Author Sean McFate: Contract Warfare, Private Armies & Mercenary Wars


Sean McFate is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council (a Washington DC think tank), and a professor of strategy at The National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He served as a paratrooper and officer in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division under Generals Stan McChrystal and David Petraeus and was a private military contractor raising armies for U.S. interests abroad. McFate is also the author of the Non-Fiction book, “The New Rules of War: How America Can Win Against Russia, China, and Other Threats,” which was named a “Book of the Year” by The Economist,” as well as “The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order.”  He also writes military thrillers, his latest novel, High Treason, had the  #1 New York Times bestselling author James Patterson announce that: “Sean McFate just might be the next Tom Clancy, only I think he’s even better,” and he’s been lauded as a new Sun Tzu by the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral Jim Stavridis.

In his books, The Modern Mercenary and The New Rules of War, McFate makes a compelling case for the demise of State hegemony, his treatise lays bare a disturbing reality, the world order that has existed since the end of the 30 years war and the Peace of Westphalia is in its final days as 70% of the world’s nations teeter on the brink of imploding, and at risk of descending into fiefdoms run by warlords, terrorists or narco criminal mafias, in the very least these states are incredibly fragile and although many will not descend into anarchy, most will likely simmer with conflict but be kept from being torn apart by competing domestic and foreign interests, controlled chaos that Sean McFate refers to as “durable disorder.”

The Westphalian order has given way to a smoldering entropy across of much of the world, according to McFate, “the number of armed conflicts has doubled since World War II, and of approximately 194 countries in the world, nearly half are experiencing some form of war.” The fall of the Berlin Wall, the defeat of communism, and the collapse of the Soviet Union brought with it an end to conventional warfare, and an intractable turmoil, a world populated by unstable nations where non-state actors are plunging the globe into a form of neo-medievalism, and a return to a free market for force rife with expeditionary conflict enterprisers and private military contractors. Durable disorder is dramatically changing the way in which wars are being fought, future wars will be waged in the shadows, via mercenary armies, cyber warfare, and influence operations. Economic warfare, lawfare, and the weaponizing of information will all be outsourced and executed by PMCs.

Furthermore, the most opportunistic expeditionary conflict entrepreneurs will fight at the behest of rogue regimes, warlords, billionaires, and corporations as nations give up their monopoly on the use of force. Currently, even the wold’s largest, most powerful, and technologically advanced military, on the planet, the United States Armed Forces, can no longer go to war without the overwhelming support of PMCs. Up to 50% of military support, security, and services personnel in Iraq were carried out by contractors and up to 75% of military-related personnel in Afghanistan have been sourced from the private sector, a reality that would have been unthinkable just two decades earlier.

The global war on terror, the increasing economic, political, and cultural instability of 70% of the world’s nations, and the exponential quickening of the globe’s descent into durable disorder demands that we plan, purchase, and prepare to manage these conflicts and win these wars with a completely new set of rules, a new strategy that recognizes that the wars of the last few hundred years, especially the world wars of the 20th century, are a relic of the past and that the stealth wars of tomorrow, will be ignited and exacerbated by non-state actors, and exploited by the likes of Russia and China through with all sides leveraging private armies, contract warfare, and modern-day mercenaries.


Sean McFate: “The reason why mercenaries are coming back (is), look who hires mercenaries, a lot of them are really rich countries like the UAE, who want to go to war, but don’t really have a military to do it. Saudi Arabia talks to the UAE and says, ‘we’re going to war in Yemen, contribute,’ and so they hire people to do it for them. You’re also seeing the extractive industry and billionaires trying to hire them more and more, to do whatever they want, which is a whole different conversation, but the question is, why are countries like Russia and the United States, which have powerful militaries, why are they hiring military contractors? I mean, surely we have SEAL Team Six and Delta, why do we need them? The reason why, and I define this early, in “The Modern Mercenary” and take it up in “The New Rules of War,” the reason why the mercenary world is booming is because they give you the most precious asset in modern war, and that’s plausible deniability. We live in an information age, and weapons that give you plausible deniability are now more important than raw firepower. Look at how Russia took Ukraine in 2014. In the old rules of war, when Russia wanted to put their boots on somebody’s neck, they rolled in the tanks, like in hungry in 56′ or Czechoslovakia in 68′, it was pure force, and that worked. That doesn’t work anymore. In fact, pure force is a liability in modern warfare. What you want to do is you want to wage war in the shadows, so nobody ever sees it. By the time anybody sees it, it’s a fait accompli, which is what they did with Crimea.”

“Russia created the fog of war in Ukraine using a ghost occupation army of Wagner Group mercenaries Spetsnaz Special Forces, Little Green Men these astroturfed separatist Russian units, militia and a lot of active measures and propaganda. They manipulated our perception of reality so that when Western leaders were still scratching their heads about what exactly was going on in eastern Ukraine, we saw tanks in Crimea, and those tanks arrived that day, Crimea was already occupied by this ghost occupation force – and that’s what modern war is. Look at Syria, we know who’s on the ground and why. Look at Libya, we have mercenaries battling mercenaries. These are the conflicts of the future, in the way that the Spanish Civil War, presaged World War Two. Warfare is changing, it’s going underground into the shadows, and one of the most important instruments of modern war are mercenaries, because they can do things that we don’t want our own soldiers caught doing on CNN and Fox News. And if it really gets bad, we’ll say we don’t know who they are, and you say well, that’s ridiculous, we know. We know those Spetsnaz guys, what they were doing in Ukraine, and Wagner Group, we know what The Wagner Group is doing in Libya, but we don’t react the same way. That’s the difference. So it gives plausible deniability, not just to the country using them, but for the country who is a victim, who doesn’t really want to escalate to war. All sides can back down and sort of scratch it up to a bunch of rogue war tourists, as Churchill would say.”

Lawrence Rosenberg: So, you refer to a concept that kind of describes a lot of what we’ve been talking about, this “neo-medievalism” and how it threatens the world order, which has been dominated by nation-states for the last few hundred years, can you talk about neo-medievalism?

Sean McFate: “When we think about the Middle Ages, most people call them the Dark Ages, which is a misnomer, they weren’t. We think about The Middle Ages today we think of the Knights of Nee, we think of Mad Max and Thunderdome, but that’s not what the Middle Ages were, the Middle Ages weren’t ruled by any category of political actors like nation-states, it was a free for all, and most of human history is a free for all, and you had states and non-states and they’re all on the same bottom, nobody had a special authority. There’s a couple of places like the Roman Empire, but the Roman Empire was not a nation-state, it was an empire ruled by a city, a city ruled the Mediterranean. So when we think of nation-states, we think of them as timeless and universal, but that’s wrong. They grew out of the 30 Years War, and they had a beginning, a middle, and they may have an end, and we’re going back to a world that’s no longer state-centric, and that’s the point of the book. And a symptom of this is the rise or the return of mercenaries because remember, mercenaries stand apart from the state system. In a state system, only national armies can have a monopoly on force and everything else is outlawed. Now that we’re seeing terrorists and insurgents and mercenaries and Russia using mercenaries, it really looks more like the world before the Treaty of Westphalia before the war back in Machiavelli’s day. And, international politics is getting to a point where the global 0.001% will rule, the Fortune 500 will rule, groups like Al Qaeda will rule, narco-states will rule, it’s not just nation-states, it’s everybody, and Washington DC is not prepared for that, our bureaucracy is only prepared to look at nation-states, to deal with nation-states – and this is our challenge for the 21st century.”

“Durable disorder is what’s left in the wake of states as they retreat, as the West retreats. We call it international relations theory, the world of nation-states, which is the world that we grew up in the sixth grade learning about, that’s called the Westphalian order based on the treaties of Westphalia in 1648, and the world it supposedly set up, which is that nation-states rule, international law, it all comes back to them. That world is retreating. It’s been retreating since at least 1990. And, what’s left in the wake of it is, look at Syria, Syria was once a strong government now it’s a free for all, that’s durable disorder for you. But Syria is a kind of extreme example, things don’t collapse into complete anarchy, they do for a while in places like Syria or Somalia or Liberia or Burundi or the Congo, but they also kind of trudge along there is governance on the ground often, but it’s not to a flag or to a nation-state it’s to a tribe, there’s governance on the ground in many places, it’s messy, but it’s not like the Knights of Nee, it’s not like the sky is falling, let’s invest in more sky, most of us who are Westphalians think of a world without nation-states is a world of pure anarchy, like “The Road” by Cormack McCarthy), but that’s not the case, the world moves forward as it did in the Middle Ages, in antiquity, in durable disorder, we’re returning to that. And the book, The New Rules of War” explains how to survive in that world, how to do well by it. And we should also not mourn the passing of states too much because let’s not forget that when nation-states were in charge you have World War One, World War Two, the Holocaust, some of the most brutal armed conflicts in history because of the organizing power of states. So it’s not exactly a completely bad news story, the world’s going back to the status quo ante of normal, in my opinion, you know, the last 100, 200, 300 years of states being in control of everything is anomalous in world history, and we’re going back to a much older type of governance, and armed conflict, war, and international relations will change as a result, and mercenaries are just a symptom of this, not a cause.”

Lawrence Rosenberg: The presence of a private military industry today is significant. And it indicates that the market for force is shifting back to a mediated market and that the state’s monopoly on force is loosening. You say that if this trend continues, the world will return to a free market of mercenaries and contract warfare. What is fueling this trend?

Sean McFate: “So in some ways, Libya today is a case study in this You have Turkey using mercenaries, you have the UAE using mercenaries and Russia using mercenaries, and it’s an example of what I call shadow war. We have all sorts of people there and we don’t know who they’re fighting for and why, and that’s modern warfare. And most people don’t even know what’s going on in Libya and that’s by design. And it’s because mercenaries … give you good plausible deniability. So the first thing that that’s driving this trend is, if you want to wage war, now you have to do it away from the TV cameras, and so you need weapons that give you plausible deniability and war is becoming more sneaky as a result, and mercenaries are the epitome of sneakiness. Another reason that you’re seeing strong countries and rich countries (well, rich countries only use mercenaries), like Russia, the US, and the UAE is because we have societies that are casualty averse. In other words, the American people do not like seeing dead Marines coming home in body bags from faraway places. But we do not care two wits about a dead contractor, at all. So if you are a politician, and you want to wage war to look strong, but you know, you don’t want to have to deal with the blowback of dead Marines, send in the mercenaries or the military contractors … it makes no difference what you call them, we know what they do, right?”

“So for casualty averse societies, and Russia has this as well, Russia has a lot of casualty averseness from the Afghan war from the 80s. Another reason you want to hire mercenaries is because, say you’re a country like Nigeria that needs a specialty niche service that you can’t afford, like specialty helicopters, which are very expensive to maintain and train, of course in America we don’t have that problem we’re so rich, but a lot of nations have to make choices. So it’s better to rent them than to own them, and so they’re renting them. You can rent Special Operations Forces units as well, I mean, you could get almost anything, you get a lot on the market these days … not everything.” 

“Increasingly, you’re seeing non-state actors turning to this field because America’s heavy use of private military contractors in the Iraq and Afghanistan war has kind of legitimize this to some extent, there was no international law blowback, nothing like that. And so now we can’t finger-wag at Russia for doing this with The Wagner Group, or the UAE or turkey, or anybody else, so we’ve normalized it to some extent … Pandora’s box is open. We’re also seeing that companies are using this, starting with the extractive industry like oil, gas, timber, because they don’t have a choice where their assets are, they have to go to dangerous places because all the safe places are already mined out, tapped out. And they’re starting to use private military companies now because they don’t want to be at the mercy of corrupt local and national forces. So we’re seeing this industry slowly emerge, it’s not happening overnight, it’s not like 911 where your life changes in 10 minutes, it’s happening over decades. We tend not to pay attention to it, but it’s changing.”

” … Mao says political power comes at the end of a gun, I’m not endorsing Maoism, but there’s some truth to that in some of these places in the world that we’re seeing mercenaries. And now that anybody who’s rich enough can hire mercenaries to do almost anything they want, it’s going to change who has power in International Relations.”


Sean McFate:
The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order:
The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder:


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