Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
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?
Instruments of Pain: Conflict and Famine
Instruments of Pain: Conflict and Famine
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An Out-of-Date Model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.

Men unload boxes of nutritional supplements from a helicopter prior to a humanitarian food distribution carried out by the United Nations World Food Programme in Thonyor, Leer county, South Sudan, on 25 February 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
Statement / Global

Instruments of Pain: Conflict and Famine

For the first time in three decades, four countries, driven by war, verge on famine. Over coming weeks, Crisis Group will publish special briefings on Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. Each conflict requires tailored response; all need increased aid and efforts to end the violence.

The last time the UN declared a famine was in 2011, in Somalia. The last time it faced more than one major famine simultaneously was more than three decades ago. Today we are on the brink of four – in Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan.

The spectre of famine is primarily the result of war, not natural disaster. According to the UN, more than twenty million people, millions of them children, are at risk of starvation. This is happening in man-made crises and under the Security Council’s watch. In some places, the denial of food and other aid is a weapon of war as much as its consequence. Combatants’ fighting tactics often make the problem worse.

Both sides of Yemen’s conflict, for example, fight with little to no regard for the local population. The Huthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces, on one hand, and their opponents in the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, on the other, have repeatedly strangled the flow of aid and commodities to areas controlled by their rivals. The impending Saudi-led push to recapture the Red Sea coast, including the port of Hodeida – the main entry point for imports on which much of the country depends – and the battle that offensive will provoke risk creating another major chokehold on supplies.

Critical norms, including adherence to International Humanitarian Law, are fast eroding. For the first time in a generation, most indicators suggest the world is becoming more dangerous.

Elsewhere, too, the actions of governments and their opponents exact high humanitarian tolls. In north-east Nigeria, Boko Haram’s attacks on rural communities and the destruction wrought by fighting between its insurgents and the military caused the acute food crisis. The curtailing by Lake Chad basin states of economic activity, aimed at weakening the insurgency, has damaged communities’ livelihoods and increased their vulnerability.

Fighting in South Sudan often involves indiscriminate killing of civilians, sexual violence and pillage by state and non-state armed actors alike. Civilians in Southern Unity state must constantly flee armed groups, rendering them unable to farm or receive assistance and creating conditions for famine. Many resort to hiding in swamps; to seek food is to risk attack. 

The risk of famine is thus closely tied to the spike, over recent years, in war and its fallout, particularly mounting human suffering. Critical norms, including adherence to International Humanitarian Law (IHL), are fast eroding. For the first time in a generation, most indicators suggest the world is becoming more dangerous.

The Nigerians, Somalis, South Sudanese and Yemenis over whom famine looms have already suffered intense, in some cases protracted conflict. The impact on those most affected is more than a passing tragedy. The displacement, destruction to livestock and local communities and the threat of a lost generation, without education or socio-economic prospects, hinder prospects for building sustainable peace.

Beginning today with publication of the special briefing Instruments of Pain (I): Conflict and Famine in Yemen, and continuing over the next few weeks with similar special briefings on South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia, Crisis Group will describe these crises’ roots and the measures necessary to prevent their further deterioration. Each requires a unique response: challenges of access and funding vary, as do ways to quiet and eventually end the wars that have increased risks of famine. Each special briefing will offer detailed prescriptions.

Overall, though, governments of the states affected and their backers should:

  • show far greater respect for IHL, particularly by allowing in aid and protecting those delivering it. They must avoid tactics that contribute to the risk of famine, like the Hodeida offensive, the curtailing of Lake Chad basin trading or predation in Southern Unity state;
     
  • increase and sustain funds for relief efforts. Shortfalls are not the only financial challenge – in Yemen, for example, the central bank’s failure to pay public sector salaries has left many Yemenis unable to buy food that is available. But humanitarian efforts in all four crises are chronically underfunded; and
     
  • renew efforts to calm violence and bring those conflicts to a sustainable end. The spike in war over recent years, which has already caused more civilian casualties, mass displacement and terrorism, now threatens to starve millions. Without redoubled efforts to end those conflicts, 2017 promises to be not the low-water mark, but rather a way-station on the descent to something far worse.