A new geopolitical challenge to the rules-based order
We are delighted today to launch Strategic Survey 2018, our annual assessment of geopolitics. This edition is published in our 60th anniversary year, a celebration that we will mark formally next week, but in the meantime we can reflect analytically on some emerging strategic trends that appear important. For my part, I would like to address what I call the rise of ‘tolerance warfare’ and make a few observations about the state of the international order.
In 2018 we witnessed the further fraying of key international and regional institutions, the boldness of China and Russia, the persistence of intractable regional conflicts and the unpredictable leadership of the United States. As norms and institutions weaken, statecraft is back. Countries that relied on institutional arrangements, or on external security guarantees, are discovering that they need to revive their national strategic skills.
What do we mean by the term ‘tolerance warfare’?
States that are unhappy with the international order, or wish to create their own, are finding that they face less resistance than before. The methods by which countries gain strategic advantage are often both innovative and brazen, blending cyber power and disinformation campaigns with the classic instruments of the military. Status-quo disrupters practise ‘tolerance warfare’, a style of geopolitical challenge that in many cases has no obvious counter.
Tolerance warfare can be defined as the persistent effort to test the tolerances for different forms of aggression against settled states. It is the effort to push back lines of resistance, probe weaknesses, assert rights unilaterally, break rules, establish new facts on the ground, and gain systematic tactical advantage over hesitant opponents. It tests the ability of the target to deter and defeat these efforts. It wins advantage by either diverting the target’s resources away from a central strategic purpose, or by creating new conditions that cannot be reversed except by disproportionate effort.
Sometimes tolerance warfare is conducted overtly and is in effect ‘declared’; often it is conducted through proxies or partners, especially in the most immediate theatres of operations.
Iran conducts tolerance warfare in the Gulf and Levant, using partners and proxies to affect political agendas in the target states, gain a foothold for information operations and insinuate its style of warfare in neighbouring geographies. These activities pose a more immediate challenge than Iran’s nuclear programme. An Iranian nuclear arsenal would naturally pose a huge danger, including the prospect of further proliferation, but it is the political- and military-influence operations of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that create daily pressures across the region.
Tolerance warfare, with its indirect and tactical elements, is in effect becoming a favoured strategy for those countries who cannot easily challenge their biggest rivals symmetrically. Its leading exponent is President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union fought proxy wars in tertiary theatres of operation such as Africa and Central America. Today, tolerance warfare is being conducted in the ‘primary theatre’ of operations: Europe and North America.
Tolerance warfare, with its indirect and tactical elements, is in effect becoming a favoured strategy for those countries who cannot easily challenge their biggest rivals symmetrically
Putin’s regime aims to exploit the openness and weaknesses in Western democracies, whose instincts for statecraft have been tempered by geopolitical failures abroad and conflict-averse publics at home. Moscow resents Western states for seeking to shape Russia’s politics, and is angered by their attempts to draw Russia’s closest neighbours into the Western political and economic orbit. Putin has responded by using a raw form of state power to shake the European institutional order.
Within Europe, he seeks to deepen domestic divisions, undermine the self-confidence of states and deter the EU from exporting its governance model further eastwards. Putin’s message to Europe is clear: Russia is a power to be dealt with on its own terms—not a pupil to be lectured on the virtues of liberal governance.
In a way, the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the intervention in eastern Ukraine were the first episodes of tolerance warfare. The fast creation of facts on the ground, which could not elicit a symmetric Western response, suggested to Russia that the boundaries of acceptable action in Europe were softening.
Since then, Putin’s regime has sent military aircraft into others’ airspace with transponders off; deployed submarines to others’ shorelines; attempted to launch a coup in Montenegro; used his international television network RT to challenge Western narratives; and interfered in elections and referenda from the US to Spain and beyond.
Russian cyber operations and information-warfare activities are, potentially, deeply destabilising. For Western states, managing this challenge will become at least as powerful a strategic objective as unwinding the networks of terrorists over the last decade and a half. It will require education of domestic populations, new offensive tactics, caution in diplomatic engagement and an appreciation that the old inducements offered to Russia will not work. Resilience will be the watchword.
Russian cyber operations and information-warfare activities are, potentially, deeply destabilising. For Western states, managing this challenge will become at least as powerful a strategic objective as unwinding the networks of terrorists over the last decade and a half
In the East, China has also practised tolerance warfare. Its steady encroachments on islands, reefs and features in the South China Sea have led to widespread criticism and considerable anxiety in the other claimant states who, more modestly, have also been establishing infrastructure in disputed waters.
China’s military assertion has served to intimidate neighbours in the South China Sea and tame their ambitions. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the relevant regional organisation, has repeatedly called for a robust Code of Conduct to govern activity in the region, but China’s influence within the organisation is evident and no compelling and balanced Code of Conduct has emerged.
China has grown stronger and justifiably more confident in its international policy. It has gained in one generation what it could not do in ten, and its strategic arrival comes with the added weight of civilisational expectation. It has become a country that throws out hints of a generous global perspective, only to withdraw them in favour of a fierce national impulse. New to the responsibilities of its impending strategic maturity, it is resentful of any who might slight its character, doubt its purpose or challenge its core interests.
China has grown stronger and justifiably more confident in its international policy. It has gained in one generation what it could not do in ten, and its strategic arrival comes with the added weight of civilisational expectation
And where does it leave the rules-based order?
A declining Russia and a rising China are not obvious long-term allies, except in their mutual distaste for the remnants of a Pax Americana world order. That order is shaky in Asia, uncertain in Europe and fragile in the Middle East.
Amid this tumult, Western politicians have come to fret that the rules-based order is falling into ruin. They would prefer that Russia be constrained by Europe’s own recently established customs of post-modern domestic and inter-governmental relations; that China accept the principles of international law in Asia; and that Middle East states prosecute their regional policies with less absolutist aims.
Yet in the West, too, there has been a disturbing return to simplistic and crude foreign-policy choices that run counter to established rules and norms, not least in the Trump administration’s trade war with China; its decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal without the support of allies or having identified a superior alternative; the closing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization embassy in Washington; the casual approach to NATO and other alliance relations; and the general ‘shock and awe’ style of diplomatic engagement that the president appears to favour.
A criticism was recently levelled against former US president Barack Obama to the effect that he ‘was better at explaining the meaning of democracy than he was at defending it against its opponents’. That may have been both an unkind and an unjust rebuke, but its framing suggests a warning to all who speak about the rules-based order. Its defence will require invention and determination in the face of challenges from opponents and usurpers. That effort cannot be borne by the US alone.