Managing Chaos in an Era of Great Power Competition


As Washington policymakers seek a new strategic course, we believe there is a growing danger that U.S. national security strategy will focus too much on the conventional aspects of great and regional power competition, neglecting the importance of competition short of armed conflict. Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran all pose both conventional and unconventional threats. Sub-state actors can also pose direct dangers, as the Islamic State has set a new standard for lethality and reach.

The central challenge is that today’s turbulent world does not allow a single strategic focus. Unlike earlier bipolar and unipolar moments in world history, today the United States faces three distinct but significantly interrelated defense and security challenges:

  • Renewed competition with great powers, particularly Russia and China. This competition will likely center on the nature of the international order. Russia and China embrace some aspects of the current order but nonetheless seek to alter it significantly through force, coercion, and influence operations.
  • Regional challengers, particularly Iran and North Korea. These states lack the ability to shape the international order, but reject America’s role in their region. Iran is equally adept at pursuing its objectives through indirect use of force and influence.
  • Chaos within states, which stem in part from the first two challenges but also have many independent causes. Violent sub-state actors, ranging from terrorist organizations to militias to criminal gangs, both feed on and sustain chaos inside states and regions.

Yet U.S. strategy has largely neglected the connection between state-based challenges and that of sub-state actors. The challenges posed by Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran have all been highlighted in recent remarks by defense officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis. These words have been matched by a variety of deeds, ranging from committing to the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, to increasing U.S. ground troops in Europe, to shooting down aircraft in the skies over Syria, to conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

However, outside of the specific direct threats of the Islamic State and al Qaeda, U.S. policy is showing increasing impatience with the challenge of sub-state actors. This has been most dramatically highlighted by reported heated debate about U.S. posture and strategy in Afghanistan. The president publicly remarked in July that he wanted “to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years.”

The reality is that sub-state challenges cannot simply be downplayed. The boundaries between the challenge of great powers, regional challengers, and sub-state actors are fluid, if they exist at all. Russia, for example, makes great use of sub-state actors — from suborning politicians in Eastern Europe, to arming separatists in Ukraine, to giving haven to criminals in both the physical and virtual world in exchange for their support.

It is worth recalling in this context that successful nuclear and conventional deterrence and containment of the Soviet Union did not end competition. Instead it drove competition into arenas that today would be called the “gray zone” — election rigging, military coup and counter-coup, and sponsoring insurgency, all rife with the use of sub-state actors by both sides. For example, even as Washington refocused on conventional and nuclear deterrence in the mid-1970s, it continued U.S. engagement with sub-state actors in Afghanistan, Angola, Central America, and elsewhere.

While China has not yet shown the same breadth of engagement with sub-state actors as Russia, it is plausible this will change as Chinese ambition becomes more global. The opening of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti this year may be the first step in this direction, providing a convenient staging area for Chinese engagement with sub-state actors in the Middle East and Africa.

Regional challengers such as Iran make extensive use of sub-state actors. From Hizballah and Hamas to the Popular Mobilization Forces of Iraq and Houthis of Yemen, as well as a veritable Shiite foreign legion drawn from across the broader Middle East, Iran’s strategy is based largely on sub-state actors. Both Iran and North Korea make considerable use of purely criminal groups and, in the case of Iran, even charitable foundations.

Sub-state actors also pose threats by themselves. Some directly target the U.S. homeland, as with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Others target U.S. allies, as Sunni extremists have done in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Europe has been a major target with attacks in such countries as Spain, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In an era of restricted budgets, every euro spent on domestic anti-terrorism is a euro that could be spent in other ways, including NATO conventional and nuclear deterrence, further highlighting the importance of sub-state threats even in an era of great power competition.

Washington’s response to sub-state actors can also play a role in how states view the United States. While President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines was initially skeptical of the United States and began to shift significantly towards China, U.S. support to the Philippines against Islamic militants in Marawi City on the island of Mindanao seems to have caused him to reassess. In September 2016, he argued publicly that “for as long as we stay with America, we will never have peace in that land,” referring to Mindanao. By July 2017, after U.S. support in the fight for Marawi City, he noted “I cannot enter into military alliances with other nations because I would be violating the US-RP agreement … We stay here with the Americans.” Of course, China also provided substantial emergency arms shipments to the Philippines for the battle (which Duterte also noted).

The foregoing makes clear that U.S. strategy cannot neglect unconventional strategies and tactics, the challenge of sub-state actors, and the chaos these actors spawn. U.S. strategy will likely have to balance the need to address sub-state chaos with the reality of great power competition, fatigue, and limited budgets. With the above in mind, we propose six guidelines for U.S. defense and security strategy to strike the right balance on sub-state chaos:

First, U.S. defense strategy needs to more fully prepare for the possibility of unconventional competition with state adversaries, such as Russia, China, and Iran. This means developing ways to counter the use of sub-state and state actors to expand their power and influence in Europe, Africa, Asia, and even Latin America. While U.S. Special Operations Forces play a critical role in countering sub-state actors like the Islamic State, they can also play an essential role in countering unconventional strategies and tactics by great powers and regional competitors.

Second, U.S. defense strategy must be closely nested within a national interagency approach. Robust military measures to counter these threats are necessary, but they will not be effective if they are not harnessed to capabilities that exist beyond the Department of Defense. While calls for interagency and “whole of government” approaches are a Beltway perennial, the intelligence community, State Department, law enforcement, and Treasury Department must play vital roles if the United States is to successfully rebut advances of peer competitors as well as the sub-state actors who threaten U.S. interests. Adversaries are playing a multifaceted game that must be met with a similarly sophisticated array of measures.

Overreliance on costly military measures are a recipe for draining national coffers without definitive resolution of wide range of threats to U.S. interests. Military operations will likely need to continue in some areas such as the tumultuous Middle East, but unilateral U.S. operations should be just one tool in the toolkit. Russia, China, and other actors heavily invest in nonmilitary means as well. The Islamic State has aspired to state-like and global reach through a similar mix of methods.

Third, strategists could adopt a proactive rather than reactive stance towards the sub-state challenge. New sub-state groups, particularly insurgencies, are typically weak and vulnerable to co-optation or coercion. But many quickly develop robust organizational infrastructure and exploit existing social networks to become powerful and entrenched. Proactive and early engagement can allow the United States to become aware of emerging challenges and deal with them before they gain traction. The military broadly terms such proactive effort “operational preparation of the environment” and it will be vital.

Fourth, strategists could ensure long-term continuity in the individuals and teams managing sub-state actors in different regions and states to leverage the expertise and relationships that will produce results. Much of the ability to manage chaos derives from personal rapport with key individuals and groups along with an understanding of their perspective and history. Continuity, particularly at the operational and tactical level, is therefore crucial.

Fifth, strategists could embrace U.S. allies, partners, and proxies (or surrogates) to do the heavy lifting. Burden-sharing has been a cost-effective approach to international security challenges since World War II, and regional allies were fundamental to stability in the Cold War. The U.S. special operations community uses the term “by, with, and through” as the maxim for this perspective and it has been central to U.S. efforts in Syria and Iraq. Yet this approach has a long history beyond special operations and could be adopted for U.S. efforts against sub-state actors globally. This requires accepting that in many cases U.S. allies, partners, and proxies have their own interests and will not simply adopt U.S. objectives wholesale and without comment.

Sixth, and perhaps most important, strategists should consider that commitments must remain limited and will produce limited (but valuable) results. Most efforts against sub-state actors will require playing for time and “playing for the breaks,” not for an outright or total victory. This is a difficult thing for most Americans to accept and the more limited the commitment the more tolerable it will be. Likewise, even limited commitments add up on a global scale so strategists will likely have to prioritize some regions and assume risk in others.

We conclude with two examples of the kind of proactive and small — but continuous — engagements we think can serve as a model for future engagements. The first is U.S. engagement with Thailand during the Cold War. Thailand became the fulcrum of U.S. foreign and security policy in mainland Southeast Asia in large part due to an alignment of interests between the two states, but also due to careful cultivation of relationships with Thai officials. The Thai became the main ally in the U.S. fight against communist insurgents in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

In the modern context, the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State has prospered on similar relationships with the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service as well as Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq and Kurdish Popular Protection Units in Syria. U.S. relationships with the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service have remained strong, with U.S. special operations forces remaining engaged for more than decade after helping build the unit after the fall of Saddam Hussein. U.S. relations with the Kurds stretch back even further, with U.S. intelligence community and military personnel working with Kurdish Peshmerga before the 2003 invasion.

None of the above will be simple or easy. Yet as the United States revitalizes its conventional and nuclear deterrence capabilities, it may not have the luxury of ignoring sub-state challenges. A U.S. strategy that incorporates this perspective from the beginning could manage chaos at a reasonable cost.


Austin Long is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the author, most recently, of The Soul of Armies: Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Military Culture in the US and UK.

Linda Robinson is a senior policy researcher at RAND and the author of One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare.

Seth G. Jones is Director of the International Security and Defense Policy at RAND, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, and author, most recently, of Waging Insurgent Warfare: Lessons from the Vietcong to the Islamic State. 

Image: U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Sergio Rangel