A term that has been used in the past, fell into disuse, and now is seeing a re-birth is political warfare. Originally brought into prominence in the 1950s by George Kennan [1], a Foreign Service officer with the Department of State, the term political warfare evolved as a concept for how to contain the Soviet Union’s expansionist aims. He presented his views in an article published in a 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs and in an internal staff memo. [2]

In the past several years as defense policy analysts have tried to define the present era of warfare seen across the world they have struggled to agree on terminology with which to neatly arrange different categories of warfare. Currently we have an abundance of terms which have a variety of meanings – depending on your perspective. These include “hybrid warfare,” [3] “political warfare,” “unconventional warfare,” “irregular warfare,” “clandestine warfare,” “covert warfare,” “special warfare,” “low intensity conflict,” “Military Operations Other Than War (MOTW),” “asymmetric warfare,” “special operations,” “Gray Zone,” and more.

Political warfare may be the best term to use – especially in terms of the current aggressive nature of Russia and its use of ‘little green men’ [4] and other devices to advance its national security interests. It could also apply to the methodology used by many of the insurgent and terrorist groups found across the world. In addition, mainland China is embarked on its journey towards super-power status and it is using a variety of non-military means to spread its influence.

Kyle Johnston, writing in the recent issue (June 2016) of the Georgetown Security Studies Review [5], says that the United States “. . . needs to reform an antiquated security enterprise that compartmentalizes agency capabilities and authorities. The United States needs to establish a National Political Warfare Center (NPWC) and regional US embassies to pursue national security objectives before a moment of crisis requires large-scale military intervention.”

Johnston’s short essay on political warfare will help the reader in understanding the contemporary operating environment and how our adversaries are advancing their national security interests. For those in the special operations community – especially the special warfare component – an understanding of where political warfare fits into the overall scheme of things is very helpful. While I don’t necessarily agree with the regional embassies I think the NPWC (or something like it) deserves some consideration.


[1] Corke, Sarah-Jane, “George Kennan and the Inauguration of Political Warfare,” The Journal of Conflict Studies, The GREGG CENTRE for the Study of War and Society, Vol 26, No 1, 2006.

[2] See #269 Policy Staff Planning Memo, May 4, 1948.

[3] See Frank Hoffman’s article “On Not-So-New Warfare: Political Warfare vs Hybrid Threats”, War on the Rocks, July 28, 2014. Hoffman is credited with explaining and promoting the term ‘Hybrid Warfare”.

[4] The term ‘little green men’ refers to the fighters of Russian nationality who have been or currently are in eastern Ukraine fighting with or on behalf of the Russian separatists opposing the Ukrainian government. See an explanation of ‘Little Green Men’ by WikipediA.

[5] Johnston, Kyle, “Why the United States Needs a National Political Warfare Center and Regional Embassies”, Georgetown Security Studies Review, Volume 4, Number 2, June 2016, pages 84-97.

(Map image from CIA website).