The Dragons and the Snakes

The Dragons and the Snakes

How the Rest Learned to Fight the West

Book Review
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This review is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 9: Spy vs Spy. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

A favoured line of David Kilcullen’s, which I’ve shamelessly recycled, is that economists deal with pessimism while strategists deal in cataclysm. Kilcullen is a highly appropriate sherpa for these cataclysmic times. Pandemic has seemingly turned globalisation on its head, economic power is being rapidly disrupted, strategic faultlines are on display and “the West” is in paroxysms of self-doubt and grief over a slipping geopolitical order.

The importance of Kilcullen’s work to Western military thought is clear. There would be very few Australian Army officers serving this century who haven’t had their thinking informed and more likely shaped by Kilcullen’s insights. As a scholar-practitioner, he has fluently translated military art and science for public debate, particularly through his writing on Afghanistan, Iraq and Islamic State. He can both stalk the halls of power and understand what happens when bullet meets flesh.

In this book, he chooses 1993 as the marker of a shift, in Western militaries, from post–Cold War technical triumph to a quarter-century of malaise. Specifically, he adopts the evocative testimony of President Clinton’s CIA director James Woolsey, who categorises threats to the West into dragons (state-based threats) and snakes (everything else) and warns that the snakes may be harder to track. Dragons and snakes makes for a catchy title, but as an analytical framework it is at times more burden than bedrock, distracting from the weightier insights this book delivers.

Kilcullen begins by considering aspects of Western warfare that state and non-state actors have had to commonly adapt to in the past twenty-five years, and proposes a theory, informed by biology and complex systems thinking, of how the West has in fact driven that evolution. In this, Kilcullen is on strong ground. He has spent decades examining the “combat Darwinism” of insurgent groups in the Middle East, seeking to rapidly translate tactical battlefield data from global hotspots into insights that can reshape Western military theory and practice. The enemy guerrillas fighting the West in the Middle East, he argues, have in some ways adapted to combat better because of the diversity of their fighters, the intense pressure on them to evolve or die, and the fact that they do not rotate off the battlefield. Militaries “with too high a proportion of elites” (say, the Australian Defence Force primarily fighting a war in Afghanistan with overworked Special Forces) may prove to be maladaptive by increasing casualty rates among its best fighters and denying their talents and experience to the wider force.

Moreover, the tools the West has deployed – airpower, firepower and persistent surveillance – have defined the circumstances to which enemies must adapt, and thus indirectly determined which have thrived and which have demised.

The second part of the book analyses Russian and Chinese adaptions to Western warfare, which Kilcullen terms respectively “liminal warfare” and “conceptual envelopment”. This is Kilcullen at his best, his razor-sharp analysis traversing between macro and micro as he considers weapons, orders of battle and military unit dispositions alongside adversary doctrine, politics and strategy to articulate simply how a resurgent China and Russia plan to beat the West. The logic of China’s military modernisation has been well profiled elsewhere, but Kilcullen is able to refine, simplify and extend our thinking. He has more to offer here, connecting the insights he has made to the discussion of geostrategy and alliances in Jakub Grygiel and Wess Mitchell’s The Unquiet Frontier, or to the competitive strategies espoused by Thomas Mahnken.

Limiting the utility of all this analysis is the fraying concept of the Western military, which the author frames as “countries that apply Western military means”, including “non-European nations such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan”. He acknowledges, briefly, the differences between, for example, the militaries of Australia, Britain and Germany. But these differences seem worthy of further examination when you consider the forward-looking prescriptions he makes for Western military strategy.

In essence, Kilcullen’s theory is to “be like Byzantium”. The crucial aspect of a Byzantine strategy is to “preserve strength for the long haul”, to prepare for a “drawn-out, centuries-long strategic delaying action”. Western leaders should accept that their own decline is possible (if not probable), play for time and seek to encourage a more worthy successor to global leadership than crypto-communist China (as the Byzantines did by seeding the Renaissance in Italy).

The West, Kilcullen proposes, should focus on sustainability and resilience for the long term – for example, shifting to cheap and plentiful military technology rather than the lumbering, exquisite weapons programs favoured by mandarins in Canberra and Washington. Innovate, extend thinking beyond the battlefield, train diplomats with skills that let them shift their contribution from military operations to civilian-led initiatives and back. Limit the forward footprint of military basing, study the enemy and consider adapting their utilisation of guerrilla defence tactics (perhaps an idea for Canada and Australia rather than Italy and Spain). There are intriguing notions of China’s social credit system as a vulnerability to be exploited by Western agencies, and another idea for countries such as Australia and Japan to invest in their own area defence and aerial denial systems (an echidna-like defence strategy, in Australia’s case).

Kilcullen’s Byzantine strategy is a grab bag of good ideas, and much of it is already happening. The US Air Force is shifting to more rapid and cheaper production of fighter aircraft; Australia is studying hypersonic missiles of the sort being developed by Russia as well as expanding and upgrading its capacity for defence diplomacy; many countries in the West are rediscovering political warfare and integrating limits on foreign investment into security planning. It is difficult to see how a concrete Byzantine military strategy could be built among disparate Western countries, whose historical unity is being eroded by an absent America. But, as a provocation, “be like Byzantium” offers plenty to cherrypick from.

The Dragons and the Snakes attempts to “put forward a unified theory of how state and non-state threats now overlap and intersect” and to draw lessons from that to inform a new strategy for how the West should compete militarily. Grappling with terrorist groups operating in the valleys of Afghanistan as well as Chinese leaders operating in Zhongnanhai is no easy task. Sometimes this book creaks under the weight of analysing both. But then, that’s the burden national security strategists must bear as they think about the long term. Kilcullen hasn’t solved the equation, but he has provided Western militaries with a head start.

James Brown


Cover of AFA9 SPY VS SPY

This is a book review from Australian Foreign Affairs 9: Spy vs Spy. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.