As diverse as the special operations community is, from Norway’s FSK to America’s Ranger Regiment to Australia’s SAS and so many others, it’s their combined efforts to perpetuate Western civilization that keep it preserved. Since the conclusion of the Second World War, the Western world, and America in particular, has dominated the international system. This system has been constructed and instituted via two guiding frameworks: the Westphalian system and Bretton-Woods. This system is now being deconstructed, and smaller and smaller groups of warriors from the West are being burdened with the task of propping up a post-war legacy institution.


A recent white paper titled, “Special Operations Forces: A Global Immune System,” penned by Joseph Norman and Yaneer Bar-Yam, explains why, and how, the West needs an agile and versatile special operations capability to meet the nuanced and complex emerging threats of the 21st century. Norman and Bar-Yam write:

The parallels of the effects of tissue disruption in organisms and in sociocultural systems highlights the need for a ‘sociocultural immune system’—a fine-grained system for sensing and acting on environmental disturbances at scales smaller than conventional forces are able. In this regard, conventional forces can be likened to the large-scale neuromuscular system in organisms. Acting instead at a small-scale presents the possibility of maintaining healthy social tissue and allowing it to flourish. Just as for the immune system, this is not a matter of differentiating ‘native’ and ‘foreign’, but understanding whether an agent is disruptive to overall health.

SOF are uniquely positioned to fulfill this role, possessing the requisite personnel, skills, and training. For this to be realized, policies that impact SOF must be such that they enable their unique capabilities in meeting the high-complexity demand of local cultural systems. We identify three conditions that must be satisfied in order for SOF to serve such a role: special operators with advanced training and distinctive capabilities, persistent presence and enduring engagements, and local autonomy and decision-making.

Today, SOF serves as that social-cultural immune system, desperately fighting the tide in a quickly changing world. The Westphalian system, in short, was established by European leaders in 1648 in the wake of a slew of bloody wars in which states attempted to impose religious values on one another. Likewise, the Bretton-Woods conference after WWII established the current and prevailing economic order. The advent of the Westphalian system established a protocol in which states would no longer meddle in the internal affairs of other states. Today, rising powers like India and China are finding their place in the existing global order. Other countries like Russia continue to push against Western influence. From Cuba, to China, to Vietnam, none of these non-Western nations had a say in the existing global order and do not necessarily feel beholden to it.

“In Europe, the Westphalian system was an outgrowth of a plethora of de facto independent states at the end of the Thirty Year’s War,” Henry Kissinger writes in “World Order.” “Asia entered the modern world without such a distinct apparatus of national and international organization.” Today, that system is caving under the pressure of an increasingly complex world, a world SOF must adapt itself to if it is to be the immune system that fights off the virus of terrorism and other threats that remain unforeseen.