Relying on chronicles and government documents‑including the recently d eclassified National Intelligence Estimates of the Central Intelligence Agency and the KGB's instructions for global operations‑the study develops an "asymmetry" method for explaining threat assessment priorities of major actors in world politics, drawing on research in the evolution of world politics and applying it to decisions on initiating war or defending against an attack.
The following excerpts discuss the evolutionary logic of asymmetric threat assessment (original footnote numbering is preserved).
From The Conclusion of Mikhail Alexseev’s WITHOUT WARNING: Threat Assessment, Intelligence, and Global Struggle (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).
Then suddenly he was struck violently. By nothing! A vast weight, it seemed, leapt upon him, and he was hurle d headlong down the staircase, with the grip at his throat and a knee in his groin. An invisible foot trod on his back, a ghostly patter passed downstairs.1
This attack on Colonel Adye by a maniacal chemist in H. G. Wells's The Invisible Man is emblematic of the global wars described in this book: a challenger, whose threats initially resonate no more than a ghostly patter, unexpectedly strikes at the incumbent world power with full force. Eventually , as in Wells's story, the community mobilizes and defeats the challenger aspiring to rule the world by terror. By the close of the novel, the invisible man's chance to escape, let alone prevail, grows dim. The unseen threat is defeated. For the most part, however, The Invisible Man describes a less c omforting dynamic: an ambitious and zealous experimenter, unable to prove his theory within his scientific discipline, evolves into an aggressive challenger to the scientific community and world order yet remains undetected within the society he hates unt il blood is spilled, havoc is wreaked, and the community recognizes the challenger's invisibility as a clear and present danger.
Asymmetric threat assessment is part and parcel of this pattern, be it
in Wells's classic story, or in the three case
studies of global leadership competition: threats and opportunities apparent to
one side were unnoticed or incomprehensible to the other. The confluence of
such asymmetric interpretations of threat in the end produced momentously
surprising outcomes. That obscure, "barbaric" tribes from the Mongol
steppes would launch successful campaigns against the world's most populous and
developed empires was not at all obvious right up to Genghis Khan's invasion of
Like Wells's invisible man, the challengers in
the global leadership competitions analyzed in this book were aware of their
inferior strategic capabilities. They too sought to compensate for their
vulnerabilities in military and economic power by exploiting the perceived
political and organizational weaknesses of their adversary. They too believed
that a reign of terror was a superior form of so cial
organization. With each challenger -the Mongols, revolutionary France, and the
USSR- the lack of institutional checks and balances and the means of free
expression and assembly translated was reflected in their emphasis on
exploiting political intent ions, interpersonal elite relationships, and
ideological rifts. These inputs played a crucial role in the war initiation
strategies of Genghis Khan and the leaders of revolutionary
The aggressive French strategy leading to the R evolutionary and
Napoleonic Wars was keyed in part by intelligence focused on preserving the
revolutionary government of France, its potential for resistance to external
and domestic subversions, and its prospects for inspiring revolutions against
all the crowned heads of Europe. The impact of British naval power and wealth
were discounted. So deeply was the National Convention in the throes of
revolutionary idealism that French decision makers believed the British navy
could be defeated if French sailors read a standard revolutionary proclamation
to British sailors encountered at sea. Moreover, such apparently naive faith
was exhibited in
The Kremlin's preoccupation with hostile imperialist intentions and competing ideologies in the global power arena se t the stage for an unprecedented intelligence alert (Operation RYAN) in 1983 over the possibility of a NATO surprise nuclear attack. The declining health of top Politburo members, along with the loss of socialism's popular appeal amid growing apathy and e conomic and political stagnation, made ailing Brezhnev and his moribund Politburo more reclusive and fearful of the West's ploys to undermine the historic value of Soviet achievements by brandishing capitalism's superior military and economic strength. In the absence of public debate and alternative information sources, Soviet leaders fell prey to conspiracy theories of NATO's preparations for a nuclear missile attack. Yet Moscow's focus on the Soviet Union's own ideological vitality - increasingly deflated in the late 1970s and early 1980s - prepared the ground for the abandonment of global competition with the West just when the U.S. National Intelligence Estimates were most alarmist about Soviet expansionism.
Like the local community upon which Wells's invisible man was trying to force his demented vision, the incumbent world powers missed many signs of challengers' aggressive intentions and failed to take preemptive action. In this sense, the status quo powers were as cautious, and for much the same reasons, as the owners of the Coach and Horses Inn at Iping, who were debating whether to inspect the Invisible Man's room: "The Anglo‑Saxon genius for parliamentary government asserted itself; there was a great deal of talk and no decisive action. 'Let's have facts first,' insisted Mr. Sandy Wadgers. 'Let's be sure we'd be acting perfectly right in bustin' that there door open. A door onbust is always open to bustin', but ye can't onbust the door once you've busted en."2
In all the case s tudies, some degree of
political pluralism, the separation of civilian and military authority, and
especially the rise of representative institutions holding the power of the
purse were conducive to evaluating threats and opportunities in the light of ava ilable resources. The threat
of the Mongol's drive for universal empire, with all its brutal and
uncompromising intensity, was virtually invisible to the
In the case of the
A trend may be observed across the three case studies that was not apparent when each was examined separate ly: asymmetric competition was unfolding in a world system
of increasingly greater complexity that was also undergoing "a prolonged
process of explicit organization that had grown as part of the global
leadership system."3 The systemic environment at the time of the Mongol
challenge was characterized by interactions among powers that possessed mainly
challenger‑type characteristics. The only major power that displayed some
characteristics of global leadership, the Southern Sung, did not engage in proactiv e leadership and institution-building in
In the case of the French Revolutionary Wars, the lineage of global
leadership was well established and represented by
In the post‑Wor ld War II period and by
the 1970s in particular, the Soviet Union was striving to promote its position
in major global institutions, such as the United Nations and the Council for
Security and Cooperation in Europe. Of the utmost importance to Soviet elit es, as evidenced by Brezhnev
personally taking charge, was participation in the U.S.‑Soviet summit meetings
Although the increased integration of world powers and their challengers in transnational institutions is a positive trend, human society is yet to develop a threat assessment system that can dete ct and prevent global war in a timely manner. After all, in the past 500 years, global wars have recurred about once every century. Today, half a century after World War II, we may simply be in the midst of one such interwar time span.
This book suggests that the Cold War ended peacefully chiefly because
the challenger‑state, the Soviet Union, had lost its ideological
determination by the time it had acquired sufficient capabilities for an
intercontinental attack on its main adversary, the Unite d States. Substantial
changes in the Kremlin's predisposition for aggressive behavior in the 1970s
and 1980s could not be perceived through the prism of threat assessment
From Chapter 1, The Evolutionary Model:
"...world politics is a self-organizing process combining elements of both anarchy and structure, randomness and regularity, change and continuity, insecurit y and confidence, all in varying degrees at different times. The evolution of the world politics implies the continuous emergence of various actors and strategies with different capacities to adapt to the external environment, a process resulting in the r etention of more successful (adaptive) strategies and actors. Among the major global powers, this process of responsive and interactive adaptation takes the form of competition for global leadership, or the proverbial "rise and fall." Although highly rand om initially, tryouts or combinations of strategies are gradually structured into recognizable and enduring patterns, as the less adaptable approaches (usually at the extreme ends of the choice spectrum) are winnowed out over time. Computer simulations ha ve suggested, for example, that middle-range cooperative strategies outcompete both consistent defectors and unconditional cooperators even in one‑shot games of the implications of projecting one's intentions onto prospective partners. Evolutionary sequen ces result in still greater advances for these moderately cooperative strategies.51
The evolutionary process is also assumed to be nonlinear, meaning that the continual selection and reproduction of more adaptable strategies and actors in the wor ld politics does not necessarily culminate in any kind of finite and unalterable state of the system. Multiple feedbacks between the world system and domestic political and economic imperatives (including random phenomena) may periodically result in punct uated equilibria in power balances, domestic regime stability, or war proneness. From this perspective, no theoretical claim can be made that cruel and violent means of resolving international disputes, such as wars, may ever become obsolete (nor would th e world ever likely to lapse into total pandemonium, or a war of all against all). The application of genetic algorithms to Axelrod's evolution of cooperation model has demonstrated, for example, that even stable, benign clusters of tit‑for‑tat strategies break down in the long run (when the number of game iterations is extended to 700 and above) under massive and sudden attacks by "defective genes" challenging the status quo.52
From this perspective, global wars are more than mechanisms to "redr aft the rules by which relations among nations work" and establish "who will govern the international system and whose interests will be primarily served by the new international order."53 They are viewed as the macrodecision points in the process of glob al leadership competition and selection linked longitudinally to the setting of political agendas, coalition‑building, and the emergence of new institutional structures for global system management. In the context of world time, or what Fernand Braudel de scribed as the "superstructure of world history,"54 these processes can be seen as distinct phases in the evolution of world politics. According to George Modelski, these phases make it explicit that problem resolution requires, in the first place, inform ation, and an exploration of alternative courses of action. That is followed by the coalescence of coalitions around prominent leaders, and certain prominent alternatives, some of which are bound to offend vested interests. The coalitions are then likely to square off in sustained conflict but one of them will prevail through a collective choice process. Claimants to global leadership all participate in this process but with special intensity in the phase of macrodecision. They activate and lead the coali tions that via a global trial of strength (in past cases, a global war) validate the set of policies that will be carried to fruition...55
Strategies in global leadership competition, including global wars, are conditioned by this evolutionary pr ocess, which drives the selection of global leaders and the "deselection" of challengers. Studies in long cycles of world politics have identified three major conditions that in combination have ensured a nation's rise to global leadership in the past 500 years: a superior politico-military organization for global reach (naval, airspace, and information power); an open democratic polity anchored in a system of popular representation, institutional checks and balances, and the rule of law;56 and a lead eco nomy sufficiently large to support global operations yet deriving growth and vitality from innovation rather than extension.57
This global selection process also results in the rise of challengers seeking to modify existing configurations of powe r in world politics in their favor; however, no longer accepting the rules of the game set by the incumbent world power and its coalition, challengers strive to develop alternative forms of military, political, and economic organization. Historically, cha llengers have emphasized rapid regional concentrations of military force (usually large land armies); highly centralized and less open political systems; and economies favoring direct and centralized government intervention.58
Since about 1500, four powers have risen to the position of global
leadership according to these criteria:
"Over the centuries, differentiation amon g global powers, particularly among leaders and challengers, has necessitated the differentiation of strategic priorities and, hence, priorities in intelligence collection and analysis. Leaders and governments are never supplied with complete information about the world by their intelligence services. Rather, intelligence efforts are directed where their high‑placed consumers request, thus perpetuating established patterns. In this manner, asymmetric differentiation in strategic priorities between incumbe nt world powers and challengers is further reinforced by the "limits of the known world" or by decision paths resulting from policymakers' adapting their domestic requirements to global conditions. Metaphorically speaking, incumbent world powers (global l eaders) and their challengers use parallel and separate information highways to reach strategic decisions.
The examples of national variations in the meaning of intelligence59 mentioned earlier suggest that a systematic distinction is possible be tween intelligence assessments about facts and purpose, or capabilities and intentions, in the language of intelligence experts. In fact, the assessment of capabilities and the intentions of other actors in world politics has been the main traditional con cern of intelligence institutions.60 In intelligence studies, threat assessment has traditionally comprised both capabilities and intentions linked to a broad range of factors. In analyzing how the intelligence product reaches decision makers, Sherman Ken t has emphasized personalities, geography, military capabilities, the economy, political alignments, social attributes, moral "doctrines of life," and scientific‑technological development (including the social sciences). In broader terms, he distinguishes between nonmilitary instrumentalities and war potential constituting the overall strategic stature of a given actor.61 Thus, asymmetries in the assessment of intelligence among governments will be based on diverse weights assigned to intentions and capab ilities, as well as on different methods of interpreting intentions.
Studies in intelligence suggest that incumbent world powers structure intelligence collection and analysis, emphasizing precise and quantifiable information on the global reach capabilities of all major powers, the centrality of analysis, verifiable open source collection, the higher salience of global issues, and access by public representatives to intelligence data. These elements comprise what is known as the American view of intelligence.62 Sherman Kent, one of the pioneers and major proponents of the American view, also argued that capabilities are the minimum and the critical predictor in assessing strategic threats, particularly in wartime.63
At the same time, in telligence studies indicate strongly that totalitarian, expansionist challengers are more likely to give priority in their intelligence process to direct assessment of the political intentions of adversaries, to the ability of opponents' alliances to ensu re regional concentrations of military force, and to strong personal leadership, coercion, mobilization, war tolerance, and morale. Within the challenger paradigm, intelligence collection and analysis is more concerned with strategic deception and surpris e, whereas autocratic governments usually impose blanket restrictions on public access to intelligence data. The challenger mode of information collection and analysis, therefore, conforms to what is known as the traditional view of intelligence.64
To restate the hypothesis in terms of international relations theory, the con ditions of global leadership are likely to engender strategies based on the systematic analysis of globally available tangible military and economic capabilities. Estimates of material capabilities typically center on the size and technical characteristic s of navies, airpower, nuclear missiles, land armies, cavalry (for various historical periods); population size; economic indicators, such as steel output; natural resources; and similar data. Conditions exhibited by challengers are more likely to favor s trategies derived from the direct assessment of political intentions and motivations, particularly intentions affecting regional concentrations of land power. These asymmetric priorities for strategy should translate into distinct national institutional p atterns of intelligence collection and analysis. With respect to strategic intelligence, in policymaking jargon incumbent world powers may then be called "bean counters," and their challengers, "palm readers." In this way, the evolutionary dynamics of wor ld politics, including global leadership competition and global wars, account for the phenomenon of asymmetric threat assessment among major actors. Intelligence assessment asymmetries between leaders and challengers in turn should help explain the presen ce or absence of global war between the contenders for world leadership.
It can be argued that both leaders and challengers will pay attention to
intentions, and they do, but the divergent emphases are critical. By analogy
with the American view of intelligence, global leaders are more likely to
extrapolate political intentions of challengers from estimated material
capabilities. I shall term this method as capability‑based intention
assessment. Intention is measured by calculating which threats are feasible,
given the estimated capabilities. From this perspective, an army concentrated
on a border would signal an intention to initiate war and would trigger
countermeasures. For example, the
Challengers, on the other hand, are more likely to accentuate direct intention assessment. Here the stress is on the independent impact of political intentions on capability deployment and use. When conducting direct intention assessments, an intelligence consumer focuses on how political plans, designs, and intentions may animate the adversary 's capabilities. In a sense, estimates of the adversary's usable capabilities are extrapolated from political intentions that are assessed independently. From the perspective of direct intention assessment, a concentration of troops on the border signals war only if there is direct, additional evidence of hostile intention. Recently declassified Soviet intelligence files of the prewar period show that reports on German troop concentration near Soviet borders in 1941 presented overwhelming evidence of Hitl er's aggressive plans.66 Stalin, however, failed to counteract the threat, believing that Hitler had no political intention to attack‑‑a belief that was only strengthened by Britain's disclosure of Plan Barbarossa to Moscow in 1941. Stalin could not imput e aggressive political intentions to Hitler even when faced with "Ultra" intelligence from decrypted German communications supplied by Winston Churchill‑‑his belief in a British global conspiracy against Russia was too strong.67 Thus, the distinction betw een intentions extrapolated from capabilities and direct intentions matters critically in decisions affecting the course of history."
1. H. G. Wells, The Invisible Man (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), 115.
2. Ibid., 26.
3. George Modelski and William R. Thompson, Leading Sectors and World Powers: The Coevolution of Global Politics and Economics (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996), 216.
4. "Meeting with Soviet Leader in Geneva: Them es and Perceptions," National Security Decision Directive, 194, Washington, D.C., October 25, 1985, 2; "Soviet Initiatives in International Economic Affairs," National Security Study Directive, 2‑86, Washington, D.C., September, 16, 1986, 1-2.
51. Tomonori Morikawa, John M. Orbell, and Audun S. Runde, "The Advantage of being Modestly Cooperative," American Political Science Review 89 (September 1995), 601-11.
52. Ken Oster kamp, "Evolutionary Game Theory with Genetic Algorithms: Stability and Structural Change in Complex Political Systems" (paper presented at the Evolutionary Paradigms in Social Sciences Workshop, Seattle Battelle Research Center, May 26, 1995).
53 . For the first quote see Organski and Kugler, The War Ledger, 23; the second quote is in Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 209.
54. Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World (London : Collins, 1982), 17‑18.
55. George Modelski, "The Evolution of Global Politics," in Journal of World‑Systems Research 1 (1995), 8. In George Modelski, "Is World Politics Evolutionary Learning?" in International Organization 44 (Winter 1990), 1‑2 4, this sequence of processes is defined as the four‑stage ACME learning cycle consisting of agenda‑setting (global problems), coalition‑building (core alliance formation), macrodecision making (global war), and execution (rise of the world power and chal lenger). For a book‑length treatment of these issues see George Modelski, Long Cycles in World Politics (London: MacMillan, 1987). For a structural realist approach to the leadership succession in world politics see Gilpin, War and Change. A less flatteri ng view of global leadership is provided in Immanuel Wallerstein, The Capitalist World Economy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984). The latter two studies, however, emphasize the phenomenon of the leading powers or hegemons in world politics.
56. See Modelski, "Democratization."
57. For the latest data on the first two conditions for global leadership see Modelski and Thompson, Leading Sectors.
58. Modelski, "Evolution of Global Politics," 21‑22.
59. See note 4 7 to this chapter.
60. On the difference in national patterns of strategic intelligence and its institutions, see Abram N. Shulsky, Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence, 2d ed. (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 1993), especially 177 ‑197. Also see Adda B. Bozeman, Strategic Intelligence and Statecraft (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 1992).
62. Shuls ky, Silent Warfare, 177‑88.
64. Shulsky, Silent Warf are, 177‑188.
65. David Kahn, The Codebreakers (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1973), 1‑67.
66. Federal'naia sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossii [Federal Security Service of Russia], Sluzhba vneshnei razvedki Rossii [Foreign Intelligence Servic e of Russia], Mosckovskoe gorodskoe ob'edinenie arkhivov [City of Moscow Archives Administration], Sekrety Gitlera na stole u Stalina: Razvedka i kontrrazvedka o podgotovke Germanskoy agressii protiv SSSR, mart‑iyun', 1941‑‑Dokumenty iz tsentral'nogo arhi va FSB Rossii [Hitler's secrets on Stalin's desk: Intelligence and counterintelligence on German preparations for aggression against the USSR, March‑June 1941‑‑documents from the Central Archive of the FSB of Russia] (Moscow: Mosgorarkhiv, 1995), pp. 3‑17 .
67. Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, Inside the KGB: The Inside Story of Its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), 259‑69.
Whereas a certain degree of threat assessment asymmetry is to be expected in all conflict situations, the dangerous features of the asymmetry are expected to be reduced significantly under three major conditions:(1) improved communications, and better mutual knowledge;(2) increased awaren ess of common interests; and (3) better global organization. All three have undergone significant changes from the Mongol Empire to the present.
Lack of communications, —especially among the Sun, the Chin and Khwarazm--was instrumental to the Mongols' success; the
second, lack of awareness of common interests was strenghtened
by Revolutionary France's placing itself outside the community of states whose
heart was Britain; and (3) the third became particularly significant in the
Soviet case as the growing web of world organizations made it possible to
cushion the fall of the Soviet Union. The cumulative action of all three
conditions makes it possible to envisage a diminution of this danger in the
case of the next challenger, such as