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Globalization and the Nature of War

Authored by Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II. | March 2003

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Just a few years into the new millennium, and it is already a truism to say that globalization?the spread of information and information technologies, along with greater public participation in economic and political processes?is transforming every aspect of human affairs. What is not yet clear, however, are the impacts of these trends, especially how they might affect the nature of war. Understanding the nature of war is important for more than academic reasons; the nature of a thing tends to define how it can and cannot be used, which, in the case of war, makes it extremely important to both political and military leaders. To answer the question of war?s nature, one must turn to the famous Prussian philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz (1780- 1831), who devoted more time than perhaps any other military theorist (contemporary or otherwise) to this topic.

The Clausewitzian Nature of War.

The most important aspect of Clausewitz?s concept of war is that war has a dual nature, not in the bi-polar sense where wars can be limited or unlimited, but in the sense that derives from German philosophical traditions in which phenomena are considered to have objective and subjective natures. The objective nature of war includes those elements?such as violence, friction, chance, and uncertainty?that all wars have in common. Conflicts can range in kind from an all-out attack to a war of observation (peacekeeping), for instance, but each will have all of these elements present to one degree or another. By contrast, the subjective nature of war encompasses those elements? such as military forces, their doctrines, weapons, as well as the environments (land, sea, air, and danger) in which they fight?that make each war unique. Under Clausewitz?s concept, the objective and subjective natures of war interact continuously. As a result, the nature of war cannot beseparated from the means and the actors involved in its conduct.

In addition, war is shaped by three major forces (war?s trinity) that also contribute to its nature: a subordinating or guiding influence (policy), the play of chance and probability, and enmity or basic hostility. Each is present in the current global war on terrorism.

The Element of Subordination?War as a Political Instrument.

Globalization has actually increased the role of politics, both in determining the purpose for and influencing the actual conduct of war. Both President George W. Bush and terrorist leader Osama bin Laden have released statements that link their actions to very explicit political agendas. Hence, the conflict remains thoroughly political at every level and, thus far at least, throughout every operational phase. Furthermore, this trend does not appear likely to reverse itself.

The Element of Hostility?Blind Natural Force.

The element of blind natural force is playing a decisive role in the global war on terrorism. Globalization has, among other things, contributed to the creation of fertile breeding grounds for terrorism as some groups try to resist its encroachment. Despite successful operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Al Qaeda?s ideology remains intact and attractive to young Muslims. By comparison, the U.S. populace, which lacked any deep-seated feelings of hostility prior to September 11, 2001, is now being psychologically prepared (one can argue how well) by its political leadership for a long fight. The war against global terrorism is thus foremost a battle of ideas?ideas powerful enough to provoke violent emotions. Consequently, it is within this arena that the war will be won or lost.

The Elements of Chance and Uncertainty?Military Forces.

For the United States and its Western allies, the elements of chance and uncertainty manifest themselves through traditional, if transforming, military and law enforcement organizations. For non-state actors such as Al Qaeda, on the other hand, chance and uncertainty are personified in irregular forces buoyed by a broad, religion-based ideology, an extensive organizational and operational infrastructure, and a multinational membership. While information technologies provide more data to decisionmakers and their constituencies, without analysis and synthesis such data are inadequate. The total amount of information?which includes irrelevant and incorrect information?might increase by a certain percent, but knowledge grows by the same percent.


If the war on terrorism is any guide, globalization is changing the nature of war in several ways. First, it is strengthening the role that politics will play in war by affording it the capability to exert greater real-time control over military operations. Of course, this control will vary depending on the personalities involved as well as a combatant?s ability to interdict its opponent?s communications. Second, globalization is increasing the criticality of the element of hostility. Political leaders can now mobilize hostile passions more quickly and over a larger area than hitherto, particularly in areas ?suffering? from the spread of globalization. Images and the ideas they convey may now be more decisive than the sword. Yet, it may prove more difficult to cool such passions than it did to ignite them. Finally, globalization means that opponents (even if they are neighbors) can now fight each other across global distances, in new dimensions, and with a broader array of weapons. These changes may amount to a net increase in the dual element of chance and uncertainty at all levels of war. It remains to be seen whether information technology will reduce or exacerbate this expansion. Certainly, skillful commanders and well-trained militaries still matter.

Yet, as has been shown, even with the rapidly spreading and intensifying effects of globalization, war remains essentially Clausewitzian in nature. It is still a dynamic expression of political wills in conflict, colliding via the means of organized violence with multinational populations serving both as resources and as targets. The forces of Islamic terrorism are fueled by volatile extremist ideas and, hence, the global war on terrorism remains at heart a conflict of opposing ideas. The United States and its strategic partners must take the fight to the enemy on that front and win there decisively.