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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?
War Must Not Become the New Normal
War Must Not Become the New Normal
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An Out-of-Date Model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.

Op-Ed / Global

War Must Not Become the New Normal

Originally published in Journal of International Affairs

With the proliferation of conflicts, weakening international institutions, and rising nationalism, the world faces daunting times ahead. A new coalition of states must come together to promote our collective interest in peace and security.

The pessimists were right, at least in the short term—things are getting worse. Terrorism and armed conflict have increased in the past decade and the post-World War II vision of a cooperative international order, which seemed to get a second chance with the end of the Cold War, is now threatened by resurgent nationalism. To secure a more peaceful world in the long term, the optimists must base their struggle with a clear-eyed understanding of how far things have gone wrong.

Since 2010, a vicious circle has developed. A two-decade downward trend in global violence has gone into reverse, even if conflict has not reached the levels it was at during the Cold War. Today, there are more conflicts, more displaced persons, and more refugees than there were five years ago, and that deterioration generates fear and retrenchment at the very moment when a more cooperative and proactive management of the world is needed to prevent further deterioration. Many nations are now more focused on crisis management than prevention, looking after their immediate interests rather than working together to prevent new conflicts.

Paradoxically, this is happening at a time when the world is more connected than it has ever been—goods, but also people, information, and ideas, are on the move. Migrations have always existed, but they are acquiring new dimensions, quantitatively and qualitatively, as better-informed human beings look for better futures. Many are leaving zones of conflict and many are just looking for the promise of a better life that the weak states they come from are unable to offer them. But in the absence of a genuine global human community, such movements lead to fragmentation rather than convergence.

At the same time, the increased connectivity of the information sphere means that local events can quickly become global news. The suicide-bomb fueled violence of civil wars in Iraq or Syria have distorted our traditional measures of terrorist activity, yet some terrorist acts still reverberate worldwide in an unprecedented way, thus encouraging more terrorism. Technological progress, whether it is applied to cyber warfare or dirty bombs, may one day make it possible for terrorists to dramatically amplify the physical impact of their actions. For now, the impact of terrorism is more a reflection of information warfare than physical realities.

Fracturing is turning the international community into a mosaic of inward-looking states, some of which are very fragile.

In the richer parts of the globe, the outside world is thus increasingly seen as a threat to the cultural and economic fabric of society, rather than an opportunity. Peaceful societies are becoming dangerously polarized, as the politics of fear gain momentum. This is why it is essential that those struggling for a more peaceful future—be they diplomats, civil society leaders, or my colleagues in conflict prevention—keep up their mission of informing governments and public opinion about what is really happening and what can be done to tip the needle away from war.

They must also confront the paradox that the connectivity of the world makes conflict resolution more difficult rather than easier. Hopes rose after the end of the Cold War that in the absence of a global confrontation, a sense of common purpose in the international community would help resolve conflicts by addressing grievances that were primarily local. And indeed, there was for a time a significant drop in the number of wars, as UN peacekeeping missions were deployed and many conflicts were ended. The present situation is reversing the progress that was achieved.

This is not a return to the Cold War, as there is no ideological battle that would bring some new structure of antagonism in the world. The challenge is in fact greater. The ideological vacuum that characterizes our time, including the crisis of a liberal agenda, is filled by identity nationalism from Moscow to Washington. This fracturing is turning the international community into a mosaic of inward-looking states, some of which are very fragile. Domestic dynamics shape international politics. But in a connected world states are not islands, and what happens in one has repercussions beyond its borders. More and more, conflicts are crossing borders, between Iraq and Syria, Libya and the Sahel, and Nigeria and Cameroon.

The Syrian conflict is the most tragic and extreme example of a world fragmented by fears and connected by conflicting interests. Syria is not just a base for the transnational organization known as the Islamic State, it is also a battlefield in the confrontation of regional powers and a strategic pawn in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Multiple layers of conflict mean that any resolution will have to accommodate multiple agendas. Some, indeed, may for now be irreconcilable. Until such times pass, the least bad strategy is containment.

New forms of warfare have also eroded the relevance of the clear rules on the use of force that were agreed to at the end of World War II. Cyber attacks, which include a wide range of actions with some limited to information warfare and with some having potentially lethal consequences, usually do not have a clearly identified author and blur the lines of responsibility for hostilities. Use of force in self-defense was expanded by the Clinton and Bush administrations, and the extensive use of drones by the Obama administration further eroded the distinction between war and peace. Moreover, the body of laws that was developed to regulate the violence of war is also under threat, as the distinction between civilians and combatants is increasingly challenged. In Syria and Yemen, international humanitarian law is ignored as civilians and civilian targets are repeatedly bombed and groups such as the Islamic State commit atrocities against civilians on a regular basis.

The increased connectivity of conflicts is not accompanied by a parallel strengthening of the agreements and institutions that could serve as the mortar to hold together a fragmenting international community.

Matters are further complicated by the internal crisis of states themselves. This is most acute in the Middle East, where the legitimacy of majority rule clashes with ethnic and religious loyalties, posing a direct challenge to the monarchies and military regimes that have dominated the past century in that region.

In Africa, many states have exhausted the legitimacy that their leaders had gained from the anticolonial struggle, and their rulers are now judged by their people on the services they deliver. A potentially rich country like the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, has more people living in extreme poverty than China and Indonesia combined.

In China and countries that have been the greatest beneficiaries of the last 20 years, the capacity of the state to maintain a high level of growth is in doubt. This is beginning to threaten the implicit bargain that has underpinned the relationship between the state and the people: limits on civil liberties in exchange for rapidly improving standards of living.

Even in the richest parts of the world, states are in a silent crisis. They are too distant to effectively manage problems that need to be dealt with at the community level, like the local integration of migrants, and too small to manage global issues like climate change. In a world where the global and the local are increasingly intertwined, states are pulled in opposite directions. They are expected to represent local identities, and at the same time to interface effectively with a globalized world. They have difficulty doing both. The multilateral organizations that connect them—the European Union in particular—are suspected of exposing societies to destructive, anonymous forces of globalization rather than acting to protect communities.

The situation is made worse by the fact that the increased connectivity of conflicts is not accompanied by a parallel strengthening of the agreements and institutions that could serve as the mortar to hold together a fragmenting international community. Nor is it counterbalanced by the reaffirmation of principles and rules that would help manage and contain the uncertainties of relations between autonomous states. On the contrary, the arms control treaties that have helped give predictability to the strategic relationship between the West and Russia are being questioned. The EU is in crisis and the United Nations is unlikely to enjoy strong support from the new U.S. administration. Several member states have withdrawn from the International Criminal Court, which was created at the peak of the liberal, universalist agenda.

After a decade and a half of interventionism, the liberal West has lost much of its confidence in its capacity to shape outcomes in foreign lands.

Doubts in the capacity of international institutions to prevent, manage, and solve conflicts continue to grow, further eroding their legitimacy. When the Security Council is paralyzed by the differences between its members, as is the case for Syria, the credibility of the UN as an institution suffers. The gap between what it is expected to achieve and what it can actually do widens. Moreover, the considerable growth of the operational role of the United Nations, exemplified by the more than 100,000 peacekeepers deployed around the world, has shown the limits of international engagement and could be quickly reversed. Many peacekeeping missions, from Congo to Sudan, struggle to stabilize the countries where they have been present for many years.

It has become all too obvious that internationally driven processes cannot substitute for more locally driven processes. After a decade and a half of interventionism, the liberal West has lost much of its confidence in its capacity to shape outcomes in foreign lands.

International norms and institutions are weakening, and the new administration in Washington is unlikely to make it a priority to reverse this trend. Even if it is too early to tell what all of its specific policies will be, it is already clear that U.S. support for international institutions, a fundamental tenet of the last 70 years, cannot be taken for granted anymore. The new administration may dramatically amplify a trend toward retrenchment that was already present in the Obama administration, but was balanced by efforts to strengthen multilateral organizations like the UN and the World Bank. President Trump’s “America First” is more than a slogan, and one can no longer assume that the United States will maintain a key stake in upholding the international order it was instrumental in creating.

Such an evolution could also be accompanied by a shift in which values have priority. In China and elsewhere in the region, so-called Asian values are likely to hold sway. Stability and efficiency might gain preeminence over democracy and human rights. Already, the question is being raised by some as to whether democratic elections are an effective system to select the best leaders, or at least to eliminate unqualified ones. The “soft power” of the West would then be dramatically reduced, and historians would see 2016 as the year when the move away from a world largely shaped by Western values accelerated.

The rest of the world will have to adjust as balances change. This is not just happening in Asia, but also between Russia and Western Europe, between Iran and the Saudi Arabia-dominated Gulf, and between India and its neighbors. These adjustments will create a whole new set of regional and local dynamics. A world that is likely to become more transactional holds many surprises. Alliances can shift and countries can harden their stances quickly if they believe they cannot rely on the same external reassurance. The coming years are therefore likely to see a continuation of the trend toward more—rather than less—conflicts. While old conflicts are increasingly difficult to end, new ones keep being added to an already long list. As the world slips into ever more violence, the danger is that war becomes the new normal rather than an exceptional situation.

New leaders may emerge as partners to buttress the global system, perhaps including China or coalitions of regional powers that have understood that a shared basic order benefits all.

More dramatic scenarios are possible. The erosion of international norms and institutions combined with less preventive diplomacy will lead to more conflicts, and local grievances combined with international or transnational connections will increase the risks of escalation. Local actors may gain enough autonomy to generate new conflicts even against the will of more powerful actors, who may find themselves dragged by their web of connections into wars they did not initiate. That phenomenon was a factor in the chain of events that led to World War I. It could be replicated today, with the important qualification that the existence of nuclear weapons introduces more caution and more risk in the present situation.

If this survey is gloomy, it is because the world faces daunting times ahead. Today, more than any time since the end of the Cold War, conflict prevention, the inclusion of the widest possible range of actors, and a vigorous defense of international law and norms should be the priority of all those who want to maintain a cooperative, rules-based management of world affairs.

Nothing is preordained. Turning this state of affairs around will depend on the capacity of those countries that have benefited from decades of a relatively peaceful and cooperative management of the world to collectively fill the vacuum that could be the result of a more self-centered United States. New leaders may emerge as partners to buttress the global system, perhaps including China or coalitions of regional powers that have understood that a shared basic order benefits all. They should be proactively encouraged, not sidelined. Such a coalition, which should include what is left of the European Union as an important actor, would be strong enough to uphold and consolidate a system of norms and values that was born in the West. This may be a best-case scenario, but it is the light that should guide those international policymakers as they seek their way through this dark and dangerous passage.