Americans are united on one big issue: their appetite for foreign intervention and adventurism is gone. Both presidential candidates in 2020 declared an end to the era of long-term occupations, and both meant it. As the Afghanistan withdrawal proves, the debate’s been had and won.
Nowadays, there’s plenty of academic talk of the new era ahead. Experts tell of pivots to Asia and great power competition – renamed this week ‘strategic competition’ – and dispense advice on how to engage in the modern world. Washington think tanks host forums on trendy subjects like grey-zone conflict and cyberattacks. In some fancy rooms, they’ll even recall the great statesman George Kennan’s invocation of ‘political warfare,’ when adversaries attack using all means short of war.
And yet the discussion remains just that: academic.
As the year began, the Chinese government hacked not a local government agency or midsize company, but a popular email server program run by American blue-chip Microsoft. As Spring came, hackers based in Russia shut down the major pipeline in the eastern U.S. Then over the Summer we saw an increase in a series of likely directed energy attacks against U.S. personnel, making them sick around the world at an alarming rate.
And yet, policymakers fail to connect the theory and their fancy terminology to this reality. Ignoring these acts of aggression, they talk about a coming pivot, about sub-state conflict, and new domains like space and cyber. They use future tense because it’s not yet dawned on them that the starting gun already went off. The new era of great power competition has begun, and America is losing.
Let’s play some catch-up. Our adversaries are attacking us. They are using all means short of war. They are currently engaged in major acts of aggression. What we used to think of as hacking is now replaced by infrastructure-disrupting acts of cyber-subversion. In this era, a term like cyberattack becomes immediately quaint. The Americans lined up at the pump last Spring in Raleigh and DC weren’t worried about a digital shortage of ’89 octane. In the past decade, we’ve seen the return of chemical weapons to the modern battlefield and political assassinations in Europe. The lines between espionage, military acts, and sabotage increasingly blur.
America needs to refocus and make a simple determination: whether or not we will allow aggression against our nation to go unanswered. Russia-based actors hampered our fuel lines and messed with our meat supply. China helped themselves to millions of our emails and our contacts and even our personal calendars on Microsoft Exchange for months. And an adversary, probably Russia, is using likely directed energy weapons against U.S. personnel, leaving some with long-term brain injuries.
If we determine that this is unacceptable, and we should, it’s past time to talk about how we respond. We’re late, and we need to explore – and develop new – deterrent and retaliatory options. Reject now the popular urge to fall back into last decade’s arguments over forever wars. Stop debating nation-building, start debating nation-defending: ours. To borrow a fashionable term, let’s not normalize this type of aggression against the United States.
We need sustained public focus on what to do to prevent the attacks against our country we’ve absorbed this year. Why? Because the same DC foreign policy establishment that so obviously failed us the past few decades doesn’t have answers here either. And we’ll need answers, soon.
America needs an updated doctrine for grey-zone conflict – all those means short of war. We need to figure out how to respond to acts of national subversion, for measured retaliation against new forms of aggression. One tactic, a hallmark of Clinton’s presidency but embraced by every modern president is the limited airstrike. These strikes tend to target empty facilities in response to a range of violations or security threats.
We need the cyber equivalent of that, and the espionage equivalent of that. We need prepared responses for the next time someone targets a U.S. pipeline or hacks a major American firm. No longer can we rely on vague talk of responding “in the shadows.” No longer should you be reassured by government officials that they’re taking action behind the scenes.
Why not? Because the evidence is in as the hits keep on coming. We need new, proportional, and public responses. We need to get comfortable retaliating in kind. We need to get comfortable with that word again: retaliation.
The risks of escalation and confusion in grey-zone and cyber conflict are high as we belatedly act to defend ourselves. But this is what conflict looks like now, and the choice to not respond is a choice to keep taking damaging body blows.
Americans weighed in and their representatives listened. There is no appetite for nation-building or ideological military projects. The question before us now is whether we still have the appetite for self-defense.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Jason Killmeyer is a counterterrorism and foreign policy expert specializing in emerging technology applications. For more than ten years, Jason worked in national security, including as Chief of Staff of Global Defense, Security & Justice at Deloitte Consulting LLP. Jason has a Master’s in Middle Eastern Studies with an M.A. thesis on post-invasion Iraqi politics.