Author Interviews

The New Rules Of War

War is timeless. Some things change—weapons, tactics, technology, leadership, objectives—but our desire to go into battle does not. We are living in the age of Durable Disorder—a period of unrest created by numerous factors: China’s rise, Russia’s resurgence, America’s retreat, global terrorism, international criminal empires, climate change, dwindling natural resources, and bloody civil wars. 

This devastating turmoil has given rise to difficult questions. What is the future of war? How can we survive? If Americans are drawn into major armed conflict, can we win? McFate calls upon the legends of military study Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and others, as well as his own experience, and carefully constructs the new rules for the future of war. With examples from the Roman conquest, World War II, Vietnam, Afghanistan and others, he tackles the differences between conventional and future war, the danger in believing that technology will save us, the genuine leverage of psychological and ‘shadow’ warfare, and much more. McFate’s new rules distill the essence of war today, describing what it is in the real world, not what we believe or wish it to be.

Some of these principles are ancient, others are new, but all will permanently shape war now and in the future. By following them he argues, we can prevail. But if we do not, terrorists, rogue states, and others who do not fight conventionally will succeed—and rule the world

The New Rules of War was just named a “Book of the Year” by The Economist magazine

Congratulations on your new book New Rules Of War.  Tell me a little bit about it.
The New Rules of War starts with an upsetting question: Why has the US forgotten how to win wars? In fact, it’s more than the US; it’s the West. The last time we won decisively was 1945. Ever since then, everything major war has been a stalemate or quagmire. The New Rules of War answers this question: warfare has moved on, but we have not. Then the book proposes ten new ‘rules’ on how to win future wars. It will make traditionalists’ heads explode. But that’s ok. Because that’s why we’re losing.

Was there an experience caused you to see a need for your book?
I have lost friends in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a tax payer, I’ve seen our government flush trillions of dollars down the toilet in those countries. As a vet, it’s hateful to me seeing our national honor tarnished by low level foes. What would the WWII generation say? We can can and should do better.

What do you think the number 1 rule for the future of military engagement is?
War is getting sneaker. Victory goes to the cunning, not just the strong. We’re Goliath in the age of David. However, the US used to be crafty, from the Revolutionary War to the Cold War. We need our old strategic mojo back. While we have the best military in the world (even our adversaries know it), Washington suffers from strategic atrophy. Without a sound strategy, awesome troops alone cannot achieve victory. The Number 1 Rule: Improve Washington’s strategic IQ.

Is there anything that you had to Edit OUT of you book that you wished was kept in?
Sure, plenty. Especially about the growing world of mercenaries, which is more dangerous than most people know.

What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will take from New Rules of War?
The West has forgotten how to win wars. It’s obvious, but no one talks about it, because the implications are too terrifying. The good news is we can still win, if we follow the new rules of war. We must change the way we fight and think about war at the strategic level. Tactically we’re the best, but strategically not so much.

What lessons can a Junior Officer take from your book?
Junior officers are the future, and I wrote this book for them. There is an intellectual insurgency afoot, led by young warfighters.

What do you think the future of war looks like for America?
At the current rate, America won’t know it’s at war until it’s too late. China and Russia are already waging a war against us, and part of their strategy is to make us think we’re at peace. You can literally get away with murder if the US thinks it’s at peace. Our enemies exploit this perspective.

Who are the leaders that you look up to?
LTC Stan McChrystal was my battalion commander in the 82nd Airborne eons ago. He’s the real deal, and has been a model for me.

What books had the most impact on you and your development?
I am always reading, every since I was a kid. Now I’m writing, both fiction and non-fiction. It’s too difficult to suggest a single book, or group of books that have influenced me. However, the more I read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the more I respect it. I have 15+ translations, and they differ greatly. Unfortunately, is poorly taught, if taught at all, in the West. 

What is Next for you?
My mission is to change the way we think about war so that we’re not caught in a Pearl Harbor moment.

The New Rules Of War can be purchased here

WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 4: Sean McFate, on May, 04, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Dr. Sean McFate is a foreign policy expert, author and novelist. He 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. Additionally, he serves as an Advisor to Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs.
McFate’s career began as a paratrooper and officer in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. He served under Stan McChrystal and David Petraeus, and graduated from elite training programs, such as Jungle Warfare School in Panama. He was also a Jump Master.
McFate then became a private military contractor. Among his many experiences, he dealt with warlords in the jungle, raised armies for U.S. interest, rode with armed groups in the Sahara, conducted strategic reconnaissance for the extractive industry, transacted arms deals in Eastern Europe, and helped prevent an impending genocide in the Rwanda region.

In the world of international business, McFate was a Vice President at TD International, a boutique political risk consulting firm with offices in Washington, Houston, Singapore and Zurich. Additionally, he was a manager at DynCorp International, a consultant at BearingPoint (now Deloitte Consulting), and an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton.

McFate’s latest book is The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder (William Morrow), or the British edition Goliath: Why the West Doesn’t Win Wars. And What We Need to Do About It (Penguin). It has been called “The Freakonomics of modern warfare,” and was named a “Book of the Year” by The Economist, The Times [UK], and The London Evening Standard. It also earned a coveted place on West Point’s “Commandant Reading List.” In the review for The Sunday Times, Max Hastings wrote: “[This] iconoclastic book is being hailed by radicals as a wake-up call to governments and armed forces everywhere, to stop doing all the wrong things; and start doing a few right ones.” Admiral Jim Stavridis (retired), the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, said: “Stunning. Sean McFate is a new Sun Tzu.”  

Additionally, McFate authored The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order (Oxford University Press) which explains how the privatization of war changes warfare and global governance. The Economist called it a “fascinating and disturbing book.” McFate also writes fiction based on his military experiences. He co-authored the novels Shadow War and Deep Black (William Morrow), part of the Tom Locke series. New York Times #1 bestselling author Mark Greaney said: “I was blown away…. simply one of the most entertaining and intriguing books I’ve read in quite some time.” McFate’s third novel High Treason will be published in 2020.

A sought-after speaker, he has appeared before the British House of Commons, top universities and popular audience venues. He has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Politico, Daily Beast, CNBC, Vice Magazine, Aeon, War on the Rocks, Military Review and African Affairs. He has appeared on CNN’s Amanpour, Morning Joe, Fox and Friends, MSNBC, Fox, Sky News, NPR, BBC, Economist, Vice/HBO, The Discovery Channel, and American Heroes Channel. As a scholar, he has authored eight book chapters in edited academic volumes and two monographs on modern war for the U.S. Department of Defense.

McFate holds a BA from Brown University, MPP from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He was also a fellow at Oxford. McFate lives in Washington, DC. For more information, see

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