War has always had the tendency to spiral to the extreme, so it isn’t much of a surprise when we witness conflicts evolve, entrench, and expand, but today it feels increasingly legitimate to say we could be witnessing the emergence of a new period in human conflict. To identify an “emerging issue,” I would call attention what I currently think of as “unbounded conflict.” As a phenomenon, I presently define unbounded conflict as a human conflict with no clear or natural boundaries in terms of time, geography, stakeholder group, or operational domain. To use a different language, this is free-agent warfare.
Unbounded conflict is a highly mutable, multilateral conflict with a roster of actors that grows and shrinks in some relation to events and to the strategic narratives communicated through global corporate and collective media. Actors of all types can become involved, and just to use my own typology of “operationally-relevant actors”: states, multi-state actors, state-regulated actors, self-charted actors, loosely-networked actors, emergent networked actors, and individual actors.* All of these enter and exit the conflict on their own prerogatives, in varying capacities, and with goals specific to their own interests. Those interests will sometimes align, sometimes overlap, sometimes conflict, and sometimes have little to do with one another. And whereas the cost of entering a classic war were often high, and so the incentives (perceived risks and rewards) had to be commensurately high, today the costs for taking action against other actors can be extremely low, and so the incentives don’t need to be nearly so high as was classically the case.
And the entrance and exit of these actors continually reshapes the nature and characteristics of the conflict. This continually evolving set of actors constantly reshapes the landscape of the conflict: geography, populations, communities, cyber, etc… They bring different capabilities and preferences for their fields of actions and different thresholds for “inflicting cost” on whichever other parties are their targets. From this view unbounded conflict is absolutely characterized by extensive “gray zone” activities. Actors will move from white to gray to black and back again in response to different stimuli and will move up and down the gray zone at different rates.
And importantly, no one is immune from such a conflict. Not geography, cultural affiliation, or professional role protects anyone from such a metastasizing conflict.
The inspiration for this emerging issue comes from a few different quarters, but is comes most recently and obviously from the example of ISIS, with its evolution in the Middle East, its sophisticated and successful use of modern media and communications, the varying engagements by other powerful states, its claimed operations abroad, and now the full-fledged engagement of Anonymous against it. More so than Russia’s activities of the last couple of years, ISIS represents an example of actors (and their strategies) evolving in the emerging security environment, and example of an evolutionary algorithm at work, if you will. Will it become the new model for actors seeking power in the new century? I don’t know, but it certainly is an example of the system shaking out potential new niches and new adaptive forms.
In the future, this emerging issue would have us seriously consider how other actors – corporate, NGO, insurgent, etc. – will experiment along similar lines and produce other examples of unbounded – and infuriatingly difficult to categorize – conflict in the future.
*Note that this list should soon include something I’ll call “autonomous machine agents,” but we’ll leave it off for the time being