Security experts often disagree when ranking America’s security challenges, but most believe that the top three are violent Islamic extremism, Russia and China. These adversaries or potential adversaries have radically different capabilities and goals, but share one characteristic: All seem to be beating the United States on what can be called “the battlefield of perception.”
Unconstrained by democracy and driven by a fierce pursuit of power, they adroitly craft and disseminate narratives to weaken and delegitimize the existing international order and undercut American will, thus seeking to counterbalance the U.S. advantage in military and economic power. They consider belief and perception as much a part of war as any physical fight. “We are in a battle,” al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri explained, “and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.” The “war of the narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalm, and knives,” added Omar Hammami, a leader of Somalia’s al-Shabab terrorist movement.
Unfortunately, the United States faces major shortcomings on the battlefield of perception. Fourteen years after the Sept. 11 attacks and several years into Russia and China’s transition to more assertive and even aggressive foreign policies, America continues to lose at information warfare. There is no easy solution: When it comes to information warfare, the United States must accept legal and ethical limitations that dictatorships and extremist groups can ignore. That is an immutable reality.