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Aggression and predation

Aggression and predation

One of the lessons of history is that any unprotected asset will be grabbed by an opportunist, and that the best defence is constant vigilance backed by insight. The industrial world has learned that complex economies cannot be seized, and that trade and competition, political negotiation and alliance create conditions of mutual benefit. It has to be said that it took it a long time, a very real threat of utter annihilation and many dead bodies to arrive at this consensus. The issues which this raises are discussed in an extensive paper elsewhere.

The pattern of relations between the wealthy world and other groups is (crudely) summarised in the figure. For example, the wealthy want institutional reform, environmental protection - and so forth - from the poor nations, which in turn want capital, knowledge, market access in return.

For present purposes, however, the key relationship may be the that which is struck across the bottom of the triangle. That is, middle income nations will have relationships with their poor neighbours which are not governed by the sensibilities and self-imposed constraints of the wealthy world. Those who are engaged in commerce in these regions will be familiar with the prevalence of child and slave labour, where the driving force behind this are firms based in middle income countries. Further, whilst it is not possible to capture the complex structures of the industrial world by military invasion or threat, it is certainly feasible to seize and exploit primary production such as oil wells, fisheries, rivers and wheat fields.

It was, of course, always so. The primary thrust of settled civilisation came from a mixture of mutual security and the division of labour. The riper the plum, the more effort that had to be put into protecting it, and the warrior caste swiftly became indistinguishable from the owner and exploiter of the plum tree. What has changed is, on the one hand, the huge increase in connectivity and, on the other, the implications of the technology which can be used for war. A small war of aggression in a desert kingdom can shake the foundations of the global economy, and the use of some actual and prospective weapons can threaten people and states far from the precipitating events. Most of all, however, the use of indirect leverage threatens to involve major players in the affairs of minor powers in a way that would have been inconceivable a few generations earlier.

Military power was once broadly symmetrical, which is to say that virtually identical forces lined up against each other, and fought with roughly the same weapons. One could defend against such forces by accumulating a larger force, or by building tactical advantages (such as roads, storage depots and trained reserves) into one's territory. Deterrence consisted of the price that it was necessary to pay in order to overwhelm another's potential response. Stability came from a symmetry of power - chiefly, of economic weight and its expenditure on military strength - and a symmetry of tools, whereby a given measure had an exact countermeasure.

The technology that the European powers were able to deploy in the 300 years of expansionism broke both forms of existing local symmetry. Current US policy is to drive for a situation of absolute asymmetry in both modes. This follows a policy which was established after the fall of the Soviet empire, termed "Fast Forward", which was and is aimed to make the cost of catching up unacceptable, thereby forcing other powers to negotiate rather than confront. This unilateral buildup of power has been increased in the past year, where the step up in US military spending is greater than the entire continental European defence budget.

Asymmetry of power is largely stable where the powerful seek only political influence, as is the case with the USA. Where this is not the case, the powerful have tended to absorb the weak. An asymmetry of tools is, however, altogether a different matter, as this forces conflict into new modes.

The atomic bomb was an asymmetrical weapon. It could not be countered or blocked directly, so a policy of mutually assured destruction had to be adopted, coupled to pointless proxy conflicts in client states, to propaganda and to subversion. Terror, debated in what has proven to be an immensely influential paper elsewhere, is a set of tools which can be used both to impose symmetry (when used by states on their citizens) and as a means of projecting power where conventional force and influence is otherwise blocked. We live in and will continue to experience asymmetry of tools and power, and the threats that we shall face will be at their most poignant when they work around this fact.

What do we need to take into account when thinking about this. There seem three obvious issues.

We have already touched upon motive. A fundamental distinction has to be drawn between those who wish to achieve a concrete aim - access to power, for example, or national partitioning - and those who are protesting against abstract aspects of life, such as modernisation. (This last is discussed elsewhere.) Those with pragmatic goals, whether criminal or revolutionary, are both limited in their aspirations and subject to conventional carrots and sticks. They can be managed once they are understood, and their goals are finite.

Those who use force to strive for abstract or incomprehensible goals are very much harder to manage. They do not respond to deterrence, to carrots or to sticks. They do not stick to agreements that they may have made. They feel themselves conceptually complete and utterly virtuous, and everyone who is not a member of their band is automatically either a dupe or an enemy. They can be handled only through isolation or extirpation, where the key form of isolation is often from the society within which they move. Intelligence, and specifically information about key individuals and economic resources, are the means of restoring symmetry. Public opinion forming is, therefore, a key tool in the management armoury. As the US decided to promote an 'art of freedom' to counter the socialist realist and totalitarian grand displays (and so, arguably, created the New York art market) so it may be well to actively create a new language of realism about the world that we wish to preserve.

A calculating version of this dynamics uses idealism and fear for personal gain. So-called ethnic entrepreneurs exacerbate friction by actively inciting distinctive groups to see themselves as both separate and under threat from the majority. The catalyst of this acquires power and a client base, which is patrolled for everything from religious orthodoxy to a dress code. The aim is to amplify differences and to create a sense of being under siege. Such people can be managed as can revolutionaries, save when they have established their orthodoxy and built a formal power base on it. At this point, most become economically 'reasonable', at least for as long as this suits them.

This brings us to the second issue, that of tools. Asymmetrical warfare may set out to draw the unaligned into the conflict: to make, for example, the existence of Israel into a crucial problem that the US or Europe must solve if they are to avoid terrible events. The Tamil separatists attempted to make the conflict in Sri Lanka into India's problem, so that it would exert pressure on the Sinhali leaders to seek a settlement. The model is clear, and the world's major powers will continue to experience attempts to involve them in other peoples' fights.

Additional collateral stems organised crime - drugs, prostitution, arms sales, money laundering - used to raise funds for this or that 'armed struggle'. The Sendero Luminoso in Peru were largely responsible for the great increase in cocaine productiosn of the 1980s, and the unresolved revolutionary war in Colombia for the lawlessness that processed and trans-shipped this. Afghanistan has recently produced much of the world's opium crop, for reasons that events have made familiar to all. The Lebanon became a major cannabis exporter to support the civil war; and so forth.

The tools that can be used by small groups are, of course, increasingly formidable. It is pointless to rehearse these, as many are familiar from the television screen. However, biology is creating low cost tools by which to do far more sophisticated things than send envelopes full of bacteria to target organisations. Consider a slow-working virus that gradually induced senile dementia in a population which drank orange juice from a particular source, or shared a common histocompatibility complex. These gene complexes are sufficiently distinct for individual mice to be able to smell out their offspring, and so avoid incest. Biological weapons may become family- or individually-specific. Consider weapons aimed at crops or livestock that were specific to certain nations or regions. Consider unpleasantnesses which have been bred into such crops and then distributed through commercial channels, to wreak subtle effects. Or computer operating systems; or viruses that modify these in subtle ways. Non-fission fusion bombs may be with us in a few years, allowing 'garage' technology to create nuclear weapons. And very much so forth.

The question is not whether such things are to be used, but why anyone would want to use them. We have already touched on the motives of terror users. Those with concrete goals do not use extreme measures: the IRA could have flooded the London underground at any time with a single bomb in one of the many tunnels that go under the Thames river, but when asked why they did not do this, a spokesman said that the aim was political, and that the response to such an act would not be. It would be counterproductive. Those with abstract goals will, however, go to extremes. There are supposedly millions of survivalists in the US, at least some of the children of whom have been indoctrinated to the effect that the federal government is an oppressive invader, certainly in league with communists and who knows? - with martians. There are extreme environmental movements which regard humans - all humans - as a plague on the planet. Such people, given a phial of cloudy liquid, may well choose to drop it in the subway.

In addition to such tools, the industrial world consists of networks of interdependent systems, the crippling of any one of which would have catastrophic consequences for the whole. Examples of this range from just-in-time manufacturing systems to the telephone network, from energy provision to the assurance of reliable financial transactions. Industrial processes are vulnerable to disruption: an aluminium smelter, for example, passes liquid metal through its pipe-work. A single projectile (or a computer error) could reduce an entire complex to a useless sculpture. Equally, foods and other mass produced items are extremely vulnerable to contamination, as a single feed stream can supply an entire nation. Any or all of these are potential targets for people who want to raise the profile of their cause, damage 'modernity' or cast the blame on their enemy.

The third and most contentious question is what can be done to counter these threats. There are, of course, many threads to this. The sources of general friction have been discussed in one section of this site, and the role of failed institutions in another. There are clear, if difficult, things which can be done in both of these arena. Underpinning this entire debate is the basic fact that what was once separate is being connected together, and that societies which could gradually adapt and generally rub along together are being pitched into breakneck change, and into competition with states which are not their peers. We review the consequences of this in the overview section, noting the need for better 'explanations' and for new institutions and agreements to police the interfaces. A pervasive theme is the need for information about the motives and actions of others, and the probably need to conduct active research - intelligence - into areas where pre-emptive interdiction is essential. Intelligent interventions may be no more than a word in a key ear, the denial of a visa or the blocking of a bank account. Massive reactions - such as the invasion of failed states - leave all manner of legacies, and the new governing body has to put an often-unwilling Humpty Dumpty back together again, a project measurable in decades. Policing of ceasefire lines and other related tasks which the UN tends to set itself have the effect essentially of perpetuating running sores rather than healing them.

We developed scenarios for the aftermath of the September 11 events in New York. These are not yet available to the public, but one or two of the lessons which we learned may be of interest. First, the 'official future' of a concerted effort to quash the sources of terrorism needs to be thought through in much more detail than is evident in current public statements. What is wanted is much of what is described above. Conventional military might is neither effective nor deterrent in dealing with the key cadres. What is entailed is subtle, socio-political and concerned with access to information, with the creation of explanatory models, with formal intelligence gathering and with the communication of ideas.

If this is to be achieved, the industrial powers will need to act together in order to project power through all of the channels that are available to them - through commercial, diplomatic, economic, institutional mechanisms; by means of concepts and ideas, even and most especially through the medium or entertainment and popular culture, through education and the new IT media. There may well be a closer relationship between this enterprise and individual companies, in directing - for example - management and capabilities to specific geographical areas in exchange for risk-management and guarantees.

These thoughts, worked through, point to considerable overheads and to many potential clashes of interest. Indeed, a moment's thought shows how very difficult managed stability is to achieve. The potential for an orchestrated reaction to over-invasive or overly-visible management is self-evident, particularly from the aspirant regional powers such as China, India, major Latin nations and perhaps one or two African states. These are waters in which to swim with great care; yet to do nothing is exceptionally dangerous. What is needed, therefore, is structured debate around these and related issues. Readers may care to watch this space for the little that the Challenge Network can contribute.

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