“Wars” of Influence: Expanding U.S. Unclassified Intelligence Reports on China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea and Investing in Other Major U.S. Official National Security Reports

The shift in U.S. strategy from a focus on terrorist threats to a focus on the potential threats from China and Russia, as well as the lesser threats from Iran and North Korea, means the U.S. must look beyond building up deterrent forces and U.S. options for warfighting. So far, however, the U.S. has done far better in strengthening its military forces to compete with China and Russia, and lesser enemies like Iran and North Korea, than it has done to compete in political and gray area terms. A military response to such threats is critical in meeting the Chinese and Russian challenge, but it is only half the battle.

If the U.S. and its strategic partners are to compete successfully with Russia, China, and other major threats, they must also succeed in winning gray area conflicts and “white area” political, diplomatic, and economic competition.

As was the case in the Cold War, U.S. grand strategy must look beyond deterrence and warfighting. It must focus on finding areas of cooperation that reduce tension and the risk of war; on strengthening deterrence by competing for allies and economic partners; and on using diplomacy, trade, investment, and political influence to both support U.S. interests and counter hostile actions and influence building by its major competitors.

The U.S. needs to pay attention to Sun Tzu as well as Clausewitz for other reasons. Any war with China or Russia that escalates to a theater level or higher levels, any war that involves nuclear conflict, or any war that leads to major damage to critical facilities and infrastructure will inflict massive costs and damage to the U.S. and its partners, as well as to the enemy. Even a limited conflict over an objective like Taiwan will have high to massive immediate costs, and it will almost certainly trigger a process of costly further military competition that can extend for decades and trigger further conflicts in the process. Real victory will come from winning in the white and gray areas that can prevent a major conflict, not in “winning” serious wars and major battles.

It may be an exaggeration to talk about “wars” of influence, but if one focuses on “white area” operations and competition, the ability to shape perceptions of the Chinese, Russian, and other major threats will be critical, as will building a consensus about the gravity of such threats with the U.S.’s strategic partners.

The same will be true of building an understanding of the nature of global competition with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. These are areas where the U.S. government needs to be as proactive as possible. This will include conducting regular diplomatic activity, informing the media, and supporting analysis outside the U.S. government. It also, however, means developing and promoting official studies and reports – ways of communicating the nature of the threat that can draw on all the assets used to develop classified and official information to produce “weapons of influence” in unclassified form.

This report, entitled, “Wars” of Influence: Expanding U.S. Unclassified Intelligence Reports on China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea and Investing in Other Major U.S. Official National Security Reports, is available for download at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/211203_Cordesman_Wars_Influence.pdf?APZOOlwJZM9gNaig1Tli0OyhROQJn5gO

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Emeritus Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy