Strong states and the unmaking of epochs

Jay Ulfelder recently pointed out that the preoccupation with failed states – one which permeates the popular discourse about foreign policy and the highest ranks of the foreign policy establishment – seems to wholly obscure major global trends. Failed states are not the main story of the 21st century, nor are they truly the source of primary threats to world security or the international order generally. What is more true, and, in many ways, more disturbing, is the idea that international order is being undermined by the success of its own ideas, models, and actions.

That tumult in one part of the world can reverberate across it is not a sign of impending collapse and failure, but the strength of the flows which permeate the international system. Of course, one can speak of the dark side of globalization, but this is to unnecessarily separate the trends. In that sort of scheme, the “dark” flows metastasize from an incompletely integrated periphery to the wealthy, safe metropoles, which in turn draw in the periphery with its beneficial flows of trade and ideas. This is an unduly Manichean model.

Hobbes famously predicated the basis for the horror of the state of nature was an equality of human desires and the scarcity and exclusivity of means to fulfill them. In a sense, the world is moving towards anarchy, but it is at a higher level. International order, so long as major preponderances of power existed between states, functioned partially as hierarchy as much as anarchy. Comparisons to the 19th century miss the point, in this regard. IR theorists, and especially those of the realist inclination, often talk about a return to the 19th century because European politics were multipolar. However, that does not explain how the balance of power in the rest of the world operated, since it was under varying forms of hierarchical influence from these European (and later American) states. Today, the legacies of that hierarchy are beginning to erode, with genuinely non-Western poles of power emerging in Eastern Eurasia. Continue reading

False Prophets, Manly Empathy, and Eyes in the Darkness

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. 

– Matthew 7:15 (KJV)

…as shown in the first figure, entitled “Change in Real GDP,” the committee expects that the pace of economic recovery will pick up over coming quarters. Specifically, participants’ projections for output growth have a central tendency of about 2.7 to 2.9 percent for this year and 3.3 to 3.7 percent for next year, growth rates faster than we have seen so far in 2011.

However, committee participants have also generally responded to the recent slowing by marking down their growth projections for 2011 and 2012, which are nearly a half percentage point lower than our April projections.

Looking further ahead, the central tendency of the growth projections for 2012 — 2013, sorry — is 3.5 to 4.2 percent, essentially the same as in the April projections. As shown in the second figure, entitled “Unemployment Rate,” the unemployment rate is expected to resume its gradual decline toward levels that the committee judges to be consistent with its dual mandate.

In particular, the unemployment rate is projected to edge down over coming months to 8.6 to 8.9 percent in the fourth quarter of this year, and then decline gradually over the subsequent two years to a level of 7.0 to 7.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, still well above the central tendency of participants’ longer-run unemployment projections. In short, we expect the unemployment rate to continue to decline, but the pace of progress remains frustratingly slow.

 – Benjamin S. Bernanke, Chairman, U.S. Federal Reserve, June 22, 2011

Thirst for certain knowledge of future events is innate. Early Stone Age artifacts like Stonehenge may mirror the observed motions of the heavens. It’s probable that a strong contributing motive behind such observation was following these starry messengers in the hope that they’d unveil a shrouded future.

Thirst for prophecy is a strong undercurrent of military history as well. The fable of Publius Claudius Pulcher of the clan Claudii Pulchri during the First Punic War is notorious:

…sources such as Cicero claim that Pulcher performed the inspection of the omens for the battle, according to Roman religious tradition. The method ascribed for the situation was investigating the feeding behaviour of the sacred chickens, on board for that purpose. If the chickens accepted the offered grain, then the gods would be favourable to the battle. However, in that particular morning of 249 BC, the chickens refused to eat – a horrific omen. Confronted with the unexpected and having to deal with the superstitious and now terrified crews, Pulcher quickly figured an alternative interpretation. He threw the sacred chickens overboard, directly into the Mediterranean, saying, Let them drink, since they don’t wish to eat. (Bibant, quoniam esse nolunt)

Claudius lost the battle for a variety of reasons. The distinguished Conscript Fathers of Rome blamed his defeat on abuse of sacred poultry and threw Claudius under the bus:

[Claudius] was recalled to Rome and ordered to appoint a dictator; his nomination of his subordinate Marcus Claudius Glicia was overruled. He was tried for incompetence and impiety and was fined, and died soon afterwards, possibly by suicide.

The moral of the story for aspiring strategists is straightforward: don’t mess with sacred chickens.

People want their prophecies.


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Old School

If Thucydides, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz didn’t say it, it’s probably not worth saying.

So wrote Colin S. Gray in the official Committee of Public Safety English translation of Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy. Though we can quibble about this exception or that, this statement is essentially true. One reason it’s true is that the same constants of human behavior “discovered” by contemporary observers are merely rediscoveries of what dead men uncovered centuries or millennia ago. The ancient sources tell the same tales of Fear, Honor, and Interest™, only without the performance penalty imposed by superfluous modern jargon.

Jargon is an ancient technique of political fortification, a continuation of political intercourse with the addition of a ten volume glossary with 312 footnoted technical appendices. Part of the increasing complexity of complex societies at any point in their lifecycle is caused by increased optimization in the means those societies use to extract, refine, and apply power. This is necessary and inescapable if complexity is on the agenda. However, a significant though fluctuating share of social complexity comes from intentionally introduced complexity.

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Tweets and Libya

Strategy page has an interesting piece based on how NATO is utilizing Twitter as a source for intelligence.  The focus on the article is on the gathering of intelligence, and so is very light on the considerations that must be made in analyzing such sources.

By doing a keyword search on Twitter one can readily see that someone by the name of @RRowleyTucson was the source for many tweets.  His profile states that he is from Tucson, AZ; how someone becomes privy to such information in Arizona is a little beyond me.

More broadly than gathering timely open-source intelligence via twitter are the implications for information campaigns to directly affect the tactical level.  Information of this sort hasn’t directly targeted its effects on the tactical level before.  But, this development demonstrates how an adversary can attempt to affect everything from the tactical to the strategic level with information and 140 characters.

From a strategic communications view, the audience this targets is not simply trigger-pullers.  It is the entirety of the Twitter audience, which is where the implications of such information become interesting.  If, in only as twitter can, a plurality is reached that X information is correct and must be acted upon.  But, trigger-puller Y decides that the information isn’t actionable.  What are the implications for public sentiment? Or, consider that actionable information is sent, but not acted upon.  The inaction causes a high profile death that could have been prevented.  How would such a happenstance play in the media?

Interaction, Insight, Imagination, and Initiative…The Building Blocks of Police Operational Art

“The essence of winning and losing is in learning how to shape or influence events so that we not only magnify our spirit and strength but also influence potential adversaries as well as the uncommitted so that they are drawn toward our philosophy and are empathetic towards our success.” ~Col. John Boyd

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50 Days of Lulz: A Retrospective

Last Saturday, the hacker collective Lulz Security disbanded after nearly two months of “high-quality entertainment at your expense,” stating that they had always intended to keep their campaign to 50 days and were not responding to heightened law enforcement pressure.

Throughout their internet rampage, the hacker group was heavily hyped by the media, often for good reason. They took websites associated with the CIA, U.S. Senate, and Brazilian government offline with a gleeful “tango down!” on Twitter, and breached websites such as those of the FBI affiliated Infraguard, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Sony, and Nintendo, leaking sensitive information. They also teamed up with the extensive, leaderless hacktivist group Anonymous and other supporters for Operation Anti-Security, devoted to exposing classified government documents.

This high-profile hacking activity drew a lot of media attention, which was good for putting network security on the agenda and exposing widespread security flaws, but as usual the press tended to mystify LulzSec, hackers, and “cyber” in general. Lulz Security is not some dark brotherhood of evil geniuses. The group accurately described themselves as “chaotic neutral.” Sometimes they would act for ideological reasons and just as often they would release the personal information of innocent bystanders “for the lulz.” But they were neither on a campaign to protect human rights nor were they stealing for financial gain. Mostly, they were just goofing around and showing off.

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