Don't Let Your Memes Be Dreams

China is mastering political propaganda on Instagram. Russian bots and trolls flood Twitter. All the while, influential voices lambaste the American non-response and call for action. What is to be done? For many, the answer is a renewed emphasis on various forms of ‘non-traditional’ warfare. Accordingly, it also means giving the shaft to core security tools and techniques, which for some is increasingly irrelevant. But at what cost? In an ideal world, we could be good at everything. In the world we live in, we often lack the time, energy, and resources to do so. Worse yet, the better we get at some things the worse we may get in others. Many of us come to realize the latter as we grow older, but it is not as intuitive as the former. This is especially true when it comes to organizations and large entities, which often struggle to articulate and define their competitive advantages and disadvantages. But this post is not about the most obvious criticism of calls for an emphasis on non-traditional sources of state power – that it neglects the continuing necessity of less complicated ‘hard’ military power. Rather, it is about the issue of whether it is possible or desirable for the United States to become proficient in the techniques that our adversaries have successfully deployed against us.

I have been thinking about this lately when it comes to the cliche critique that America simply cannot deal with any kind of conflict that blurs the line between war and peace and centers political competition and perception manipulation. This is not a new subject for me. I wrote a critique of the “gray zone” concept and also co-wrote a report on competitive strategy that attempted to clarify the gray zone and other similar theories. But something I’ve only hinted at in the past is really that competence at such activities may have a hidden price that many Americans may not be willing to pay. Tanner Greer recently wrote a good post I’ve been meaning to respond to about a similar topic, noting that China would always face a tradeoff between its pursuit of scientific advantage and its need for domestic stability. Scientific and technological success means, in part, exposing China to the outside world. And the more that you expose China to the outside world, the more challenges China’s ruling regime must confront. This, as Greer explains, explains why China is unlikely to accept mere coexistence with the liberal West. Instead, China will seek to aggressively control an ever-expanding perimeter in order to manage the external world that it is forced to interact with.

Whether or not you agree with Greer’s analysis of Chinese behavior, he is very good at diagnosing a conflict between two things that China wants. China wants to be technically superior because it believes – with good reason – that climbing the tech tree is essential. But if you prize stability, disruptive innovation may be, well, disruptive. Likewise, analysts often lament that authoritarian states – such as Russia and China – are good at revisionist strategies involving the synchronization of political agitation and other forms of power and influence. They observe that such states can easily identify seams and gaps to exploit because they see a whole whereas liberal democracies only see the sum of parts. They worry that America will be helpless to counteract such activities precisely because it lacks the ability to formulate persuasive messages and rapidly adapt to adversary maneuvers. Some, like Rep. Mike Gallagher, contend that this is a “lost art” that Americans once were formidable at. This is, to put it mildly, a dubious proposition. We too easily forget period literature that warned precisely of the limits of such arts and the potential for blowback. And in many successful examples practitioners were themselves wary of both overestimating the threat and overplaying the potential for “silver bullet” solutions to counteract it.

But this is merely prologue to the main uncomfortable issue lurking behind the discussion: the better America becomes at “political” or “ideological” competitive action, the less American it will be. As with the Chinese tradeoff Greer describes between science and stability, Americans face a tradeoff between the underlying desired qualities of the American system and superiority at the dark arts that some want to imitate. This does not mean that Americans should not pursue such activities at all. Rather, it suggests that Americans must always be conscious of limitations and inefficiencies inherent in the act of replicating them without similarly replicating the context in which they originated. This is, to be clear, not a categorical statement that liberal states are morally incapable of trickery, deception, and perception shaping. All of these aforementioned things happen within a single news cycle in American politics, to say nothing of business and advertising in the private sector. Moreover, republican theorists since Machiavelli have always admitted the necessity of rulers to act coldly and shrewdly to accomplish lofty aims (such as Machiavelli’s dream of a united free Italy under democratic rule). However, it is also the tendency of democratic states facing illiberal adversaries to take on the totalizing character of those adversaries – to call for a ‘total strategy’ in response to totalitarians. But is this what we really want? And how good at it could we be without losing something worth preserving about ourselves as we are today?

Americans are terrified of Russian bots and memes, but the potency of Russian bots and memes cannot be decoupled from asymmetries in American and Russian societies. Autocracies have stable expectations about political hierarchy and order, but often lack stable expectations about who counts as a political actor within society and how they can pursue their interests. Or, in other words, the basic structure is fixed and the primary challenge becomes suppressing any attempt from those outside of it to mobilize and evangelize. Democracies generally have stable expectations about who or what can be a political actor and the way they achieve their goals, but obviously tend to allow far more contingency about underlying hierarchy and order – “who gets what, when, and how”. Democracies benefit from uncertainty about who can rule and what policies they pursue because of common knowledge about how the political process functions. Inject uncertainty and contingency into process expectation and democracies are weakened. Similarly authoritarian states benefit from uncertainty about process expectations and are destabilized by uncertainty about who rules and how they rule. It is important not to over-emphasize these distinctions – as is the mistake of much “digital autocracy” literature – because malicious domestic actors within democracies are more likely to gain advantage from process expectation attacks than foreign adversaries. Rather, we must also focus on other asymmetries that have been studied more intensively since World War II.

In the 1940s, Edward Mead Earle similarly wrote about the integrated, holistic, and opportunistic nature of the Nazi strategic system. Again and again Earle emphasized the primacy of ideology over all other aspects of Nazi strategy and the continuity between the methods Hitler used to fight on the Weimar streets and the methods the German state used to make war on Europe. Earle establishes that none of the supposedly novel features of contemporary conflict are in fact novel, but he also – like the similar work on the operational code of the Politburo – establishes that Nazi strategy and tactics are only comprehensible within the Nazi ideological system. One cannot take out particular tactics and stratagems in isolation and reverse-engineer them without appreciating that they are the product of a totalizing – and obviously totalitarian – structure. Here war is not politics by other means – politics is war by other means. States that see the entirety of life as a struggle for existence do not make clear-cut distinctions between war and peace. To them, existence is constant, unending, and total warfare from which no sphere of activity is exempt. This is clear from even cursory study of their theories and doctrines, even if the systematic structure and substance obviously varies by context. Americans lack such order and systemization and instead tend to prefer a mixture of technocratic management often borrowed from business practices and ad hoc coordination between relatively decentralized components.

Furthermore, Americans have also consistently rejected movements toward totalization. After all, as noted earlier, is uncertainty and contingency about hierarchy and order not critical to democracy itself? America is a country that, for all of its internal propensity for pseudo-events and propaganda, lacks the totalizing attitude common to its enemies. This is a perennial source of frustration for wonks seeking greater unity of effort and purpose. But it has also always been an explicit objective of American policy and strategy to avoid the very totalization that is characteristic of other states. This has its downsides, such as a superficially similar expanding perimeter problem as the one Greer attributes to China. But it also has its benefits. We can live our lives mostly disconnected from endless Manichean ideological struggles. And there is a clash between the American desire to be capable of waging such struggles and the underlying ideological American desire to avoid any fundamental change to domestic politics, culture, and economy. Americans want to fight Russian bots and memes but don’t want Russian dreams. And this has implications for any latter-day attempt to somehow transform American national security to be capable of rectifying real or perceived deficits in “ideological warfare” and/or “political warfare.”

If you want a holistic and agile approach that moves seamlessly between politics, war, and virtually everything else, you will not get it until you change the underlying American system of government. That is undesirable for other reasons and will likely continue to be undesirable for the forseeable future. Even after 9/11, American disinterest in totalization thwarted attempts to create a powerful and comprehensive homeland security system. What resulted was still, of course, much too Orwellian for many Americans to tolerate even if it has become a stable fixture of the current security institutional environment. It is very likely that any serious effort to build a structure capable of the kinds of integrated strategies wonks seek will similarly fall victim to basic American apathy and antipathy towards integration. The so-called “geopolitical nerd” has grand visions but the average American is not interested in either the aesthetic purity of such visions or the sacrifices necessary to realize them. But can’t we have both? Can’t we just find some way of isolating the dirty deeds we need to do to fight against revisionist authoritarian states from the underlying aspects of our system that we want to preserve? Perhaps. After all, the Founders themselves were not naifs and believed that they had to “study Politicks [sic] and War” in order for their children and grandchildren to enjoy less morally fraught pursuits. OK, sure. We can. But not without complications and inefficiencies.

In computer systems there is a rough distinction between “virtualization” and “emulation.” Suppose you have a executable program (often identified via the .exe file format) that runs on Microsoft Windows and you have a MacOS laptop. You want to run the Windows program but are unwilling to switch to Windows or dual-boot Mac and Windows. One option commonly used to obviate this dilemma is to write the program for the common Java Virtual Machine (JVM), an abstract environment installable on either operating system which could allow the program to be run unmodified across multiple platforms. But this has its own drawbacks and in any event you have to make do with what you have. Using a virtual machine such as VirtualBox, VMWare, or Parallels, you could easily run the program inside a self-contained Windows environment while still using your regular Mac. In virtualization, one commonly uses a “host” system – isolated from the virtual “guest” operating system – to allocate resources to the guest via the virtual machine. But what is left implicit here is that both guest and host are designed to run on vaguely similar hardware architectures and peripheral devices. Now suppose that you wish to play a MS-DOS game from the early 90s on your Mac computer, and the game has not been ported to the Mac. You want the vintage graphics and sounds of the game, some imitation of its hardware interfaces, and in some cases the exact execution patterns of the game engine. And you discover that emulating the older MS-DOS operating system is a far more challenging proposition than virtualizing Windows.

The computers MS-DOS targeted have very different core components (CPU, memory, input/output, networking). This lost context must be reproduced whenever MS-DOS is emulated on a modern computer system. It is difficult to understate how much exotic and strange features of these older operating systems are the product of particular material constraints that have since been lost to time. Emulation can be done but, depending on how critical full replication of the emulated system’s context may be, emulation also may require far more preparation and resources than mere virtualization. Admittedly there is much more of a blurry distinction between the two in practice than I am outlining, but I hope it nonetheless will be sufficient to illustrate my point. The more that Americans envy the unity of purpose and holistic structure of foreign competitive strategy, the more that they will have to emulate components of foreign political and social systems responsible for such strategic properties. Computer emulation will always be inefficient because of the overhead associated with replicating a totally different system – both due to the various costs of replicating the system as well as the simple annoyance one gets from having to switch between two distinct environments on the same computer. By analogy, Americans will always feel with some justification that, no matter how hard they struggle, they will never really create “whole of government” and/or “whole of society” structures in keeping with their ambitions.

They will always look with fear and envy at foreign adversaries that run rings around American imitations. But what if this is actually good? What if keeping things the way they are at home requires or even mandates inefficiency at designing and executing the kinds of totalizing strategies and tactics that foreign adversaries develop? And what if disorganization and unpreparedness for foreign information attacks is simply a feature rather than a bug? If this sounds overly flippant, then ask yourself what you would be willing to give up in order to rectify the situation. And then ask yourself how many other people you can convince to similarly give up what you gave up. Even during the Cold War, a period of societal mobilization without much precedent in American history, there were still formal and informal limits set on how far it could go and people who found these limits to be intolerable. But they did not win out, because other Americans – due to politics, self-interest, or mere laziness – wanted things to stay as they were. America is still a young country. Perhaps in the future its character will dramatically change, and dramatic change is of course also a consistent theme of the American past. But for the foreseeable future Americans will always find that their conflicting desire for integrated and holistic competitive efforts and revulsion at the societies that seem to consistently produce them leads to emulation and all of its overhead and limitations. And maybe there is nothing wrong with that.