The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West

  • Published

The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West by David Kilcullen. Oxford Press, 2020, 336 pp.

David Kilcullen, a former soldier for the Australian Army, served as a counterinsurgency advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is now a subject matter expert for governments, global institutions, and militaries as well as holding professorships at the University of New South Wales and Arizona State University. His latest monograph concerns defense policy and strategy.

David Kilcullen’s latest book, The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, offers a warning for military strategists concerning US primacy. The book looks at how states and non-state actors have altered their strategies to fight the US. According to Kilcullen, the military model that worked well for the US during the early 1990s, predicated on expensive high technology, is no longer successful. Since the Gulf War, dragons (state-based threats of Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea) and snakes (non-state actors including terrorist groups, insurgents, and militias) have adapted to counter and balance US power.

Kilcullen argues that while the US became obsessed with terrorism in the post–September 11th environment, both snakes and dragons learned and adapted—growing increasingly lethal to the US. The dragons expanded their military and adopted many of the nonconventional techniques the snakes employed to fight the US. Meanwhile, terrorist and insurgent groups exploited the weaknesses of US high tech while at the same time using US technologies to improve their tactics.  

Kilcullen invokes a metaphorical ecological system to describe the social learning, natural selection, and artificial selection that shaped the development of snakes. For the past two decades, a Darwin effect has taken place in which the strongest insurgent and terrorist groups adapted and survived. As the US rained down precision air strikes later followed by drone strikes, old group leaders faltered only to be replaced by more competent and cunning leaders. During this hot wartime environment, non-state groups proved to be quick learners as they reformulated their tactics, techniques, and procedures and conducted lessons learned analysis to develop new capabilities. The snakes learned to fight like the West, becoming stronger and fitter in the process. Kilcullen criticizes the US for failing to change its tactics, instead maintaining conventional fighting with brute force designed for a capable and well-prepared enemy. This strategy was not effective and led to continuous involvement in the Middle East. Meanwhile, China and Russia watched from afar and took advantage of the United States’ tunnel vision.

The dragons embraced the strategies learned from the snakes and at the same time began implementing novel strategies to fight the West. To describe Russia’s maneuvers, Kilcullen introduces the term “liminal warfare” or the ability of an actor to operate in the grey zone of ambiguity. Kilcullen describes Russia as “riding the edge” or operating underneath the threshold of all-out warfare, conducting action through nonmilitary means to achieve political objectives such as sponsoring hackers and botnets to spread false information and interfere in elections. China’s strategy, on the other hand, is what Kilcullen terms “conceptual envelopment” in which the conception of war becomes so broad that it encompasses maneuvers that other nations don’t recognize as warfare. China poses a bandwidth problem for the US by expanding the spectrum of warfare to such an extent that it is nearly impossible to respond to all contingencies.

With the US in the precarious position of having to counter both giant dragons and slightly more inconspicuous snakes, Kilcullen offers three solutions to this problem that he calls doubling down, embracing the suck, or going Byzantine. Doubling down would require the US to do and spend whatever is necessary to preserve its primacy. Kilcullen rules this out as a fool’s errand because the American people won’t stand for the enormous defense budgets it would require and adversaries would continue to adapt, requiring snowballing investments. Embracing the suck would mean realizing that US primacy cannot last forever and would require retrenchment. The problem with this option is that as one superpower falls, another rises, and the US is unlikely to willingly accept a global successor. Going Byzantine means strategically shaping the environment to sustain influence and dominance as long as possible.

Ultimately, Kilcullen rejects all three options and instead advocates for a new model that requires the US to learn from its adversaries while engaging in off-shore balancing. Instead of a grand strategy that pursues global domination, the US should instead pursue a strategy to simply avoid being dominated. Rather than engage in long-term wars that monopolize US strategic thinking and sap resources, the US should pursue more modest goals of sustaining power. This will allow the US to remain flexible and will provide the bandwidth to engage in the same adaptive strategies that adversaries embrace.

Although the book provides an excellent portrayal of how dragons and snakes have emulated the US, it lacks guidance for the US as to whom its role models should be. Perhaps the US should even be looking to China and Russia for potential adaptation techniques. While it would be a mistake to interpret Kilcullen as saying the West does not evolve and adapt, he does downplay ingenuity and adaptability within the US military. One need only look to the advent of electronic warfare or the revolution in the ways US troops conducted counterinsurgency operations to witness adaptive strategies on the battlefield. Innovations in body armor or up-armored Humvees demonstrate adaptability in equipment while a host of medical advancements that stemmed from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate ingenuity. The problem is not so much that US forces are not adaptable, but that the playing field is so wide that it is almost impossible to remain innovative across all domains.

The COVID-19 pandemic is illustrative of this dilemma. The pandemic had not even started when the book went to press, so Kilcullen cannot faulted for not covering it among the crises. But it does speak to the enormous range of defense issues facing US forces—the type and scope of future issues is almost unimaginable. The pandemic reinforces Kilcullen’s argument on the dangers of conceptual envelopment where the definitions of war and defense are stretched to the extreme. And not only does Kilcullen’s list of dragons and snakes not include pandemics, it also does not include non-state, nonhuman threats such as environmental or natural disasters that threaten security and often require support from US armed forces.

Kilcullen’s book demonstrates the enormity of the challenge facing the United States as a hegemon. He is correct in arguing that the US has neither the resources nor the public will to solve all the world’s problems. However, his solutions involve the US going it alone. Instead, the US will likely need to rely more on allied nations for division of labor. Rather than duplicating efforts in security sectors, perhaps allied nations could make strategic decisions regarding specializing and optimizing for comparative advantages. Doing so would share the burden while preventing redundancies. Of course, collaborative agreements are very difficult to enforce. (Discussions concerning NATO’s “Smart Defense” program demonstrate this.) All nations have an incentive for free riding. Issues of ownership and sharing of the resources will surely come into play. Defense-industry squabbles will emerge. Ensuring nations share their resources, such as face masks during a pandemic, might be problematic. And issues of trust and enforcement of the agreements will be prominent.

Despite these many problems, however, a better division of labor might be a solution worth pursuing given the dragons, snakes, and multitude of yet unnamed crises facing the West. The US as the team captain of such a collaboration would still hold immense power but would be able to share some of the burden. Overall, the book is an eye-opening and sobering account of how adversaries are adapting faster than the US and the overwhelming spectrum of security challenges that threaten US primacy.

Cadet First Class Eva Swearngin
Political Science Major
United States Air Force Academy

Dr. Lynne Chandler Garcia
Assistant Professor, Political Science Department
United States Air Force Academy



"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."