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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?
CrisisWatch 2018 November Trends & December Alerts
CrisisWatch 2018 November Trends & December Alerts
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An Out-of-Date Model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.

Commentary / Global

CrisisWatch 2018 November Trends & December Alerts

The latest edition of Crisis Group's monthly conflict tracker highlights dangers of escalating conflict in DR Congo, Yemen and Bangladesh. CrisisWatch also notes a conflict resolution opportunity in Yemen.

 

In November, Yemen’s brutal war continued to threaten its people with famine, while talks planned for early December offer a glimmer of hope for reprieve. Boko Haram’s insurgency in north east Nigeria gained intensity, as suspected jihadist groups stepped up attacks in Burkina Faso’s north and east and across the border in south west Niger, and in Mozambique’s far north. In Somalia, Al-Shabaab upped its campaign of violence, while territorial clashes flared between the country’s semi-autonomous Puntland region and Somaliland. In the Central African Republic, fighting between armed groups and violence targeting civilians and peacekeepers surged, and clashes erupted in northern Chad. Fears grew over possible violence around upcoming elections in DR Congo, and troops from neighbouring Burundi attacked a Congo-based Burundian rebel group. Protests turned violent in Haiti and Guinea, while in Bangladesh, election-related violence could increase in coming weeks. In Europe, relations deteriorated between Kosovo and Serbia, while further east tensions spiked following an incident involving Russian and Ukrainian naval vessels in the Azov Sea.

In Yemen, the war raged on with local forces backed by the United Arab Emirates advancing into the eastern part of Hodeida city, still controlled by the Huthis. A battle for Hodeida port and city – a lifeline for some two thirds of the population – would likely plunge millions of Yemenis into famine. Amid recent U.S. Senate moves to end its involvement in the war, December offers a glimmer of hope; UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths is expected to hold peace talks, which could resume efforts toward a political settlement and help avert the slide into a catastrophic man-made disaster.

Jihadist groups stepped up attacks in multiple theatres across Africa. In Nigeria’s north east, the Boko Haram faction calling itself Islamic State West Africa Province upped its raids on security forces, taxing an already over-stretched military ahead of the February 2019 polls. In the Sahel, jihadist attacks continued to rise in Burkina Faso’s north and east and a new hot spot emerged across the border in south-western Niger. Al-Shabaab in Somalia intensified attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere, while separately, forces from Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland fought a new bout with those of Somaliland over contested territory. Further down the coast in northern Mozambique, suspected Islamist militants renewed their brutal targeting of civilians.

In the Central African Republic, violence once again surged, especially in the north and centre, as factions of the former rebel Seleka coalition that temporarily took power in 2013 fought anti-balaka community-based militias. Armed groups also targeted civilians, UN peacekeepers and humanitarian facilities. Meanwhile, the rivalry between Russian and African Union-led mediation processes continued to stymie progress toward a political settlement. A new front opened in Chad’s north as a local defence force formed to resist army operations which it believes are aimed at taking control of the area’s gold mines.

DR Congo’s long-delayed general elections set for 23 December could trigger violence. The opposition’s failure to unite behind a single candidate put wind in the sails of President Kabila’s favoured successor, while concerns about the credibility and fairness of the process could lead losers to dispute the results. Burundi’s political crisis turned more kinetic as the army attacked camps of an armed opposition group based in DR Congo’s east. In Guinea, several people were killed as opposition supporters contesting the results of the February 2018 local elections clashed with security forces.

In an atmosphere of political acrimony and mistrust, fears grew over the potential for violence around Bangladesh’s general elections on 30 December. Clashes continued between police and supporters of the opposition, whose call to postpone the polls by a month, and create a caretaker government to oversee them, the government rejected. At least nine people were killed in a renewed wave of violence in Haiti as anti-corruption protests gripped the country.

Relations between Kosovo and Serbia took a turn for the worse as Kosovo introduced a 100 per cent tariff on imports from Bosnia and Serbia, which it said was retaliation for their “negative behaviour” and diplomatic efforts to undermine Kosovo’s international position. The tariff also raised tensions within Kosovo as ethnic Serbs expressed their anger at the move. A confrontation involving Russian and Ukrainian naval vessels in the Azov Sea resulted in the Russian capture of three Ukrainian vessels and 24 servicemen, in what is believed to constitute Russia’s first overt and uncontested use of force against Ukraine since its 2014 annexation of Crimea; both sides accused each other of provocation.

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