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Competing for National Security and Resilience Partnerships

Bottom Line: the options – and competition – for national security and resilience partnerships will grow in the years ahead.


One of the emerging issues (EI) in our recent 2022 EI4CS was, “Non-USG Actors as Preferred Partners.” This EI deals with the potential for US special operations forces to no longer be the preferred partner force for other governments. Increasingly, we have seen companies, philanthropies, and other non-state actors with the resources and capabilities to offer interesting alternatives for governments facing a variety of governance challenges. Given trends in recent conflicts and the ongoing war in Ukraine, this EI encourages us to think more broadly about what kinds of actors might provide compelling security and resilience partnerships in the future.

Seeing Conflict in More Expansive Terms

The strategic adaptations of actors like Russia and the Chinese Communist Party in recent decades has induced a recognition that conflicts and contests between humans can range across both military and non-military realms. Additionally, they have reminded us that human relations are nuanced, i.e. there can simultaneously be cooperation and contestation between two parties. The ongoing armed conflict in Ukraine has been an unfortunately wonderful example of how conflict “spaces” should be thought of in much more expansive terms than some of us had gotten used to using.

In Ukraine we have seen a wide variety of actors from around the world get involved in the conflict. Beyond the expected government personnel (officials, diplomats, and uniformed soldiers), we have seen private citizens, ad hoc networks of individuals, non-profits, and companies get involved. These actors have done a wide variety of things, including: crowdfunding, organize evacuations, provide intelligence analysis, donate drones, and provide cyber support. Some have even volunteered to fight on the front lines, in the International Legion of Defence of Ukraine. Somewhat reminiscent of how individuals from around the world joined ISIS, individuals and groups are providing a wide range of valuable resources, expertise, and labor to this globalized armed conflict.

More Diverse Partnerships

The “Non-USG Actors as Preferred Partners” EI outlines the possibility that in the future US special operations forces would face competition from a variety of new actors for their traditional partnership role with the governments of smaller nations. As we watch the events in Ukraine unfold – as well as the outward ripple of impacts across Russia and the rest of the world – we should recognize the very logical possibility that there may be a very diverse ecosystem of potential partnerships available in the years ahead. Given the mobilization of global talent and resources on Ukraine’s behalf, we perhaps should look well beyond advisors and trainers from large state militaries and private security contractors as the only legitimate options for governments looking to enhance and augment their domestic security and resilience.

Looking ahead, we might consider how desirable partnerships to improve a nation’s security/resilience/resistance could formalize with independent nonprofits and private companies around things like narrative/disinformation operations, cyber security (and counterstrike), intelligence analysis, unmanned and autonomous systems, distributed fabrication and logistics, and assured communications. Given the expanding wealth of capabilities and expertise in the world today, it would seem that governments in the future will have many more options to choose from. In a world of rising strategic competition, in which talk of a new “cold war” between the US and China continues to grow, having more options might be very appealing to a great many state actors in the years ahead.


State-to-state partnerships are an important element of foreign relations and national security strategy. To date, one component of that has been the role that US special operations plays in maintaining long-term relationships with other nations. As the geopolitical landscape changes and conflicts become more globalized and more complex, an appealing possibility (for some) will be having more – and more flexible – partnerships for improving national security and resilience. As we think about this more, there are a number of interesting questions to explore. What emerging capabilities to might be of interest to state governments? What types of actors could offer these capabilities in the future? Finally, how would traditional partners like the United States compete with these new alternatives for preferred partners?

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