Academic journal article Parameters

Asymmetric Strategies as Strategies of the Strong

Academic journal article Parameters

Asymmetric Strategies as Strategies of the Strong

Article excerpt

One needs merely to wade into the shallow waters of today's deepest debates over American foreign policy to stub one's toe against the notion of asymmetric strategies. Like the very strategies that it describes, the concept often seems frustratingly amorphous yet disturbingly omnipresent--and, most importantly, distinctly threatening to the United States. (1)

This article takes the notion of asymmetric strategy seriously but re-conceptualizes it in a crucial way. The article questions the persistent identification of asymmetric strategies as strategies of the weak, instead revealing the many ways in which asymmetric strategies are becoming strategies of the increasingly strong. Consequently, the article also rejects the notion that asymmetric strategies can be deployed only against the United States, and aims to stimulate thinking about ways in which asymmetric strategies might be adopted for use by the United States. In the end, the article concludes that the American foreign policy community should cease thinking of asymmetric strategies as the exclusive province of weak nonstate actors and, instead, should conceive of such strategies as even more important when intelligently wielded by strong state actors--including America itself.

The first part of the article isolates a definition of asymmetric strategy that, unlike many definitions proposed previously, defines such strategies independently of the actors that execute them: asymmetric strategies transform an adversary's perceived strength into a vulnerability, often by revealing one's own perceived vulnerability as a strength. The article's second part employs that definition to reveal the ways in which asymmetric strategies are already being adopted by America's adversaries, including states. The final portion of the article calls for new thinking about ways in which the United States might employ asymmetric strategies against its various adversaries.

The Concept of Asymmetric Strategies

Defining Asymmetric Strategies

Asymmetric strategy has been a crucial concept in the decade following 9/11, yet it remains devilishly difficult to define. (2) Numerous attempts to define the concept are so broad that they approach the definition of strategy itself, severely limiting any practical utility. (3) For example, one foundational article on asymmetric strategy claims that "strategic asymmetry is the use of some sort of difference to gain an advantage over an adversary." (4) If this formulation is correct, it is unclear how asymmetric strategies differ from other strategies: "Emphasizing one's strengths and exploiting an enemy's weakness is what strategy is all about." (5)

Other commonly used definitions are narrower, but conflate large differences in the relative strength of the parties to a conflict and the strategies that those parties employ. In other words, these definitions seem to suggest that asymmetric strategy is almost anything that a weak actor might do when faced with a much stronger opponent, especially if that action is somehow surprising or creative: "Asymmetric warfare is violent action undertaken by the 'have-nots' against the 'haves' whereby the have-nots, be they state or sub-state actors, seek to generate profound effects ... by employing their own specific relative advantages against the vulnerabilities of much stronger opponents." (6) Granted, the phenomenon being described here is of central concern to America in its status as the world's lone superpower. The problem is that virtually any entity that the United States may fight, state or nonstate, will be less powerful than America. If asymmetric strategy is simply what weaker actors do against stronger ones, then from America's perspective asymmetric strategies are just good strategies against the United States: "Any military plan that avoids meeting the United States in a head-on, force-on-force, 'fair' battlefield fight is also considered to be 'asymmetric. …

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