting NATO members, the character of strategic competition and conflict appears to be in flux. States that fail to understand these changes do so at their own peril.

This article marks the first of a year-long series of articles that will survey emergent patterns and trends in political violence, strategic competition, and military innovation.  Paraphrasing science fiction writer William Gibson, the future of war is already here, it is just not evenly distributed. Rather than speculate on big structures and large processes, this series will take a relational perspective to examine evolutions in the character of war as a result of strategic interaction. Put differently, I will analyze war as a system and trace the emergence of trends as actors, locked in a clash of wills, combine novel concepts with available capabilities to gain a position of advantage. These actors — be they elites in the Kremlin, military professionals grabbling with the third offset in the Pentagon, or religious zealots adapting to survive as they defend Mosul — learn from each other and change how they fight. The character of war is the sum of these processes of competitive learning and adaptation.

What is the Character of War?

Each historical moment has a unique character of war that emerges from how people fight.  This idea comes from Clausewitz’s seminal book, On War. Three important passages clarify what it means to see war as an emergent system.

First, when analyzing competition, confrontation, and conflict you cannot just look at actors in terms of their capabilities, but should assess the circumstances, in which different instruments of power, warfighting practices, and methods of coercing adversaries become logical. Two passages from On War draw out this idea, highlighting the importance of circumstances surrounding conflict and that these circumstances vary. In Book I, Chapter One, Clausewitz noted that, “wars must differ in character according to the nature of the motives and circumstances from which they proceed.” In Book VIII, Chapter Two Clausewitz argued that, “we shall have to grasp the idea that war, and the form which we give it, proceeds from ideas, feelings, and circumstances, which dominate for the moment.”  This idea has a parallel in the Chinese concept of shih, the strategic configuration of power inherent in a system. What gives an actor a strategic advantage can change depending on the circumstances.

Second, war is a complex, emergent system.  As groups uses acts of force to compel their adversary they create feedback loops altering future interactions. The practice of war evolves and has emergent properties: small interactions can cascade and change the entire system (i.e., the whole is great than the sum of its parts).  In Book VIII, Chapter Two Clausewitz argued that, “if we must grant that war originates and takes its form not from a final adjustment of the innumerable relations with which it is connected, but from some amongst them which happen to predominate.” To say war is an emergent system implies describing its character in terms of key interactions that produce larger patterns of collective behavior.

Third, these larger patterns of behavior are observable. One can assess the changing character of war. Determining the correlation of forces requires mapping key interactions and the dominant feedback loops (i.e., tendencies) that produce alternative outcomes (i.e., potentials). In Book I, Chapter Ten, Clausewitz stated, “from the character, the measures, the situation of the adversary, and the relations with which he is surrounded, each side will draw conclusions by the law of probability as to the designs of the other, and act accordingly.”  In Book VIII, Chapter Three, he argued

In order to ascertain the real scale of the means which we must put forth for war, we must think over the political object both on our own side and on the enemy’s side; we must consider the power and position of the enemy’s state as well as of our own, the character of his government and of his people, and the capacities of both, and all that against on our own side, and the political connections of other states, and the effect which the war will produce on those States.

What Does it Mean to Say War is a System?

To say that war is a system is to highlight the importance of looking at interactions and the resulting patterns. The ways and means each actor brings to bear in forging their military strategy are not independent and static. Therefore, the articles in this series will look at competitive interactions involving force, from interstate and intrastate wars to competitive interactions such as coercive diplomacy and information warfare, that produce emergent properties.

For example, how should we treat Russian election hacking and information warfare? Seen dispassionately, it may appear to be a logical evolution in the character of war enabled by technological evolution and political opportunity. Leading Russian strategic thinkers view democracy promotion and civil society development as an indirect form of coercion designed to undermine the Russian state. Once the state is weak, the West can impose its will upon Russia without risking strategic escalation. To retaliate, the Kremlin adapts the tactics, combining a long tradition of information warfare and propaganda with available means — social media, cable networks, troll houses — to counterattack and undermine public confidence in Western political institutions. This connectivity creates new ways of coercing an adversary short of conventional combat. Though not new or necessarily effective, as states seek to coerce each other through information warfare it alters patterns of strategic competition. We should expect similar campaigns in the future and new crisis dynamics.

The idea of an emergent, interactive character to war can be contrasted with work on enduring national ways of war. A “way of war” is a transhistorical perspective.  In Russell Weigley’s original treatment, the American way of war is classified as preferring a strategy of attrition and overwhelming force as seen in Ulysses S. Grant’s emphasis on destroying the Army of Northern Virginia and the application of U.S. airpower in the strategic bombing of Axis cities in World War II. Max Boot claimed this industrial way of warfare shifted after the introduction of widespread precision targeting. Meanwhile, Robert Citino argued for a distinctly German way of war organized around offensive solutions to defensive vulnerabilities between the Thirty Years War and the fall of the Third Reich. B. H. Liddell Hart claimed there was a distinct British way of war based on economic pressure exercised through sea control, mobility, and surprise.

In contrast to these arguments, this series will focus less on enduring national approaches and more on how interactions between belligerents changes the character of war. Back to the Russian example, the connectivity of the modern world creates new opportunities for political warfare and coercion. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It is difficult to isolate whether it was Guccifer 2.0’s leaked emails, their circulation through social media, or voter preferences absent negative coverage that led to a political upset in the 2016 election. There are indirect, often cascading effects. Small changes can have large outcomes. Leaked e-mails alongside “on again, off again” FBI investigations have the potential to change who becomes president of the United States of America. The character of strategic competition and conflict is changing in a manner that amplifies the coercive potential of information. It has little to do with a “way of war” and everything to do with what J.F.C. Fuller called the constant tactical factor. A counter-adaption checks every action.  To quote Fuller, “in war-time evolution will be extremely rapid, and, therefore, the army which is mentally the better prepared to meet tactical change possess an enormous advantage over all others.”

Why Study the Character of War?

According to Clausewitz, “the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking.” If you can see strategic competition and conflict as a system, you have a better chance of identifying the dominant feedback loops, indirect effects, and resulting tendencies. While there is no lifting the fog of war, those insights help strategists determine when, where, and how to put energy into the system. Understanding the character of war enables you to match strength against enemy weaknesses and change the allocation of risk.

There is a long history of studying the changing character of war to adapt concepts and capabilities in the U.S. military. In 1875, Gen. William T. Sherman, Chief of Staff of the Army, dispatched Emory Upton to study different militaries in Europe and Asia. In 1973, Gen. Creighton Abrams chartered the Astarita Group to study changing strategic trends and determine “if there was a legitimate role for conventional strategy and the Army in the post-Vietnam world.” In the mid-1990s, visionary leaders in the U.S. Marine Corps like Gen. Charles G. Krulak dispatched officers to study diverse fields ranging from emerging technologies and complexity science to urban warfare to map the changing character of war.  According to Krulak

The Chinese have a saying that “change is a dragon.” If you try to ignore him or control him, he will eat you. But if you can ride the dragon of change, you can survive, even prosper. I commit…that we’re going to ride the dragon.

In an effort that paralleled pre-World War II war games designed to determine the optimal force structure, in the 1990s Gen. Gordon Sullivan, Chief of Staff of the Army, used force-on-force exercises to explore how emerging technologies would enable a Revolution in Military Affairs. The exercises sought to see how opposing forces leveraging new technologies fought in a manner reminiscent of Fuller’s constant tactical factor. Each side adapted and the sum of these adaptations changed the conduct of warfare.

The articles in this series hope to continue this tradition. Every three weeks, they will generate arguments about particular interactions likely to create emergent properties and change the character of war.


Benjamin M. Jensen, Ph.D. holds a dual appointment at the Marine Corps University and the American University, School of International Service.  He is the author of Forging the Sword: Doctrinal Change in the U.S. Army (Stanford University Press, 2016).  The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect government policy.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenneth W. Norman