Comment on “The lost art of ideological warfare”

Matt Armstrong, July 16th 2019

There are plenty of discussions today, and for the past many years, about “information warfare,” “ideological warfare,” and, more rarely, “political warfare.” While some may read these as largely synonymous terms, they should convey different meanings which translates into a differing understanding of the threat and thus the response required. 

“Information warfare” is a simple, seemingly elegant phrase highlighting the role of information to affect minds, and thus the wills. The problem is “information” is simply one munition that is narrowly deployed among a large array of options available to most actors (e.g. Russia, China, Iran, ISIS, etc). As the discussions over the past decade reveal, it implies a like-for-like operation: words for words, deeds are irrelevant.

“Ideological warfare” is generally invoked as a more intellectual label. It suggests an idea, or ideology, is at the center and not “mere” disinformation or misinformation. Disregarding whether a socio-political, or other, ideology is actually at work, the term adds more confusion than “information warfare.” Our defense and foreign policy and general international affairs bureaucracies understand “information,” but the grasp on “ideology” is a bit more tenuous, especially when faced with multiple adversaries with different methods and different objectives. The implication here is the contention is over ideas, but is that really the case? 

And then there is “political warfare.” This is my unabashed favorite and it is a term that used to be commonly used in the United States back when “cold war” was frequently seen in lower case. Here, the battleground is the political posture and direction of a target. The munitions and battlegrounds are all-encompassing and include information, public opinion, economics, aid, personal survival, and more. It involves the civilian as much as the uniformed military, the public as much as the government. It is, to quote James Barnham from a 1961 article he authored, about power and not about mere rivalry or competition. 

Political warfare is a form of war. It is strategic in nature. Its objective, like that of every other form of war, is to impose one’s own will on the opponent, to destroy the opponent’s will to resist. In simplest terms, it aims to conquer the opponent. 

Within the frame of that general objective, the specific objective of each specific polwar campaign is always defined in terms of power. The purpose in conducting polwar operations is always to increase one’s power in some definite way or to decrease the power of the opponent. In either case, positive or negative, the aim is to alter the power equilibrium in one’s favor. 

The power objective may be grandiose–conquest of a nation, disintegration of an empire; or the minor takeover of a trade union, scaring a parliament into defeating a bill, or the sabotage of a factory. But whether big or small, the objective is always power.

It is through this lens that I eagerly read the recent article by Congressman Mike Gallagher, Republican from Wisconsin, entitled “The Lost Art of Ideological Warfare.” 

This is a decent article and it is good to see a public statement on the broad subject of the struggle for minds and wills. It is also overdue and lonely: more Members of Congress should be speaking on the topic, which is a poignant point considering the era Rep. Gallagher is asking us to recall. 

Focused on China, Rep. Gallagher reminds us that international politics is multidimensional. 

In our strategic competition with China, Americans have focused up until now on economic and military contests — at the expense of one of the most important tools in our arsenal. The 2017 National Security Strategy argues that the United States is locked in “fundamentally political contests between those who favor repressive systems and those who favor free societies.” But we are ignoring this important insight. If the United States fails to emphasize the ideological dimension of its competition with China, it will ignore one of the primary lessons of President Ronald Reagan’s twilight struggle with the Soviet Union.
Reagan understood the primacy of the political. 

While his ideological offensive was less heralded than his military buildup, it was no less important.Mike Gallagher, “Perspective: The lost art of political warfare,” July 10, 2019.

However, like most (all?) calls for action over the past two years (to limit the analysis to the current administration as previous administrations had their own unique issues), the central pillar of his argument is stunningly absent: Reagan wanted to do something, he had competent, respected, confirmed leadership in place to execute a multi-faceted strategy and a proven leadership role with Congress. None of that appears to be available today.

Reagan had a plan of action. While such plans must be adaptable and fluid, they adhere to basic objectives and principles which the supporting teams know and work toward. Today, it is not clear what that plan is and, with the reported concession on Huwai as an example, it is not clear whether there is any “art” in the “art of the deal.” 

Further, Reagan’s efforts necessarily involved allied nations. This is something the current administration rejects on several levels (e.g. multilateral alliances and agreements on security and trade). One line of multilateral pressure may be enlisting Muslim countries to respond to Chinese attacks on Uighurs, which Reagan would have done.

With specific regard to the invocation of Reagan’s focus on Russia, there was plenty of low-hanging fruit, such as the symbolic breadlines that are not suffered by those under Beijing’s rule today. This is more than a quibble as it goes to the differences between China today and Russia then. 

The best lesson to draw from Reagan’s efforts, as laid out by Rep. Gallagher, was the existence of a strategy (or perhaps “vision” is more accurate) and a commitment to the same that involved organizing, funding, supporting, and backstopping the effort. This includes holding subordinates accountable (and not “fire and forget” through a speech or a single meeting). In other words, leadership to execute a defined mission. That is what creates and enables a “road map to victory.”

I hope the Congressman continues to write on the topic and that he encourage his colleagues to speak up. In my research into the political warfare of the 1910s-1940s that culminated in the counter-propaganda legislation known as the Smith-Mundt Act, and that of the 1940s-1960s, one of the greatest contrasts with today is the frequency and depth of Congressional commentary on these topics. This is followed by hearings on the subject, particularly from mid-1945 onward, that were held by multiple committees (the contemporary equivalents of foreign relations, armed services, and homeland security), included many witnesses, lasted for days, led to Congressional reports, resolutions, and bills. Today, there’s barely a hearing and when there is, it is a 2-3 hour block with 3-4 witnesses with no follow through (QFRs do not count). Add to this, on the executive branch side, responsibilities spin around terminology instead of around capabilities and requirements, if and when there is a directive to do more than a tactical operation that too often is a measure of performance with little enduring impact. These are the reasons “ideological warfare” is a lost art.