Cover: War by What Means, According to Whose Rules?

War by What Means, According to Whose Rules?

The Challenge for Democracies Facing Asymmetric Conflicts: Proceedings of a RAND–Israel Democracy Institute Workshop, December 3–4, 2014

Published Aug 12, 2015

by Amichay Ayalon, Brian Michael Jenkins


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Research Questions

  1. What are the unique challenges posed by asymmetric warfare?
  2. What are the differences between the Israeli and American experiences and approaches to asymmetric warfare?
  3. What are the inherent disadvantages of liberal democracies in fighting asymmetric foes?
  4. What are the basic structures and behaviors of nonstate adversaries?
  5. What relevant RAND research has been performed on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism?
  6. What is "lawfare," and how do nonstate adversaries employ it?
  7. Can asymmetric warfare be addressed through an overarching strategic framework, or must separate strategies be formulated for each circumstance?

These proceedings summarize a workshop that researchers from the Israel Democracy Institute and RAND attended. The workshop is part of a collaborative effort aimed at developing new strategies to cope with asymmetric conflict in all its dimensions, including military operations, human rights and the role of law as it affects conflict, media, public opinion and political warfare, international diplomacy, the internal politics that come with democracy, and the preservation of civil liberties. The objective of this effort is to create an analytical framework, doctrines, and strategies that will enable democracies to effectively defend themselves against asymmetric threats while maintaining their commitment to democratic principles and humanitarian values. The proceedings presented here summarize two days of discussion that underscored the wide range and complexity of on- and — increasingly — off-the-battlefield issues that are part of contemporary conflict, the necessity of candid dialogue rather than the defense of established positions, and the objective of formulating the right questions instead of jumping to conventional answers. Underlying the discussions at the workshop was a sense of frustration that military superiority, even military success, no longer counts as it did in past conflicts. This was accompanied by a healthy humility about being able to find the correct formulas for success and concern that asymmetric conflicts are having a pernicious effect on the democracies being defended, luring them toward increasingly oppressive measures.

Key Findings

Contemporary Asymmetric Warfare Poses Critical Challenges for Democracies

  • Asymmetric warfare has dominated U.S. and Israeli experience for the past several decades and is likely to remain the dominant mode of conflict that the two nations face for the foreseeable future.
  • Asymmetric warfare is asymmetric not only in the numbers, weapons, and tactics of the belligerents but also in their fundamental values, which are reflected in their strategies.
  • The most difficult challenges come from hybrid foes that claim the trappings of statehood and political legitimacy while relying on terrorist tactics.
  • Strategies for combatting asymmetric foes must simultaneously address military, diplomatic, public media, and legal fronts.
  • Technology, especially the Internet and social media, has fundamentally altered the "battlefield."
  • Identification of war aims, the definition of victory, and planning for war termination must be addressed even before military operations begin, but the reality is that asymmetric wars are inherently protracted and often open-ended.
  • Asymmetric warfare does not merely pose military challenges but can also threaten to erode the core values of a liberal democracy as government seeks to protect its citizens against terrorist attack.
  • There is no separate legal regime for asymmetric warfare. The laws of war and international humanitarian law apply in different circumstances with different effects.
  • One must accept that, although both Israel and the United States have done things that tarnish their international reputations, the two nations also face criticisms of their military operations that derive from a deeper hostility, which mere adjustments of tactics will not mitigate.


  • The following topics would benefit from collaborative efforts of researchers from the Israel Democracy Institute, the Interdisciplinary Center, Haifa University, Hebrew University, and RAND: the implications of contemporary asymmetric warfare; value of a grand strategy, versus tailored responses, for dealing with nonstate adversaries; deterring asymmetric adversaries; military operations; the evolving legal environment; the impact that protracted warfare can have on civil liberties and domestic freedoms; the definition of victory in contemporary conflicts; the role of the United States in the world today; the role of the United States in dealing with Europe, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific at the same time; developing and sustaining public support for U.S. international engagement; and the changing nature of warfare.

Research conducted by

The workshop was conducted within the Center for Middle East Public Policy, part of International Programs at the RAND Corporation.

This report is part of the RAND conference proceeding series. RAND conference proceedings present a collection of papers delivered at a conference or a summary of the conference.

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