Small Wars Journal

National Security Implications of Unresolved Grievances

Sat, 09/01/2018 - 9:16am

National Security Implications of Unresolved Grievances

Jeremy D. Lawhorn

“Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.”[i]

In his letter written in 1814, John Adams provides an ominous warning that suggests that the Republic is inherently doomed to fail. Research suggests that his 200-year-old prophecy may have been accurate as reflected in the current state of the Republic. A recent study by Pew Research Center finds the partisan divide in the United States is at its highest level since the Civil War.[ii] If this partisan divide was confined to the voting booths and family debates, there would be little cause for concern. Today however, this partisan divide represents a more serious problem than hurt feelings due to bickering over political candidates or a few social issues. The Pew Research Center suggests that political polarization in the United States has reached a dangerous extreme. Divisions on fundamental political and social issues reached record levels during President Obama’s term in office. And the gaps have increased even further during President Trump’s first year.[iii] This polarization is caused by political and social entrenchment combined with a general reluctance to compromise creating extreme fractionalization. Fissures have opened up along every major demographic line including race, ethnicity, religion, place of origin, gender, and along every major political and social issue including immigration, national security, gay marriage, religious freedom, structural inequalities and many others.

The extreme fracturing along these fault lines has wide ranging social, political, and security implications for the United States. Today, the single greatest challenge to the United States national security is the growing threat posed by people that are being forced to join factions that align, if only loosely, with their beliefs, creating deep fractures and eroding the internal cohesion of the country. In a geologic formation, a fracture is any separation that divides a rock into two or more pieces which commonly occurs when stress exceeds a rock’s strength, causing the rock to lose cohesion and fail along its weakest plane.[iv]  Similarly, fractures in America are its weakest planes, which expose opportunities for America’s adversaries to exploit. Using the myriad fractures as well as existing grievances, America’s adversaries are creating excessive stress in America’s foundation resulting in increased fractionalization. As recent history has shown with the mass protests, demonstrations, and riots across the nation, these fractures have become America’s most critical vulnerabilities, pitting average Americans against each other and eroding its internal cohesion thereby threatening the long-term stability of the country.

At present, the United States is facing a national security crisis in the making. Some might question the concern over threats to U.S. national security, they may even call those that are concerned fear mongers. While a cursory understanding of American power and security might suggest that the U.S. is under no immediate threat, a deeper understanding illuminates looming challenges. People who believe the United States is safe typically refer to America’s raw military capability to justify their position. Some argue that because the United States has the largest military budget in the world, the most sophisticated weapons systems, arguably the best trained military, and after almost two decades of persistent conflict, one of the most experienced militaries in the world, that the United States has no enemy to fear. These facts combined with the two oceans protecting its flanks, providing thousands of miles of standoff between it and any potential adversary, provides some reasonable support for claims that the threats to the United States national security are relatively low.

A critical look however, provides a more realistic understanding of the situation. The overly simplistic view of American security is the result of using the wrong metrics to analyze the nation’s strength and assess its national security. Policy makers and other analysts on both sides of the national security debate, focus on U.S. military strength as the primary metric to access America’s strength and use America’s adversary’s military strength as a comparative benchmark. The mistake these national security analysts make is that they rely on faulty metrics and fail to consider that the United States center of gravity is not its military. Using the wrong center of gravity for analyzing security will continue to leave the United States vulnerable. All of the military power in the world will not protect a country if the center of gravity is misidentified and even worse if it is left weak and not well protected.

In his treatise On War, the 19th century Prussian military general and theorist, Carl Von Clausewitz developed the concept of centers of gravity to provide an understanding of where power resides. He explained that the center of gravity is “the most effective target for a blow” and from which “the heaviest blow is that struck by the center of gravity.”[v] Because Clausewitz was a military theorist and he uses terms like “the heaviest blow,” some people confuse this to mean that the center of gravity must relate to a type of military strength. Defaulting to military strength as the basis for determining power security is shortsighted.

In order to effectively identify friendly and enemy centers of gravity, military planners use a method called critical factor analysis which is derived from Clausewitz explanation of power. It is important to clearly identify the friendly center of gravity to ensure that it is adequately protected and capable of performing its core functions. It is also important so that policy makers can properly analyze national security and allocate resources appropriately. While the academic debate over center of gravity analysis can fill the largest tome in a major library, the basics are fairly straight forward. Modern interpretations of Clausewitz’s concept explain that centers of gravity can be physical or moral entities that provide physical or moral strength, power or resistance. They don’t just contribute to a nation’s strength; they are the nation’s strength.[vi] With a weak center of gravity, it is difficult to achieve national objectives leaving the country ineffective and in danger of eventual collapse.

For the United States, the center of gravity is unquestionably the population, not the military. The United States was founded based on the principle that the people control the state and by extension, control the military. When the founding fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution, they were explicit about civilian control of the military. Article II Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states that “[t]he President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.”[vii] Because the state, the President, and other elected officials are subject to the people and the people determine the direction and outcome of the country, the people are definitively America’s center of gravity.

Critical factor analysis is also used to parse out the critical components of the center of gravity to assess its sources of strength, but more importantly to assess it weaknesses and vulnerabilities.[viii] These components are critical capabilities, critical requirements, and critical vulnerabilities. Centers of gravity have or perform critical capabilities which are essential to the maintaining or generating the physical or moral strength, power and resistance. America’s center of gravity has several critical capabilities that enable the nation to function and pursue its national objectives. They include among other things the will to accomplish the state’s goals, support to the government, adherence to the rule of law, participation in the political process, coexisting with fellow members of society, and paying taxes. The center of gravity relies on critical requirements which are the essential conditions, resources, and means necessary to perform these critical capabilities. Without its critical requirements, the center of gravity is incapable or has a diminished capacity to perform its core functions. For the U.S. center of gravity, these requirements include but are not limited to trust in the government and institutions, faith in the political system, fair and equal treatment, cohesion, affinity, and trust in the social contract. Identifying these requirements is crucial to understanding the necessary preconditions that enable the center of gravity to function properly. From these critical requirements a thorough analysis identifies critical vulnerabilities that are the aspects or components of critical requirements that are deficient or vulnerable to direct or indirect attack and can have a significant impact on the center of gravity.[ix] At present, many of America’s critical requirements are deficient creating significant vulnerabilities. These critical vulnerabilities are manifesting in the expanding fractures among the population, friction between the population and the government, and the unresolved grievances held by segments of the population. Collectively, these vulnerabilities reduce the sense of national cohesion, faith in the political system, trust in government, and trust between neighbors.   

Understanding the U.S. center of gravity’s current strengths and weaknesses is crucial for accurately assessing the U.S. national security. The Pew Research data on political polarization suggests that the U.S. center of gravity is critically weak. Analyzing these critical vulnerabilities, exposes the dangers posed by expanding fractures that are ripe for exploitation. As the population continues to become more polarized and deeper fractures emerge, the nation loses its cohesion which is one of the critical requirements. As each of the critical requirements disappear, America’s center of gravity becomes weaker. If not properly addressed, these fractures will continue to present significant challenges and have potentially devastating consequences for national security. 

Political polarization is nothing new in America, it has been around since the nation was created. Political institutions that exist in the United States emerged so that no single entity was capable of developing and implementing policies unilaterally. This was also the basis for establishing the three branches of government and the development of a multi-party system (albeit currently dominated by two parties). These different branches of government provide checks and balances while the various political parties moderate change as demanded by their constituents. In a perfect system, as these political parties engage in debate on issues relevant to their constituents, solutions should emerge that lead to some form of compromise that is relatively inclusive. This process of civil discourse, debate, and compromise is important and healthy for a free society. In general, it helps build stronger institutions, prevents myopia, and reduces the prevalence of group think, while creating policies that are more representative of the whole of society rather than a few. The history and culture of debate prevalent in America is good until discussions breakdown and people become so entrenched in their positions that they are unwilling to compromise, cooperate, or even acknowledge competing views. This is exactly what happened when the United States descended into Civil War. Both the North and the South were so committed to their positions, they decided that the only resolution was to soak the land with precious American blood.

These historic lessons of entrenchment are instructive for leaders today. The difference is, that the speed at which information travels today exacerbates political polarization. As a consequence, the United States is once again at the precipice of self-destruction. While the United States is currently addressing threats to national security all over the world like those posed by violent extremist groups, a greater threat is looming at home. The homeland is primed to implode; at present, the political polarization and fractionalization driven by growing resentment over unresolved internal problems is becoming a significant vulnerability as more people are becoming radicalized along major fault lines. As people become more radicalized in their views, they become reluctant to engage in debate and prefer to take action.

Fault Lines

Polarization occurs along several major fault lines which emerge due to the wide range of diversity that exists in American society. These fault lines typically fall within three broad categories based on the way people look, the way people think, and people’s social conditions. While these differences could be the foundation of American strength, instead they have become substantial areas of disagreement and entrenchment. These differences are prevalent primarily because of America’s history of openness and the basic right to freedom of expression. As these fault lines grow, they leave America exposed and vulnerable for exploitation.

America’s history of immigration is a major contributor to its diversity. Historically diversity has been one of America’s greatest strengths. Currently more than 14 percent of the American population, approximately 47 million people are immigrants. In absolute numbers, the United States has the largest immigrant population in the world, with approximately 19.1 percent of the 244 million international migrants worldwide.[x] These immigrants have created some of the greatest inventions in history and provoked some of the greatest thoughts. America has traditionally sought out the world’s most talented people to continually improve the country and meet the challenges of the future. American industries and universities are filled with the world’s most talented people who contribute to making America the strongest economy and a leader in innovative solutions.

When people migrate to America they bring with them their own culture, religion, beliefs, and way of life that contributes to the overall diversity of the country. In a free and open society this range of diversity should be accepted and celebrated, however the reality is that diversity can and has led to serious challenges. When diversity leads to new things like food, art, clothing, innovative solutions, and music it is generally easy to incorporate. Problems arise when diversity leads to conflicting ideas about what is socially and politically acceptable or when discrimination emerges around these issues. Additionally, when people’s beliefs are incongruent with established policies or common practice, significant challenges to national cohesion emerge. These incongruent ideas require compromise which means that one or both sides of an issue must give up something they believe in order to coexist. Sometimes this is possible, but for people with deeply held beliefs and for those that are negatively impacted by a compromise, this can lead to a feeling of cognitive dissonance. This cognitive dissonance occurs when people attempt to participate and support the idea of a free nation, but the adopted policies contradict their internal beliefs. This conflict between two competing ideas creates fault lines that can lead to increased polarization.

Race is another type of diversity that has always presented challenges in America and is a significant fault line creating risk to future stability. While the United States has a long history of racial issues, the past few years have seen an escalation in racial tensions by groups that feel that they have suffered injustices and by those that vehemently reject their claims. For example, the public outrage over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and others has illuminated a fault line centered on racial inequality in the United States. In response to these events, African Americans protested across the country sparking the “Black Lives Matter” movement. While many people jumped on the idea of supporting a group whose voices are often ignored, a counter movement, “All Lives Matter” also emerged which sought to overshadow those voices. These reactions reflect a deeper divide on how Americans view the problem of race.[xi] The majority of Americans across all age groups, regions, ethnicities, religious affiliations and socioeconomic status, believe racial tension exists in America. The vast majority, 84 percent of adults agree there is a lot of anger and hostility between ethnic and racial groups in America.[xii] As these tensions continue to grow, fractures increase along racial fault lines which increases instability and vulnerability in the United States.

Outside of the physical distinctions, the United States is filled with a wide range of socially acceptable ideas and beliefs. All Americans have some type of belief system that helps guide their decisions. Some of these beliefs are informed by religious upbringing while others are informed by experience or education. Social issues are not new in America and they have historically drawn heated debates. These social issues include gun control, abortion, undocumented immigrants, voter identification laws, capital punishment, gay marriage, and many others. There are countless social issues that exist and in free societies people have the right to their own opinion about each of these topics and should be able to voice their support or opposition without fear of persecution. Recently however, some of these issues have created deep divisions in American society resulting in protests and violent clashes. The debates over social issues have evolved from arguments with family and friends, to small scale, sometimes armed struggles. These social issues represent another set of significant fault lines that threaten stability and security. In the United States, the freedom of thought and expression as outlined in the Constitution, is a sacred right. The challenge is that there are so many different ideas and beliefs of what is right and some of the ideas conflict. While public policies are meant to incorporate everyone’s best interest, when conflicts exist on fundamental issues, it is impossible to create policies that satisfy everyone. As with all compromise, someone must relinquish part of what they desire but this can lead to friction and a sense of disenfranchisement.

Another significant fault line in America is the disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots.” A new in-depth study finds that wealth inequality in the U.S. is at near record levels; not since the Great Depression has wealth inequality in the U.S. been so acute.[xiii] Over the past three decades, the share of household wealth owned by the top 0.1% has increased from 7% to 22%. At the same time, 90% of families have seen their wealth erode due to a combination of rising debt, the collapse of the value of their assets during the financial crisis, and stagnant real wages.[xiv] This ever-widening gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is an extremely fragile fault line that represents a major threat to stability as the number of “have-nots” significantly outweigh the number of “haves.”

The fault lines addressed in this only represent a fraction of the many that exist within the United States. As these fault lines grow, they become significant points of weakness that threaten the structural integrity of America’s center of gravity. This structural integrity and the idea of being American is based on some fundamental principles set out by the founding fathers. Their proposition was: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[xv]  When people’s reality is inconsistent with this proposition they inevitably develop a sense of disenfranchisement. Overtime, continued disenfranchisement leads to substantial grievance formation. As these fault lines develop significant fractures, the grievances that emerge expose significant vulnerabilities ripe for exploitation. Understanding the importance of these grievances and how they impact national security is critical to the future stability of the United States. If these grievances are not addressed, over time they will erode America’s national strength and security by weakening its center of gravity.

One of the challenges in overcoming grievances is that they are endured by people that occupy low power positions, making it difficult to change their conditions within the confines of the system within which they exist. Likewise, those that occupy high power positions that benefit from the status quo lack any incentive to make changes. When grievances repeatedly go unaddressed or ignored, it can have disastrous consequences as people are forced to seek extralegal means of recourse. Since those who endure grievances have little to lose, they tend to have higher levels of motivation to change the system. The United States has first-hand experience enduring grievances and should have a firm understanding of the long-term consequences of allowing grievances to fester. The founding fathers penned their own infamous words in response to the grievances they endured at the hands of the British: “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”[xvi]  These words and the subsequent actions taken by the founding fathers should be a constant reminder of the implications of ignoring grievances.

It is a dangerous proposition, but people that continuously experience injustice might choose to take an example from history. In the face of persistent oppression, the founding fathers felt that their only option was to take action. In doing so they explained:

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."- United States Declaration of Independence.

The founding fathers’ actions provide both precedents and rationale for citizens facing persistent injustice.  History should serve as a useful warning for a society that consistently ignores or rejects grievances. Much like the founding fathers, groups today that feel marginalized because of ignored grievances are primed for action as well as potential exploitation by America’s adversaries.

Grievances lie at the core of the motivation to organize and take action against a system that supports or allows inequality or suppression of any kind. While some people may inherently feel unequal due to their social circumstances, research suggests that feelings of group relative deprivation increase the likelihood of collective behavior.[xvii] In a society where grievances exist across the social strata, grievances tend to be viewed as politically neutral. Grievances become a problem when members of a specific group feel that their group is treated unjustly, this can result in the emergence of group-based grievances. Such grievances become politically relevant because aggrieved groups are more capable of mobilizing to demand change than disjointed individuals.[xviii] As individuals identify with a group and become aware of shared grievances, comparisons easily generate high levels of relative deprivation. Depending on the severity of the relative deprivation, the reaction can be politically dangerous.[xix]

Before the development of the internet and the explosion of social media it was difficult to know the breadth and depth of exploitative conditions. While individuals may have had grievances based on their own individual notions of fairness, they were less likely to be aware of others that had the same grievances. Likewise, connecting with people was much more difficult before, but the internet has changed this dynamic. Today regardless of how unique a person is, they can find someone that shares common interests, beliefs, values, challenges, and even grievances. This ability to connect with like-minded people has changed the calculations for responding to groups with grievances and has provided a means of amplifying voices that were once easy to attenuate. Research suggests that this ability to connect, has also increased the likelihood of collective action.[xx]

While technology is useful for those who seek solidarity and redress for legitimate grievances, it also increases homophily and by default creates substantial echo chambers. These echo chambers emerge on all sides of issues where people do not invite new ideas but rather become increasingly committed to their views and causes. This is important to understand, because people that have grievances become even more committed while those who reject those grievances also become more committed. The problem is that many people consume information that reflects their preexisting beliefs and ideological predilections without having to consider or grapple with different perspectives. These echo chambers result in incendiary hyper-partisanship creating a population that is unwilling to compromise or cooperate across the various fault lines.[xxi] When people continue to surround themselves, physically or virtually, with people that share the same views it creates a reinforcement mechanism that makes them feel that their views are correct. This confirmation bias has potentially disastrous consequences as society becomes more entrenched in their beliefs.

While the founding fathers provide a good historical example of what can happen when grievances go unaddressed and people take things into their own hands, contemporary history provides some stark examples of unresolved grievances that led to massive social upheaval. What might have not been possible twenty years ago, spread like a wild fire across North Africa and the Middle East leading to reforms, toppled governments, and in some places civil war that still rages on. Enabled by social media, the Arab Spring took the world by complete surprise and was something unprecedented at the time. Numerous factors contributed to the Arab Spring such as dissatisfaction with the rule of local governments,[xxii] human rights violations, political corruption,[xxiii] economic decline, unemployment, extreme poverty, as well as a number of demographic structural factors,[xxiv] such as a large percentage of educated but dissatisfied youth within the entire population.[xxv] While each movement had its own unique issues, the commonality among all movements was a general dissatisfaction with the status quo and the unresolved social issues. There are some striking similarities between some of these grievances and some of the grievances that currently exist in America which should create a sense of urgency.

While the success of these movements is a subject of debate, the overall results provide a stark warning of the potential effects of unresolved grievances. These results include the ousting of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the overthrow of the Tunisian government. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak was ousted, arrested, charged, and the government overthrown. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi was killed following a civil war that saw a foreign military intervention, and the government overthrown. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted, and power handed to a national unity government, but has since descended into civil war.  In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad faced a civil uprising against his rule that deteriorated into armed rebellion and eventually full-scale civil war that has devastated the region. These are just a few examples that have had extreme consequences far beyond the political fallout. According to Amnesty International more than 65,000 people are missing after being arrested by government forces, over 250,000 people have been killed, and over 11 million people have been forced from their homes as a result of the Arab Spring.[xxvi]

An objective assessment might conclude that there were no winners from this social and political upheaval, only losers. If there is any silver lining to the devastation that has occurred, it is that the Arab Spring provides an example of how people can mobilize and the consequences of ignoring grievances by those in power. Leaders and policy makers should take away from this lesson, that it is no longer possible to suppress underrepresented voices or ignore grievances. In addition to doing what it right, it is now paramount that leaders and policy makers listen to all voices or else endure the consequences associated with social upheaval.

These social movements were a wakeup call for many people around the world. Entrepreneurs, opportunists, and others began to see the power of social media and the internet as much more than just a way to connect with friends and share vacation pictures and cooking recipes.  Unfortunately for the United States, its adversaries have also become keenly aware of the power of social media and are very adept at using it to achieve their political objectives. Today, with easy access to advanced technology combined with its openness, the United States has become one of the most sought-after targets in the world. Although the banking industry, Wall Street, the defense systems, and power generation plants provide very attractive targets for exploitation, the easiest, cheapest, most effective, most vulnerable and most damaging targets are the American people. Because America’s adversaries know that a direct attack would galvanize the population, they prefer the indirect approach by applying power against its critical vulnerabilities that will eventually destabilize America’s center of gravity.[xxvii] While the Arab Spring highlighted the utility of social media to inspire movements, Russia has recently exposed specific vulnerabilities in America and the ease at which the American people can be manipulated using social media.

While Russia is not the only country using social media to exploit opportunities in the United States, their recent successes have gained some attention, but that attention is currently misplaced. The revelation of Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has shed light on how easy it is to manipulate public perception using social media, but some people do not fully understand the threat. Russia successfully created fake social media accounts, stories, messages, videos and other posts that received millions of views, shares, likes, and created additional friction and deepened fractures on sensitive issues including race, immigrations, policing, etc. While most people are focused on whether Russia swayed public opinion to favor then candidate Donald Trump, what most people are missing is the fact that Russia created conditions that inspired millions of Americans to engage in heated debates with their friends, family, and coworkers driving wedges between each other. Russian operatives also inspired people to take to the streets and protest both for and against a range of social and political issues. Russia did this by successfully identifying and exploiting sensitive issues including existing fractures and grievances in the United States. What Russia is doing is capitalizing on internal grievances, both manufactured and real, to increase the divisions between people and stoke the flames of hatred while simultaneously allowing the population to believe that Russia assisted President Trump in order to ultimately weaken the American center of gravity.

In a statement, Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, explained that Russia weaponized social media to drive a wedge between Americans. Ultimately, they sought to divide Americans by race, by country of origin, by religion, and by political party.[xxviii][xxix] In many cases they were successful at driving wedges between people that were already primed for exploitation. At the center of this operation was the Internet Research Agency (IRA) located in St Petersburg, Russia. The IRA also known more generally as the Russian “troll factory”, spent its multimillion-dollar budget on gathering intelligence and making contacts with social and political activists in the United States.[xxx] According to an investigation by a Russian media outlet, Russian trolls posing as Americans also provided support to genuine activists in the U.S. to help fund protest movements on socially divisive issues.[xxxi]

Rob Goldman, the vice president of ads at Facebook stated that Russia’s intent was not necessarily to help Donald Trump get elected, but rather to sow discord among Americans.[xxxii] Further, he explained that Russia’s main goal of using propaganda and misinformation was to divide America by using its institutions, like free speech and social media, against itself.[xxxiii] Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, said that Russia conducted cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns with the intent of “degrading our democratic values and weakening our alliances.” He went on to explain that “these Russian actions are purposeful and premeditated and they represent an allout assault, by Vladimir Putin, on the rule of law, Western ideals and democratic norms.”[xxxiv] These clandestine Russian efforts aimed at fomenting resistance movements resulted in large-scale public demonstrations and protests erupting in major cities across America and nobody really knew for sure who had organized them.[xxxv] Facebook, Twitter, and Google also discovered that Russian influence operatives supported both sides of issues related to Black Lives Matter, Antifa, the alt-right, removal of Confederate statues, and a variety of other divisive issues.[xxxvi]

While it is difficult to know the extent of their reach and the overall impact, Russia was able to successfully reach millions of Americans and generate internal friction. The New York Times reported that Russian agents disseminated inflammatory posts that reached at least 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service.[xxxvii] Facebook also said it had found and deleted more than 170 accounts on its photo-sharing app Instagram; those accounts had posted about 120,000 pieces of Russia-linked content.[xxxviii] Altogether, the Russian trolls spent up to $100,000 on all the ads. In addition to the IRA’s activity, Twitter identified more than 36,000 automated accounts that posted 1.4 million election-related tweets linked to Russia over a three-month period. Those tweets received approximately 288 million views.[xxxix]

In May 2018, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a report of more than 3,500 ads created by Russian operatives between 2015 and 2017. Of the roughly 3,500 ads, about 1,950 made express references to race and received approximately 25 million ad impressions. At least 25 percent of the ads centered on issues involving crime and policing, often with a racial connotation. Separate ads, launched simultaneously, aimed to stoke suspicion about how police treat black people in one ad, while another ad encouraged support for pro-police groups.[xl] They created at least 129 events between 2015 and 2017, which were viewed by more than 300,000 people and roughly 62,000 Facebook users said they would attend.[xli] For example, Russian operatives created events like anti-Trump protests and pro-Muslim rallies, and then promoted them on Facebook. In some instances, Russian operatives set up both the protest and the counter protest in order to create physical confrontations. Not only has Russia been able to successfully exploit grievances in America, they have demonstrated that this technique is not only easy, but also extremely cheap. The cost to conduct these attacks on America are so cheap that just about anyone can afford and every country can afford to try. For example, in a sponsored post from April 2016 that cost approximately $44, Russian trolls posed as "Black Matters", urged people to vote for Bernie Sanders. That ad received 46,437 views with 5,607 people clicking it.[xlii] The ease of conducting these attacks and the limited repercussions for attempting such attacks, makes it a very attractive option for those who want to see America weakened.

Because there is limited taste for traditional state-on-state conflict and the risks of challenging the United States in a traditional warfare are too great, state and non-state actors will continue to avoid engaging America directly and increasingly rely on indirect tactics of attacking its critical vulnerabilities.  With the Arab Spring as a case study for contemporary mass mobilization and Russia’s success in the 2016 U.S. election as a case study of mass manipulation, America must assume that its adversaries will continue to exploit grievances to sow seeds of dissent to undermine, distract, and otherwise dismantle American power. The fallout from the Arab Spring and Russia’s success over the past few years should sound the alarm for a national awareness about the importance of grievances and their impact on national security. With today’s technology, it is easy to connect to people and share grievances and coordinate action. Likewise, as demonstrated in 2016, it is also easy for adversaries to manipulate people, highjack existing grievances, or manufacture false grievances to increase internal friction. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of propaganda targeted at nearly every demographic group to create dissention and internal turmoil for the purpose of eroding American unity. While posting contentious articles on social media may have once been viewed as innocuous, these activities have proven that they have the potential to rip the nation apart.

In his farewell address in 1796, President George Washington provided an ominous warning to the Republic that is just as relevant today as it was more than two centuries ago. “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”[xliii] Ignoring this sage advice, has allowed a threat to emerge within America that is the only thing capable of destroying the country. Continuing down the current path of overlooking grievances will ultimately result in an internal collapse, a violent overthrow of the current institutions, or an all-out civil war. At present, America’s single greatest challenge to national security is the growing threat posed by people that are being exploited by foreign influence causing the institutional deterioration that John Adams predicted more than 200 years ago. For America to remain a cohesive nation and retain its prominence in the world, leaders must start a conversation to bring the nation together and address the myriad grievances that make up its critical vulnerabilities. As Clausewitz explained nearly two centuries ago, the center of gravity is the nexus of all power. If that center of gravity continues to weaken due to a failure to resolve these critical vulnerabilities, the United States is destined will collapse from within. The only question that remains is, will John Adams’ prediction of democratic suicide hold true, or will the nation heed George Washington’s warnings about the threat of foreign influence?

The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Army or any other government organization.

End Notes

[i] “From John Adams to John Taylor, 17 December 1814,” Founders Online, National Archives, (last modified June 13, 2018), Retrieved August 20, 2018 from

[ii] Smith, S. (2017, October 05). The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider. Retrieved August 03, 2018, from

[iii] Smith, S. (2017, October 05). The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider. Retrieved August 03, 2018, from

[iv] Park, R. G. (2005) Foundation of Structural Geology (reprint of the 1997 Chapman and Hall edition) Routledge, Abingdon, England P. 9.

[v] Clausewitz, C. V. (1989). On War. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Michael Howard and Peter Paret. P. 485

[vi] Strange, J. & Iron, R., (no date). Understanding Centers of Gravity and Critical Vulnerabilities. Retrieved August 01, 2018, from

[vii] The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription. (n.d.). Retrieved August 01, 2018, from

[viii] United States. (2011). JP 5-0: Joint Operation Planning. Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff.

[ix] United States. (2011). JP 5-0: Joint Operation Planning. Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff.

[x] United Nations Population Division | Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2015). Retrieved August 15, 2018, from

[xi] Barna. (2016, May 5). Black Lives Matter and Racial Tension in America. Retrieved August 01, 2018, from

[xii] Barna. (2016, May 5). Black Lives Matter and Racial Tension in America. Retrieved August 01, 2018, from

[xiii] Monaghan, A. (2014, November 13). US wealth inequality - top 0.1% worth as much as the bottom 90%. Retrieved August 5, 2018, from

[xiv] Monaghan, A. (2014, November 13). US wealth inequality - top 0.1% worth as much as the bottom 90%. Retrieved August 5, 2018, from

[xv] United States. (2013). The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute.

[xvi] United States. (2013). The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute.

[xvii] Martin, J. (1986). "The Tolerance of Injustice.” in Relative Deprivation and Social Comparison (J. M. Olson, C. P. Herman, & M. P. Zanna, Eds.). The Ontario Symposium. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

[xviii] Klandermans, B., Roefs, M., & Olivier, J. (2001). Grievance Formation in a Country in Transition: South Africa, 1994-1998. Social Psychology Quarterly, 64(1), 41-54. doi:10.2307/3090149

[xix] Klandermans, B., Roefs, M., & Olivier, J. (2001). Grievance Formation in a Country in Transition: South Africa, 1994-1998. Social Psychology Quarterly, 64(1), 41-54. doi:10.2307/3090149

[xx] Martin, J. (1986). "The Tolerance of Injustice.” in Relative Deprivation and Social Comparison (J. M. Olson, C. P. Herman, & M. P. Zanna, Eds.). The Ontario Symposium. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

[xxi] Metz, S. (2017, December 19). Strategic Insights: Revolutionary Change Is Coming to Strategic Leadership. Retrieved August 01, 2018, from

[xxii] Kazamias, A. (2011, June). 'The "Anger Revolutions" in the Middle East: An answer to decades of failed reform', Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, 13:2, 143-156. DOI: 10.1080/19448953.2011.578857

[xxiii] Cockburn, A., & Clair, J. S. (2011, February 27). Tweet and Revolution. Counter Punch Diary. Retrieved August 13, 2018, from

[xxiv] Korotayev A, & Zinkina J. (2011). "Egyptian Revolution: A Demographic Structural Analysis". Middle East Studies Online Journal 5:2. Retrieved August 13, 2018, from

[xxv] Radsch, C. C. (2013). Digital Dissidence & Political Change: Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism in Egypt (Doctoral dissertation, American University). SSRN. Retrieved August 15, 2018, from

[xxvi] The 'Arab Spring': Five years on. (2016, January). Retrieved August 15, 2018, from

[xxvii] United States. (2011). JP 5-0: Joint Operation Planning. Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff.

[xxviii] Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Schiff Opening Statement During Hearing on Russian Active Measures | U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff of California's 28th District. (2017, March 20). Retrieved August 27, 2018, from

[xxix] Abramson, A. (2018, May 10). What We Learned From Facebook Ads Bought by Russian Trolls. Retrieved August 15, 2018, from

[xxx] E. (2018, February 18). The Guardian view on Russian trolls: Democracy is much too easy to hack | Editorial. Retrieved August 15, 2018, from

[xxxi] Walker, S. (2017, October 17). Russian troll factory paid US activists to help fund protests during election. Retrieved August 15, 2018, from

[xxxii] Aiello, C. (2018, February 17). Trump backs Facebook VP who says Russian meddling aimed at dividing America. Retrieved August 15, 2018, from

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Joyner, J. (2018, June 10). DNI: Russia is Attempting to Influence US Midterms, Divide Transatlantic Alliance. Retrieved August 15, 2018, from

[xxxv] Marcois, B. (2017, November 08). Will Putin Succeed in Dividing America? Retrieved August 15, 2018, from

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Isaac, M., & Wakabayashi, D. (2017, October 30). Russian Influence Reached 126 Million Through Facebook Alone. Retrieved August 15, 2018, from

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Penzenstadler, N., Heath, B., & Guynn, J. (2018, May 13). We read every one of the 3,517 Facebook ads bought by Russians. Here's what we found. Retrieved August 15, 2018, from

[xli] Ng, A. (2018, May 10). Congress releases all 3,000-plus Facebook ads bought by Russians. Retrieved August 1, 2018, from


[xliii] Washington, G. (1796). Transcript of President George Washington's Farewell Address (1796). Retrieved August 15, 2018, from


Categories: national security

About the Author(s)

Major Jeremy Lawhorn is an active duty Psychological Operations Officer with over a decade in Special Operations. He has served in the United States Army for over 18 years in a variety of leadership and staff officer positions, both domestically and internationally. His academic interest is primarily in military strategy, especially during the competition phase. His current research focuses on the importance of addressing grievances and looking at how unresolved grievances can destabilize countries as resistance movements emerge. He currently holds a Masters Degree from Norwich University, Duke University, and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.