i am sorry

Be very, very quiet: Hayden Speaks

Big Brother?  Small fry.  Dr. Strangelove?  Amateur.  This interview in Der Spiegel reveals that the former chief of the NSA sees the world in a way most of us do not.  A few gems, if I might be allowed, Dear Reader?

Hayden: We Americans think of military doctrine and “domains” — land, sea, air, space. As part of our military thought, we now think of cyber as a domain. Let me define air dominance for you: Air dominance is the ability of the United States to use the air domain at times and places of its own choosing while denying its use to its adversaries at times and places when it is in our legitimate national interest to do so. It’s just a natural thing for him to transfer that to the cyber domain. I do not think it [the NSA] is a threat to world peace and commerce any more than the American Air Force is a threat to world peace and commerce.

Uhhh…okay.  The problem with analogies is, General, both parts have to be…awww…skip it.

Hayden: The whole question about the chancellor has made this much more difficult. Although I’m not prepared to apologize for conducting intelligence against another nation, I am prepared to apologize for embarrassing a good friend. I am prepared to apologize for the fact we couldn’t keep whatever it was we may or may not have been doing secret and therefore put a good friend in a very difficult position. Shame on us. That’s our fault.

Sooo…you’re sorry you did it?  Or sorry that you may or may not have done it?  Or sorry that someone found out?  But still…sorry, right?

Hayden: …to be perfectly candid with you and your readers, the president promised to not surveil Angela Merkel. This was not a promise in perpetuity that no head of the German government would be surveilled.

OK, so not that sorry then.

Enjoy the rest of the article.  Good stuff.

civ mil rels

Teaching Civil-Military Relations: Top Fiction Readings/Films?

Dear Readers, although I am the quintessential bureaucrat (Balzac is my middle name, after all), I also dabble in teaching from time to time.  I am looking to refresh a course on civil-military relations and, as part of that process, to spruce up the fictional offerings with which I pepper my syllabus.  So, given that crowdsourcing is the new analogue for wisdom, I am seeking your suggestions.

Of course, there are the usual canonical choices. For books, there are Starship Troopers and 1984.  For films there is Dr. Strangelove.   I am not looking at ‘war’ more generally (Christopher Coker’s wonderful new book Men at War from Hurst ploughs this fertile ground with effortless aplomb); I very much want to focus on allowing students to examine civil-military relations in an applied setting, albeit a fictional one.  The works can highlight the relationship between the political executive and the military and/or between the military and society.  While I am sure there will be a number of pieces set in America, other milieux would be more than welcome.  Past, present, future; literal, allegorical…bring them on!


One Thing to Rule them All?

It is an academic conceit to believe that there is one single unifying, underlying factor that is responsible for animating or driving social phenomena.  Usually, a scholar’s home department or discipline is touted as the codex, the intellectual skeleton key, to unlocking all that there is to know about whatever it is under discussion.  Supporting such elegant explanations for the mess we call life can be tempting…and often rewarding (in terms of reputation and money).  Samuel Huntington’s ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ is a case in point: strip away the extraneous stuff (the epiphenomena of power, money, etc.) and we find one, dominating ‘thing’ that drives human conflict.  [Sean Coombs provides an alternate explanation here.  Word.]

The events of the past few weeks have driven people to postulate such reductionist explanations for the conflicts in Thailand, Ukraine, and Venezuela.  [Personally, I think conflicts might just be like tropical storms and we were up to T, U and V in the alphabet...]  Allow me, Dear Reader, to play a few for you below.

  • Geography.  Russia needs it’s ‘near abroad’ and will do anything to preserve it, including carving up Ukraine.
  • History.  Thailand’s current political conflict is a repeat of 2010, 2008, 2006, 1993, 1991, 1973, 1970…all the way back to 1932.
  • Nationalism.  The ethnic affinity of Russian speakers, regardless of where they are, explains why Moscow moved to seize the Crimea.
  • Personality.  Nicolás Maduro ain’t Hugo Chavez and that’s why the people are on the streets.  Putin is Putin; Obama is Obama.  ’Nuff said.
  • People.  The will of the masses cannot be denied.  The expression of this will explains what is happening in Bangkok/Kiev/Caracas.
  • Class.  The Middle Class desire for more self-determination led to political upheavals in Bangkok/Kiev/Caracas.
  • Ideology.  The attractiveness of the EU ideal is an unstoppable force, what with its democracy, social justice, and tolerance.  The battle in Kiev was one of progressives vs. reactionaries.
  • Economics.  The West is doing nothing about Crimea because it fears Russian economic pressure, in the form of capital flight from The City or increased gas prices in Berlin.
  • Psychology.  Vanity, misperception, egotism, megalomania–all explain why the leaders (on both sides of each conflict) made the choices they did, which led to the various crises.
  • Gender.  The current political crisis in Thailand is driven by male non-acceptance of a female leader.
  • The Internet.  The rise of social media–and the ease of communications that it, because of The Internet, engenders–explains why ideas can spread so quickly and globally, allowing people to see what they are missing.

It is surely the case that all these factors are at play in each of the conflicts mentioned–and a hockey-sock more besides.  As attractive as these theories may be, they are all–sadly–incomplete.  There is no one ‘master variable’ that can explain complex social phenomena like revolution, rebellion, and war.  Life is complicated and, therefore, so must our analyses be.  Solutions–if they exist at all–are unlikely to uni-dimensional.

We need holistic approaches to understand and hopefully resolve these kinds of social conflicts.  Young people of today, mark my words: Do yourself a favour and invest in developing a wide range of disciplinary tools.  Study history, but not to the exclusion of everything else.  By all means, learn economics, but not only economics.  [Good news!  KCL offers just such as thing in its War Studies Department.  Roll up!  Roll up!]  Learn a language.  Travel the world.  Experience other traditions and points of view.  Don’t drink your own bathwater.

And then when you are older, fatter, and grayer (or is that just me?) try and resist making catholic explanations based on the one or two things that you actually think you understand.  By all means make a contribution, but try to do it with a modicum of humility.

Now that would be powerful.


An extension of politics by other means: Security and Internet Governance, Pt 1.

“To live is to war with trolls.” Henrik Ibsen

“To live is to war with trolls.”      Henrik Ibsen


Here at KOW, we do talk a bit about cyber issues and all that, from time to time.  (Heck, some of our contributors have even made quite a name from this type of thing.  Dave Betz, Thomas Rid, and Tim Stevens).  There is a feeling, though, that we in the ‘hard security’ fields (those concerned with military, police, and intelligence affairs) tend to get cybersecurity wrong.  We don’t do well at strategy at the best of times, it is claimed, but do even worse when it comes to strategies in the cyber domain.

Now, dear Reader, if you know me, you know that I am a bit of a Luddite, a bit of a technophobe, and a bit of a curmudgeon.  So colour me as surprised as the next guy to find myself at the 8th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Bali, Indonesia last week.  (The location had nothing to do with my attendance, by the way).  This post is the first of two containing my reflections on security and the internet, as prompted by the proceedings of the IGF.

Let me start by stating that, contrary to my low expectations, far from being a ‘geek-fest’, an orgy of übertech, a smorgasbord of terms like ccTLDs, IoT, and the like, there were actually some very interesting points being raised in Bali, which should have a direct bearing on how we (in the War Studies/International Security communities) regard the idea of internet security.

It’s the governance, stupid. 

In the ‘Internet ecosystem’ there are several existing notions of how the Internet should be governed.  First, there are those who believe that it should be regulated by states, along the same lines of other forms of communications regulation.  States should control access to the internet, through licensing, auctions of frequencies, and protections of both the rights and responsibilities of operators and users.  Governments worry that freedom is really a veil of secrecy for terrorists, pedophiles, and drug-dealers.  From this point of view, the internet needs to be subject to the same kinds of controls as ordinary life is.

Second, there are others who believe that the internet should be viewed as a commodity, and left to the market and the various commercial entities to sort out.  States should take a very hands-off approach, letting the ‘invisible hand’ of the market allocate usage of the internet in the most ‘efficient’ way possible.

Third, groups of technical experts, those involved in the actually engineering and construction of the Internet, see the entire thing as being beyond anyone’s control.  They believe that technology itself is the only restraint on the Internet, and are not much bothered by arguments surrounding content filtering, or localized routing, preferring to look at the ways and means, and not the ends, of these options.

Fourth, there are others who view the internet as a sort of digital commons, a place for all to express their various interests and concerns.  This commons should be a free domain—access should be unfettered, privacy respected, and content uncensored.

Not surprisingly, those who espouse these approaches do not always get along.  State-centric proponents have come under fire recently, as Edward Snowden’s revelations have confirmed what many have long suspected: states are hungry to know everything that goes on across the web, eager to look into every nook and cranny, all under the aegis of national security.  Commercial players, too, have been seen to attempt to crowd out others on the ‘Net.  For instance, they want assurances—from states—that the frequencies or web addresses they buy will enjoy the kind of property rights they would in the ‘real world’.  Furthermore, commercial players—like Google and Facebook—are claiming user data as their own, be it meta-data or selfies or GPS locations, much to the chagrin (and sometimes surprise) of users.  User groups assert that the internet is being ruined because of the actions of governments and firms: privacy, access, affordability, grassroot ‘DIY’ projects and the advantages of anonymity are all becoming increasingly difficult to maintain in a world of government snooping and industry monopolies.

Now what, I hear you ask Dear Reader, does this have to do with KOW?  The key conclusion that I arrived at is that, unsurprisingly, issues of internet security are entangled with issues of political philosophy and, somewhat more interestingly, social identity.  The corollary of this conclusion is that this is precisely why we do cybersecurity so poorly: we ignore this entanglement.  Just like in real life, security is a subset of governance, which is a function of politics, in all its glory and misery.  Security cannot stand alone, separate from the larger issues, separate from the larger community or ecosystem.  A simple statement, but one with some often unheeded implications.

What is the Internet?

For any of this to make any sense, a set of questions of primary importance must be addressed.  The problem is that this set of questions is almost completely unanswerable.  What is the Internet?  To whom does it belong?  Is it an extension of the telecommunications infrastructure, and therefore regulatable in the same way telephone networks are?  Some people think so—most states do.  The main UN agency dealing with the internet pre-dates the internet and the UN.  Originally the International Telegraph Union, formed in 1865, the ITU believes there is a linear link from the dots and dashes of the telegraph to the 1s and 0s of the internet.  That perspective shapes a great deal of its policy thinking when it comes to internet governance and security.  As we move into the next frontier of the internet (such as the Internet of Things, where your fridge will share your eating habits with Google and the NSA—not necessarily in that order), will such a perspective remain relevant?

Some believe that the internet is fundamentally different from anything else that has come before it.  It is not just a network, but a common good, not just an information superhighway, but an on-ramp to development.  People in developing countries do not see the internet as merely as a commercial commodity, but rather a lifeline—the lifeline—to a better life for them and their children.  It is both a medium and a conduit for social interaction.  The governance of something so existential, many feel, cannot be left to a handful of states or firms.  To deny, or even to fail to facilitate, access to someone is seen as a matter of grave importance.  One participant at IGF put it, hopefully with some hyperbole, thus: “Internet shutdowns by governments and operators is [sic] a cybercrime against humanity.”

What’s it all about?

It is clear from the conversation going on here that there is no universally appreciated perspective.  Just as there are a number of ideas about governance, there are several points of view about security.  Allow me to put forward several of the ideas floating around, some explicit, some unarticulated.

1.  Security is about trust.  And trust is about expectations.  While governments might think their massive, pervasive surveillance is about increasing security, it might actually be reducing the level of trust people have in the Internet and in government.  For instance, the technical ‘internet security’ people, those responsible for keeping the ‘physical internet’ ship-shape (finding and removing botnets, for example) insist that the level of cooperation and information exchange that they rely on to sort out (remediate) networks following attacks actually decreases when ‘national security’ entities become involved.  Having ministries of defence or homeland security, or intelligence services, being actively involved in a ‘incident’ actually reduces the likelihood of the issue being resolved quickly.  It is felt that their involvement lowers the level of trust, something which has not been an issue—even across borders—at the technical level.  So there is a trade off between national security (was that attack a form of cyber terrorism or even cyberwar?) and internet security (was that attack a single incident of vandalism or does it represent something more widespread?).  A less secure internet (caused by a lack of trust and therefore reduced collaboration across borders) is likely to be a better conduit for attacks that could impact national security.  If security is a product of trust, we can assume that the product of hypocrisy, deceit, and suspicion is distrust, which in turn engenders insecurity.

2.  In terms of politics, the Net has permeable membrane. Even those who do agree with a ‘state first, top down’ approach to internet security (and governance) disagree about which states should be in charge.  Brazil—championing a ‘non-US centric’ agenda along with India and South Africa—has rocked the community here by announcing a ‘non-summit’ to be held in Rio in April, dealing with issues of internet governance.  They are proposing a new UN agency (!!) to be established in order to ‘coordinate’ all the existing ‘organs’ of the internet, including ICANN, ITU, and IGF.  While this is an immediate reaction to the revelations of Edward Snowden, it is easy to detect a connection to wider political debates.  This is an outgrowth of the BRIC movement, indicative of the growing political confidence of countries, like Brazil, and their public flexing of muscles/thumbing of noses at the dominance of the US.

3.  Certain ‘technical issues’ themselves are sometimes used as cloaking devices, hiding larger political agendas.  For example, even something as mundane as the fight against spam has, in some countries, been hijacked as a way of imposing content filtering, restricting freedom of speech.  Similarly, items that at first blush seem to be no-brainers, are not universally agreed upon by all internet players.  Surely the kinds of harm that we seek to limit off-line should be discouraged, or better yet, eliminated, on-line?  Not necessarily.  One IGF participant tweeted, “Governments use excuses like child pornography and similar cases in order to regulate internet but this must stop.”  Perhaps in echo, at the end of the IGF, the Indonesian chair proudly announced that his country “guarantees online freedom of speech, but also protects its citizens from pornography and anti-Islamic propaganda on the Internet.”

4.  Just because it is not ‘state based’ does not mean it is universally legitimate.  Commercial organisations, like ICANN, Google, Facebook, or Amazon, are viewed as American organizations, with all the baggage that comes with that moniker.  ICANN touts itself as being legitimate because it is commercial, but it is seen by many as just another red, white, and blue hegemon.  Cooperation, co-option, and collaboration, and calumny are mixed to form a rather toxic stew, made up of a commercial broth with states holding the spoon.  As one participant made clear to ICANN in a workshop, “Policy authority for non-tech issues is not safer in your hands than with governments.”  There are allegations that corporations, like Facebook and Google, are actually monetizing their cooperation with US authorities. The logic is that they are being ‘reimbursed’ for the information that they pass on.  And what has been reported as their ‘making it harder’ for the US to snoop is in fact just now ‘more expensive’ for the government—and more lucrative for the firms themselves.  This is not going to be regarded as a good thing by many internet users.  As usual, a Freudian slip might just give the game away.  Speaking on a panel about internet surveillance, Google representative Ross LaJeunesse that his “country…company” had legitimate concerns about internet governance.

5.  Governance of the internet is about more that just rules.  One NGO, The Internet Society, believes that because “The Internet is for everyone… [we need] to find the next social structure that will guide the Internet in the future.”  Many traditionalists, including security experts, are not thinking about ‘social structures’ when it comes to security.  Indeed, they are looking at rules and regulation, and the kinds of technological tools and tricks that can be designed or exploited in order to put them into practice. (Backdoors, sidedoors, trapdoors—the word was used so much I expected to see Jim Morrison stroll in at any minute). When they think of the internet, they think about ways of making ‘it’ secure, and about ways of securing us from the dangers that lurk within it.  Traditionalists take it for granted that states will be at the fore, providing solutions.  They look for ‘coherent’ strategies, and expect others to ‘collaborate’ and ‘cooperate’ in order to achieve our objectives.

State-centric actors (such as security agencies) try and cut through what they regard as supercilious and superfluous utopianism about the internet.  By doing so, they may be able to put in place the kinds of systems that allow them to monitor chat rooms or read your ‘meta-data’, but they may never be able to gain or maintain real legitimacy, much less trust.  This, of course, may not keep the leadership of the NSA or the CIA awake at night, but it does not sit well with commercial companies who, rightly or wrongly, are judged as being wholly compliant with the requests of these agencies.  Nor, increasingly, does it do much to cheer up ‘friends and relations’ to know that their head of government’s handy is an open-line.  This week, the White House seems ready to admit that there should be ‘surveillance constraints’.

If this sounds like politics, and not technology, or even threats and risks, that’s because it is.  Security is an offspring of politics.  Neglecting that basic truth often stymies our attempts to make our world—real and virtual—safer.


Thus endeth part one.  My next post in this series will look at the implications of the diversity of actors involved in Internet governance and how maintaining their identities shapes the way they view how internet security should work.


Foreign Policy Magazine is to real foreign policy as People Magazine is to real people. Discuss.

This recent blog post from Daniel Drezner on his FP blog is refreshingly honest.  It asks (warns?) rivals and friends of the USA to refrain from interfering in the domestic debate raging between Congress and the White House over such things as health care and debt servicing.

Fair enough.

I suppose it would be too much to look forward to reciprocity on this issue, to expect that the USA– once it gets its sh*t back in a bag–do the same with regard to the domestic affairs of its rivals and friends?

Thought not.

Carry on.


As Syria burns, experts release long-awaited report to UN

Is that all you got, player?

Nero, First Chair, Strings Section, Rome, AD 64.


In the face of accounts of chemical weapons used on civilians; horrifying images of children on fire;  5 million IDPs;  2 million refugees; and  100,000 deaths…it makes great sense get a panel of internationally renowned jurists together to produce, uh, well…this:


Wow.  Speechless.

If this report is pursuant to an investigation launched on the back of a GA resolution from 1962, when can we expect results from the chemical weapons inspections this summer?

Check back here in 2064.



Declarations of War: The Real, Unreal, and Hyperreal

How do we know when something is real? The first, most direct way is to experience it with our senses. For concrete things, that does neatly.

But what about less concrete things, or even concrete things beyond our personal ken? How do we know that they are real? If we do not or cannot experience them, how do we know they are real? Our knowledge of these things comes from indirect means: someone usually tells us (even if that someone is a presenter on the evening news, or the seemingly omnipresent Mike Rowe on Discovery Channel.)

Clearly, this poses several problems, epistemological as well as practical. For one thing, it places a premium on things we actually experience. Our limited (and for some of us, we might need to add qualifiers such as ‘exceedingly’ before that last word) experience, made up perhaps of only the humdrum, the provincial, pedestrian and the banal, defines the universe of things that we regard as ‘real’. That this ‘first hand’ knowledge can therefore be simultaneously too narrow, too shallow and represent the totality of our catholic worldview can be debilitating. Just because we haven’t seen it, don’t mean it don’t exist. If we hew too closely to this line, we may find that the shopping mall and fast food outlets will soon define the boundaries of the real for most of the West.

Beyond this frightening prospect, being told what is real is also fraught with problems. Chief amongst them is that fact that it provides too much power to those who do the telling. Some of those doing the telling will, of course, be blindered only slightly less than those being told. Other tellers, though, may choose to manipulate what they say, in order to pass on the ‘unreal’ as the real.

Some may do so to spare the people from the agony of the real. Recall the words of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor,

That deception will be our suffering, for we shall be forced to lie.

The reality (that Jesus was real and had returned to the world of man) was simply too much for the ordinary Christian to bear. Those in power have a duty to protect the rest of us from reality.

Other tellers, though, may not have our best interests at heart. Rather, they may choose to alter what they deem to be real in order to protect themselves from harm. What Orwell’s Big Brother told the people defined what was real—absolutely; there could be no alternative, not even at another time. Indeed, Winston is part of what used to be called “reality control”—later redefined as Doublethink. The Party knew the power of such control:

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.

They knew it, and they relied on it, and then ruthlessly enforced it, so that they could stay firmly on top.

If they are not any kinder, The Grand Inquisitor’s lies are more straight-forward than those of Big Brother. Orwell’s ideas of control resonate with the ideas of Wittgenstein’s 1922 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

Language disguises thought. So much so, that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes.

The real is what is said to be real. The internal ‘reality’ of something is irrelevant.

Now, Dear Reader, I know what you are thinking: what on earth does this have to do with the usual King’s of War subject matter? Well, allow me to explain, by way of rephrasing the opening question of this already too long post (too long at least in accordance with the Rules of KOW).

How do we know when war is real?

Direct experience of war is nowadays—mercifully—not something to which many of us, especially in the West, have been exposed. Those who have such experiences know what war is, by dint of the sounds, smells, and feelings of combat, of waiting for combat, of losing comrades, of killing people, of being injured. For those who have been there, the warning provided by McGregor is not required: “war is very real and never should be envied.”

For the rest of us, we rely on being told what wars are real. The French told us recently that their war in Mali was real. Came right out and announced it—no ambiguity whatsoever. Served it up straight, without dissembling euphemisms. Theirs were not soldiers “conducting operations” or “engaged in activities”. They were fighting a war. Pointe finale. Tout fini.

That may be so, but clearly not everyone in Mali agreed. For some die-hard fanatics, the most real contest happening at the time was occurring on a very different champ de bataille. Against Nigeria. In the African Cup of Nations.

If Paris’s war represents the Real, then Pyongyang’s illustrates the unreal (not to mention the bizarre). Presumably for the purposes of convincing someone (although it is not clear exactly whom, given the ‘limited’ access to You Tube any North Korean might have) that North Korea has the ability to wage ‘real war’ on the United States, Kim-Jung Un released a representation of New York in flames, all to the tune of ‘We Are The World’ (Karaoke style, naturally).

Hamfisted as it might have been, the Hermit Kingdom’s attempt to portray a real war is a nod, not to Wittgenstein, but Baudrillard. Here we have not a lie, but a simulation: the ‘footage’ of a New York suffering from North Korean military prowess was pirated from a video game. As the French philosopher once said,

Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.

Not to be outdone, and perhaps in keeping with some secret addendum to the Founding Charter of the Axis of Evil, Iran recently released its own simulation–Of their home-grown F313 stealth fighter flying past a cloud-enshrouded mountain, which taken from the gallery of a stock photo website.

It would be tempting at this point to blame Photoshop for all our woes. Who can properly discern the difference between what is real and what is faked in an age of virtual reality? (Visit any bar or club this weekend and try it for yourself).

The truth is, the past is replete with its own forgeries. The Second World War, for example, began on 31 August 1939 with a ruse: the German false flag raid on a radio tower at Gleiswitz, Poland. After a period of some ‘real’ fighting, an eight month ‘Phoney War’ set in, marked by an ‘absence’ of combat operations. Or at least that is how it felt to those not affected by the fighting that was going on: the Danes, Finns, and the Norwegians would protest that, for them, this period was altogether real. The same applies to the sailors and merchant seamen who fought in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Fast forward twenty-five years to another example of a phoney war, used this time to provide justification for engaging in real war. In the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, an American ship supposedly came under fire from Communist forces, providing President Johnson with the fig leaf he needed to ramp up U.S. warfighting efforts in Vietnam. It was later revealed that this was not quite the truth. According to a U.S. government report: “It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night.” Nothing, portrayed as something, paved the way for something else.

It’s enough to make one’s head spin. But once our grip on reality begins to loosen, we find it difficult to tighten it again. Like a pilot in a flat spin, we cannot trust our senses to tell us what is real. We rely on the “more dependable” artificial horizon to guide us. And so, after too much spin, we are left with no internal compass any longer. Wars are declared, or denied, by those in charge, leaving the rest of us, like Winston in 1984, to try and remember what is real. Which combatants are real? Which are not and can be both vilified and tortured? Civil wars exist only in Iraq if ‘experts’ in Washington think tanks declare that they do, despite casualty figures and images on the nightly news.

Rest easy, simple citizen, someone will tell you when to be concerned.  Some inquisitor somewhere has your best interests at heart.



Sometimes, though, it appears as if maybe even those in charge are confused. How else can we interpret the fact that the outgoing US Secretary of Defense, in one of his (he wishes!) final acts at the Pentagon, has created a medal (the Distinguished Warfare Medal) to honour those who control the drones, weapons which are, at once, unreal (they are rather sci-fi when you consider them) and real (they rain down very real death on their victims).  The order of precedence of this new medal reflects this strange ambiguity: the new medal will take precedence over the Bronze Star (with Valor) device, given to troops for specific heroic acts performed under fire in combat.  Unreal indeed.



The UK’s New International Defence Engagement Strategy: “Every engagement short of actual action”

The FCO and MOD have recently published the UK’s International Defence Engagement Strategy.  This document is a subsidiary of the NSS and the SDSR and is a move to align the various ‘non-combat’ activities of the British Armed Forces (and other Defence entities) with the overarching policy priorities of the government.

What is ‘defence engagement’?  According to the joint FCO/MOD paper, it is “the means by which [the UK] use[s] [its] defence assets and activities short of combat operations to achieve influence”.

As Rob has noted in his recent post, bureaucratic progammes work best when they are guided by clear political direction.  Of course, nothing, Dear Reader, is that straight forward.  Sometimes that happens; often times it doesn’t.    A corollary to this general principle is that just because something is promulgated with a title containing words like ‘direction’, ‘policy’, or ‘strategy’, that doesn’t mean that they contain any such thing, nor do they necessarily serve to provide the requisite clarity required of them.

According to the website’s PR-style launch statement, “The strategy sets out how non-operational defence assets and activities will in future be allocated to better contribute to wider governmental objectives and goals in the future.”  Well, a read of the document makes it clear that it doesn’t set anything out.   It speaks about priorities, but leaves things vague enough to allow for ‘business as usual’–ad hoc reactions to external events, constrained by the overarching Damoclesian sword of austerity.  Likewise, when it talks about ‘risks’ it makes actual mention of neither risks nor of mitigation.  Similarly, the section on ‘measurement and evaluation’…well, you get the picture.

What purpose this document will serve is hard to divine.  It certainly doesn’t provide direction and cannot serve as the basis for any real action.   But then again, when asked if HMG has issued its strategy for the future, everyone can answer in joyful chorus…

happy humphrey

Yes, Minister!


The Utility of Risk in International Security: Quo Vadis?

I want to speak a little about the idea of risk in the arena of international security.  Current events, and a recent publication, have me thinking about this complicated topic.   I am afraid, though, that my thoughts are not constrained by a singular focus, and are rather ambitious in their scope.  So, Dear Reader, I invite you down the rabbit hole as we explore the twisted labyrinth that is my mind, at least as far as it concerns this topic.

Risk is not a new subject, but it is not widely understood.  This means that there are many offers of new wine, which often turn out to be nothing more than old plonk.  Differences in meaning of key terms (such as threat, vulnerability, likelihood, and mitigation) often mean that eureka moments on the part of one author (or policy wonk) are nothing more than ‘bubbles in the tub’, to coin a phrase of which Archimedes would be proud.

Look inside, as well as out

That said, a helpful (if not genuinely novel, despite titular claims otherwise) way of looking at risks was recently published in the Harvard Business Review (written by Robert S. Kaplan and Anette Mikes).  While the focus of the article is “The Firm”, I believe it has applicability to states and international security.  The authors divide the risks facing an organization into three categories.  The first are labeled ‘preventable risks’.  While this moniker is somewhat unfortunate, these risks are the kind of ‘own goals’ that organizations should strive to eliminate.  Rogue traders, crooked officials, unsafe work practices—these all represent internal, and therefore supposedly controllable, risks to success for companies.

The second category of risks is labeled by Kaplan and Mikes as ‘strategy risks’.  These risks are based on the choices made by Firms as they carry out their business.  This kind of risk derives from the ways in which companies try and capture value within the market.  Should a company commence operations in Myanmar? Or partner with BlackBerry?  Should a company give away its online content for free or put it behind a pay-wall?  Each of these choices carries with it opportunities for success and failure.  These risks, too, are supposedly controllable, in that a company is able to take the initiating decisions itself.  The ‘no risk, no reward’ mantra operates within this space.  Taking the safe route problem means a company may miss out on some potential for profit.  As Pliny the Elder opined, “audentes fortuna iuvat”.  Of course, there are no guarantees: the outcomes or impacts of the decisions made by firms are neither predictable nor controllable.  If they were—if perfect knowledge of the market as imagined by economists actually existed—I (and everyone else) would be rich instead of being a wage-slave.  (But then you wouldn’t be able to enjoy my scribbling, either, as I am lazier than I am greedy.  And wouldn’t we all be the poorer for that?)

The third category of risks proposed by Kaplan and Mikes are ‘external risks’.  External risks are those things that occur outside of The Firm but have an impact on it.  Flooding in Thailand interrupted the manufacturing supply chains of several Japanese car manufacturers, just at the time when they were reeling from an earthquake, tsunami, and release of radioactive material at home.

The reason that Kaplan and Mikes wrote their article was to draw attention to the fact that all three categories need to be understood and managed if companies are going to navigate the world of risk.

What is good for the Firm is good for the State…or is it?

Traditionally within international security (and in business, it turns out), we focus on ‘external risks’.  How many tanks or warheads does the other side have?  What is the likelihood that the enemy will attack and what will happen if it occurs?  Is AQ planning another spectacular and what will happen if they are?  What Kaplan and Mikes helpfully point out is that other actions/choices/decisions may also pose risks.

We tend to look at Category I (‘controllable risks’) and Category II (‘strategy risks’) more as ‘mitigating measures’, influenced by, and often in reaction to, the ‘real risks’ from outside.  But if we follow Kaplan and Mikes’s thinking we can see that these types of decisions have the potential to generate their own risks.

In terms of national security, we might look at something like the Abu Ghraib debacle as a Category I risk.  The abhorrent behaviour of some US troops generated risk by having an impact on domestic legitimacy, international support, and even Iraqi resistance.  Kaplan and Mikes would point out that this risk is (at least in theory) controllable by the organization.  Better training, more effective supervision, or other measures could have been applied to mitigate this kind of risk.

Other Category I risks might include decisions about how an armed force trains and equips itself.  Does an army prepare for conventional war or counter-insurgency?  Does a navy lose the capability to deploy ship-borne aircraft for a number of years?

In terms of Category II risks, a national security focus might look at the choices a country makes at a level of analysis ‘higher’ (or broader) than mere force development decisions.  A ‘grand strategic’ decision to pivot into Asia, for instance, causes the risk landscape to change.  It might excite (positively and negatively) a variety of actors in Asia, while at the same time sending signals to other regions (say, erstwhile European allies and potential African beneficiaries) that they are no longer on the radar, so to speak.

Such a wider appreciation of risk might help decision makers become more aware of the consequences of their actions.  Short-term gains or savings might be seen as portending longer-term ‘down-sides’ hitherto unseen.  The idea that ‘smaller is better’ is fine with regard to the size of the British army, in so far as it goes, but it cannot be ignored such a decision made now may bring with it future impacts.

However, at the same time, the idea of categorizing risks carries with it the danger of leading us to believe that each category is somehow a container, or at least a baffle.  In reality, though, the three categories of risk slosh into, or interact with, each other, causing multiple risk scenario potentialities and combining to compound complexity, not only in terms of causation, but more frustratingly of resolution.

The recent example of France’s actions in Mali are germane here.  France decided to act in Mali (taking a Category II risk, in terms of increasing its exposure to domestic and foreign retaliation in the form of terrorist attacks), seemingly to mitigate the risk posed by Islamists operating there (addressing a Category III risk).  France’s ability to act swiftly and effectively was constrained by decisions that she (mais bien sûr!  L’état c’est La France quandmême!) had taken independently and much earlier concerning the acquisition (or lack thereof) of effective strategic airlift capability (a Category I risk).  But not acting may have also generated risks:  some have said that if the Islamists were not stopped in Timbuktu then they would soon menace Europe.  Others point out that the Socialist politician Hollande was looking to bolster his weak public image at home and that by ‘doing nothing’ he would have looked even weaker.  Still others have said that to do nothing (to not have taken a Category II risk) would perhaps have emboldened other groups, making them feel that they had a free hand to do similar things elsewhere.

Such are the problems with risk in the modern world.  Allow me to list just some of the more important ones relevant here:

1.  Risks are not objectively determinable.  Risk is not something that exists ‘out there’, measurable by way of a thermometer or barometer.  Risks depend on several ‘non-material’ aspects.  The first step in risk analysis is the subjective determination of what is at risk: National survival?  Political capital?  Prestige?  Would all actors make the same kinds of determinations?  How are they influenced by their own psychological, cultural, and ideological (to name but three) biases and prejudices when making those kinds of decisions?  The second step involves subjective perception: does an actor ‘see’ all the factors necessary to make a sound judgment, even within the frame of the determination made above?  Are likelihoods, vulnerabilities, and impacts calculated (or rather estimated) accurately enough to be helpful?  What about those pesky ‘unknown unknowns’ of Rumsfeldian fame?  Or, even worser still, the ever lurking Black Swans (‘unimaginable unknowns’) described with such vituperation by Taleb?  How can this indeterminacy be included in our calculations?  Risk, therefore, is not a measurement of the danger present in any given environment, but rather a description of the danger attributed to that environment.  It is part of the narrative that we create to both impel and justify our actions.  It is, therefore, highly political.

2.  Risks may be managed but are rarely eliminated.  Setting aside for a moment the ‘impossibility of reason’ associated with the concept of risk calculation, Ulrich Beck tells us that risks may be addressed (with greater or lesser effect) but are infrequently dealt with ‘once and for all’.  This is largely due to the recursive nature of our mitigation efforts.  We use pesticides to reduce the risk to crops from insects, but at the same time generate wider risks to the environment and humankind through a degradation in biodiversity and ecological viability.  We arm the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan in order to address the Soviet risk, but we create a ‘downstream’ risk that turns out to cause us all kinds of bother later on.  We airdrop weapons to assist Libyan rebels mitigate the risk of a mad dicator, but later discover that some of these same weapons (and perhaps even rebels) end up in nearby Mali.  The popular sentimental reaction to this circuity might be summed up as “Blowback’s a bitch.”

3.  Our actions generate risk in all directions, simultaneously. The example of the Mujahedeen is instructive, but too simplistic in its linearity.  Often we cannot see what impacts our actions take, or may take, or are going to take.  We assume we understand the cause and effect (cut a division from the order of battle, lose the ability to react in a particular area) but in reality, due to the complex and changing nature of risk (as highlighted above) we really have no idea what will happen.  The butterfly-wing-flap-turns-into-killer-tornado meme might be a bit far fetched, but it should make us aware of the almost infinite ways in which our decisions can spin off.  Rather than getting all caught up in Beck’s ‘late Modernity’ we might look to Homer’s very much ‘hypo-Modern’ tale of Odysseus’s return from Troy as an example of how difficult any trip from ‘A’ to ‘B’ might become, despite our best intentions.

4.  The old saw abundans cautela non nocet ain’t necessarily so.  To the insights gleaned from what we have seen above, we need to be mindful of the fact that deciding (or not deciding) to not act will also generate effects.  That which does not happen because the butterfly does not flap its wings is even more difficult to calculate than a tornado, but may turn out to be equally, or even more, important.

Take a page from Frankie’s book: Risk…what is it good for?

We might then ask whether or not risk is the right way to look at the world.  If it is altogether too messy, too complex and too ineffective, why use it?  Taleb for one believes that we are not making decisions under risk (where one of a known set of potential outcomes must come to pass, bring with it associated and measurable impacts) but rather we are making decisions under uncertainty (where one or more outcomes from an unknown and often unknowable set of potential outcomes may come to pass, and brings with it (or them) one or several undetermined impacts).  His solution, though, is to plan and design for the worst, looking to create resilient (or gooder still, anti-fragile) organizations.

But how realistic is it to base our actions on ‘worst case scenarios’, building in redundancy (and therefore flexibility)?  Who can afford such a plan?  It seems that in times of scarcity and uncertainty, we are left with little to go on other than an unaffordable ideal.  Strategy under risk is difficult.  Strategy under uncertainty is impossible and counterproductive.

It seems that in the world of international security, we are left, therefore, with little other than imperfect, entirely human, political judgment.  I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.


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.