An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2011

The Counterrevolution in Strategic Affairs

Lawrence D. Freedman

Claims from the 1990s about a revolution or transformation in military affairs are assessed in light of the experience of the 2000s in Iraq and Afghanistan. The importance of considering political as well as military affairs is stressed. Though the United States developed evident predominance in capabilities for regular war, it was caught out when drawn into irregular forms of warfare, such as terrorism and insurgency. The United States significantly improved its counterinsurgency capabilities. It does not follow, however, that the United States will now engage more in irregular conflicts. Indeed, the military circumstances of the past decade were in many ways unique and led to an exaggeration of the strategic value of irregular forms and the need for the United States to respond. Meanwhile, the political legacy of the experience is likely to be a more limited engagement with the problems associated with “failed” and “rogue” states.

Lawrence Freedman is Professor of War Studies and Vice-Principal at King's College London. His recent publications include The Official History of the Falklands Campaign (2005), The Transformation of Strategic Affairs (2006), and A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East (2008), which received the 2009 Lionel Gelber Prize and the 2009 Duke of Westminster's Medal for Military Literature.

War, as Carl von Clausewitz reminds us, is governed by politics, which provides its purpose, passion, and accounting. Yet politics is often treated in military theory as an awkward exogenous factor, at best a necessary inconvenience and at worst a source of weakness and constraint–a disruptive influence interfering with the proper conduct of war. This outlook has featured prominently in American military thought. There has long been a clear preference, reflected in force structure and doctrine, for big, regular wars against serious great-power competition. With the end of the Cold War, this preference came under pressure. The United States had no obvious “peer competitor,” and many in the military apparently felt that the sort of operations coming into vogue –tellingly described as “operations other than war”–were beneath them. There was an evident lack of enthusiasm as the United States was drawn into the series of conflicts connected with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, culminating in the 1999 campaign against Serbia over Kosovo. The withdrawal from Somalia in 1994, like that from Beirut a decade earlier, was taken as a cautionary tale about . . .

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