June 26, 2007
Editor’s note: TCS contributor James Joyner recently interviewed John Robb of the Global Guerrillas blog on his new book Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization. Robb paints a picture of a resilient enemy that morphs into something new just as we develop ways to protect ourselves. He offers no quick fixes and argues that terrorists are the equivalent of computer viruses: A nasty reality of modern life that should cause us to take reasonable countermeasures but, mostly, something we just have to live with.
Joyner: Throughout the book, you point out how easy it would be for relatively small groups with minimal funding to create power blackouts, disrupt our oil distribution networks, or even stage 9/11 style attacks on a routine basis. Why do you suppose that hasn’t already happened? For that matter, we are surely more vulnerable than Jerusalem or Baghdad to suicide bombers yet we have yet to see such attacks in our cities. Why?
Robb: To understand this, you need to understand that classic symbolic terrorism is plagued by diminishing returns. The more you use it, the less of an effect it has. So, in order to match or exceed previous impacts, you need to increase the scale or breadth of the attack. The problem for al Qaeda is that 9/11 was so big that it made exceeding it very difficult in a post 9/11 security environment. Anything less would have damaged their brand. Further, al Qaeda suffered serious blows during the invasion of Afghanistan. It’s taken them years to reconstitute the ability to launch attacks.
It’s also very possible that al Qaeda achieved what it wanted out of the attack: to prod the US to overreact and embroil it in a no-win guerrilla war in Asia (the way the Russians were defeated). However, their plans for a guerrilla war in Afghanistan didn’t pan out (at least in the short term). Fortunately for them, Iraq did.
Since the start of the Iraq war, al Qaeda has begun to recognize the power of systems disruption since it has worked so effectively there (developed through an entrepreneurial process rather than centrally planned). The attacks on Abqaiq (the Saudi refinery, if the attack was successful, we would have $100 oil today) and the Golden Mosque last year are great examples of infrastructure and social system disruption respectively. Why travel to the US when you can so much more easily disrupt US efforts by attacking closer targets. We live in a connected world.
Joyner: Like Thomas Barnett, you think the problem is more than “terrorism” but rather forces out to disrupt the systems and rules that serve as a framework for our global society. While Barnett is optimistic that, with proper resolve, we can beat back those forces you conclude that we must simply “learn to live with the threat they present” and adopt a “philosophy of resilience that ensures that when these events do occur (and they will), we can more easily survive their impact.” Why?
Robb: Because the system shocks we will face from a heavy interconnected world won’t only originate from global guerrillas. There will be lots of sources, from pandemics (bird flu) to global warming to peak oil to many we can’t imagine. The key to surviving them all in a way that doesn’t diminish us longer term is to decentralize resilience.
Specifically, in terms of global disorder, the problem is that we can’t remake states that are being hollowed out by GGs. There isn’t a state-in-a-box solution that will work without creating more disorder in the process. Also, I don’t see the resolve at the international level. Sure, you could blame it on Bush, but I think the world is too diverse a place to come together on a strong rule set. All we seem to be able to do is agree on the basics. Imagine trying to get everyone using the Internet to agree with a strong set of rules on how it is used. Not going to happen.
So what’s left? Decentralized resilience and muddling through the problems we face as they come by diminishing their impact. No grand projects (if I had a dollar for how many times I have heard people call for a Manhattan project to solve xyz…), no universal comity, just messy reality.
Joyner: You argue that global guerrillas are interested in disrupting systems and creating anarchy rather than taking over and running states. Yet, in Clausewitzian terms, it seems both they and we are losing in terms of achieving the political objectives that precipitated the fight. Saddam launched a guerrilla war that not only failed to return him to power but failed at keeping him or his sons among the living. Bin Laden and company seem no closer to their stated goals of ending U.S. support of Israel, toppling apostate Arab regimes, and so forth. Is it wrong to look at this type of warfare in that way?
Robb: It is a little more complicated if you look at the larger picture, beyond the US vs. Islamic frame. In the wider picture, the bulk of the groups that are challenging states are gaining from the exercise. They are gaining autonomy, wealth, etc. There is also a tendency for the groups involved in an open source insurgency to cancel each other’s political goals. None of them is large enough to dictate to the others, and hence nobody fully gets what they want. They only get the opportunity to pursue them (in a strange way, what the market-state is supposed to be about).
Joyner: You say that the Global War on Terror could take down the United States as a Superpower in much the same way that the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1980s, “driven to bankruptcy by a foe it couldn’t compete with economically.” Granting that we’re spending quite literally more money than every other country on the planet combined on defense, we’re still spending a historically low percentage of our GDP. How do we get to the point of bankruptcy?
Robb: The larger context is that the combination of entitlement programs and defense is squeezing out everything else. Eventually even defense will get the squeeze as entitlements and debt run amok with the budget. That isn’t too far out. Further, the global economy we compete in is only going to get more competitive. Additionally, corporations are globalizing (becoming less tied to the US). Ever watch how states compete for a factory? They bleed each other to death with tax giveaways. Our ability to raise taxes only gets more and more difficult over time.
Finally, with systems disruption, it is possible to single out a country or a corporation for punishment. That disruption could drastically harm that country’s ability to compete on a global scale. I don’t think most people realize how quickly a relative decline (either through slower growth or outright contraction) could happen in the current and future economic environments. Things are getting faster, not slower.
Joyner: You argue that we are not seeing a “clash of civilizations” and that “religiosity is only a veneer on the conflict.” Do you think al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the various sectarian guerrillas in Iraq would exist absent Islamist motivation? Or would there simply be other groups of disaffected guerrillas instead?
Robb: No. They are religiously motivated. But they are only a part of the growing conflict and cannot characterize the entire opposition.
Joyner: In your chapter on the “long tail” of the global guerrilla movement, you include transnational gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood and MS-13 and contend that they “will challenge the United States for control.” How so?
Robb: We have seen this in action in Brazil and Mexico. The PCC grew from little more than a prison gang to a massive network in less than a decade. It’s not too much of a stretch to see these rapidly growing gangs get substantially stronger as they tap into vast pools of “black globalization.” Add systems disruption to that and they could even manufacture their own growth dynamic.
Joyner: You note that we are “living in a world where networks are at the center of our existence” and rightly note the incredible vulnerability that brings. At the same time, you see the Internet and the open source movement as models for restructuring ourselves to adapt to our new security environment. Presumably, then, you don’t see a Battlestar Galactica scenario where we cut ourselves off from networked technologies for security purposes?
Robb: While a cabin in the woods is attractive, I don’t want to live there year round. Most people would probably agree. To get the benefits of modern life, we need to stay connected. In order to stay connected, we need to be resilient at a level that we can influence.
Joyner: You want “market-states” to get out the way and “provide market-based incentives” that would provide individuals, firms, and localities the means of providing for their own security. You give some examples for how that has worked in the technology world and even for disaster preparedness. What sorts of responses do you see in the realm of counter-terrorism?
Robb: If the attacks are from systems disruptions, the resilience model I develop works nicely. If it is from classic symbolic terrorism, then good old fashioned police work and special ops works fine. We just need to be smarter about the information systems we use to make this happen (i.e., build a platform that makes a diverse ecosystem possible).
Joyner: Your “Rethinking Security” chapter, which describes how society should adapt to our new environment, has a lot of high-level ideas but is not fleshed out nearly to the level of detail as the remainder of the book. Is this a function of the black swan problem? Is a sequel in the offing?
Robb: Exactly. The black swan problem defies anyone to posit that any single solution would work. It requires complex solutions that can only be constructed through an ecosystem of participants. I also think that I am not smart enough to solve everyone’s problems. I can offer a philosophy of approach, but I’m not about to tell everybody in the world what to do.
I think a sequel on resilient communities would be lots of fun. There’s lots of innovation in that area already. Now if we could only find a way to make it evolve more quickly.
James H. Joyner, Jr., Ph.D., a former Army officer and combat veteran of Desert Storm, writes about public policy issues at Outside the Beltway. See his review of Robb’s new book for the Washington Examiner.