How the International System Shapes the Character of War: Order, Geography, and Networks


Editor’s Note: This is the next installment in our “Next War” series.

Our world is awash in events that appear to be game changing. Russia stirs the pot in Ukraine and Syria. China expands economically through the One Belt One Road initiative and militarily in the South China Sea. North Korea rattles its nuclear saber. Iran arms proxies across the Gulf. Violent extremists seize territory in the Middle East and Africa, wielding machine guns mounted on pickup trucks, flying unmanned systems, and deploying hackers.

Yet, individual events do not define systems. Looking at a single clash or crisis misses how the larger struggle between political actors — from great powers and economic hubs to social movements and empires — creates an emergent system. For Thucydides, looking at events absent a systemic view tends to confuse symptoms for the disease. Diagnosing the cause of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides differentiated between the spark (the Affair at Epidamnus) and the larger, systemic condition that created a system ripe for conflict (the rising power of Athens). Cataloguing symptoms does not illuminate what is often causing the character of war to evolve: the structure of the international system. Therefore, the key question for strategists seeking to understand the next war should be: What is the international system and how will it change to shape the next war?

As we continue our “Next War” series, I explore how the international system, as an emergent political body, shapes the character of war. Explanations that look at major events or global trends absent an understanding of how the system evolves cannot explain the strategic logic of future. To paraphrase legendary sociologist Charles Tilly, how is why — to explain why something will occur chart how it came to be.

Efforts to predict future conflicts should start by defining what the system is and how it changes over time. Three schools of thought from the field of international relations help chart alternative futures: Divergent visions of the international system as a state-based struggle over order, empires fighting over geography, or interconnected networks competing over transnational flows create alternative forecasts. Each perspective, as a strategic proposition, implies different types of conflict and potential flashpoints.

Waiting for Collapse

Efforts to forecast the future tend to revolve around trends and their assumed impact on states as the primary political actors. For over 40 years, predications about international order assumed the decline of the United States and with it the prevailing system. The 1974 Astarita Report, commissioned by Gen. Creighton Abrams, openly questioned American preeminence and her “relative standing as the dominate world power.” States would remain the dominant actor in a competitive international system, but new centers of military and economic power in Japan, Western Europe and China would alter the balance. This multipolarity would increase the risk of conflict. Those conflicts never came to pass.

The Airland Battle 2000 study, commissioned by the Army just eight years after the Astarita report, envisioned an even more chaotic, multipolar international system. Competition over scarce resources and the proliferation of weapons technology alongside demographic change and urbanization would produce a volatile mix of peripheral conflicts that would draw superpowers into conflict outside of Europe. Peripheral conflicts did occur, but not at the magnitude envisioned.

The future looked darker still in the 1994 futures study commissioned by Gen. Gordon Sullivan, Force XXI. Here, the world wasn’t just multipolar, but subject to regional and subnational nationalist movements and state failures that created a new global disorder. Ethno-nationalist violence, civil wars, and state failures did occur, but political violence had peaked by the publication date of the Force XXI study.

The theme of a system in decline extended beyond Army studies. Other major U.S. military and intelligence community reports as well as allied initiatives made similar causal explanations prefacing U.S. decline and with it the prevailing liberal international order. Similar to the Force XXI study, the 1997 National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2010 report envisioned a fragmenting international system and weakened states. System fragmentation based on the diffusion of power remained a major theme in the 2012 National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2030 report.  The foreword to the 2016 Atlantic Council Global Risks 2035 continued this theme:

We live in dark times … A rising global power threatens its neighbors in the South China Sea. A once-great power purposefully destabilizes Europe at the same time the continent struggles with weak economic growth, an historic influx of refugees, and political upheaval.

The United Kingdom Ministry of Defence 2014 study, Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2045, analyzed thirteen trends, ranging from shifting gender norms to workplace automation, likely to erode state power and change the international system. The 2016 U.S. Joint Staff study, Joint Operating Environment 2035, similarly predicted system decline leading competitors to contest “the rules and agreements that define international order” backed by the United States and its global partners as well as “persistent disorder” as adversaries exploit state weakness. Like earlier, trend-based studies, these predictions risk being overly anchored in the present.

Russian strategists also predicted system decline and in it saw opportunities to challenge powerful states. In two influential articles, the 2013 The Value of Science in Prediction and the 2017 The World is on the Brink of War, Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov envisioned undermining great powers through a mix of traditional and non-traditional means. Gerasimov called for using what he saw as the key strengths of the West against Washington: Political warfare backed by a threat of precision strikes and crisis escalation. His 2017 article recommends combining “contactless” war (i.e., precision strike) with political warfare and “unleashing the protest potential of the population” to undermine states. For Russian strategists, the largely non-violent “color revolutions” and Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution were examples of how the West undermined the Russian state and its partners from within. Stating the strategic logic likely behind the U.S. election hacks, Gerasimov called for counterattacking Western institutions using “mass media and social media networks … [for] informational-psychological and informational-technical attack.”

From U.S. Army concerns over shifting power balances in the 1970s to 21st century Russian attacks on Western institutions, these accounts assume a system of states in decline. The future appears to be overly anchored in the present. Trends don’t change the system as much as they shift state power. In these forecasts, by 2030 states confront challenges from rising powers and transnational extremists empowered by the proliferation of information technology and its capacity to create new attack vectors (i.e., cyber) and mobilize the masses (i.e., overcome the collective actor problem). To quote science fiction writer William Gibson, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Yet, trend-based accounts anchored in the present have a blind spot. They only tell us about factors likely to alter state power and produces flashpoints without analyzing the system as a whole and how it alters strategic preferences and the character of war. As a result, we are trapped in visions of the future that do not analyze what the international system is much less how it changes. We risk confusing a Syrian flashpoint for the cause of a future conflict between the United States and Iran and Russia as opposed to seeing its deeper origins in revisionist states expanding their spheres of influence.

Order, Geography or Networks

International Relations scholarship can save us from the trap of seeing the future only as a string of discrete events and trends. In particular, three perspectives — order, geography, and networks — help us imagine alternative, future characters of war.

The System is Ordered: States Will Fight over Power Concentrations  

The future international system will continue to be a world of states. The question is whether these states exist in a hierarchical order defined by the preponderant world power (e.g., the United States, China, or India) or in an anarchic system of balancing alliances (e.g., NATO and U.S. allies in the Pacific vs. Russia-China-Iran). The risk of war will emerge from disagreements about relative power, whether China will continue to acknowledge U.S. security guarantees in the Pacific, or security dilemmas, whether the proliferation of cyber weapons and precision strike assets will increase brinksmanship behavior.

From this perspective, the international system is governed by the degree of order, be it hierarchy or anarchy, and changes overtime to reflect power concentrations. This perspective anchors most of the major futures studies historically. Anarchy defines a system of states locked in competition. The emergence of the modern state after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia helped create a system in which sovereign states competed for power and influence. Some scholars chart a longer history, seeing balancing dynamics under anarchy dating as far back to Ancient Assyria in 900 BCE. Regardless, state competition leads to a balance, seen by Hans Morgenthau as a universal principle similar to equilibrium in physics.

Contrasting this view, hierarchy governs the system. Historically, a hegemonic actor determined the rules of the system. Therefore, the character of war will shift as power concentrations shift.  Either the United States remains a liberal leviathan, holding together a multilateral system or a rising China challenges the order. (Sorry Russia.) Declining regional powers do not possess the means to change the system in the preponderance school of thought. In either scenario, American resilient or China ascendant, the risk of conflict is during a power transition. What would a China ascendant conflict look like?

The year is 20XX. Following a decade of trade disputes hollowing out the liberal international order and rapid Chinese economic gains, the world is on edge. Unmanned systems sabotage each other around shoals in the South China Sea. A series of escalating crises convinces U.S. leaders it is only a matter of time until China launches a preemptive strike to drive the US from the Pacific. The tension spreads to the Mediterranean. After the Greek exit from the European Union, Chinese commercial interests turn into plans for military ports and airfields. A coup attempt splits the Greek public leading to rising civil tensions. China backs one side. The United States and the remnants of NATO back the other.

The System is Bound by Geography: Empires Will Fight for Key Terrain

The future international system is not a world of states but a landscape of empires. These political units will revolve around a center, usually a regional power, and a peripheral web of vassal states subservient to the center. Suzerainty prevails. These new empires will compete to maintain spheres of influence and deny rivals access. The likely location of conflict, be it historic land invasion routes through Eastern Europe to Moscow or the maritime trade lanes in the South China Sea, will be the frontier of empires. Cyber and space as domains of competition do not reduce the reliance of empires on geography. The location of servers and fiber optic cables as well as prime equatorial locations for launching satellites become key terrain.

In this vision, the international system is based on geography and it changes overtime as empires seek to control key terrain. This view has its roots in early 20th century geopolitics and perspectives on social cohesion, empires, and the difference inherent in rural vs. sedentary civilizations in Ibn Khaldun. There is a renaissance in using geopolitics as a lens through which to see the international system. Walter Russell Mead sees revisionist states challenging the United States to secure their traditional spheres of influence. New scholarship broadens our understanding of the relationship between geography and political systems to explore the environment as a catalyst for systemic change. Geoffrey Parker provides an alternative explanation for the Thirty Years War in Europe and the fall of the Ming Dynasty to the Manchu in China, arguing that climate change produced social and economic crises that led to waves of dynastic warfare around the world. What would a future geopolitical clash of empires look like?

The year is 20XX. Climate change opens new northern trade routes and access to critical resources. Russia unleashes a propaganda blitz against the West while militarizing the Arctic to control the trade route and secure access to important energy, mineral deposits, and fishing areas. The Arctic becomes a new frontier between NATO and Russia. Russian planes and ice breakers challenge NATO members Norway, Denmark, and Canada under the threat of nuclear escalation.

The System is a Network: Agents Will Fight for Flows

The future international system is not a world of states but a neo-medieval web of competing networks. States are not eternal. In fact, Hendrik Spruyt’s work shows that the sovereign state was one among many competing political units emerging from feudalism. From economic leagues to city-states the structure of politics varied. Dan Nexon’s research shows that early modern European states resembled star-shaped networks more than they did sovereign entities. From a more structural perspective, Immanuel Wallterstein’s shows how center-periphery economic relationships define a system more than sovereign states. States may not be the only actor and should not be assumed to exist in their current form indefinitely.

The question then is how will new political units emerge and what are the implications for the character of warfare. The evolution of African warfare and the resurgence of political warfare may hold the key. Transnational alliances connecting international coalitions and civil wars in neighboring territory highlight predatory networks. Political warfare and gray zones highlight a new competitive landscape. Connectivity will matter more than traditional notions of national power or terrain. Megacities sitting along major connective arteries will create a new political logic not reducible to the sovereign state of old. Coalitions will connect old states, new cities, business interests and social movements as they seek to influence economic and information flows. What would a constant struggle to control network flows look like?

The year is 20XX. The foundation cracks. Proxy fighting over lithium deposits in Bolivia and cobalt reserves in the Democratic Republic of Congo draws competing interest groups into a series of escalating crises. These battles involve elite Special Forces and manned-unmanned combat formations leaving large militaries a parade field relic of the 20th century. Palace intrigue combined with botnets and troll houses disseminating fake videos topple regimes across Central Asia and Eastern Europe situated along new trade routes. Blockchain currencies help illicit networks thrive and weaken state revenue collection. Super storms batter coastal cities eroding already fragile states. New transnational political movements form around reactions against increased automation and migration patterns challenging social cohesion and identity. Civic unrest, cyber-coercion, and terrorism increase.

From the Next System to the Next War

Major military leaders from Gerasimov to Gen. Mark Milley sense something is changing. They foresee the emergence of a new character of war. What that change will be is a function of the structure of the international system, and whether you see the future through the lens of order, geography, or networks.

Since war is a continuation of politics each of these lenses implies different objective ends.  States fight for power. Empires fight for key terrain. Networks fight to capture flows. These divergent ends imply different ways (i.e., methods) and means (i.e., capabilities) for imposing your will on the adversary. New theories of victory emerge. This shift is already apparent in military journals, where thinkers like Gerasimov speculate on how to combine military and non-military means to undermine the cohesion of an adversary from within. Traces of the shift also appear in Chinese strategic publications like the Science of Military Studies and more recently in the surge of study groups around Washington exploring how technological offsets change war.

Yet, to understand the changing character of warfare requires looking past technology trends to see the larger political system in which conflict occurs. A military that looks only to technological offsets to prepare for the future risks narrowly focusing on the means of conflict and missing the political ends. While unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and the proliferation of cheap sensors are game changing, to envision the future the military professional, in a dialogue with civilian leaders, should first start by defining the likely ends of conflict. Seeing the future starts with understanding the international system.


Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D. holds a dual appointment at Marine Corps University and American University, School of International Service.  He is the author of Forging the Sword: Doctrinal Change in the U.S. Army, 1975-2010.  The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect U.S. government policy. 

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Donald Hudson