The resilience agenda

In his recent speech to the Fabian Society (covered by my co-editor Alex Evans here), British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband spoke of the need for a new fusion between the social democratic and radical liberal traditions. Power is shifting away from governments and towards people, he argued: a dynamic that is disrupting the traditional certainties of international relations.

True enough – and a process that seems to be just beginning. But will the decline in state power lead to greater stability or instability? How should governments adjust to a changing role? And what kind of foreign policy would they be best advised to pursue?

Miliband roots his argument back to the enlightenment – another period when a radical new balance was forged between the individual and the collective:

At the beginning of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine called on his fellow colonists to forge a new society where power was dispersed among the citizens. “Let the crown … be demolished,” he urged, “and scattered among the people whose right it is.”

Today Paine’s world is coming into view. Around the world there is what I call a ‘civilian surge’. Born of the death of deference in the North and West, the collapse of communism in the East, the spread of democracy in the South. Everywhere it is the rise of the better educated – and if not better educated, better informed citizen – who knows, in real time, about how other people, often far away, live their lives; who is more distrustful of traditional sources of authority; who is yearning for greater freedom and power; who is more able through technology to produce and distribute information, more able to hold power to account.

Now David Miliband, in this speech at least, focuses mostly on the beneficial consequences of growing numbers of people becoming “actors rather than spectators in life’s dramas.” But, as he no doubt knows, an equally compelling story can be told about the flipside of this phenomenon, where the collapse of authority leads to chaos (Paine, after all, was as enthusiastic about the French Revolution as he was about the American one). “Globalization is quickly layering new skill sets on ancient mind-sets,” writes counterterrorism expert, John Robb. The result is a massive shift in the types of risk we face.

Warriors, in our current context of global guerrillas, are not merely lazy and monosyllabic primitives…They are wired, educated, and globally mobile. They build complex supply chains, benefit from global money flows, travel globally, innovate with technology, and attack shrewdly. In a nutshell, they are modern. Despite this apparent modernity and an eager willingness to adopt technology, however, their value sets are completely different from those we find acceptable in the West…

Guerrilla entrepreneurs…are the central actors in this move towards sustainable non-state entities. They provide innovation in warfare, leverage sources of moral cohesion to grow the group through fictive kinship, find new sources of income through integration with trans-national criminality, and much more.

Robb is not primarily concerned with the ‘spectacular’ one-off attack (though he does worry about a future where one man can ‘declare war on the world and win’). Instead, he focuses on the ability of guerrilla groups to degrade the complex and fragile systems on which the modern world relies.

Today’s threat is based on sustainable disruption – ongoing, easy, low-tech attacks that are nearly impossible to defend against. These attacks have the potential to ‘hollow out’ the state by preventing the delivery of critical services or a denial of income and/or investment.

So then, there are two types of ‘civilian surge’. Miliband’s: a liberation of the energies and enthusiasm of billions of global citizens. And Robb’s: what happens when a malignant network sets out to probe and exploit points of weakness in the body in which it lives. But both these visions agree on one point – that the role of the state is inevitably going to change. The important question is whether it redefines itself through choice, or because forces beyond its control batter it into retreat.

Clearly, for those of us who favour order over disorder, the former option is preferable. But that means asking hard questions about what government is for. What functions should it try to perform internationally? And how and where is it most likely to succeed? This is especially important at a time when governments are being asked to take on new responsibilities (acting as midwife for a low carbon economy, for example). It is imperative that we focus on distinguishing state actions that are important and productive, from those that are subsidiary, ineffective, counter-productive, or a combination of all three.

Alex and I believe that the concept of resilience provides an important, and perhaps unparalleled, lens through which we can explore this challenge. Those who seek to create disorder are searching with great determination for those points where a small exertion of force is rewarded by a disproportionate disruption. Their main objective is to cause complex systems to break down. Moreover, sometimes a similar effect is being achieved by the internal contradictions of the system itself. Inequality and poverty lead to great stress, and favour social breakdown. Climate change is a particularly pernicious form of negative feedback, where prosperity creates and fosters the conditions for future social and economic failure. The quest for resilience is a search for an antidote to these destabilising forces. It forces us to consider what will lead to greater health for the system as a whole.

In spite of the vast resources devoted to defence, development and diplomacy, we have, as yet, done little to counter this type of threat. Indeed, our systems appear to be becoming more fragile, not less.

Here in Pakistan, people are scared witless that they may now be living in a failing state. By way of response, their government manages the trick of simultaneously exerting too much and too little control (the paradox of weakness through strength). American foreign policy – the dominant international influence – has amplified Pakistan’s oscillations, rather than dampening them. The result could bring chaos to large parts of the world.

Under the seas, meanwhile, and as we have reported extensively on this blog, we have been given a graphic demonstration of how easy it is to bring the internet to its knees (think of this as the equivalent of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993). Our energy systems are in a similarly poor state, remaining at least as brittle as they were twenty five years ago when Amory Lovins pointed out that they were ‘easily shattered by accident or malice’.

The world’s growing urban centres are particularly vulnerable to disruption. New Orleans has shown how easily a modern city can disintegrate, while the 2003 European heat wave demonstrated how quickly people die when social system fail to respond to an ‘invisible’ threat. The developing world’s megacities struggle to deliver basic services in good times and verge on the ungovernable. In a crisis, they could rapidly degenerate into a Hobbesian horror.

The global war on terror, meanwhile, is a case study in a how a response to a threat can lead to a cascade of further calamities. “We wantonly inflicted [systems] disruption on ourselves,” John Robb writes.

A focus on resilience also provides a yardstick for addressing David Miliband’s question about the proper balance between the responsibilities of individual and state. Resilience comes from a distributed response, where each level of the system contributes to its survival. Long experience has shown us the perils of over-centralization, where the centre itself becomes a likely trigger of failure. This is why Hobbes’s Leviathan is no answer to the war of all against all. As Alex points out, the centre can never have sufficient information to ensure an adequate response. At a time of crisis, “a resilient citizenry will be the difference between breakdown-and-recovery versus outright collapse”.

But a full application of the concept of resilience should force us to focus more widely than simply on a direct response to threats. We need instead to think about the problem in three levels. First, we need to consider shared values, which are the most fundamental level at which people can make an investment in our global system. Next, the institutions or social structures in which those values are expressed and which should be designed to flex, rather than break, when under stress. Only then, should we look specifically at defending points of weakness, identifying the spots where a system is most vulnerable to a disruptive attack.

Delivering on this agenda would challenge every aspect of a government’s international and domestic capability, and demand that large parts of it should be re-wired. It’s a problem Alex and I have started to work on – I’ll try and explain some more of our thinking in a future post…