Conflict in the Age of Fractured Publics


Mar 5, 2024

Squad of soldiers running in the desert, photo by gorodenkoff/Getty Images

Photo by gorodenkoff/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on March 3, 2024.

As the United States finds itself sliding into conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine (PDF), commentators have invoked the specter of a “Third World War.” The confrontation between the United States and its rivals China, Russia, and Iran has undoubtedly intensified, and the possibility of a broader conflagration cannot be discounted. Nevertheless, real great power conflict is unlikely to resemble the world wars of the twentieth century. The weakness of the participating states stands out as perhaps the defining feature of the current contest. Incapable of carrying out large-scale popular and economic mobilizations, the principal rivals may have little choice but to rely primarily on proxy, information, political, and economic warfare while avoiding large-scale conventional combat.

Although the U.S. economic advantage over all other countries remains undisputed, its political weaknesses have worsened. Polls show that trust in the federal government remains at historic lows, with about 15 percent expressing confidence in the government to “do what is right most of the time.” Acute partisanship has further eroded the president's ability to act. No crisis in the past two decades has rallied public opinion around the president. Instead, each crisis has merely provided fodder for political factions to rally supporters and lambaste their rivals. The COVID-19 virus killed over a million Americans, for example, yet the pandemic did not draw the country together. Instead, it became another occasion for mutual recrimination and partisan bickering.

China, Russia, and Iran also exhibit equally severe signs of domestic weakness. To bolster flagging support, China's government relies on relentless repression and indoctrination. Despite these efforts, public support hovers around 50–70 percent and is likely falling as the economy decelerates, prospects dim, and problems of corruption and malfeasance persist. With a shrinking population and mismanaged economy, Russia faces a grim future. Many have voted with their feet, with a million people having fled the country since the war against Ukraine began. Iran's government remains deeply unpopular and has resorted to brutal violence to suppress waves of popular protests.

The fragile level of public support renders mass mobilization strategies, which leaders at the height of the industrial age practiced, nearly impossible. In World War II, for example, the United States and its allies, including the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, maintained defense budgets equal to 40 percent of GDP or higher. These expenses were paid for with massive tax increases, especially for those with large incomes. National conscription involving 10–20 percent of the male population swelled armies and enabled them to fight for years on end despite incurring staggering casualties. By contrast, U.S. defense spending peaked at just over 6 percent of GDP during the “global war on terror” following the devastating attacks of September 11. Russian military spending has also peaked at around 6 percent of GDP. Neither country conscripted its citizens in their respective wars. The U.S. military rotated troops back to the Iraq and Afghan theaters after brief respites at home. And despite claiming that the current war in Ukraine is a fight for “Russia's survival,” Moscow has replenished military losses with convicts as well as poor foreigners drawn by the promise of lavish payouts in the event of a soldier's death. Aware of the fragility of public support, contemporary countries at war have generally kept taxes low, ensured a steady flow of consumer goods, and placed the burden of warfighting on a tiny minority.

Escalation to major war accordingly looks less and less likely. Geopolitical struggle will likely take a form different from recent world wars. Key differences could include the following…

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Timothy R. Heath is a senior international defense researcher at RAND.

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