War and Peace in the Age of the Smartphone

Iraqi Army volunteers carry weapons during a parade in the streets of Baghdad June, as they prepare to fight ISIL militants Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

2014 is witnessing a proliferation of violence, or at least its threat. That's clear from the dissolving borders of Syria and Iraq to the ongoing genocide in the Central African Republic, and from East Ukraine to the South China Sea.

Exactly 100 years on, the temptation, perhaps, is to explain this expansion in international violence through comparisons to 1914. That would be wrong, because war today is itself fundamentally evolving in the face of the information revolution.

To think about contemporary conflict through the traditional concept of war is often to follow a path that risks leading national security policies into dead ends. If we want peace, don't prepare for war; rethink it.

The traditional concept of war presumes that there are two sides, or two blocks of alliances, that present, to each side, a clear enemy to be defeated in battle. The idea of military victory makes sense in that context. Military victory sets conditions for the political settlement afterward, marking a clear boundary between war and peace, geographically, chronologically and legally. Armies know what their mission is in that context: to defeat the enemy.

But war has never been a static concept; it has evolved over time, mainly as a result of economic, social and political changes. The Industrial Revolution prefigured the industrialized warfare of World War I. Today the information and communications revolution is shifting the two fundamental trends in modern wars away from the traditional model: first, fragmentation, and second, open-ended conflicts.

Fragmented fighting

First, fragmentation. The general tendency is away from conflicts that are clearly one side against the other toward multiplayer conflicts in which several groups, ranging from the local to the international, kaleidoscopically compete against one another as much as they participate in a two-way fight.

Fragmentation is not new, but its effects are radically catalyzed by the speed and interconnectivity of contemporary globalization driven by the information revolution.

The information revolution encourages fragmentation because it simultaneously has the power to bring powerful networks together and to break them up. Consider the Arab Spring, in which a disparate range of people and of interests were drawn together by the simple and powerful desire to rise up against oppressive regimes.

But, once formed, the information revolution catalyzed the fragmentation of those networks once they started to disagree with one another, thus reforming new groups. Look at how the Arab Spring became the Arab Winter; comrades in arms have been split by factional and religious differences.

Fragmentation profoundly affects any armed conflict that may well start as a relatively polarized fight, as people are drawn together under one cause—be it toppling Bashar Assad in Syria or Moammar Gadhafi in Libya—but soon fight among each other as much as with the original enemy. These confusing, complex, multilayered patterns are replicated by each of the factions' regional and international backers. The convoluted evolution of who backs whom with the mutating factions in Syria over the past three years, and now in Iraq, makes that clear.

The speed and ease of communications and of transport have radically changed how people in practice get to a war zone. That matters, because it explains why the information revolution is about far more than the role of the media, or social media, in conflict.

Consider, for instance, how easy it is for European citizens to commute to fight in Syria via Turkey; all they need is a budget airline ticket, a smartphone and a contact in one of the armed militias. People can participate in conflicts, directly or vicariously, as never before; they bring their own hopes and prejudices to the fight, swelling the ranks of one group while others might branch off into a sub-faction.

Strategic problems arise when we handle conflicts that are actually fragmented as two-way wars, treating as a coherent enemy what are actually disparate groups, which cannot easily be defeated precisely because they do not fight, or fall, as one.

The war on terror is the classic contemporary example of a fragmented conflict. "The terrorists" actually turned out to be a series of franchise movements with no clear boundaries. In 2001 as in 2014, the agendas of jihadist groups vary significantly in line with local agendas.

In Afghanistan, for example, the idea that the terrorists were one "side"—with us or against us—led to a conflict in which the local political consequences of using force were obscured by the traditional idea of defeating an enemy in war. Most of the "terrorist" Taliban turned out to be not a coherent force but a loose franchise of drug dealers and local tribes that were on their own side protecting their own interests, not Al-Qaeda's.

The strategic implication of fragmentation is that conflicts that militarily and morally may initially appear clear-cut, like rescuing schoolgirls in Nigeria, or simply bombing the Islamic State (IS) jihadists back from the brink of Baghdad, rapidly involve intensely complex decisions once the underlying tribal and sectarian complexity of any intervention becomes apparent.

No Clear Enemy

Have politicians, diplomats, soldiers and policymakers grasped the consequences of fragmentation in war? It is hard to say. Look at the past two months. There is plainly an inconsistency in the speed with which the U.S. rushed to declare Boko Haram a terrorist group—despite risking embroilment in the political quagmire of a Nigerian insurgency—and, barely a month later, the restraint Washington showed in not bombing IS because it realized that risked making an enemy of all Iraq's Sunnis, whom Baghdad has systematically marginalized since 2010.

In depth: Boko Haram: Terror's Insidious New Face

More broadly, in fragmented conflicts the idea of a war's end point being marked by one side's victory starts to lose meaning, as there is no clear enemy against whom a victory can be defined. Rather, ongoing armed political rivalry between an evolving range of factions means that conflicts tend to merge into routine politics with no clear end point, as political competition does not end.

Take the war in Iraq during the U.S. "surge" of 2007-08. Part of the campaign involved defeating Al-Qaeda, a clear enemy that was attacked and defeated, mainly in the suburbs of Baghdad, by the coalition's special forces. The outcome of that aspect of the campaign can legitimately be understood in terms of enemy killed or captured, consistent with the traditional military idea of defeating an enemy.

But the wider campaign was not trying to defeat an enemy but to use both military and political action to stabilize Iraqi politics, particularly to bring the main Sunni groups within the ambit of the Iraqi government. The outcome of that campaign was not the body count but polling figures (or their equivalent).

As the outcome of the U.S. surge was ultimately a given configuration of Iraqi politics, as politics doesn't end, that configuration was liable to evolve in an undesired direction, as it quite spectacularly has done in 2014.

Thus the line in fragmented conflicts between when a war ends and peace starts is very hazy, as we see in Iraq today. It's not clear whether the Iraq War is over or not.

When a war's outcome is better measured by political polling figures—how far the various Sunni factions in Iraq support Baghdad's rule, for example—than body counts, there is little distinction between the use of violent and nonviolent actions in a conflict. The risk is plainly that military and political activity merge and, consequently, war and peace also merge, encouraging open-ended conflicts.

Pro-Russian Militants
Pro-Russian separatists sit in a truck as they set out from a base in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

That applies not just to insurgencies but state-on-state conflicts too. The situation in Ukraine is a case in point. Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been defining his outcomes in terms of defeating an enemy militarily. Instead, he has been engaged in a conflict of coercive communications in which the success or failure of actions, both violent and nonviolent—be they Russian troop movements on Ukraine's border or Putin's TV statements, as well as violent actions by the pro-Russian groups on the ground—are measured more by shifts in polling figures and attitudes than casualty figures among the people the Russians seek to influence. (The latter are primarily the various factions in East Ukraine and governments in Kiev, Washington and European capitals, not to speak of Putin's domestic audience.) Call it armed politics.

The obvious question this raises for national security policymakers is how to maintain peace in conflicts of armed politics, given that, despite the absence of war, the situation in Ukraine can hardly be characterized as peace.

The actual U.S. response to the Ukraine situation helps answer this question. Resorting to clear-cut military action to defeat an enemy—the traditional form of war—to counter armed politics is an option. But it tends to raise the stakes to an extent that the risks rapidly outweigh the rewards. Indeed, the U.S. and NATO have not resorted to military force to counter Russian actions in Ukraine. The alternative is then to do nothing (the position, more or less, of some EU states) or to counter with armed politics of one's own, or similar methods of coercive communication, as the U.S. has done in the form of sanctions to influence the behavior of Putin and his inner circle.

Blurred Boundaries

The paradox and the danger of using armed politics, or its equivalent, is that it blurs the very line between war and peace that it seeks to uphold.

Why? Because war has much clearer geographical, chronological and legal boundaries, which are based on where the military fight takes place. That allows for a distinction between military activity in war that aims to defeat the enemy on the battlefield and subsequent political activity in peace. In this way, war limits international violence and more clearly defines where and when states use violence against one another.

Conflicts characterized by armed politics, on the other hand, have blurred boundaries, because coercive actions, be they military or nonmilitary—the movement of tanks on the border, or TV statements, or sanctions—all too easily merge into routine international politics.

The risk is that if the scope of such conflicts is not limited by what is genuinely in the national interests, the results are expansive conflicts that occupy a gray zone between war and peace, which set no clear limits to international violence or at least its threat.

So for national security policymakers to maintain peace in conflicts of armed politics, which by their very nature blur the line between war and peace, is no easy task. The most common way to deal with international aggression outside of war is to mirror it, but with the caveat that without clearly limited goals, one risks being drawn into endless conflict that ultimately unhinges the very peace one seeks to establish. It's a hard balance to strike in practice. Political leaders in such conflicts are all too easily accused of doing too little, or of overreacting.

While the information revolution is a fundamental evolution in contemporary conflict, war in its traditional form still exists. That is obvious from recent experience, whether we look at the Russian-Georgian war, fought with tanks, or the Sri Lankan civil war.

Nor is the nature of contemporary conflict entirely new, being merely a radical development born of the information revolution. Take the Cold War. As the name suggests, it was neither war nor peace. It lasted a long time because there was no clear distinction between the conflict and normal international politics.

US Army Drone
MQ-1 Predators sits at Balad Air Base, Iraq. U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Tony R. Tolley/Reuters

Neither is the use of armed politics new. Terrorists planting bombs don't expect to defeat a state's army militarily but rather intend to send a message that immediately achieves a political result. That has been the case for centuries. In terms of states using armed politics in war, the most obvious 20th century example is the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, which attempted to send a direct political message to America to give up the fight.

The link between armed politics—the blurring of lines between military and political action—has historically given rise to conflicts that occupy a gray zone between war and peace, as it does today. Think, for example, of the long periods of the 19th and 20th centuries during which Britain considered itself to be at peace. It nonetheless regularly engaged in gunboat diplomacy or punitive campaigns to coerce local leaders. This would not have seemed like peace for those on the receiving end of actual or threatened imperial power.

Or take, for example, the British attempt to keep in check the Pathan (now known as Pashtun) tribes on India's northwest frontier with Afghanistan. There was hardly a single year between 1849 and 1947 without one or more military campaigns in the region. Each campaign was intended to reach some kind of political settlement with the various tribes. Force was used with a mixture of money and threats to maintain a delicate political balance for almost a century.

This was armed politics, and the outcome was defined in terms of an ongoing attempt to achieve political stability, not in terms of the defeat of an enemy and the end of a war. While successful in a sense of continuously managing the problem, the long-term fusion of military and political activity had destabilizing consequences. This century-long gray zone between war and peace ultimately encouraged Islamic fundamentalism to take root in the region and never dealt with the root causes of the problem.

The difference with the present is that during the century the British Indian army manned its outposts on the northwest frontier, the world was less interconnected, both in terms of individuals and states, so an ongoing conflict of armed politics on that frontier was a regional, not an international, issue.

Criminal Enemy

The comparison of the that Indian frontier to the war on terror brings into relief the fundamental catalyzing role of the information revolution in one final area: the way contemporary globalization, by linking international to local issues, blurs the idea of peacetime action in a criminal jurisdiction on the one hand and wartime action against an enemy in war on the other.

The idea of the criminal enemy expands the scope of conflict because it's an open concept. Anyone can be an enemy by committing a proscribed act. That enemy identity is hard to lose, because criminal status endures until punishment or amnesty.

Is someone who "likes" an Al-Qaeda post on Facebook the enemy, or is someone who once fought for Al-Qaeda but is now passive still the enemy? Who knows? That ambiguity, and the consequent ambiguity about the collection of information and the potential targeting of that individual, is what blurs the line between war and peace by expanding the scope of who the enemy might be.

Ultimately, it also expands the scope of the conflict.

The developing tension over industrial cyber-espionage between China and the U.S. reveals the vexed relationship between criminal identity and the boundaries of a wider conflict. Is the U.S. Department of Justice's criminal indictment of Chinese military officers really aimed only at them. or, more likely, is it aimed at the Chinese state? The U.S. move is likely deliberately ambiguous. China will likely retaliate through coercive communication of its own, such as economic pressure Beijing can leverage over Washington. So is this a conflict or not? And if so, what are its boundaries that compartmentalize coercive activity, amid peacetime relations? That's not clear. And that's the point.

When a conflict is less about defeating a clearly identified enemy than about using a combination of violent and nonviolent actions to enforce a norm in the minds of a fragmented set of groups—whether it be not supporting Al-Qaeda, supporting the Iraqi government, not destabilizing Ukraine or not engaging in industrial espionage—we encounter the paradox of contemporary armed conflict: that violence outside the traditional concept of war, as armed politics, is proliferating because it's effective in a highly networked world. But armed politics breaks down the boundaries between war and peace, and so requires different ways to think about peace beyond simply the absence of war.

In that light, if there is a legitimate comparison between today and 1914, it is that nobody today knows whether there will be another world war in the near future. Bets either way are just speculation.

We need to deal with international political violence as it is, in order to compartmentalize it and not have it contaminate international politics. That means ultimately limiting goals and having restrictive concepts of the enemy, not permissive concepts that expand conflict by treating a fragmented set of groups as single enemies, and conflating the enemy with the criminal.

Perhaps the better comparison is not 1914 but 1919, when at Versailles the Kaiser was branded a war criminal and Germany was forced to pay reparations to compensate for its "war guilt." As we all know, this was peace that led straight back to war.

Emile Simpson's War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics is published by Oxford University Press.