Ged Carroll

The Dragon and The Snakes

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Dragon and The Snakes

David Kilcullen wrote a number of books on the strategic challenges faced by the west in the war on terror. His book The Dragon and The Snakes looks at the challenges that the west faces from China (the dragon), Russia and Iran (the snakes). I was finishing reading this book as the Ukraine | Russia crisis broke this month, dominating the news headlines.

The Dragon and The Snakes

Out of the cold war

The Dragon and The Snakes starts with what shaped the modern world. The modern world was shaped out of the cold war. Western doctrine was defined by meeting a numerically superior force with superior technology. At the time, China and Russia were in dispute over a number of issues. At the chime of Chairman Mao, the death of Stalin and changing posture of the Soviet Union led to a fissure that widened over time. In the cold war was not only a war for influence between capitalism and communism; but also evolved into a war between Soviet communism and Maoist communism. China and Russia both supplied North Vietnam, but China invaded Vietnam partly due to it being more in the Soviet camp than the Chinese camp (this is is somewhat simplifying a multi-causal conflict, but has a truth in it).

China and US had limited cooperation with regards Russia which was brought in by Nixon’s famous visit to China and the machinations of Henry Kissinger who believed in systems and the ends justifying the means.

The flat topography of Kuwait and Iraq, together the latest 1980s weapons systems from the cold war made the first gulf war quick and provided an eye-raising demonstration of modern warfare. The campaign was just 42 days long.

Pivotal moments of change

Kilcullen goes on to discuss pivotal moments of change for both Russia and China in The Dragon and The Snakes.

  1. It fuelled Chinese perceptions that the US and west were willing to attack them, this stoked nationalism at home and basically broke the Kissinger-era detente and trust with the US. Thus there was a common view from both Russia and China
  2. China realised that it needed to adapt from being an Asian land army to having an expeditionary component and defending against a likely American led expeditionary force
  3. It reinforced Chinese views about the technological nature of war

Wider parameters of war

Kilcullen highlights the way hacking, espionage, propaganda, weaponised diaspora, elite capture online crime, organised crime, misinformation, bribery, soft power, sharp power and private military operators mean that we are in a war that western leaders currently refuse to acknowledge. This then further emboldens Russia, China and the likes of Iran and North Korea. It felt strangely prescient that I was reading the book when MI5 issued a security warning about Christine Lee and Russia threatened to invade Ukraine.

Byzantine outlook

Disturbingly in The Dragon and The Snakes, Kilcullen thinks that the best way that the west can handle China and Russia is learning from the Byzantine empire’s ability to forestall collapse. This implies a few things:

  1. He doesn’t believe that the west can find its way to effectively combatting China or Russia
  2. He doesn’t believe that western systems of governance will survive
  3. He believes that dragon and the snakes have more durable and effective systems of governance and war

All of which indicates an increasingly dark dystopian future.

In The Dragons and The Snakes Kilcullen provides a cogent well-researched and written picture of our current situation. If his work scares the crap out of enough people, we may even get answers to the multitude of problems that he outlines. More on the book here.