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Journal to look at the complexities of psychological warfare

ASU's Competitive Statecraft Initiative will produce Inter Populum, a new academic journal dedicated to issues surrounding irregular warfare


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November 22, 2023

Arizona State University has long had the reputation and designation as a military-friendly school. From the celebrated McCain Institute to the Pat Tillman Veterans Center to the Global Security Initiative, the university’s connection to the United States military runs deep.

Ryan Shaw, who served as an officer in the U.S. Army and earned his commission at West Point, is working to add more components to ASU’s mission. In addition to his direction and leadership over ASU’s Competitive Statecraft Initiative, he recently helped launch Inter Populum: The Journal of Irregular Warfare and Special Operations, a new peer-reviewed academic journal that will be published twice a year.

According to Shaw, a professor of practice in history and strategy, managing director of strategic initiatives and senior advisor to ASU President Michael Crow, Inter Populum will explore everything from lessons learned through historical case studies to current best practices to the nature of future conflict.

Shaw spoke to ASU News about the academic journal, irregular warfare and what it means for the world going forward.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Man with short hair and suit and tie

Ryan Shaw

Question: Most people’s first question would be a pretty simple one: What is irregular warfare?

Answer: Actually, that’s not a simple question at all. The U.S. military just approved a new doctrinal definition for irregular warfare (IW).

To my mind, there are three important factors that any good definition should account for. First is the “who” — if it's only professional soldiers wearing uniforms with flags on their soldiers, it’s probably not IW. IW usually involves insurgents, criminal gangs, proxies or others that can be called “non-state actors.”

Second is the “what” — if it’s force-on-force battles like what you think of with the two world wars, that’s conventional warfare. IW involves less direct forms of combat, like guerilla tactics, terrorism, subversion, sabotage and resistance.

But the third factor is, I think, the most important one for defining irregular warfare: the “why.” Conventional war is usually a fight to destroy another military or to seize a piece of terrain. But the “target” of irregular warfare is the people themselves — more specifically, their loyalty and their perceptions of the legitimacy of their government.

Of course, it’s much harder to measure success when the target is psychological rather than physical. That’s why IW is more complex than conventional war — not harder, necessarily, but definitely more complex. And that’s why the journal is named “Inter Populum.” That’s Latin for “among the people.” IW is sometimes referred to as war among the people — it’s the human domain that matters most.

Q: Are there elements of irregular warfare going on right now with Ukraine-Russia, China-Taiwan and Hamas?

A: For sure. Hamas is a terrorist organization employing irregular tactics. And they, like Hezbollah, are Iranian proxies, so from an IW perspective, that conflict is much bigger than just Gaza. Many elements of the war in Ukraine are conventional, but the Wagner Group is a private company that has been stirring up trouble in Ukraine on behalf of the Russian state for a decade now. And both sides there are working to build resistance movements in the territory they consider their own. Taiwan is doing the same as they feel increasingly threatened by the Peoples Republic of China. And while China knows it would be folly to provoke a conventional war with the U.S., either directly or by bullying our allies, they consistently use irregular means to chip away at our influence and advantages without sparking a major war. Irregular warfare is alive and well.

Q: Why did you take on this additional role?

A: Because the world needs this journal, and because ASU is the ideal home for it. That sounds grandiose, but I believe it’s true. There is a real need for more rigorous scholarship around these issues.

The U.S. spent two decades tangled up in counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those wars cost us trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives — many of them people I knew and served with. That was IW — and to say the least, it didn’t work out like we’d hoped. Now, all the attention is on preparing for a big, conventional war with China or Russia and everybody thinks that means we can forget about IW. But IW is never going away. As long as we can deter our adversaries from taking us on in conventional or nuclear war, they will try to chip away at our strategic advantages through IW. And the terrorism problem isn’t going anywhere, either. Getting these things right doesn’t cost big money like battleships and fighter jets — the real investment required is intellectual. That’s why a journal like this is important.

And I do think ASU is the right home. We’re already offering graduate programs specifically in IW — few universities do that. We’re ranked No. 1 in the U.S. for transdisciplinary research, and IW is inherently transdisciplinary. We’ve got excellent faculty with the right expertise and vast experience, and we have deep connections into the military and special ops communities. Besides that, our publishing team is exceptional, and they’ve been very supportive.

Q: Who is Inter Populum’s intended audience?

A: We aim to make it useful to both scholars and practitioners. That is, people who study these things in universities and at think tanks, and also those who are “doing” irregular warfare, whether in the military, defense civilians in the intelligence community and law enforcement, and even policymakers who write the laws and provide the funding to make IW work.

And not just in the U.S. One of ASU’s great assets in this space is Security & Defense PLuS, our partnership with King’s College London and the University of New South Wales in Australia. ... Those two universities have excellent programs and deep ties to their defense ministries. The U.S. doesn’t go to war without allies, and ASU doesn’t start a venture like this without our partners. 

Q: What do you hope to achieve with this journal?

A: T.E. Lawrence wrote that “guerrilla war is far more intellectual than a bayonet charge.” That was his pithy way of saying what I said before, that IW is just tremendously complex. So it requires rigorous thought and open debate. But while there are great professional journals for nearly every branch and function of the military, there has not been one dedicated specifically to the study of irregular war — until now. ... Scholarly journals are vital for getting new and diverse ideas out into the wild. That’s our ambition for Inter Populum — to be the central medium for discussion, debate and the exchange of ideas among scholars and practitioners. And ultimately, of course, all this will result in better approaches to security and defense, and a freer, more peaceful world.

Top photo courtesy Pixabay

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