The Future of Competition: U.S. Adversaries and the Growth of Irregular Warfare

This commentary is part of CSIS's Global Forecast 2021 essay series.

“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

– Sun Tzu

While conventional warfare—set-piece battles between large military forces—largely defined twentieth-century conflict between major powers, irregular warfare will likely define international politics over the next year and beyond. Countries like China, Russia, and Iran compete with the United States using irregular methods because conventional and nuclear warfare are far too costly. The tools of irregular warfare are not strategic bombers, main battle tanks, or infantry soldiers, but hackers, intelligence operatives, special operations forces, and private military companies that often operate in the shadows.

Unfortunately, the United States is woefully unprepared for this type of competition—both at home and abroad. U.S. government agencies and departments have erroneously focused too much on planning for conventional and nuclear war, including scenarios like nuclear exchanges and conventional wars in the Baltic states, Taiwan Strait, and South China Sea. Yet China, Russia, and Iran are daily—even hourly—targeting the United States at home and abroad using irregular means. One of the most recent examples was the massive cyberattack against as many as 250 U.S. government agencies and companies by the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service.

The United States does not need to choose between conventional, nuclear, or irregular competition. All are important. Russia and China are developing conventional and nuclear military capabilities that pose a threat to the United States and its partners. But the challenge for the Biden administration will be to find an equilibrium between preparing for—and deterring—conventional, nuclear, and irregular warfare.

From Clausewitz to Sun Tzu

Irregular warfare refers to activities short of conventional and nuclear warfare that are designed to expand a country’s influence and legitimacy as well as weaken its adversaries. As a 2020 Department of Defense publication explained, irregular warfare “favors indirect and asymmetric approaches” by countries “in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.” It includes numerous tools of statecraft that governments can use to shift the balance of power in their favor: information operations (including psychological operations and propaganda), cyber operations, support to state and nonstate partners, covert action, espionage, and economic coercion.

Many of these tools, such as information and cyber operations, can be used for irregular and conventional campaigns. They are simply a means. In irregular warfare, however, a country designs and uses these tools to undermine its adversaries as part of balance-of-power competition without engaging in set-piece battles. Other government officials and scholars have used different terms—such as political warfare, hybrid warfare, gray zone activity, asymmetric conflict, and the indirect approach—to capture some or all of these activities.

In particular, irregular warfare is distinct from conventional warfare, which has sometimes been referred to as “traditional” or “regular” warfare. Conventional warfare involves the use of direct land, naval, air, and other military capabilities to defeat an adversary’s armed forces on a battlefield; control territory, populations, and forces; or annihilate an enemy’s war-making capacity. Irregular warfare is also different from nuclear warfare, which involves the use—or threat—of nuclear weapons against adversaries. Finally, irregular warfare is distinct from routine foreign policy, which can include diplomatic, humanitarian, intelligence, and other activities that have little or nothing to do with competition against adversaries.

Some might object to using the term “warfare” to describe non-violent actions like economic coercion and information operations, but that is not how U.S. rivals see it. They apply a broad view of warfare as “a struggle between competing entities.” China has used terms like san zhong zhanfa (three warfares), which includes media, psychological, and legal warfare. None of these aspects involve the direct use of violence. Iran has utilized terms such as jang-e narm (soft war), which includes activities like propaganda and disinformation to influence others. Russia has used aktivnyye meropriyatiya (active measures) for decades as a tool of warfare against the United States and its partners. “The important point,” writes U.S. military historian Charles Bartles, “is that while the West considers these non-military measures as ways of avoiding war, Russia considers these measures as war.”

In short, the future concept of warfare faced by the Biden administration is much closer to the Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu than it is to the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who narrowly defined war as an “act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.”

Active Measures and Three Warfares

Irregular warfare is not new. During the Cold War, Russian services like the KGB waged aggressive irregular campaigns against the United States around the globe. Oleg Kalugin, the former head of foreign counterintelligence for the KGB, described aktivnyye meropriyatiya and similar operations as the “heart and soul of Soviet intelligence” that were used to “weaken the United States” and to “drive wedges in the Western community alliance of all sorts.”1

As the Biden administration takes office, U.S. adversaries are utilizing irregular strategies and tactics. Perhaps the quintessential example is Russia. Under President Vladimir Putin, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, and other officials, Russia employs a mix of offensive cyber operations, espionage, covert action, and information and disinformation campaigns to weaken the United States and expand Moscow’s influence. Russia has meddled in U.S. elections and waged a disinformation campaign inside the United States, attempting to inflame social, racial, and political tensions through such issues as Black Lives Matter, Covid-19, the Me Too movement, gun control, white supremacy, abortion, and immigration. Russia has placed malware, such as Triton and BlackEnergy, in U.S. critical infrastructure—threatening power plants, electricity grids, communications networks, and financial systems in the U.S. homeland. Russian agencies have also leveraged shadowy organizations to help conduct information operations and cyberattacks, including the Internet Research Agency (IRA); Kaspersky Lab; networks and online personas with creative names like “Cozy Bear,” “Fancy Bear,” and “Guccifer 2.0”; and private military companies like the Wagner Group.

Overseas, Moscow has attempted to weaken the United States and undermine U.S. relations with its allies. Russian intelligence agencies have conducted disinformation campaigns, falsely charging the United States with supporting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in countries like Syria and Afghanistan. Moscow has worked with terrorist groups like Lebanese Hezbollah and nonstate groups in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan, including the Taliban. The Russian military intelligence agency GRU and the SVR have also provided assistance to political leaders in Europe—including far-right organizations like Italy’s Lega Party and Austria’s Freedom Party—and created divisions between the United States and its European allies.

Iran has also embraced irregular warfare. Tehran possesses formidable irregular capabilities led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force. The Biden administration’s most significant challenge with Iran will not likely be renegotiating a nuclear deal, but rather undermining Iran’s irregular warfare campaign across the region and aid to nonstate partners like Lebanese Hezbollah. The Quds Force provides aid nonstate partner forces in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and other countries. In addition, Iran maintains the largest ballistic and cruise missile force in the Middle East, courtesy of Russian, Chinese, and North Korean support. Iran has also improved its offensive cyber capabilities and targeted U.S. casinos, dams, the power grid, and financial institutions like Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and the New York Stock Exchange.

Finally, China has engaged in irregular activities to achieve its objectives of expanding influence, particularly in Asia; increasing its economic power with a mercantilist view of the world; and surpassing the United States as the dominant global technological, military, and economic power. Beijing has developed one of the most sophisticated cyber capabilities of any of the United States’ adversaries through such organizations as Unit 61398 of the People’s Liberation Army. China’s leaders are attempting to extend the country’s global economic, political, military, and technological reach using China’s global development strategies like the Belt and Road Initiative. The Chinese government has leveraged the telecom giant Huawei and other technology firms to expand 5G, the fifth-generation technology for cellular networks, and intelligence collection across the globe. Beijing also uses fleets of fishing vessels and has created artificial islands by dumping millions of tons of sand and concrete onto reefs to assert its territorial and resource claims in the Pacific.

Chinese influence even extends into the United States. Chinese political and intelligence agencies have conducted operations on U.S. university campuses, including stealing sensitive technologies, collecting information, monitoring Chinese students, and pressuring publishers and researchers not to print negative portrayals of China. Beijing’s influence has reached into Hollywood, where approval by the Communist Party impacts whether a major film can be distributed in China, and pressured U.S. studios to alter their content. There are sparingly few Chinese villains in Hollywood movies, a far cry from the Cold War, when movies like The Hunt for Red October pitted the United States against the Soviet Union. As one study concluded, there is an epidemic of “self-censorship” in Hollywood to ensure access to the Chinese market.

There is still time for the United States to change course. But the United States needs to significantly alter how it thinks about—and engages in—competition.

Irregular Competition

Irregular warfare today is merely the newest variant of an age-old struggle between competitors. Doing it well will require better understanding the nature of competition today and implementing a strategy and policies aligned with U.S. values. Competition, of course, is not necessarily bad. Competition is at the heart of athletics, academics, and business. Nor does competition prohibit cooperation. Even during the height of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union found ways to cooperate in areas like arms control when and where they shared common interests. China will remain an important trading partner in the future and a critical market for U.S. companies. China’s economy is growing, its manufacturing sector is the largest in the world by a wide margin, its population of 1.4 billion is an attractive market for U.S. companies, and it boasts 400 million millennials—five times the number as the United States.

In international politics, competition today is to a great extent a struggle between rival political, economic, and military systems—between authoritarian, state-controlled systems and democratic ones. Perhaps the single most important step for the Biden administration will be to refashion U.S. foreign policy on the country’s core principles, ones that have been in place since the United States’ founding. China, Russia, and Iran are all undemocratic and eschew free markets and a free press. They have violently cracked down on democratic movements, developed a state-run economic system, and tried to suppress information by creating a “Great Firewall,” Russian “Runet,” and Persian “halal net.” Even recently, Russia has cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in support of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The next step is to better understand how China, Russia, and Iran view competition with the United States. Unfortunately, the United States has not learned from its own past. Beijing, for example, invests substantial resources in translating and exploring the contours of U.S. culture and politics. Unlike during the Cold War, the U.S. government and private sector have failed to invest in the language skills and expertise to effectively compete with the Chinese Communist Party. U.S. national security documents argue that the United States and China are engaged in a long-term strategic competition. But you would not know it looking at the U.S. media and the general lack of federal funding for Chinese language programs—a role that was filled by Beijing’s Confucius Institutes at U.S. college campuses.

One option is to build a twenty-first century open-source information service with congressional support. The United States should start by translating materials from its main competitors—like China, Russia, and Iran—and making them publicly available. Every Xi Jinping speech, for example, should be available in English within a day or two. Machine learning and translation technology from programs like Google Translate have been helpful stopgaps. But they cannot replace translation by humans with a nuanced understanding of local culture, politics, and history. In addition, the U.S. government needs to increase the resources devoted to educating its diplomats, soldiers, and spies in Chinese, Russian, and Persian language, history, politics, and culture. In the “Long Telegram,” State Department diplomat and Cold War expert George Kennan urged Americans to study the Soviet Union and truly understand “the nature of the movement with which we are dealing.”

Finally, the Biden administration needs to conduct offensive—not just defensive—operations, including in the information arena. China, Russia, and Iran are vulnerable—much like the Soviet Union was vulnerable during the Cold War. Their authoritarian political systems and attempt to control access to information—including through state-run media—make them susceptible to a U.S. and Western information campaign. The United States and its partners in Europe, Asia, and other regions should relentlessly expose China, Russia, and Iran’s human rights abuses, oppression, and corruption. These adversaries have been involved in the arrest, torture, and assassination of defectors, political opponents, and individuals investigating or prosecuting bribery and fraud. China, for one, already has its hands full, from protesters in Hong Kong and Taiwan to Uyghurs in the Xinjiang autonomous region of China.

But there are limits to what the United States can and should do overseas, particularly with military force. The goal of U.S. foreign policy should not be what some have called “liberal hegemony”: to spread liberal democracy by toppling regimes and attempting to force liberal values on foreign populations through military intervention. The United States has a responsibility to encourage free trade, democracy, human rights, and other core values—but generally not by military force. The Cold War ended not because NATO countries invaded Poland, East Germany, and other Warsaw Pact countries, but because their populations rose up against tyranny.

The U.S. principles of democracy, freedom of religion, and free markets were essential in establishing the United States as a country. They were also critical in winning the Cold War against the Soviet Union. And they are just as critical in outperforming the United States’ authoritarian adversaries today and tomorrow.

Seth G. Jones is a senior vice president, holds the Harold Brown Chair, and is director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and is the author of the forthcoming Three Dangerous Men: Russia, Iran, China and the Rise of Irregular Warfare (W.W. Norton).

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Seth G. Jones
Senior Vice President; Harold Brown Chair; and Director, International Security Program