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When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?
When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?
Why Research on Gender and Conflict Matters
Why Research on Gender and Conflict Matters
Op-Ed / Global

When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?

Originally published in World Economic Forum

Is a more connected world a safer and more resilient one, or is it more brittle and fragile? It all depends on how we organize our defense. But the failure to stem the rise of terrorism over the past 15 years suggests we’ve not got it right. How can we restructure our defense systems to take into account the immense changes taking place, and the blurring distinction between war and peace?

An Out-of-Date Model

Today’s defense model is one of state-centric centralized defense. Each state is expected to protect its citizens against external threats by deterring state-to-state aggression and by intervening in those states whose failure provides a safe haven to non-state enemies.

States are also expected to protect people against internal threats; they do so through increased police and military presence in our cities, and through ever-expanding digital mass surveillance to detect anomalous behaviours and identify potential threats.

A Thin Line Between War and Peace

This model is not working. Whether it is little green men in Crimea or cyber-attacks, the line between war and peace has been blurred, and in a world no more structured by an ideological divide, exploiting the vulnerabilities of the enemy is a more effective way to wage war than confronting it head on.

As for failing states, 15 years of costly interventions should have taught us the limits of military intervention: foreigners may help but they can’t substitute for locally driven state building.

We need an alternative model of decentralized defense that will reflect the profound transformation brought upon us by the digital age...

Lastly, finding the needle of terrorism in the haystack of law-abiding citizens is proving to be a frustrating pursuit, which at worst could turn democratic countries into police states, and at best, generates many false flags and will never guarantee complete success, even if the record of security agencies is better than often alleged.

We need an alternative model of decentralized defense that will reflect the profound transformation brought upon us by the digital age and the increased connectivity.

A New Approach to Defense

What we have at present is the worst of both worlds: traditional centralized systems are inefficient at identifying and correcting local vulnerabilities, but connectivity increases vulnerabilities because it accelerates and multiplies the psychological, political and in some cases physical impact of an attack on any part of a system. This is very different from the terrorist attacks of the seventies, which were not a threat to our societies.

What, then, should our new approach towards defense look like? That’s not an easy question to answer, but whatever model we end up with needs to take into account five important points:

The enemy within

Internal fragilities are a greater risk than external threats. By any objective measure, terrorism and external aggression are low risks to our personal safety, but they exacerbate our pre-existing sense of vulnerability. The biggest risks are the political upheavals that such a sense of vulnerability can trigger and that malevolent actors can exploit.

We can’t let fear win

Communities brought together only by fear are vulnerable because fear destroys trust, which is the foundation of any long-term human community. A much greater effort is needed to foster a positive sense of common purpose. Civic organizations and public debate have a critical role to play in strengthening the fabric of society from the bottom up.

Cities will supplant states

Physical proximity is becoming more relevant as a counterweight to the anonymity of globalization: in an urbanized world, cities are likely to become increasingly important as political units and standard bearers of identity. Over time, they may become more relevant to our security than states, provided that mechanisms are put in place to ensure effective sharing of data.

The only way to restore some symmetry and stability is to organize defense at the lowest possible level...

The changing nature of warfare

Top-down provision of security, based on the Weberian model of the state enjoying a monopoly on the legal use of force, is ill-suited to the growing diffusion of power, including lethal power, which multiplies the capacities of individuals to wreak havoc in a society. Attack is becoming much cheaper than defense, especially, but not only, in the cyber world. We should not be surprised if this makes asymmetric warfare the most rational way of conducting war, which would generate increased instability.

The power of devolution

The only way to restore some symmetry and stability is to organize defense at the lowest possible level, empowering individuals to protect themselves against cyber-attacks through point-to-point encryption, and empowering cities to strengthen local connections among its citizens, making it more difficult for outsiders to launch attacks. Devolving power to individuals and to lower levels of government will also deprive enemies of targets whose value resides in their symbolic value as centres of great power, reducing the advantage of asymmetric attack. Nuclear warfare, but also cyber warfare, will be less likely if there is no target of strategic importance.

A Brave New World

The implications of this transformation will inevitably be gradual but they will be far-reaching.

Nuclear weapons for instance, are the ultimate expression of the traditional centralized state system: they need its resources to be developed, they require extreme concentration of decision for the threat of use to be credible, and they require similarly structured enemies for the threat to have a target. Their elimination – essential for the long-term survival of humanity – is unlikely to come from a decision to abolish them, but it may eventually happen through an evolution of political structures that will make them irrelevant, for lack of resources, centralized decision makers, and targets.

At the strategic level, the evolution of the world towards ever-bigger building blocks – the US, China, Europe, Russia – ­will be reversed. The ongoing backlash against a European super-state is partly an expression of nostalgic nationalism, partly an acknowledgement that big structures can be dangerous because the stakes are just too high when a change occurs at the top. But now the era of the big state is coming to an end.

At the same time, the world has benefited enormously from the economies of scale of globalization and from the dynamism brought about by diversity. Individuals, cities must be connected, but the connections are unlikely to replicate the pyramidal model of traditional federalism. The European Union will need to adapt to that new situation if it wants to stay ahead of its time.

More likely, in a flatter world, interoperability and communications between smaller entities will be achieved through a multiplicity of issue-specific arrangements that will balance democratic and technical legitimacy: think of the evolving governance of the internet.

The ongoing backlash against a European super-state is partly an expression of nostalgic nationalism, partly an acknowledgement that big structures can be dangerous...

At the operational level, just as “know your customers” has become an obligation for any law-abiding bank, know-thy-neighbour is likely to become a feature of tomorrow’s societies. If applied to big entities such as mega-states, or even mega-cities, it could destroy anonymity, which has been an essential dimension of freedom, and could make our societies oppressively Orwellian.

However, if there is a multiplicity of political entities, allowing us to choose our neighbours, and if we can protect privacy through robust encryption, that risk will be largely eliminated. Freedom will be ensured less through separation of powers and more through a juxtaposition of multiple powers.

Why Decentralization Makes Sense

The present experience with increased flows of refugees pouring into Europe provides the best example of the value of decentralization. When human beings are just part of a statistic, they can easily be perceived as a threat. When they acquire a human face, natural human empathy reasserts itself, as has been the case in many German small towns welcoming refugees.

Decentralized defense will operationalize that intuition: the abstraction of the nation feeds dangerous nationalism; the empowerment of individuals connected by proximity strengthens the fabric of a resilient and open society.

Crisis Group's Senior Analyst on Gender Azadeh Moaveni converses with a internally displaced woman in Maiduguri, epicentre of Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, in December 2018. CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

Why Research on Gender and Conflict Matters

At Crisis Group, we believe the interaction of gender and conflict is of central importance. But we consider carefully what a gender perspective entails and the conceptual pitfalls we should avoid. For instance, women are not just victims, but have agency and choice.

Last October, Ethiopia appointed its first woman president, the only female leader of an African state today. In many national parliaments, from Mexico to Rwanda, women now match or outnumber men. One of the most powerful transitional justice forums in recent memory, held in Tunisia, is overseen by a woman. That’s the good news. Yet alongside these visible gains for women in the realm of high-powered leadership, women also continue to fill the ranks of conflict victims and targets of sexual violence. They also more visibly join insurgent movements, helping fuel violent conflicts that are traditionally seen as the preserve of male fighters. And, in the international backdrop, patriarchal populist leaders are rising to power across a range of countries, their rhetoric laced with hostility to the very idea of women’s rights and equality.

In short, at this moment of great upheaval in the world order, gender is at the very forefront of a large number of political contestations, from struggles for the upper hand in American politics to fragile post-conflict states in Africa and the Middle East. To celebrate International Women’s Day, Crisis Group has published a short series of pieces this week aiming to set out a more nuanced vision and understanding of how gender dynamics interact with conflict and political violence, as well some of the intricate challenges we face working on this terrain. Much has changed since the UN Security Council passed its landmark Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security almost two decades ago.

How Gender Identities Shape Conflict

As a general matter, there appears to be greater awareness of how gender identities – in effect, what it means to be an “ideal” man or a woman in a given society, and what are the accompanying assumed responsibilities and aspirations – often shape and sometimes even drive the way conflicts over land, power and resources emerge and are fought across the world. In contexts where governments are acutely failing citizens through either extreme repression and corruption, for example, militant groups often exploit the gap created by state failure to aid young people in getting married, establishing themselves as better providers of a key status marker and expectation: the ability to be a husband or a wife. States themselves sometimes use honour sensibilities and sexual violence as a way to punish and repress political opponents, male and female alike. And in conflicts from Somalia to Afghanistan, insurgent movements often challenge the legitimacy of federal governments by casting questions of gender equality or women’s status as Western impositions.

In our work, Crisis Group increasingly is focusing on the interplay of gender and conflict. But we also believe in taking a careful, nuanced view, considering precisely what a gender perspective entails and, importantly, some of the conceptual pitfalls it should take care to avoid. We seek to look at how men and women experience the effects of corruption, state collapse, criminal gang violence and displacement in disparate ways. We highlight the sometimes discreet and unremarked roles women play in pushing for dialogue among warring parties, and try to push for their inclusion when serious peace negotiations get underway.

But we also look at women’s roles as conflict actors – not merely as victims, but as perpetrators, with agency and choice. Indeed, one of our key lines of reporting and analysis involves women and militancy and the dilemmas faced in understanding the roles women play in insurgent groups. This is especially urgent today, as the Islamic State (ISIS) is losing the last of its territorial hold in northern Syria, and as many governments confront the return of their female ISIS citizens, tasked with prosecuting and rehabilitating women whose degree of culpability and involvement in the group’s evolution and atrocities is poorly understood.

Acknowledging women’s influence and centrality to militant groups also requires a nuanced assessment of their varied levels of accountability.

As our fieldwork over the years has demonstrated, many other societies and states deal with similar challenges across their own insurgencies and wars. Whether in the context of north-eastern Nigeria’s Boko Haram movement or of the enduring hold of Al-Shabaab throughout many swatches of Somalia, women join and then exit armed groups, their own social vulnerabilities and grievances often merging with the broader grievances and fissures such groups reflect and exploit. Women form an intimate part of the story of the emergence of many of these armed movements: many Somali women, for instance, initially affiliated with the early Al-Shabaab movement for protection from warring clan violence. In Nigeria, Boko Haram militants have appealed effectively to women’s yearning for some independence and opportunity by offering them religious education and some matrimonial choice amid a corrupt, impoverished milieu of state failure. More recently, we have tried to grapple with the active, operational and support roles women play in these insurgencies, building that knowledge into our assessments of the groups themselves and the strategies we propose to counter their appeal.

There are further complexities. Acknowledging women’s influence and centrality to militant groups also requires a nuanced assessment of their varied levels of accountability. The challenge is to refine one’s understanding of women’s involvement without swinging from one binary view to another, seeing women as either passive wives or so-called jihadist brides on the one hand, or as predatory combatants responsible for a militant group’s most dreadful atrocities, on par with male fighters, on the other. Our work in Nigeria in particular has tried to address this question, writing into the story of Boko Haram – so often memorialised by the #BringBackOurGirls movement that focuses on the group’s victims – a portrayal of women members who have consciously swelled the groups ranks while suffering its viciousness themselves.

These questions only scratch the surface of our Gender, Peace and Security project, which we are determined to develop and deepen.

Our 6 March essay surveys the shrinking space for women’s activism across Latin America and beyond. The “Our Journeys” travelogue from 5 March explores the growing civil society sphere in Iraq through a cast of young men and women who are finding new pathways to social and political influence. This is just a start to continued work on this topic throughout the coming year and beyond.

Click here for more publications highlighting the ways gender and conflict interact.  

Crisis Group's Director of Research & Special Adviser on Gender, Isabelle Arradon describes Crisis Group's thematic priorities on Gender. CRISISGROUP