World War Next, Part II
After Mobilization Comes Morale, the National Will to Fight
The moral is to the physical as 3 to 1. — Napoleon Bonaparte
In last week’s Contemplation, we began an exploration of what the next world war might look like, if the US, China, and Russia come to blows, with a focus on industrial strength, manufacturing capabilities, and mobilization over time.
But as Napoleon famously explained, “the moral is to the physical as 3 to 1.” We cannot hope to model, let alone, predict the next world war without taking into account the civilizational confidence, morale, and national esprit of the antagonists.
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Defining the Conflict
Unlike military mobilization, morale cannot be assessed in a vacuum. Before we dive into that, however, we need to first define our conflict a bit more. There was some disagreement in the comments last week around whether or not the war would involve nuclear weapons and whether it would involve invasions of the various homelands of the great powers.
It is my belief that World War Next, when it occurs, will be a fight for global hegemony between what I have called “the World Ocean” powers and the “World Island” powers. It will be a total war, fought economically, military, socially, and politically, but it will not necessarily be a nuclear war.
Most importantly, I believe that virtually all of the ground fighting will take place outside of the homelands of the antagonists. US forces might clash with Chinese forces in North Korea, South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines or any of China’s various African client states. US forces might clash with Russia in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Poland, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, or Syria.
It might seem strange to suggest that there’d be a total war in which neither party invaded the other’s homeland. But World War II included exactly that sort of total war. Japan never landed ground troops on North America. America never landed ground troops on Japan. All of the ground fighting took place in countries around Japan. US troops didn’t enter the enemy homeland until *after* the war was won.
What will make it a truly world war, and not just another in the long line of modern proxy wars, is that there will be multiple theaters of operation, that the full spectrum of economic, cybernetic, and socio-political tools will be deployed, and that the civilian populaces of the homelands will not be spared from attacks short of invasion.
I’m being purposefully vague about causes, timelines, and so on because that’s terribly hard to predict. If I were producing World War Next as a commercial wargame, I’d probably develop either a number of playable scenarios for different hypotheticals, or a random card-based system by which flashpoints get triggered over time (“Now Iran has the bomb!” etc.).
Measuring Might: National Will
With our hypothetical World War Next established, let’s turn to the matter of morale. In 2018, the RAND Corporation published National Will to Fight. This 154-page book is the most comprehensive work to date on, as the title says, “why some states keep fighting and other’s don’t.” This book will guide us in our assessment.
According to RAND’s key findings, “will to fight is poorly analyzed and the least understood aspect of war.” Overall, however, “a country with more factors in its favor (e.g., high stakes, strong cohesion, popular support) should have stronger will to fight and thus a higher chance of victory.”
Reviewing the Factors of National Will
What are these factors of national will, according to RAND? I’ve summarized them below. For each one, I’ve offered a simple numeric score (usually -2 to +2) for each factor for each nation. These are intuitive guesses, and highly debatable. Be sure to let me know your own evaluations in the comments!
Stakes: What are the stakes of the conflict?
Existential, defined as the destruction of governance, ruin for the elites, and occupation of the nation.
Vital, defined as prevention of grand strategic goals.
Important, defined as inhibiting progress towards goals.
Higher stakes lead to higher national will. In our hypothetical, the stakes are vital for America, China, and Russia. None of the antagonists has an advantage in this factor. However, the US has the most to lose, so we’ll give them the edge. Score: America +1, China 0, Russia 0.
Government Type: How is the nation governed?
Totalitarian, defined as total control of all aspects of the nation by the state, with deep ideological penetration and extensive repression. Strong totalitarian states have greater national will.
Autocratic, defined as a state controlled by a small group that monopolizes power but permits some liberty; repression is only selective.
Democratic, defined as a state controlled by elected representatives governing under rule of law. Stable democracies have greater national will, except for less-than-vital stakes over long duration.
Unstable or mixed, defined as democracies in turmoil, and mixed authoritarian / democratic countries. These have the weakest national will.
China is a totalitarian state. Russia is an autocratic state. The US used to be a democratic state, but is arguably now a mixed authoritarian/democratic state and certainly is in turmoil. In this factor China has the biggest advantage in national will, and the US the biggest disadvantage. Score: America -1, China +1, Russia 0.
Alliances: Having strong allies increases the will to fight. Having few or weak allies does the opposite. America has the strongest set of alliances of the three superpowers, with virtually every developed nation in its orbit. China and Russia, on the other hand, have the support of virtually everybody else — “the Third World” as it might be called. We’ll give this a slight edge to America in the near term. Score: America +1, China 0, Russia 0.
Civil-Military Relations: Nations in which the civilian populations have positive relationship with the military have higher national will. American civil-military relations used to be very strong. However, partisan leadership and endless petrodollar wars have left many Americans increasingly suspicious of their military, especially the white Southern Americans who were its biggest supporters. It’s gotten so bad that the Armed Forces cannot recruit troops! Russia also has problems with civil-military relations, because it uses conscript troops. China’s civil-military relations are hard to gauge for me, but seem solid. Score: America -1, China 0, Russia -1.
Cohesion: Nations that are highly cohesive (e.g. high social capital, high trust) have higher national will. China, with its monolithic Han ethnicity and culture and all-powerful Communist Party, has very high national cohesion. Russia, despite being a federation of many ethnicities, still maintains a strong amount of cohesion around the idea of Greater Russia, Orthodoxy, and anti-Western sentiment. America has the lowest national cohesion it has had since the Civil War. Score: America -1, China +2, Russia +1.
Conflict Duration: Long conflicts decrease the will to fight, especially for democracies. Therefore we have to score this one separately for the short-, medium-, and long-term. Since both America and Russia have fought a lot of wars lately, I assume they are just more bellicose in general in making these ratings. Score (Short-Term): America +1, China 0, Russia +1. Score (Medium-Term): America 0, China 0, Russia +1. Score (Long-Term): America -1, China 0, Russia 0.
Economic Power: Nations which have the ability to economically harm their opponents tend to have a stronger national will. Nations which lack economic power have less will to fight. All of our contenders actually score well here. America is first and foremost an economic power and must be given highest marks here for its control of banking, currency, and more. Russia has just begun to demonstrate its economic power over Europe. China, as an exporter of goods and owner of US debt, can certainly cause harm, but is also at risk of harming itself. Score: America +2, China 0, Russia +1.
Economic Resilience: Nations which are economically resilient can sustain themselves for long periods of isolation even if blockaded or embargoed. This increases national will. Nations which are economically dependent rely on external economic ties, which are more susceptible to disruption. This decrease national will. Russia seems to me the clear winner here, as it has ample food, iron, oil, gas, and other resources. It has endured the sanctions of the entire Western world without flinching, and only seen its currency and energy industry strengthen. China seems to me to be the least economically resilient, because it can supply neither the raw resources, nor the food, nor the energy, that its economy requires. America falls in between, with ample food and resources but not energy independence anymore. Score: America 0, China -1, Russia +1.
Indoctrination: Nations in which the population has been highly indoctrinated to a cause or ideology have a higher national will. Americans are, perhaps, highly indoctrinated, it’s just that we’re indoctrinated by two rival ideologies. This is not conducive to national will. Chinese are highly indoctrinated. Russians are somewhat indoctrinated but seem to absorb it all with a healthy dose of vodka and skepticism, comrade. Score: America -1, China +1, Russia 0.
Military Power: Nations with great military power tend to have an increased will to fight. Nations with limited military power tend to have a decreased will to fight. In our prior essay on mobilization, we noted that America’s military power relative to Russia and China declines with time. Therefore we have to score this one separately for the short-, medium-, and long-term. Score (Short-Term): America +2, China 0, Russia +1. Score (Medium-Term): America +1, China +1, Russia +1. Score (Long-Term): America 0, China +2, Russia +1.
Popular Support: A supportive or submissive populace has an increased will to fight. A subversive or assertive populace tends to have less will to fight. Americans from the 1980s to the early 2000s tended to be supportive of fighting with anybody and everybody. However, as the country has become increasingly partisan, we seem to have returned to Vietnam-era dissent regarding future war. Chinese and Russian popular support for war is very hard to gauge owing to their propaganda regime. Score: America -1, China 0, Russia 0.
And finally, last but not least…
Casualties: Inflicting more casualties on the enemy than your own army suffers seems like it should increase national will, but the relationship is not so simple. For instance, in every war in the last 30 years, America has inflicted far more casualties than it has suffered at the hands of any foe, but it has nevertheless been outlasted by its enemies, who had superior will to fight. Why is this so?
First, inflicting excessive casualties on the enemy can cause an erosion of popular support for the war at home. This is especially true if the nation is a democracy. Consider that most anti-war protest in the US focuses on the harm that Americans do to the nations they invade, rather than the harm suffered by Americans in pointless war.
Second, inflicting excessive casualties on the adversary can increase the adversary’s stakes, cohesion, and popular support. A famous example of this occurred when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Many oppressed peoples of the USSR initially greeted the Germans as liberators, but the brutal treatment of the populace quickly lead to a backlash, transforming WWII into the Great Patriotic War.
One thing that America, China, and Russia all share is a declining population of young men willing and able to die in war for their country. The RAND study did not take this into account in its analysis, but it will likely make casualties even more intolerable to all of the powers.
This factor is hard to score. I’m going to give America a slightly penalty for being both casualty-averse and soft-hearted about inflicting casualties, give the Russians a slight bonus for having historically demonstrated that casualties tend to make them fight harder, and the leave the Chinese flat. Score: America -1, China 0, Russia +1
If my rough-and-ready Randian analysis is anywhere close to realistic, the prognosis does not look good for Team America. With the nation riven by partisan divisions, with democracy seemingly in peril, with trust in government at an all-time low, with the Armed Forces unable to meet recruitment goals, America starts the war with a low national will, and then collapses into an even lower rating as war drags on, the enemy mobilizes, and casualties rise. This seems sadly plausible to me.
China starts with a moderate national will that gets stronger as the war goes on. I think this makes sense; the Chinese as the “Arsenal of Authoritarianism” are in a situation similar to that of the Americans in WWII. When WWII started we weren’t quick to get involved, but once the war got going, we went all-in.
Russia’s national will starts off high and stays high. I think this is not just plausible but also historically accurate. When Napoleon invaded Russia, they didn’t surrender even though he had the world’s largest army and took Moscow. When Hitler invaded Russia, they didn't surrender even though he had the world’s most powerful army and almost took Moscow. Russia’s high national will is being demonstrated again in the Russo-Ukraine War. Since the war began in February, Western observers have consistently told us that the war will end soon because “Russia is nearing collapse,” “Russia cannot withstand the sanctions,” “Putin is about to be toppled,” and so on. None of that has happened.
I’ve tried to be open about my assumptions, not necessarily because I’m firmly committed to any of them, but so that readers who disagree with my conclusions can find the source of their disagreement more easily.
There’s a case to be made that America’s national will is higher than I’ve estimated. When America was attacked at Pearl Harbor and at 9/11, we rallied with incredible cohesion and the ensuing wars enjoyed broad popular support. Perhaps the same thing would be true in World War Next. If so, then America’s national will should probably be 2-3 and stay in that range.
There’s also a case to be made that China’s national will is lower than I’ve estimated. A lot of analysts believe that Xi’s regime is on shaky ground, that China’s economy is at risk of recession or even collapse, and that China may well collapse into warring states in the next years or decades. If you are pessimistic about China, you’d probably rate its national will as 1-2 right now and likely to decrease in the future.
I find the optimistic case for America fairly hard to believe, but I am admittedly of a melancholic sentiment lately. I could be persuaded that the pessimistic case for China is correct.
As for Russia, they are like the honey badger of nations, and just don’t care. I think the only question is whether they have the highest national will, or the HIGHEST national will, of the major combatants.
Contemplate this in the comments below.
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