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August 11, 2006

Jets And Nets  Corporations, Globalization  Global Guerrillas  War and Peace

Globalization is everywhere eroding the power of nation-states. Capital flows where the terms are most favorable. Corporations pick up stakes and move where labor is cheapest and environmental regulation most lax. Nations play ball or they find jobs and money flying out the door.

Globalization undermines nation-states in another way as well: by abetting insurgencies by "global guerrillas" (John Robb's term). The nation-state's monopoly on military violence is rapidly coming to an end. As the US is learning in Iraq, and Israel in Lebanon, all the high-tech weaponry in the world doesn't count for much when your adversary is not a nation-state but a loose affiliation of guerrillas fighting a fourth-generation war. The US/Israeli style of war is actually counter-productive, since it produces a failed state where 4GW adversaries thrive.

Just as capital and corporate operations flow where the terms are most favorable, global guerrillas — and, more importantly, their know-how — flow where their enemies are most vulnerable. An essential point here is that global communications mean that global guerrillas themselves don't have to physically move from place to place to be effective. Their example moves freely, and local guerrilla "entrepreneurs" watch and learn. Know-how moves around the world at the speed of light. It's akin to "open-source" software development, as John Robb emphasizes.

It is paradoxical, and more than a little ironic, that the technology trends that have abetted Western hegemony may finally prove its undoing.

Science-fiction writer and futurist Bruce Sterling, ever the master of the pithy phrase, has an excellent article along these lines at Wired, where he talks about the power of "jets and nets":

If there are two technologies that have shaped the life I lead today, they're jets and nets. Affordable airfare lets me go where the action is — wherever adventure beckons, necessity compels, or duty calls — without having to establish residency anywhere. And the Internet lets me do business and stay in touch no matter where I find myself.

Cheap flights and ubiquitous worldwide communications are the stuff of globalization. Ready travel lets people oppressed at home taste the joys of free society, while the Net exposes them to the ideas and customs underpinning that social order. The effect is viral, spreading liberal values and economic growth to benighted dictatorships and hopeless pits of poverty. So it's difficult to grasp that these two innovations might also be an imminent menace to Western civilization. Yet that's the counterintuitive thesis of UK rear admiral Chris Parry, a Falklands vet, former commander of HMS Fearless, and the British military's go-to guy for identifying emerging threats.

During a recent briefing at the time-honored Royal United Service Institute — the oldest military think tank in the world, founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington — Parry imagined a future, circa 2030, in which the war on terror is still rolling along and the terrorists are winning. He describes a world so ripped up by nets and jets that sovereign nation-states like the UK are collapsing economically, politically, even physically. Then there are the people of that future, who hop from country to country and bear allegiance to none. "Globalization makes assimilation seem redundant and old-fashioned," he noted, pointing out that, rather than dissolving into the melting pot of their host nations, immigrants are increasingly maintaining their own cultural identity. Jets and nets make this possible. "Groups of people are self-contained, going back and forth between their countries, exploiting sophisticated networks and using instant communication on phones and the Internet." The result, Parry says, is "reverse colonization," in which the developing world's teeming masses conquer Western nations, as surely as the Goths sacked Rome.

It's easy to pigeonhole Parry as an isolationist — and, indeed, much of the public response to his speech came from anti-immigration wackos who said, "We knew it all along." But he has plenty of forward-thinking company in these ideas. According to a loose school of "fourth-generation warfare" theorists, connected, globe-trotting terrorists are a bigger threat to the world order than hostile nations are. The technological drivers of globalization have enabled stateless barbarians to seize the initiative. You can't keep them out by blocking the border, and the harder you smash the failed states that nurture them, the more they thrive. At the first sign of weakness, these new-wave Vandals will log on to urge their diasporic compatriots to attack you on your own soil. Failing that, they'll hop on the next flight, pick up their baggage, and sidle into Starbucks to download the latest instructions from Abu Ayyub al Masri.

Parry paints a grim picture. Still, his vision gives me an affirmative feeling about the future. If civilization is to overcome barbarism, its leaders must outthink the marauders. And the sturdy admiral's foresight is a bold step in that direction. "An analysis of trends and drivers can only go so far," he writes. "We also need to expect the unexpected — shocks will occur." He's not saying, "Kick the Arabs out of Europe"; he's saying we need to anticipate the emergence of stateless aliens and rethink how host societies can integrate them. That's a rare display of intellectual flexibility in a government official. Compare it with the Pentagon's reflexive tendency to lash out when challenged (if we can't kill bin Laden, we’ll crush Saddam) and with the Bush administration's plaint that nobody could have expected airliner attacks, Iraqi intifadas, or crumbling levees. We'll stop being blindsided when we grasp tomorrow's shocks better than the bad guys do — and that's a positive, not a negative, scenario. [...]

We live in a deeply paradoxical age, and it will take serious mental agility to navigate the years to come. Capable and imaginative people, both inside and outside of barbarity, are beginning to realize this. And for every person who does, civilization gains a better chance of survival. [Emphasis added]

There's a much bigger potential positive that may come out of all this, though not without our being subjected to considerable turbulence and suffering in the meantime. Namely, as nation-states begin to realize that they cannot defend themselves militarily from 4GW resistance, they may come to understand that their best defense is to finally deal positively, in good faith, with the underlying causes of resistance. In fact, that may turn out to be their only defense. It's like the bumper sticker says: no justice, no peace. So, for example, the way to defend against Palestinian resistance is to give the Palestinians what they should have been given long ago: a state of their own.

There's a reason why the US and Israel are attacked, but Sweden, say, is not: people have real grievances against the US and Israel. That is the source of the violence. It's likely, of course, that the US and Israel will continue to try to solve the problem militarily, but it's a losing battle, one that may, in the end, reduce US and Israeli power to tatters. Nation-states that insist on beating their heads against the wall will fall away, like General Motors, which insists on continuing to build yesterday's cars in today's (or tomorrow's) world.

Turbulent times lie ahead as things become increasingly fluid and the pace of change continues to accelerate. Stay alert out there. Adapt, or go extinct.

Posted by Jonathan at August 11, 2006 10:19 AM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


The techo-triumphalism of this thesis is the main problem. It refuses to recongize that peak oil and other natural limits will limit the jet setting. And I don't think all the poor billions are spending a lot of time on the internet they don't have the money to buy the connection for the computer they can't afford.

Posted by: Derek at August 11, 2006 01:52 PM