In the 2017 Family Guy episode, “Petey IV”, our protagonist Peter Griffin (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) finds himself in a boxing ring with Russian president Vladimir Putin (voiced by John Viener) in a spoof of the classic ‘80s Rocky movie sequel Rocky IV (1985, dir. Sylvester Stallone).
The episode subverts the pre-Trump American triumphalism that the film series espouses, not least through the Russian crowd mistakenly (or deliberately?) identifying Griffin as the actor Kevin James, the star of such hit TV shows and movies as The King of Queens (1998-2007) and the Paul Blart: Mall Cop trilogy (2009, 2015 and this year, apparently).
2017 was an interesting year for Russo-American relations. Allegations of Russian interference into the 2016 US presidential election went to overdrive with the appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller in May that year to conduct an arms-length investigation into the allegation, with the final report almost two years later in March 2019 ultimately inconclusive. And this was after the public release of the highly problematic Steele dossier, which made certain allegations about President Donald Trump among others.
With the next general election happening this November, and Joe Biden the presumed Democratic candidate after Bernie Sanders’ departure, the influence of Russia and other countries and organisations has never been more closely studied, and not just in America.
It is in such a context that Dr David Kilcullen, an expat Aussie who was a soldier who served in peacekeeping operations and is now an internationally-recognised scholar and businessman, has written The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West (Scribe).
The book starts in the midst of the Gulf War in the early ‘90s, perhaps the last time America possessed unilateral power in international relations: Soviet Russia collapsed in 1991 before (tentatively) reforming in the guise, if not in reality, of a modern democratic state.
The world order was reforming, and Kilcullen points to then-US president Bill Clinton’s first appointment as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, James Woolsey, as someone who was ahead of the geopolitical curve.
Kilcullen quotes Woolsey, who told senators in early 1993 that far from being ‘the end of history’ in the words of scholar Francis Fukuyama, “… we have slain a dragon, but we now live in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways the dragon was easier to keep track of” (p. 11).
As we move through the 21st century, Kilcullen shows how the US (as opposed to the abstract notion of the West) is not completely at fault for all of the world’s conflicts, but regardless has involved itself in a way that other states and international groups have found antagonising—and we all know what happens when we antagonise snakes.
The book takes the reader breathlessly through some of the major blunders in American foreign policy in the past 30 years or so, namely the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts but also sending advisers to Moscow to ensure the re-election of the corrupt but US-friendly president Boris Yeltsin and bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Serbia.
The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are crucial to Kilcullen’s introduction of the book’s central argument: that fighting forces belonging to state and non-state forces alike opposed to the US have gone through the equivalent of several generations of adaptation, making conflict more drawn out and, ultimately, more expensive and harder for Western governments (not just the US) to sustain and justify to their electorates.
Kilcullen demonstrates this argument in three focus areas: China and Russia (Kilcullen’s dragons) and Islamic terrorist groups such as Islamic “State” (the major snakes of the book). He also points to Iran and North Korea as side players in equally illuminating detail.
While Islamic theocrats are the ones who have literally regenerated after more than a decade of struggle, we see how Russia and China have evolved their thinking during this time while staying away from direct conflict.
It is here that the notion of ‘liminal warfare’, which Kilcullen defines as being “neither fully overt nor truly clandestine; rather it rides below the edge, surfing the threshold of detectability, sometimes subliminal … at other times breaking fully into the open to seize an advantage or consolidate gains before adversaries can react” (p. 119), comes into play.
Kilcullen explains how the two dragons have done this differently: China is ‘horizontally liminal’ by exploiting a different understanding of what conflict looks like in different spheres of activity, which has the potential to leave the West unprepared until it’s too late—for example, through its immersive propaganda campaigns against Taiwan or Hong Kong (and one could argue coronavirus).
Russia, Kilcullen says, is ‘vertically liminal’ by escalating and de-escalating a conflict at rapid speed—for example, in Crimea or Georgia (the country, not the US state).
Along these lines, Kilcullen presents an interesting theory as to the intention behind Russian interference in the US. It’s worth getting the book just for this theory, which suggests Trump is not necessarily a ‘Manchurian candidate’ (watch the movie if you haven’t already!).
Embedded throughout Kilcullen’s analysis is how the democratisation of technology (namely, the world wide web and mobile phones) has enabled all of this conflict.
The book is a must for any student of current affairs, and also for those who are interested in applying theories of adaptive leadership in a military context.
It’s worth concluding by reminding ourselves about the power of (mis)perception through an anecdote Kilcullen shares. A senior official within the Chinese army gave a lecture to military students in 2015 asserting the US was responsible for causing various nefarious crises around the world, such as the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and protests in Hong Kong in 2012, for its own ends. Kilcullen puts these claims to a CIA official, who refers to the particular brand of incompetence displayed by any recent or current US administration and says “If. Fucking. Only.” (p. 224).
So, be careful about making unsubstantiated claims about foreign agency the next time you hear about certain viruses being used as bioweapons—for example.
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