The War We Dread
Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War (Penguin Press, 2021)
What starts a war? Is it an invasion in Eastern Europe, an assassination on the streets of Sarajevo, or something else entirely? Furthermore, what are the costs of war, and when should the United States be willing to risk to pay them to maintain primacy? Would the American people be prepared to accept those costs?
These questions, and others like them, increasingly form the basis of conversations about the possibility of war between the United States and China. From congressional testimony and think tank reports, to virtual happy hours and discussions between friends, the idea of war with China no longer feels like an exercise in theory. Instead, war feels like a very real possibility. For example, in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last March, Adm. Philip Davidson stated that there is a high risk of China using force to “attempt unilaterally changing the status quo.” Similarly, Robert Blackwill and Philip Zelikow noted the increasing probability that the People’s Republic of China will attempt to reunify Taiwan by force. There is thus a growing need for the United States to clarify its stance in the event of another Taiwan Strait crisis. These conversations, and the growing tensions that spur them, force us to confront the possibility of a future war with China.
Conversations like these often assume that conflict in the Western Pacific will begin in a predictable way, likely over China’s reunification with Taiwan by force. That, however, may not be the case. Americans would benefit from exploring scenarios beyond Taiwan, including scenarios like the one laid out by Elliot Ackerman and Adm. (ret.) James Stavridis in 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. In 2034, Ackerman and Stavridis create a compelling narrative wherein, through a series of perfectly plausible but unforeseen events in the South China Sea, the United States finds itself in a war with China that it is unprepared to fight.
Beyond 2034’s haunting images of whole fleets destroyed, and refugees escaping nuclear wastelands that were once their homes, three conclusions will stay with readers after they close the book. First, the United States can lose. A combination of selective interpretations of history, enormous defense budgets, and confidence in military training has given many Americans faith in their country’s conventional military superiority. While the U.S. military is certainly powerful, its superiority is not supported by reality. For example, in larger conflicts, such as the two world wars, the United States’ allies bore the heavy brunt of fighting. The U.S. military also struggled to achieve its strategic goals in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Its most impressive performances were against the same, exhausted Iraqi military in 1991 and 2003.
Ackerman and Stavridis remind Americans that the U.S. can lose just as quickly and easily as other countries, and that victory is not preordained. The scenario they lay out — a minor confrontation between the United States and China that escalates and exposes technological weaknesses that ultimately bring America down — is plausible.
Second, information technology has already changed warfare. The diffusion of precision-guided munitions, electronic warfare systems, and cyber weapons to America’s competitors gives those competitors the potential to disrupt traditional American strengths. As such, it is important that the U.S. military update its technology, training, and perhaps most importantly, its expectations for how wars will be fought. In 2034, a combination of cyber attacks, stealth surface vessels, and electronic warfare negates many of the U.S. military’s traditional advantages. Stripped of their ability to communicate with subordinates, and even with many of their systems, U.S. forces were sometimes left helpless to defend themselves against Chinese forces, much less defeat them.
Warfare is actually changing more significantly than is described in 2034. Emerging technologies will have an impact well beyond disrupting communications and decision-making. The U.S. military is exploring concepts like multi-domain operations, mosaic warfare, and algorithmic warfare. These concepts differ significantly, but all three argue that artificial intelligence, changing information architectures, and contested communications will increase the importance of achieving decision-making superiority. The People’s Liberation Army has focused on winning “informatized local wars,” which involves recognizing the importance of information as a domain and moving away from focusing on platforms like aircraft and carriers, and towards a network-on-network approach.
Despite the differences between U.S. and Chinese modernization efforts, each of the concepts above rely on new technologies to change the speed of decision-making. Perhaps more important, they rely on AI, which changes the way decisions are made. For example, in Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher’s The Age of AI, the authors show that AI can discover correlations across extremely large, high-dimension data sets, and thus draw conclusions that no human could possibly reach.
2034’s depiction of American technological disadvantage is rather alarming. Failure to account for an adversary’s new capabilities and ways of fighting can cause the American military’s capabilities to be far less effective against their adversary than they might seem.
Third, a limited nuclear war might be possible. The study of nuclear war is marked by a distinct lack of empirical evidence and based almost entirely on theory and speculation. The authors show one way that political and military leaders, under pressure to win and with few paths to victory, might turn to nuclear weapons. Their depiction of a limited nuclear exchange is both terrifying and a relief. It is a relief because it shows the possibility of a nuclear war that does not end in apocalyptic scenarios drawn from mutually assured destruction. Yet it is equally terrifying because if enough of the right people believe limited nuclear exchanges are feasible, it lowers the barriers to nuclear use.
2034 navigates complex scenarios and ultimately leads readers to the above three conclusions through the eyes of five principal characters. Each character provides a different lens through which to view the conflict, making for an engaging and informative read. In a genre where characters can often be one dimensional, Ackerman and Stavridis’ characters are well-developed with nuanced motivations and personalities that add a sense of reality to this work of fiction. The authors also use their characters to demonstrate how major world events can be contingent upon the personalities of key leaders, and their inclination to escalate or deescalate crisis situations, or willingness to risk catastrophe.
It is inevitable that 2034 will be compared to the techno-thriller, Ghost Fleet. 2034 has several advantages for readers that want to use fiction to explore possible futures. Showing Stavridis’ influence on the story, 2034 captures more about strategy, showing the perspective of high-level decision-makers and the strategic impact of battles. Its biggest advantage, though, is that 2034 doesn’t rely on the oft-employed American come-from-behind story. Showing that the United States can lose a war and suffer the consequences is far more thought-provoking than a comforting Hollywood ending.
Despite these strengths, 2034 also has its weaknesses. The book provides a reductive depiction of war. A reader new to the topic could be forgiven for thinking that wars are fought exclusively by carrier battle groups and occasional cyberattacks, with no involvement of armies or air forces. There is also little mention of U.S. allies, despite the prominent role they play in almost every conversation about a war between the United States and China.
There is also no description of how cyber warfare functions or what happens beyond effects. Readers may be tempted to conclude that the best way to defeat cyber attacks is to rely less on technology, not to improve security. Notably, this is only true for America, not China. Space warfare is also ignored, despite the critical role it is likely to play in such a conflict. Furthermore, U.S. military leaders blithely ignore new Chinese capabilities, sending carrier battle groups to fight without addressing newly found, massive vulnerabilities.
One of the book’s most frequent themes — that the United States is no longer the country it once was — is discussed but never explicitly explained. America’s decline is shown only through military losses and a mild lack of unity after a war with China. The bitter partisanship that has led to so much recent dysfunction is never shown. It is therefore a much less compelling theme. Even worse, it leaves readers with a sense of loss and melancholy, but without a greater understanding of American decline, or of how to fix the problem the authors diagnose.
Despite these aforementioned issues, 2034 still raises some uncomfortable, and therefore important, questions. How fragile is American power? Could decades of U.S. global leadership be lost in a matter of days due to an attack on the homeland and a combination of military losses? Or is it more likely that the United States would have the political will, economic power, and national resilience to continue fighting and recover?
2034 also encourages readers to consider how a conflict between the United States and China could escalate in unexpected ways. How likely is it that a small war between the United States and China would escalate beyond anyone’s intent? Would a war in the South China Sea remain local, or will it inevitably spill over into the United States? If so, how painful would the ensuing war be?
The authors’ vivid narrative raises questions about the costs of war between the United States and other great powers. What interests should the United States fight to defend? Some argue that Taiwan is not worth the cost of war with China. Others argue that reunification by force would cause America’s regional alliances and partnerships to fall apart, paving the way for Chinese regional hegemony. Reasonable people can disagree on the answer, but all should agree that choosing an answer is increasingly important to American national security.
Many of the questions motivated by 2034 are ultimately about military power. Does the United States have the ability to maintain escalation dominance, and can dominance be achieved without resorting to nuclear weapons? Is the United States preparing for its adversaries’ changing capabilities, or is it trying to maintain power using tools and weapons from the 20th century, regardless of their relevance in the 21st? Numerous studies of American military technology argue that the United States is focused on maintaining superiority in traditional military arenas at the detriment of new, and likely to be more important, technologies. If the United States were to face a conflict similar to the one fought in 2034, would it be ready?
At its core, 2034 is about the mutual destruction of two great powers through a war that escalated far beyond anyone’s original intentions. It’s a story that played out in Europe during World War I, retold by the authors in the near future. In some ways, 2034 is an attempt to rewrite Barbara Tuchman’s, The Guns of August, but as a warning rather than a memorial. What would Europe’s leaders have done differently at the beginning of the 20th century had they been armed with Tuchman’s masterfully written description of their coming self-immolation? Overall, 2034 is a gripping read. Many who pick it up will struggle to put it down as they read, helplessly watching the world inside its pages descend into chaos, as our own threatens to do the same.
Justin Lynch served as an Army officer and at the House Armed Service Committee, National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. He is a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed in this article are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.
Emma Morrison is a national security professional who has served as the policy clerk for the House Armed Services Committee. The views expressed in this article are her own and not necessarily those of her employer.