How the U.S. can better counter political warfare

Political warfare is a term often used to describe measures that fall short of conventional warfare. These can include political, informational, military and economic measures to influence, coerce, intimidate or undermine U.S. interests or those of friends and allies. These efforts can include cyber warfare, propaganda and disinformation campaigns, economic sanctions and even a state-sponsored biker gang. The United needs to improve the ways it combats adversaries adept at using political warfare tactics to achieve their goals and undermine U.S. interests and allies, according to a new RAND study.

The United States needs to improve the ways it combats adversaries adept at using political warfare tactics to achieve their goals and undermine U.S. interests and allies, according to a new study from the RAND Corporation.

Political warfare is a term often used to describe measures that fall short of conventional warfare. These can include political, informational, military and economic measures to influence, coerce, intimidate or undermine U.S. interests or those of friends and allies. These efforts can include cyber warfare, propaganda and disinformation campaigns, economic sanctions and even a Russian state-sponsored biker gang.

Political warfare is as old as war itself; the United States has used it to protect its interests since the Revolutionary War. However, following the end of the Cold War, the United States has gotten “rusty” at this deliberate tool of statecraft and needs to adapt to how adversaries such as Russia, Iran and the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant are wielding it to advance their goals, said Linda Robinson, lead author of the study and a senior international policy analyst at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

“Political warfare tactics are often subtle, more ambiguous forms of conflict, which can sow conflict, weaken, destabilize and disrupt,” Robinson said. “One example is Russia’s rapid annexation of the Crimea without resorting to all-out warfare and its campaign to disrupt Estonia via cyber warfare, employing agitators and keeping Russian-speaking Estonians on a steady diet of Russian propaganda from Russian media outlets. We see other countries, for example Iran and China, increasingly resort to such nonmilitary tactics to advance their objectives and impede their adversaries.”

RAND says that the RAND study examines political warfare as it is practiced today by both state and nonstate actors and provides recommendations for how the U.S. government and its allies can most effectively respond to or engage in this type of conflict to protect U.S. interests. Once practiced mainly by state actors, modern communications and weapons technology have made it increasingly easy for nonstate actors such as ISIL to gain unprecedented reach, Robinson said.

Three case studies are examined in the report: two examining current strategies and practices by state actors—Russia and Iran—and one examining a nonstate actor, ISIL.



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