Book Review: 2034

2034, by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis, Penguin Press, 2021, 303 pages, $27.00

Her adversary had made his move. Her move would come next. But was the torpedo aimed at the Wén Rui, or at her ship? Who was the aggressor? No one would ever be able to agree. Wars were justified over such disagreements.… Who was to blame for what has transpired on this day wouldn’t be decided anytime soon. The war needs to come first. Then the victor would appropriate the blame. This is how it was and always be. This is what she was thinking when the torpedo hit.

Realistic, scary, timely.

On 1 July 2021, Chinese Communist party leader Xi Jinping warned that heads would be bashed if any foreign forces attempted to bully China. Xi’s warning was, if you will, a naked threat to the US should it attempt to interfere with China’s ambitious goal to control and exploit the South China Sea, which it claims to own from the tip of China to as far south as James Shoal off the tip of the Borneo coast of Malaysia, exclusively. States in the region such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines beg to differ. But as famously recorded by Thucydides, the Athenians, when offering the Melians an ultimatum to surrender and pay tribute to Athens or be destroyed, had a simple message that continues to resonate in geopolitics: the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.1Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.89 (δυνατὰ δὲ οἱ προύχοντες πράσσουσι καὶ οἱ ἀσθενεῖς ξυγχωροῦσιν Realpolitik at its rawest. No use quibbling about morality or fairness or legality.

The South China Sea is massive and indispensable to the free passage of cargo. It is also indispensable to the US’s and others’ vital national interests, protected in part through their naval vessels and aircraft strategically cruising the international waters to be on the ready in lending a hand to friends and pouncing on foes.

The obvious other target of Xi’s warning was Taiwan. Seeing it as a renegade Chinese province, Xi is putting his marker down for the US and its allies to butt-out – to remain on the sidelines if and when China decides to make its move to reunite Taiwan with mainland China be it through diplomacy or the barrel of a gun (interestingly, US President Joseph Biden had to walk back his remark about coming to Taiwan’s military aid, as opposed to continuing with the long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity). You could throw Hong Kong into the mix, but for all intents and purposes, it is a lost cause – in the not-too-distant future, Hong Kong will have as much democracy as mainland China.

If China is seen as the rising upstart (as Athens was viewed in its acme), then the US – the inescapably declining superpower (no superpower or empire has thus far proved impervious to declining) that still commands vast economic and military advantages – is Sparta; it too will not countenance what it sees as bullying, usurpation, adventurism by China. The US under President Biden has fired back rhetorically. On 14 July 2021, two weeks after Xi’s warning, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (here) was unequivocal of the US’s rejection of China’s “unlawful” maritime claims in the South China Sea and of the US’s firm standing “with the Southeast Asian claimants in the face of ‘coercion.’” And were that not enough, for good measure, on the same day, the US took a swipe at China for eroding the rule of law in Hong Kong (here) and “perpetrating genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang” (here), warning in an updated advisory that businesses with supply chains and investments in the Chinese province of Xinjiang run a “high risk” of violating US laws on forced labor.

These exchanges seem to be set for what Graham T. Allison calls the Thucydides’s Trap. Going back to Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War (which serious students of international affairs should study, not just read), he surmised that it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable, as well as the challenges or eventual challenges to the status quo. Thucydides was an astute observer and chronicler, but also a man very much of his time and a proven general, well versant in the dynamics, politics, and events that led Sparta to clash with Athens. As for Allison, his theory of the Thucydides’s Trap has certain merit that should not be ignored (in a different context, his theory reminded me of Michael Mann’s theory of The Dark Side of Democracy). Allison, in his excellent book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? sees the US and China on a collision course. Not claiming inevitability but reasonable probability, Allison cautions that the two superpowers should find ways to accommodate their respective ambitions lest the US and China end up having their own Peloponnesian War. That would get ugly – as in the dystopian, though not too incredible plot of Elliot Ackerman’s and Admiral James Stavridis’s novel 2034.

In Freedman’s THE FUTURE OF WAR, we saw how cyberwar will play an ever present danger in our lives, as cyberspace technology and artificial intelligence will usher in surprise and crippling cyberattacks – taking a chapter out of 19th century military theorist Baron de Jomini’s The Art of War, when the prevailing wisdom for winning and thus regulating relations was considered best achieved through decisive battles, preferably initiated by surprise attacks. You may also recall Freedman’s prediction that future cyberwars could:

emerge not out of the blue with some all-or-nothing attack but instead out of an assertion of rights in contested territory, a principled stand that embraced a rival, probing actions to explore weaknesses that came up against strength, military maneuvers to ‘send a message’, or displays of resolve that turned into actual clashes and escalated quickly.

2034, in a nutshell, is the realization of Thucydides’s Trap with China initiating a surprise cyberattack on the US over domination of the South China Sea, and as in classical warfare theory, the regulation of relations between the two superpowers.

ADM James G. Stavridis, USN (Ret.)
ADM James G. Stavridis, USN (Ret.)
Elliot Ackerman

Worth noting is that the cyberwarfare capabilities described in 2034 are virtually available. One of the authors, Admiral James Stavridis, spent 30 years in the US Navy, rising to the rank of a four-star admiral, becoming the Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, and commanding the US Southern Command overseeing military operations throughout Latin America. Elliot Ackerman, among other things, served five duties in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine. Impressive research went into this book. And for good reason: they are sounding a clarion call of things to come, unless, again to refer to Freedman, innovation in diplomacy and international communications is pursued with as equal zeal as military strategy.

2034 is a timely and instructive read as we can see from Xi Jinping. Anyone concerned of what lies ahead for humanity as future wars are fought through cyber-means (when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled), should add 2034 to their reading list. And while you are at it, also add to your list Ghost Fleet by P. W. Singer and August Cole (2015), which is equally compelling, equally well-researched, and equally foretelling.


Whether Rousseau was right in claiming that humans were corrupted when they settled down and organized into societies or whether Hobbes had it right in claiming that organized society brought violence under control (as we saw in Margaret MacMillan’s WAR), may be relevant as a political philosophy question but is hardly relevant in explaining our capacity for justifying war-making. As I noted in my introduction to the post, war does not go on holiday. Nor will it ever.

Freedman in THE FUTURE OF WAR shows how from 19th century and onwards, as much as before, reliance on technological advancements emanating from lessons learned in the battlefield (where weaknesses and constraints were exposed) helped germinate theories and innovative means in waging war. Undeniably, as the human species evolved from being solitary hunter-gatherers to members of organized social beings, war has become inevitable.

In 1863, Francis Lieber drafted a systematic code commissioned by Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War on how war ought to be waged. Lieber was no sentimentalist. War being a reality, Lieber considered that even when accounting for the objectives in waging war, rules could/should be established to make reaching those objectives with some constraints, reflective of our sense of humanity.

Lieber defined military necessity as “those measures which are indispensable for securing the ends of the war, and which are lawful according to the modern law and usages of war,” (Article 14) reconciling that “direct destruction of life and limb or armed enemies” would occur – as well as to “other persons whose destruction is incidentally ‘unavoidable’ in the armed contests of the war” (Article 15). The code also permits the “destruction of property, and obstruction of the ways and channels of traffic, travel, or communication, and of all withholding of sustenance or means of life from the enemy,” (Article 15) and even allows under extreme circumstances for the execution of prisoners of war where no other viable options are readily available if the operation was to succeed.

A few years later, the preamble of the 1868 Declaration of St. Petersburg pragmatically reflected Lieber’s impassive view of necessity – that humanitarian restraint should not deprive victory – with the contracting parties setting out “technical limits at which the necessities of war ought to yield to the requirement of humanity:”

      • That the progress of civilization should have the effect of alleviating as much as possible the calamities of war;
      • That the only legitimate object which States should endeavour to accomplish during war is to weaken the military forces of the enemy;
      • That for this purpose it is sufficient to disable the greatest possible number of men;
      • That this object would be exceeded by the employment of arms which uselessly aggravate the sufferings of disabled men, or render their death inevitable;
      • That the employment of such arms would, therefore, be contrary to the laws of humanity.

To a large extent, the Lieber Code and the 1868 Declaration of St. Petersburg express the overarching objective of warfare – to win as quickly as possible with as few losses of life and destruction of property, expending the least amount of resources. This has been so since time immemorial. Inescapably, so will it continue to be so. Mercifully, the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) or International Humanitarian Law (IHL) has evolved considerably, much to humanity’s benefit.

But as we have seen in Craig Jones’ THE WAR LAWYERS and Adil Ahmad Haque’s LAW AND MORALITY AT WAR, the inexactitude of the law makes it rather malleable, with combatants on all sides, irrespective whether they are just or unjust, engaging in interpretive gymnastics to create an impression that their actions in claiming the legal, if not also the moral imperative, are justified (however unjustified in reality). And, invariably, there are those who simply eschew even the most basic norms or exploit the values of the norms to force their abiding opponents into refraining from using what would otherwise be lawful force (as in involuntary human shields).

To what extent the LOAC or IHL will serve and be adhered to should the likes of a 2034 cyberwar scenario play out as the US and China sleepwalk their way into Thucydides’s Trap – as it currently seems to be the case despite the Armageddon-like consequences – is anyone’s guess. A concerted effort is required to adopt international treaties to curtail the use of cyberattacks for offensive or defensive purposes, though I suspect that treaty and/or customary international law alone will do little to prevent things from spiraling out of control after an initial attack – especially in the battlefield. Here it is worth quoting Cybèle C. Greenberg from her recent New York Times Opinion piece Could Cyberwar Make the World Safer?, where she sanguinely suggests that cyberwar has “the potential to channel conflict into a nonlethal form” by pointing to the US-Israeli offensive cyberoperation Stuxnet (designed to impede nuclear enrichment by states considered rogue), and aptly observes:

The battles in a global cyberwar are visible only through periodic glances in the rearview mirror: Indra, Colonial Pipeline, SolarWinds, WannaCry.

Such an episodic view obscures the fact that this jousting by nation-states, criminal networks and private actors is happening constantly — right now — without foreseeable end.

It’s hard to wrap our minds around that. It’s a departure from thousands of years of conventional warfare that leaves us wondering how exactly to categorize cyberattacks. Are they espionage? Sabotage? Acts of war? Some cyberattacks, like North Korea’s targeting of Sony Pictures, entail central involvement from states. Others, like ransomware, are simply criminal. But the spy and the hacker have a lot in common: They both trespass into others’ information.

During the Cold War, the United States, China and Russia sat on stockpiles of world-ending weapons. Now, these same countries routinely employ an array of offensive cyberweapons, though not quite to their full power grid-zapping, water system-clogging, society-crippling potential.

The books reviewed and the reviews do not even begin to scratch the surface. My aim in doing this modest series of book reviews on war was to intrigue the reader to dig a bit deeper and to look beyond the black letter law, which, as I have found, can be quite useful in litigating war crimes cases (defense or prosecution). But also essential in understanding this human-induced phenomenon, which, as we can see, is that it will remain with us to no good end, unless …

If the picture of the world I have drawn is rather bleak, it could nonetheless be cataclysmically worse.

Albert Wohlstetter
The Delicate Balance of Terror (1959)

Read the introduction to this Book Review Series.

Don't forget to leave your comments



Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

One thought on “Book Review: 2034”

  1. I have studied this stuff for many years. This was a nice little dip into the literature. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *