The New Rules of War

20 mins read

“War is both timeless and ever changing. While the basic nature of war is constant, the means and methods we use evolve continuously”, says the Marine Corps Warfighting Doctrine. Weapons, tactics, technology, leadership, objectives do change, but our desire to go into battle does not. The world is being shaped by “Durable Disorder” due to various factors like rise of China, resurgence of Russia, global terrorism, international crime, climate change, dwindling natural resources, and civil wars. This turmoil forces us to ask the critical question – what will be the nature of future wars? Sean McFate, the author, drawing from ‘knowledge pool’ of military geniuses like Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu and his own experiences in various battlefields tries to carve out the new rules of war as it applies to the American context. The book is full of examples from the Roman conquest, World War II, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and others. He addresses the differences between conventional and future war, the misconception that technology is our saviour, the leverage of psychological and ‘shadow’ warfare, and much more.

Some of the rules/principles are ancient, some are new, but he feels these “new rules of war” will shape the future wars and the armed forces leadership needs to adapt else terrorists, rogue states, and others who do not fight conventionally call the shots and succeed.

The book has been called “The Freakonomics of modern warfare” and was named a “Book of the Year” by The Economist (2019), The Times (UK), and The Evening Standard. It has been included on West Point’s “Commandant’s Reading List”. The Economist called it a “fascinating and disturbing book.” Source: https://www.seanmcfate.com/biography

Books Summary

The book commences with an unsettling question: “Why has the US forgotten how to win wars?“; in-fact the question applies to “The West” in general. The last time we (the US / the West) won decisively was 1945. Ever since then, every major war has been a stalemate or quagmire. The simple answer to this as per the author is that “warfare has moved on, but we have not.” The author feels that the reason for this poor US/West performance in various conflicts, is that the “war futurists”, the people who visualise wars of future and drive present strategic decisions are invariably incorrect in their appreciation. As per Lawrence Freedman, an eminent war scholar after studying modern conflicts found that predictions about future war were almost always incorrect.

In an interview with DODReads, McFate says “War is getting sneaker. Victory goes to the cunning, not just the strong. We are Goliath in the age of David. However, the US used to be crafty, from the Revolutionary War to the Cold War. We need our old strategic mojo back. While we have the best military in the world (even our adversaries know it), Washington suffers from strategic atrophy. Without a sound strategy, awesome troops alone cannot achieve victory. The Number 1 Rule: Improve Washington’s strategic IQ.” This sets the tone of the book.

Durable Disorder. The 21st century as per the author is embroiled in perpetual chaos, with no easy ways to contain it. Whatever has been tried so far has failed. Nearly half of the 194 countries are experiencing some form of war. Studies reveal that most peace agreements fail in five years, and that wars no longer end unless one side is obliterated, like the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or the Chechens in Grozny. Present day conflicts “smoulder in perpetuity without a clear winner or loser.” This growing entropy signifies the emergence of a new global system which the author calls “durable disorder” whose defining feature is persistent armed conflict, but not as we know it. He goes on to say that durable disorder will ensure that traditional battles will be indecisive, meaning of winning will change and victory will be achieved not on the battlefield but elsewhere, conflicts will not start and stop, but will grind on in “forever wars”, terms like “war” and “peace” will lose their meaning, laws of war will fade away and UN will prove useless. Non-kinetic elements like information, refugees, ideology, and time will be weaponized and will prove more effective than kinetic weapons.

“In the coming decades, we will see wars without states, and countries will become prizes to be won by more powerful global actors. Many nation-states will exist in name only, as some practically already do. Wars will be fought mostly in the shadows by covert means, and plausible deniability will prove more effective than firepower in an information age.”

The first half of the 20th century was invariably dominated by large wars with long periods of relative peace in between. But todays conflict, though on a diminished scale, has become a permanent feature of the global landscape where the combatants are not always nation-states. He goes on to say:

“Conflicts breed like tribbles, and the international community is proved powerless to stop them. This growing entropy signifies the emergence of a new global system that I call “durable disorder,” which contains rather than solves problems. This condition will define the coming age. The world will not collapse into anarchy; however, the rules-based order we know will crumble and be replaced by something more organic and wild.”

Identification of problems / issues is crucial and McFate breaks it down to ten rules which are a combination of his observations of past practices and a list of best practices for dealing with the new face of warfare. The rules are worth reading, because they offer a quick and challenging outline that vividly describes these problems. He discusses these rules within the bounds of “entropy” and “apathy” and his treatment of the rules is refreshing.

These are McFate’s ten new rules of war:

  1. Conventional war is dead.
  2. Technology will not save us.
  3. There is no such thing as war or peace; both coexist, always.
  4. Hearts and Minds do not matter.
  5. The best weapons do not fire bullets.
  6. Mercenaries will return.
  7. New types of world powers will rule.
  8. There will be wars without states.
  9. Shadow wars will dominate.
  10. Victory is fungible.

“Generals always fight the last war”. When it comes to the future of war, nations turn to past successes and try to replicate the same. Modelling the future on past glories ensures failure, he says. Nothing is more unconventional today than conventional war and the days of armed conflict between nation-states are ending. This leads on to the phrase “conventional warfare is dead.” Strategic thinkers need to focus on the methods that adversaries use to overcome/bypass conventional strength.

Advanced military hardware is frightfully expensive and takes long to develop. McFate condemns this general overreliance on hi-tech, as examples of misguided priorities. He uses the hugely overpriced F-35 and aircraft carriers as examples. The F-35 took approximately $1.5 trillion to develop – more than Russia’s GDP and an aircraft carrier costs $13 billion a piece. His treatment of this topic is interesting to read.

Cyber is important, but not in ways people think. It gives us new ways of doing old things: sabotage, theft, propaganda, deceit, and espionage. None of this is new. Cyberwar’s real power in modern warfare is influence, not sabotage. Using the internet to change people’s minds is more powerful than blowing up a server, and there’s nothing new about propaganda…Weaponized information will be the WMD of the future, and victory will be won in the influence space.

Based on his extensive special forces experience, the author feels, that the age of the mercenary is upon us. Large-scale violence has been the monopoly of nation states since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, but in recent decades there has been alarming growth in the supply of for-hire military services which takes one of the two forms:

  • Nation-states employ contractors to take on military operations – A response generally to public disapproval of using citizens in unpopular conflicts. US-hired contractors are all over the place in Iraq and Afghanistan in significant numbers.
  • Use of military contractors by private entities – Corporations hire high-end private security not as guards, but special-ops-level former military personnel to provide security in dodgy third-world locations. There is nothing to prevent individuals from hiring private mercenaries to engage in private military actions. McFate cites one alarming incident in which a well-known actress attempted to hire a private security company to engage in a rescue mission in Darfur.

The first-world idea of the globe organised into nation-states is fast disappearing as large parts of the world are becoming stateless. We have areas of the globe where competing warlords, gangs and outside interests compete for spoils such as access to natural resources or economically and/or militarily advantageous assets like ports. Today there are wars within states that ignore the official military. Billionaires could easily establish their own fiefdoms, states even, with a few well allocated companies of well-paid soldiers. There is nothing to stop a well-armed private force but another well-armed private force. Mexico is a prime example, in which cartels are been engaging in a years-long private conflicts. Syria is now a free-for-all, in which the state military is only one among many players.

“One can begin to see a medieval universe unfolding, in which nations, churches, and the wealthy each pursue global ambitions as world powers. They will all use force when necessary because it can be bought once again, as in the Middle Ages. The use of private force will expand in the decades to come, because nothing is in place to stop its growth, and in so doing, it will turn the super-rich into potential superpowers.”

Information war is another area where adversaries have leapfrogged the deceptive capabilities of the West by investing and developing new cyberwar expertise. Controlling narrative to influence strategic decision-making is the key to influence operations and adversaries have displayed better capabilities in this area. We cannot launch actual kinetic military attacks on Russian, Chinese, Iranian, or North Korean bot-warriors or troll farms where deniability is the key weapon they use.

In the last chapter McFate demonstrates the use of his “ten rules” in the context of the 2006 conflict in Lebanon which was again interesting to read.

In the book author offers a nice collection of terminology to add to our lexicon. He points out the difference between shadow wars and insurgencies, and little green men vs little blue men, for example.

Most nation states remain obsessed with technology and the drive for decisive victory using conventional military force, in that sense, the book triggers a long pending discussion in modern strategic thinking of these conflict-ridden nation states. The book has its shortcomings, but these are not on account of the author’s appreciation/assessment of the current situation, but in his tone/tenor and writing style which at times appears polemical almost to the extent that it appears that he has an axe to grind with the American strategic think tank. His assessment of the shortcomings in strategic thinking more or less is spot on, but the prescriptive solutions that he provides clearly reflect his “special forces”, “under-cover / covert ops” thinking, and one can have plenty of differences with that. Correct or not, his take seems quite worthy of consideration at the highest levels of any government engaged in conflict. Overall, the book is fun to read even to a lay person with no background on military strategic thinking.


“Our strategies and weapons are deadly—to us.”

“The last time the United States won a conflict decisively, the world’s electronics ran on vacuum tubes.”

“In the coming decades, we will see wars without states, and countries will become prizes to be won by more powerful global actors. Many nation-states will exist in name only, as some practically already do. Wars will be fought mostly in the shadows by covert means, and plausible deniability will prove more effective than firepower in an information age.”

“In a shadow war, cloaking is a form of power, and information is weaponized. If you twist your enemy’s perception of reality, you can manipulate him into strategic blunders that can be exploited for victory. It’s also a great defense.”

“From the weakening European Union to the raging Middle East, states are breaking down into regimes or are manifestly failing. They are being replaced by other things, such as networks, caliphates, narco-states, warlord kingdoms, corporatocracies, and wastelands. Syria and Iraq may never be viable states again, at least not in the traditional sense. The Fragile States Index, an annual ranking of 178 countries that measures state weakness using social science methods, warned in 2017 that 70 percent of the world’s countries were “fragile.” This trend continues to worsen…But the Westphalian Order is dying.”

Additional Reading

About the Author

Dr Sean McFate is a foreign policy expert, an author, and a novelist. He started his career as a paratrooper and officer in the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Graduated from elite training programs, such as Jungle Warfare School in Panama, he was also a Jump Master. Consequent to his military service he became a private military contractor and paramilitary. Among his many experiences, he dealt with African warlords, raised armies for US interest, rode with armed groups in the Sahara, conducted strategic reconnaissance for the extractive industry, transacted various arms deals in Eastern Europe, and helped prevent an impending genocide in the Rwanda region.

He is an international business professional, a consultant to the US military, US intelligence community and United Nations. He writes extensively for leading newspapers and magazines and appears on various talks of repute.

He is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington DC think tank, and a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Additionally, he serves as an Advisor to Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs.
McFate holds a BA from Brown University, MPP from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He was also a Fellow at Oxford. McFate lives in Washington, DC.

Latest from Book Review


In a nutshell Human history has been shaped by three major revolutions: the Cognitive Revolution (70,000…