Unrestricted Warfare or Soft Power?

There is an interesting article online at War on the Rocks by retired Lieutenant General David W. Barno (US Army) who is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel who is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Interesting but, I think, wrong because they do not think far enough beyond the narrow, military sphere.

ChineseColonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui did, indeed, write about “unrestricted warfare” and David Barno and Nora Bensahel correctly quote them as saying that the aim of unrestricted warfare is to tumblr_n6edsvWOu21r55d2io1_500to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.” The Chinese authors argued that America, and by extension the US led West, is weak because of our fascination with military technology which, they contend, leads us the situation that the American sociologist Abraham Maslow described as “if the only tool you have is a hammer, [it is tempting] to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Colonels Qiao and Wang suggested that China should use all forms of power to contend with America: legal and diplomatic “warfare,” economic and trade “operations,” and public opinion “campaigns” to bend the world away from supporting the USA and towards supporting China.

It seems to me that, in the end, Barno and Bensahel end up just arguing for more and more money for the Pentagon rather than for a programme that might counter what the Chinese colonels propose. It also appears, to me, that the American authors missed the main point in the Chinese authors’ book: soft power.

The Chinese have been pushing “soft power,” in earnest since 2007, and the actions have intensified under Paramount Leader Xi Jinping. they are, in many respects, just copying what America did in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s when American popular culture quite literally swept the world and gave the world an “image” of American that people believed, true of not, because of the immense power of popular culture. It was Hollywood movies and American jazz, not US diplomacy or industrial power that made American a “beacon of hope”in the 1930s and ’40s and through the 1950s; in fact it was this …

… as much as this …

… that gave American the “moral authority” to impose its will on the world.

The Chinese have seen and studied that and they are, in their own somewhat cumbersome even ham hander fashion, trying to emulate it …

… and they are outspending America on “cultural” promotion by, in most cases, a full order of magnitude. Of course the Chinese are also building warships and bases because they understand, fully, that soft power works only if there is enough hard power to make people sit down and listen in the first place. (There is a lesson for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau there.)

This does not mean that the Chinese are not attacking our computer networks or building “facts on the ground” in the South China Sea, and it does not mean that we should not be securing our computers, or working with others in the region to make China pay some price for their aggression. But we mustn’t stop there: we also need to “meet” and “engage” China in the marketplace of ideas.

The Chinese are spending money hosting film festivals, concerts and language institutes all over the world …

… each spreading a carefully crafted message that China is a “friendly” country that offers things that you like and want. Some Western countries still invest fairly heavily in propaganda ~ and let’s all be honest, that’s what it is and it is not a dirty word in China ~ but the BBC World Service and Deutsche Welle are, like Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, mere shadows of their former selves and are really not “competitive” with the “soft power/pop culture” campaign that China is waging, especially in Africa and Latin America. Radio Canada International is, almost always, just barely on life support.

The Chinese do believe in unrestricted warfare but their aim is compel others to accept and even support China’s interests. China will use its “hard power” to try to push around countries like the Philippines, and Canada should step up and support our friends in Asia (and the Philippines is one of our friends) and it will also try, surreptitiously, to hack into our government and commercial computer networks and we need to counter that threat, to, but they will certainly mount a multi-dimensional campaign, with a lot of emphasis on diplomacy and soft power and we must meet them there, too.

Unrestricted warfare is not a military problem, it is a classic example of a  grand strategy in action and it must be countered in the same way: broadly.

The Government of  Canada must remember one key point: Soft Power cannot be applied unless one has enough Hard Power to make oneself heard. Australia seems to have learned this. Canada needs to strengthen, not weaken, its “hard power” (military and economic/trade) and then it can bring its “soft power” to bear.

9 thoughts on “Unrestricted Warfare or Soft Power?

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