A New Role for Joint Civil-Military Interaction

A New Role for Joint Civil-Military Interaction

by Dr. Thomas Matyók and Srečko Zajc



Photo Courtesy of Rappresentanza Permanente d'Italia NATO


Global crises, such as the spreading of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), hybrid threats and asymmetric warfare require civil-military interaction responses guided by a unity-of-aim approach to build-up capacity for successful conflict transformation. No single activity has a monopoly on responses. All of society is required to act collaboratively in replying to demands placed on it by emerging threats.


We ask: What can civil and military leaders and operators responding to crises, hybrid threats, and asymmetric warfare learn from medical approaches to disease prevention and intervention? Like the drunk looking for lost keys under the streetlight because the light is better there irrespective of the fact that they were dropped in the dark lot across the street, we often fail to search for answers in places because of the dark. We seem content to continue doing what is comfortable, not what is required.


We also question what crisis response actors, medical experts, politicians, civil protection volunteers, etc.  can learn from military responses to confronting complex and potentially dangerous situations? And more generally, are we looking into the face of ignorance, lack of will, and hidden agendas supported by those who might profit the most from different crises or is it simply a lack of a systematic approach (we may call it comprehensive) at national and international levels (for example EU, NATO, UN)? Lastly, how do crisis management curricula and pre-crisis exercises fail at all levels of education?


Violent conflict is a disease, though, the disease is not violent conflict, per-se. Violence as a disease may develop into limited or wide-spreading violent conflict when gun cultures prevent governments and citizens from acting intelligently and crafting healthy public policy, for instance. Needed are creative responses to emerging threats; ones that recognize the need for comprehensive approaches in eliminating the many manifestations of violent conflict. We must develop new, proactive operational paradigms to address conflict and cease reacting to violence.


Clearly, to find the correct answers to complex problems it is necessary to ask the proper questions. A wrong hypothesis will only arrive at the wrong conclusion. Our goal in this paper is to focus on developing the right questions that will lead to theory-informed answers regarding new and emerging roles for military forces in responding to crises, hybrid threats and asymmetric warfare. In the end, conflict analysis and resolution theory must be integrated into higher education, professional development, training, exercises and useful apps for use by the general public in responding to emerging threats. To act in a concerted, unity-of-aim approach individuals and organizations must have access to timely research and education regarding crisis response.


Thinking outside-of-the-box has become a well-worn phrase meant to help individuals and organizations imagine new and innovative ways to build security and peace in a world subjected to increasing asymmetry. Blocking new ways forward, however, is that we often unthinkingly search for answers within a closed system. We assume a finite set of responses. We remain in-the-box while trying to think outside of it. This can result in our doing little more in crises than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic when what is required is a better ship.


If we choose to be guided by closed system thinking we must accept there is little reason to ask the military what their answer is to current and future national security and defense questions; nor should we only ask civilians. We will need to accept there is only a finite range of responses, and nothing more. We do not believe this should be the way forward. Our addition to the discussion of addressing crises, hybrid threats, and asymmetry is that we need to engage open systems thinking where the number of potential responses to threats is limited only by our imagination, knowledge, and intellectual curiosity.


In this paper, we question if military and non-military operators are educated and trained properly to address threats and engage in coordinated responses, as well as what might be the role of civil society, governments, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), International Organizations (IOs), and Governmental Organizations (GOs) in meeting future crises? Are they educated, trained and able to work together collaboratively and cooperatively?  Can they interact positively in a constantly chaotic, fragile, and dynamic operational environment?


What is needed is a profound, as well as nuanced, understanding of security and the potential for the transformation of a health crisis, for example, as well as other hybrid threats into asymmetric warfare. Is asymmetric merely the opposite of symmetric warfare or is it different in kind? If asymmetric warfare is simply the reverse of symmetric than existing asymmetric responses should be enough, the opposite of symmetric. That has not proved the case. The number of special operating forces employing asymmetric methods now comes close to the number of conventional forces. Are we prepared to address asymmetry with asymmetric approaches to defense and security; thereby building an asymmetric fortress? How are resilient and anti-fragile systems forms of asymmetric offense and defense? Is it more useful to focus on the current state as continuous, a condition of permanent crisis and global chaos or look to the creation of future sustainable states able to battle against crises and hybrid threats in asymmetric environments? Is globalization a sustainable model of how we should run our Planet? Does globalization result in more, or fewer borders on the ground, between states, in governance systems and in understanding the living environment?


As for many phenomena today which we do not fully understand, crises, hybrid threats and asymmetrical warfare cannot escape our desire for certainty in searching for options, even conducting experiments, so we can write down the most comprehensive, simple, and understandable definition of threats. If we can't agree on a definition, how can we agree on solutions? And most frightening: are hybrid threats always the first stage of asymmetric warfare or only an announcement of it? Can hybrid threats later develop or transform into something different? Throughout this paper, we examine the relationship between hybrid and asymmetrica