What we’ve seen so far: The Year 2012 in Review

It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.

[Psst… he only looks like Ole Saint Nick…]

It is that time of year again, when we pass out in the egg nog, with visions of sugar-plum fairies dancing in our stockings, hung from the chimney with care, amidst our decked-out halls and holly. Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laa.  Or at least it is for me.

It is also, though, that time of year when we see no end of predictions for the future.  Well, Dear Reader, you won’t see any posts here labelled “The next big thing for 2013”.  If that is what you want, head on over to LinkedIn…I hear they got loads of ’em.

What I am offering is something far more humble than that.  What I am offering as my Christmas gift to you is a few observations from the world in 2012, as commented on here on KOW over the past 12 months.  [As this is an academic blog, recycling our work and passing it off again in a slightly re-fashioned format is seen as a high art form.]  Let me also add that this represents one Feckless Bureaucrat’s trawl through the archives; it is not meant to be a ‘greatest hits’, much less a comprehensive account of our collective output here at KOW.

With that said, here we go.

Turning on a COIN?

Despite the many arguments raging about COIN (arguments that often smell more than a little bit of ad hominem, to be frank) it is beginning to be the time where we can ask what comes next.   It would be nice if 2013 would continue this more civil line of argument, but I doubt it.

10 Print “Cyberwar will definitely happen/not happen”: 20 Goto 10;

It is evident by now that cyberwar is the biggest thing since Y2K.  Only a few questions remain: “What is it?”  and “What does it matter?”.  Here on KOW we talked, inter alia, about Cyber Arms  Limitations, whether or not cyber protective measures should be centralised, whether nor there was anything new in cyberwar, if cyberwar represented a fifth-domain of warfare, or even if the entire notion of networked society had ramifications for war beyond that which we regard/don’t regard as cyberwar.

La crise de la longue durée

Some things, go on and on and on.  Although not directly in our mandate (as if we have one!  as if we NEED one!), we looked at the EU suicide by a thousand paper-cuts and even tried to tease out the implications for defence.  Alas, austerity rules, even for our fictional heroes.

When confronted by complexity, we try to reason by analogy.

The problem is that analogies don’t always make for the best foundations.  Meanings are lost, or not commonly agreed upon.  Take, for instance, the looking at the Middle East through a prism of the Balkans.  Or, for another instance, how the analogical reference point of Malaya has led to no end of difficulty, both operational and theoretical.

Clio can be capricious.

A corollary of our analogical predilection is the fact that even those historical events that we believe are soundly resolved and therefore stand as beacons of common understanding…uh, well, aren’t.  We made reference to recent scholarship highlighting options available during the Second World War and to the variety of understandings we might derive from Homer’s Trojan chronicles.

The Fundamentals are not Sound

This uncertainty spread well beyond historical revisionism.  We were reminded this year that even the most fundamental ideas that underpin our field of study are not always fixed.   What is conventional warfare, for instance?  Sounds easy for us here at KOW, but it turns out that there is more to it than originally meets the eye.  Likewise, deterrence: does it work the same in all contexts, at all times?  How about military discipline?  Not so uncontroversial after all.  Even the use of weapons of mass destruction can be construed as rational, if viewed the right (wrong?) way.  Even that bedrock concept of strategy was found to be worthy of re-examination, using the clever lens of animal behaviour.  While we think we might understand how the idea of risk interacts with strategy, we found out that things are not so clear there either.

A more protracted example might be that of drones.  Again, they can seem quite simple: extensions of existing tactics.  But the number of conceptual and ethical dimensions to be plumbed is myriad.  Some believe they are precursors of a more ominous future, others look forward to their arrival, others believe there is time yet to prevent their domination.

But wait…there’s more!

So while that wraps up my retrospective gleaned from the pages of KOW itself, allow me to wriggle down your chimney and stuff your stockings with these little prezzies, not connected to KOW per se, but much more a few DIY gifties of my own.  Perhaps these are bit ‘future focused’, too, just for a little walk-on-the-wild side bonus.

1.  Unexpected events, old boy, unexpected events.   Any good plan can easily be upset by events that are, or at least appear, unexpected.  Who would have guessed that the UN would be authorizing military action in Mali in 2012?

2.  Unintended consequences happen.  Speaking of Mali, we can see the trouble there being influenced by the demise of the Gadhafi regime in Libya.  Pandora’s box is a dangerous thing.   Wonder where it will strike next?  What little treats does Syria hold in store for us, at the second and third order of consequence?

3.  Some things never die.  Some crises just never go away.  Sure, they may flare up from time to time but they just don’t go away (a timely observation given that some of you may have relatives visiting over the Christmas holiday season).  Think South China Sea, as a ferinstance.  Or trouble in Congo.  Or North Korean brinksmanship.

4.  Some things do die, or at least aren’t headlines anymore.  Whatever happened to piracy?  Did it go away or just become something to be managed within tolerable boundaries? What can we learn from that?  No more trouble in Somalia?  Famine all fixed in the Horn of Africa?

5.  Every effect has a cause, and every cause has an effect…but not necessarily the ones you are thinking of.  The truth is, we probably should not be surprised by the things that surprise us.   However, we cling to the belief that we understand how ‘P‘ leads to ‘Q‘.  Truth is, we don’t.  P might lead to X…or nothing. Q might be the result of years and years of  L, M, N, and O.  P just happened to take place the week before it blew up.  Might want to turn this into humility as we plan our various interventions around the world in 2013.

In the end…

Allow me, on behalf of all of us here at KOW, to wish you all a very jolly end to 2012.  I am sure 2013 will be as wild a ride as ever.


3 thoughts on “What we’ve seen so far: The Year 2012 in Review

  1. Chirality says:

    Many sincere thanks to all the KoW academics, students and commenters for the stimulating posts and debate of the last year.

    I wish you and your close ones a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and bright New Year.

    See you in the gym in January,

    P.S. here’s hoping 2013 will bring your expertise to the likes of Coursera.org or similar tie up, like Edx.org? hint, hint…

  2. Saso Virag says:

    Nice recollection of 2012. Here’s to more of the same in 2013.

    I agree, we need to pay more attention to #5 in the future. Time to include systems thinking in polsci curriculums? Saying “we really should’ve seen this coming” is a bit too late when you play the role of the pig rather than the chook in the bacon and egg sandwich.

    Risk manager’s mantra is “correlation is not causation”, but even we too frequently assign cause to the most obvious part: the snowball far down the slope of the hill.

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