The Era of Full-Spectrum War Is Here

China won round one, and round two went to Russia. Can the United States and its allies take the third?

In this photo illustration, a mobile phone displays the logos for the Chinese apps WeChat and TikTok in front of a monitor showing the flags of the United States and China in Beijing on Sept. 22.
In this photo illustration, a mobile phone displays the logos for the Chinese apps WeChat and TikTok in front of a monitor showing the flags of the United States and China in Beijing on Sept. 22. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Foreign-policy experts have spilled much ink in the debate over whether the United States is, or is not, in a new cold war—whether with China, or Russia, or perhaps both. Whatever observers call it, it should be abundantly clear that Russia and China have more severely harmed the core national security interests of the United States and its allies than either ever did on a battlefield or during the entirety of the classic Cold War.

In fact, “cold war” may not be enough to capture what has actually happened. Rather, what China and Russia have pulled off might be more usefully thought of as “full-spectrum warfare,” which comprises full-bore geopolitical challenges by traditional military and nonmilitary means.

Experts and laypeople alike can get their heads around military competition, not to mention major economic clashes, and even intelligence agency spycraft. But the cyberwar aspect—including tampering with voter rolls and machines, malware, social media interference, troll farms, and much more—is proving more difficult to get a handle on (even among senior officials, past and present, on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Atlantic).

In round one of the era of full-spectrum warfare, China won. For the past decade and a half, Chinese government hackers stole unimaginable amounts of intellectual property from the United States—to the tune of $300 billion to $600 billion worth per year—and others. Starting in former President Barack Obama’s administration, numerous aides and cabinet officials encouraged him to do more to hold China accountable. It was a catastrophic failure that he didn’t.

U.S. President Donald Trump continued that failure, and now 1 in 5 North America-based companies report that Chinese hackers have stolen intellectual property, including information with direct military applications—as observed by senior American military officials in staff-to-staff visits with their Chinese counterparts in China. China’s long-term plans for extending its full-spectrum warfare may be even more threatening. The Trump administration has been clumsy, but it is correct to be deeply concerned about TikTok, WeChat, Huawei, and other Chinese technology platforms and companies, which are all potent intrusive threats to the United States and its allies.

In short, it is clear that China won round one of full-spectrum warfare. It is Russia, however, that has taken round two. As retired Lt. Gen. James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence, states in his book, Facts and Fears, if not for Russian meddling, Hillary Clinton would be president.

In Europe, Russia meddled in elections across the continent on behalf of populists. And British officials have been even more feckless than American counterparts in doing something serious about Russia’s massive interference in the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote, which saw millions of instances of misinformation spread in the four weeks leading up to the vote.

And further afield, Russia allegedly paid the Taliban bounties for killing U.S. and British soldiers, has largely displaced the United States in Syria after Trump’s ill-advised abandonment of the Kurds, has intervened in Libya, and has sold Turkey, a NATO ally, its S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. More recently, Russia has gained momentum in the Balkans and Central Europe, with pro-Western governments getting the boot from office in Kosovo and Montenegro. And in the last few weeks, Russia has been helping Armenia in its war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

And that brings us to round three. Back in the United States, senior former officials such as Sam Nunn, Ernest Moniz, Matthew Rojansky, and Thomas Graham, as well as think tanks around the world including the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the European Leadership Network, and the International Affairs Institute in Italy, suggest everything from working more forthrightly with Russia to accommodating it by doing the unthinkable and trading Crimea for the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.

Were the United States to do any of this, it would hand round three to Russia as well, a thorough boiling of the American frog. Instead, the next administration should hold Russia’s feet to the fire by targeting the personal assets of top Russian officials, augmenting allied forces in Europe with multiple new battalions of troops and a range of permanently placed offensive weapons systems, forging a full-court press to bring populist Russian-leaning regimes back into the fold of the Western alliance, fortifying air- and sea-based weapons systems in the Indo-Pacific aimed at China, and joining with all allies in reinvigorating NATO and the European Union.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for a truce with the United States concerning election interference and has begun to hedge Russia’s bets by praising Democratic candidate Joe Biden. China is likely to follow suit. But the next U.S. administration cannot forget the severe damage both countries have done to the United States and its friends. The next president must ensure that the United States and the West win round three of the new era of full-spectrum warfare.

Jeffrey A. Stacey is a former official in the State Department from the Obama administration. He is author of Integrating Europe from Oxford University Press and the forthcoming Rise of the East, End of the West? Twitter: @JeffreyAStacey

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