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Security and power in 2020

Security and power in 2020

  This paper first appeared in the occasional papers of the Tomorrow Project. It is reproduced here by the kind permission of its co-ordinator Richard Worsley. The interview took place before the events of September 11th in New York, and therefore represents a well-established line of thought within security circles.

INTERVIEWER: Please sketch something of the world of 2020.

RESPONSE: You and I live in the industrial world, which has around one billion increasingly elderly inhabitants. New entrants will perhaps swell this to 1.2 bn by 2020, and this by-then frankly old population will be embedded in a world of around 8 billion by 2020, It will still create about 85% of the wealth, as compared to the poorest 2 bn, who generate less than 1%, down from nearly 3% in 1960. Technology will be widely disseminated, and the communications of 2020 can only be guessed at. In essence, anyone who wants to connect to any information source, group or people or person will be able to do so at minimal cost.

Self-evidently, this is a fast-paced, hectic world. When I was in India recently, CNN Asia commented on how "a billion people now lived on amphetamines, staying awake for 20 hours a day whilst striving to become rich." Billions, connected as never before, will soon begin to stand on each others' toes, requiring trans-national regulation, policing, politics and power projection. Agreements on everything from human rights to the environment, from intellectual property to public health will require us to manage our commons. Some states will object, some will lose control. The potential for harm is large, the potential for muddle even higher.

INTERVIEWER: How does this impact on defence and security?

RESPONSE: There are probably four key issues. The first is that the key threats no longer reflect the artificial simplicity of the cold war. We need much more subtle, proactive and often "social" tools. It is, however, easier to face relatively defined military situations than it is to address a myriad of complex pinpricks. Some of these may be objectively unimportant but subject to public concern or media attention, whilst others may carry more deadly venom but be hard to tackle in the public gaze.

Second, elites once knew each others' minds, and they took decisions in virtual isolation both from their respective citizens and from media oversight. Dissent is now commonplace and powerful. Alliances are fragile in the face of labile public opinion. Simple agency has become complex.

The third issue grows from these facts. It is concerned with asymmetry.

That is, one could once block sea power with a line of near-identical ships, or counter an infantry advance with its twin. Larger forces could be directly balanced by peer "escalation". Today, we have lost this symmetry. Many weapons cannot be directly countered, and we can only deter by threatening retaliation by other means. This was the logic - or perhaps "logic" - of the nuclear deterrent. In addition, a given type of power projection can be countered by something quite distinct: by legal tactics, media manipulation or political intervention, for example. Asymmetry can only be stabilised through deterrence and by access to multiple options, such as having many ways to projecting power. (Please see the companion paper "On Terror" for instances where deterrence will fail.)

The fourth issue is that of how to think about operating in such an environment. Decisions which are taken today about potential weapons systems need to be based on our view of the world in 20-30 years time. We know with absolute certainty that technology will have changed radically by that time. Far more to the point, the socio-political environment will also have changed. There will, for example, be more graduates alive by 2020 than there were people living in 1900. Their potential for organised agency, dissent, instability and action will be augmented by communications, confidence, wealth and technology.

INTERVIEWER: So how ought we to think about operating?

RESPONSE: There is a potential network of problem owners, but this is not acting as effectively as it could in respect of the long term. There are, for example, elaborate mechanisms for calculating the number of pilots or heavy lift aircraft that are needed in ten years times, as of course there should be. However, the understanding that drives this mechanistic planning should involve everyone who has something to contribute. The development and foreign service communities, those in security, intelligence, policing and border management all have something to contribute to (and something to learn from) the strict military. Such oversight also needs to be integrated with the views of allies, who often have strikingly different perspectives on regions, social issues and political limits.

Oversight networks need to put much more emphasis on understanding changing socio-economic and political structures. If we are to "fix" a Kosovo or a collapsed state in Africa, then we need to know the ideas and social technologies that we can apply to do this. Assessments of this sort might well lead to projections of how many regional administrators that we shall need who are fluent in a given cultural environment, for example, as opposed to how many pilots or tanks.

Confronted with such thoughts, one general told me that "one can either fight technified warfare or one cannot." There is some truth in this. A core capability, networked with long-term allies, remains a central need. An armed force is made up as much of its people as its equipment, however, and the complex system in which they must work will become more complex. It will be comprised of people at various levels of training, of communications systems sporting varied integration, protocols and levels of completeness, of equipment and supply chains all fitted with differing software and modules of hardware. This will become more complex and heterogeneous as budgets squeeze, as technologies accelerate, as alliances form and as work is out-sourced. Learning to manage this, in the face of a myriad constraints, may become a central differentiating factor within the more-or-less 'technified' nations.

One particular issue, however, is that of the national defence industry. Investment in non-military technologies greatly outstrips investment in other industries, and the best ideas can come from anywhere in the world. Nations need platforms from which informed minds can ensure that their industry is at the cutting edge, and so that those who specify contracts can be sure or getting the best. This is a quite different role from the cosy relationship of paymaster and provider which has been characteristic until the last decade.

INTERVIEWER: What of international institutions?

RESPONSE: The wealthy have power, and for them to cede this to an international institution takes considerable confidence in them. It is unlikely that they will earn this within the next generation. Radical changes in the governance in these structures, and economic confidence in the rich world both tend to encourage the secession of some powers. Alliance amongst the powerful will continue to give muscle to dreams of international policing. Legitimacy will still be sought from international agencies, but not always strict permission. However, as I have already suggested, life in a close-coupled, systems-dominated world will require greater collaboration. Those with whom to seek common cause may not always be nation states, however, as pressure groups and others become active and media-competent stakeholders.

INTERVIEWER: What do you consider is the absolutely key issue that we need to focus on?

RESPONSE: Armed conflict is unlikely between the wealthy nations, for many reasons. They gain nothing through conflict. They have everything to lose from it. The key areas of challenge and of instability are, therefore, the relationships within the developing world and its friction with the wealthy.

Might this relationship recapitulate history? Might we see nations or blocks of nations locked into ideological conflict? I think that it is important to take a historical perspective on this.

Two centuries ago, nations were almost entirely self-contained entities. They exercised power internally and across borders in whatever way served interests of their elites. Any one could set out to capture primary production - farms, mines, fisheries, their associated workers and slaves - and armies did so. Military power was a discrete and relatively low-key matter, handled amongst peers.

A century ago, nations had changed little but their interests had frequently become much extended. Elites were less in charge than hitherto. However, it was economies and whole populations which went to war. The motives were less the capture of assets than opposing views of what constituted civil society.

Today, the industrial nation state is a complex web of loosely connected interests. It is impossible to capture the means of production. Educated and informed populations see the state as a tool, not as a master.

There is no motive for strife between these groups, and no means to sustain a case for it. The stresses are more likely between the wealthy world and the seven billion aspirants. It is my view that these stresses will express themselves piecemeal. It is possible that a ideological agent of an economic scale equivalent to China might be able to ferment a group consciousness that served their interests. However, the poor world is heterogeneous and internally divided, and the way in which such a bloc would serve its leader nation is hard to discern. Ideology had its chance in the Twentieth century, and it has always failed when confronted by the opportunities for personal choice.

It follows that these stresses will express themselves through the consequences of generally increased contact. Some may be economic, some criminal; some may concern public health and the environment, some will focus on the consequences of collapsed states or social instability. Dangerous technologies and stolen intellectual property will be major irritants. Like it or not, the rich world will find itself with a problem to manage, and it needs to think hard about the tools and insight that it needs to deploy.

We do not understand social, political and economic development. It is clear that there is no one 'right way', but rather a balance amongst a range of necessary factors. Political balance is, of course, the most sought-after outcome within a network of components, all of which need to be in place for stability to be established. This said, it is often the case that military aims revolve around the creation of such stability but without primary reference to the rest of the system.

We have tried three approaches to achieving this. The first is the assertion of the right of sovereign peoples to self-determination. This concept works in practice only when (a) there are neat division of society and geography that map onto each other, (b) when the resulting sovereign peoples have the institutional capacity and energies to govern themselves, and when (c) nationalism does not pitch them into cross-border battles with their former compatriots.

A second approach entails inclusive policies, giving everyone a stake in the tendency of peace to make plenty. Achieving this can be slow and the process is easily undermined by unrealistic expectations and weak social discipline. This approach has had a huge affect in Asia, and it is responsible for some of the changing fortunes of South America.

The third set of solutions are imposed. This approach has scored great successes - as with the redesign of the German and Japanese governments after World War II. It has considerable limitations, however: of legitimacy, of will, of cost and of durability.

We have no means of defining when the search of endogenous solutions is hopeless, and when an imposed solution is needed. For example, peacekeeping is often ineffectual because it preserves the status quo. We separate the combatants because this is better than conflict, but we neither impose a solution nor effectively create political structures whereby they find their own solutions.

It is worth noting that the twentieth century saw about 220 million killed in conflict. Around 6-8 million died in international conflict, something over 10 million in civil war, but that 200 million died through states attacking their own citizens. The machete and barbed wire were the weapons of mass destruction.

INTERVIEWER: Thank you for these thoughts; they are all vitally important issues that we could, perhaps, discuss at greater length on another occasion.

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