Helping the Army Special Operations Forces understand subversion in an age of countering violent extremism

Subversion: Non-Violent Warfare in an Age of Countering Violent Extremism

 By J. Michael Waller, Ph.D.

John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center, Fort Bragg, NC, September 12, 2016


Subversion is an ambiguous form of conflict in war and peace that does not rely on violence. From the perspective of the target, subversion is so ambiguous – and often gradual and long-term – that American diplomatic, security, and military planners find it difficult to identify, recognize, understand, and neutralize. Subversion has a logic and process of its own that permits identification for defense and offensive purposes to Phase 0. This paper summarizes a larger concept paper to explore subversion for defensive and offensive purposes.


  • Subversion as a growing concern
  • What is subversion?
  • Subversion throughout history
  • Four main elements of subversion, as defined by DoD
  • CVE model excludes subversion
  • Conclusion


Subversion as a growing concern

As a nation that’s intellectually and physically equipped to deter and destroy violent adversaries through various degrees of physical force, how do we counter an aggressive adversary that is not waging violence?

Well before the current presidential campaign revived concerns about foreign subversion directed at the United States, the National Intelligence Council found that both state and non-state actors would rely more on subversion as a means of waging conflict. The NIC anticipated that “most intrastate conflict will be characterized by irregular warfare – terrorism, subversion, sabotage, insurgency, and criminal activities.”[1] The same can be argued about interstate conflict, especially concerning China, Iran, and Russia.

What is subversion?

DoD definition. DoD defines subversion as “actions designed to undermine the military, economic, psychological, or political strength or morale of a governing authority.”[2] The scope is understood as both tactical and strategic, the mode both overt and covert, and carried out by civilian and/or military entities but not limited to either. Under the DoD definition, then, subversion is a means of (1) military warfare, (2) economic warfare, (3) psychological warfare, and (4) political warfare. Official U.S. government references to subversion presently provide further definition. We will explore the DoD definition after discussing other definitions and historical contexts.

Definitional challenges. Subversion is both a tangible action and an intangible object, and in societies based on the free exchange of ideas and association, the idea can be difficult to grasp. Definition is difficult, sometimes reduced to “I know it when I see it.” But we don’t always know what to see. We don’t know what we don’t see. And oftentimes, we don’t see it when we see it.

Western societies have no doctrine of operative principles for waging or defending against subversion. The Soviets and Nazis did. Post-Soviet Russia, the People’s Republic of China, and the Islamic Republic Iran, as well as jihadist movements, certainly do.

DoD defines subversion in a military context suited to its role, but the concept is, at its core, a civilian one. But there is little understanding of, or consensus on, a civilian definition. Just as warfare is politics by other means in a Clausewitzian sense, subversion is politics in a Machiavellian sense. And politics are subjective.

Core features of subversion. Subversion occurs in a state or society that is in “neither war nor peace,” and that can be in either or both. It is most effective when considered a strategic asset or weapon, and not as a mere operational-tactical ancillary tool like PSYOP/MISO. Cultivation of subversive capabilities, especially from within or below, can require years or more to put in place. Subversion can be contained, shaped, neutralized, destroyed, or optimized. It can be employed in a manner similar to, or as part of, a use-of-force continuum.

One can conduct subversion overtly from above (also called “from without”) to achieve the defined goals, without the use of secret agents; and from below (or “from within”) to infiltrate and penetrate the targets from the inside, and undermine the targets to achieve the desired goals.

A key element of subversion is the planned infiltration of people, information, and ideas for the purpose of influencing the attitudes of target audiences, be they individual decision-makers or entire societies. Planned infiltration of people takes time – often well beyond the American electoral, fiscal, or operational military cycles that demand visible measurements of effectiveness. Thus those with a more patient geostrategic approach, like the Russians and Chinese, or a supernatural approach, like the Iranian regime and jihadist movements, have an advantage.

An act of violence against civilians without political intent is a crime, but it is not terrorism. Stealing classified information is a crime, but it isn’t espionage unless it involves a transfer of loyalty by providing the secrets to a foreign power. Likewise, social changes can be subversive of societal norms and ideals, but if they are not planned with specific intent, they are not subversion. They can become acts of subversion when elements exploit those changes for specific intent.

Transfer of loyalty. A main objective of subversion is to induce the target to make decisions against its own interests, and ultimately to transfer loyalty. As a former American practitioner noted more than a half-century ago:

Subversion is the undermining or detachment of the loyalties of significant political and social groups within the victimized state, and their transference, under ideal conditions, to the symbols and institutions of the aggressor. The assumption behind the manipulative use of subversion is that public morale and the will to resist intervention are the products of combined political and societal or class loyalties which are usually attached to national symbols, such as the flag, constitution, crown, or even the persons of the chief of state or other national leaders. Following penetration, and parallel with the forced disintegration of political and social institutions of the state, these loyalties may be detached and transferred to the political or ideological cause of the aggressor.”[3]

Unwitting collaboration. Some argue that subversion requires the unwitting collaboration of the target to facilitate the subversion itself. “Subversion is the proximate end of most political warfare, whether it is affected by agents, propaganda, or policy. Deception is so essential to subversion that the two words describe almost the same phenomenon,” according to Machiavelli scholar Angelo Codevilla:

“The paramount fact essential to understanding deception is that it requires cooperation between the deceiver and the deceived. Just as no one has ever been seduced or subverted against his will, seldom is anyone convinced that something is true that he does not wish were true. Hence the craft of deception and subversion lies mostly in discovering what the target wants to hear and to do. The essence of execution lies in providing just enough excuse for the target to deceive and subvert itself.”[4]

Subversion throughout history

Throughout recorded human history, subversion has played an important role in political, cultural, and military conflict.

The ancient Hebrews faced it in the Old Testament.[5] One of the earliest references to subversion of military strength and morale appears in the Old Testament, in which the Jews are defending Jerusalem from a Babylonian military offensive. As the siege of the city was underway, the prophet Jeremiah said that, due to the Jewish kings’ unworthy rule, it was God’s will that Jerusalem fall to the enemy, and the king of Judah be handed over to the enemy king. Jeremiah thus encouraged his own people to submit themselves to the invaders, the ultimate act of subversion.[6]

Sun Tzu (c. 544-496 BC) prescribed it in ancient China as part of his “acme of skill” to defeat the enemy without fighting.[7] The writers attributed to Kautilya (350-275 BC) described in great detail how to wage subversion to build and expand empires in ancient India.[8] The ancient Romans coined the Latin term subvertere, or “overturning,” to protect and expand their empire. It is from the Latin that our English terminology originates. Niccolo Machiavelli, living in the 15th century, is perhaps the most notorious – and truly subversive – theoreticians of subversion.[9]

In modern history, the Bolsheviks, who began their revolution as a subversive underground movement, and subverted the post-tsarist Russian provisional government thanks to a brilliant subversive move by the German general staff, raised the art to an industrialized form of statecraft. The methods the Soviet regime adapted, pioneered, and refined became a model for other subversive movements, regardless of ideology.

Now, let us look at how the DoD definition of subversion applies to concerns of today and the future. 

Four main elements of subversion, as defined by DoD

Using the DoD definition of subversion as “actions” limited to undermine strength or morale, we will look at each of the four itemized elements. We can discuss specific substantiating examples beyond this paper.

Element 1: Undermining military strength or morale. The ambiguous undermining of military strength or morale can be done alone or in concert with un-ambiguous direct action, both non-violent and violent. This element of subversion erodes the will of target nations or societies to initiate or continue military action, take risks, and even to be strong militarily. It undermines force morale and civilian morale at home and abroad, and weakens the command and authority of military and civilian leadership. It undermines the will to deploy when necessary. It not only undermines the will or capability of warriors to fight; at the national strategic level it undermines the will to modernize forces, advise civilian leadership, or even exist at all. Quality subversion can even undermine the proper recruitment, training, and indoctrination of those warriors in the first place – or to waste resources by recruiting the wrong people, and training and indoctrinating them to their detriment.

Element 2: Undermining economic strength or morale. Economic sanctions and blockades are forms of overt economic warfare, and may even be considered casus belli or acts of war. The subversive side of undermining economic strength or morale can come in the form of influencing decisions of foreign government of business figures to damage their own economic interests by inducing them to make self-defeating decisions. Deliberately causing or exacerbating inflation, currency devaluation, runs on banks, capital flight, disinvestment, unemployment, and the secondary strains of increased welfare spending and other social costs, can be acts of economic subversion.

Element 3: Undermining psychological strength or morale. This element of subversion is a component of psychological warfare, but is different because it can be used for purposes apart from war. It has little to do with military information support operations (MISO), which used to be called psychological operations (PSYOP). PSYOP/MISO, as the United States practices it, is almost exclusively tactical-operational in nature and usually directed at combatants and civilians in limited combat areas, instead of at senior decisionmakers or entire societies for prolonged periods. Psychological strength or morale of leaders and societies can relate to the electrochemical reactions within the human brain, and may not be a matter of military capability, economic power, or political will. It involves leveraging elements of the targets’ culture, law, sociopolitical traits, emotions, morals, and values. Manipulating the psychological state of individual leaders or entire nations, in times of hot war or otherwise, is perhaps the most subversive of all.

Element 4: Undermining political strength or morale. Undermining political strength or morale, much like undermining physical or material capabilities, can alter political realities to achieve desired objectives. It can achieve potentially the same (or even superior) results as military action, with much lower human and material costs. Invading a country is not necessary when one can accomplish the same objective by influencing the decisions or its leaders – or changing its leadership – from the inside. History offers hundreds of examples of short-, medium-, and long-term successes here.

CVE model excludes subversion

Because it is generally not violent, subversion sits mostly outside the present countering violent extremism (CVE) model. Consequently, as a nation, we are not prepared to recognize and defend against the subversion of other regimes or movements directed at our capabilities and morale, even when certain subversive movements have exactly the same end state as violent enemies. Some of those movements wage non-violent warfare under a friendly face as a means of infiltrating societies for future revolutionary or violent action.

Even when such networks are visibly extreme, or deployed for extremist purposes, their actions might not be illegal, or we might be tempted to dismiss them as “moderate” because they are not presently using violence against our interests. Thus the CVE model can cause us to consider some extremists as tactical allies against violent forces like al Qaeda or ISIS. And while such tactical alliances may occasionally be necessary to achieve an objective, the CVE lens does not permit us to consider how to prevent those allies of convenience from achieving the shared end state of the violent extremists. This Western gap in mindset is a boon to subversion practitioners, yet is rather simple to resolve by developing indicators.

Countersubversion, counterintelligence, and beyond. Another mindset gap is that Western democracies, to the extent they consider it at all, tend to mirror-image subversion as what we understand as “covert operations.” And covert operations, by definition, are generally relegated to civilian intelligence services. So the United States and most of its major allies tend to consider countersubversion, if they consider it at all, as a role of their counterintelligence services.

That is because we tend to mirror-image. Subversion is not necessarily an intelligence function. Indeed, it can be argued that Russia, China, and Iran wage much of their subversion through entities that are not intelligence services at all. Even if our foreign adversaries’ subversion was primarily executed by their intelligence services, the U.S. and most of its major allies tend to equate “counterintelligence” with “counterespionage,” and thus reduce the counterintelligence function simply to fighting spies who steal secrets.

A useful aspect of the CVE approach is that it reestablishes a precedent by relying on the widest possible array of civilian agencies, and uniformed services both police and military, at every level of the federal governments and through many state governments. 


Subversion is an ancient form of human conflict. It is both a military and civilian instrument, executed by state and non-state actors. Subversion is an ambiguous form of warfare from the eyes of the target, both in times of what Western societies traditionally view as “war” and “peace.”

Subversion is most effectively a strategic capability. That capability is to influence individual leaders and governments, as well as entire nations and societies at Phase 0 and onward. It can be employed in a manner to, or as part of, a use-of-force continuum.

Democratic nations and societies generally have little consensus on how to define subversion as a civilian issue, and generally limit their understanding to the military sphere and asymmetrical or hybrid warfare. They tend not to wage subversion and have constructed few defenses against it. Nations, societies, and movements with little or no democratic tradition tend to show a profound understanding of how to wage subversion.

Democratic nations, however, can develop their own defensive countersubversion and offensive subversion capabilities without compromising their principles. To do so, they will have to move beyond the CVE model. That means countering extremists who are not yet violent, and countering “moderates” who share the same end goals as the violent extremists. It also means developing countermeasures to subversion that governments such as Russia, China, and Iran wage against the United States and its allies and interests worldwide.

Without mastering subversion as a strategic instrument of conflict, the United States will not prevail against present and potential adversaries who have done so. The good news is that subversion is not a difficult concept for us to master.


[1] National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, NIC 2012-001, December 2012, pp. 59-60.

[2] Emphasis added. DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms:

[3] Paul W. Blackstock, The Strategy of Subversion: Manipulating the Politics of Other Nations (Quadrangle, 1964), p. 44. Emphasis added.

[4] Angelo Codevilla, “Political Warfare: A set of means for achieving political ends,” in J. Michael Waller, ed., Strategic Influence: Public Diplomacy, Counterpropaganda, and Political Warfare (Institute of World Politics Press, 2008), p. 217.

[5] Some scholars argue that many Old Testament figures, especially the Deuteronomist prophets, were subversive of ruling civil authority, particularly monarchs who claimed a divine right to rule. See Rex Mason, Propaganda and Subversion in the Old Testament (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1997).

[6] Jeremiah 32:1-5.

[7] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. and ed. Samuel B. Griffith (Oxford University Press, 1971).

[8] Kautilya, The Arthashastra, translated into English (Penguin, 2000).

[9] Of all the excellent translators of Machiavelli, one of the most insightful in terms of understanding the subversive mindset is Angelo Codevilla. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (Rethinking the Western Tradition), trans. and ed. Angelo Codevilla (Yale University Press, 1997).