What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Jackie Chan, malfunctioning thermostats, and the contemporary security environment

Here is one of the best fight scenes from the Jackie Chan movie "First Strike." Skip the first twenty seconds to get to the good part. There is a reason why I am bringing it up, of course. A professional one.


The reason is that I long since wanted to do a review of Joshua Cooper Ramo's book "The age of the unthinkable: Why the world disorder constantly surprises us and what we can do about it." And it is not really the sort of book that easily lends itself to have a conventional review written about it, one that would do it justice. Maybe Jackie Chan can help us instead - I hope you will agree later on.
There have been some conventional reviews written about this book, such as this one, by Gary Rosen, in the New York Review of Books, or this briefer one in The New Yorker. Recurring elements in these critical reviews are that Ramo exaggerates the potential for change today; that he overestimates how much states matter less in and of themselves in world politics today; and that his book represents no real novelty in doing all this.
There is some validity to the points behind these criticisms. From James Rosenau's Turbulence in World Politics to John Robb's Brave New War numerous works have attempted to update our conceptual thinking based on new realities, on different levels of analysis, all reflecting a need to question our fundamental underlying assumptions of everything. Rosenau's book is basic reading for IR scholars - John Robb's book is more accessible to a wider audience, albeit mostly the truly innovative and open-minded can really appreciate its progressivity. So indeed, Ramo's book is not the first on the shelf warning us of the significance of accelerating change.

Here lies something that needs to be highlighted regarding why the above mentioned criticisms about Ramo's book are misplaced: it is important to define to whom and for what reason this book was written. It is accessible to a general readership, and while it talks about the need for a new grand strategy, it is not really written to be read as one. It is more a "mirror for princes" of sorts, but prince here is not restricted to heads of state and government (and the bureacracies behind them). You are all princes of your lives, or could be. Ramo's is a book that emphasises how change and innovativity has to be embraced by everyone. Thus it brings together the genres of mirrors-for-princes and personal guides to success. This is a very logical mashup, you could say. And indeed, that is what makes it relevant.

The general message of the book is somehting akin to that there is no choice but to empower and become empowered (or else). Of course this is not to say that doing that is possible in all cases. Or that it would be clear what exactly this should mean in given cases. But "change" is something even individuals alone can increasingly contribute to, and the more accurately they all perceive the extent to which this is happening, the greater their potential is to successfully contribute to, and harness, this process.

The book is not really looking to tell the exact how. It would be contrary to its essence. It looks to give the reader a peculiar perspective on, as opposed to a panorama of, the world today. This is its essence in my view.

Of course a critic may wonder, seeing all the metaphors and analogies from the world of physics and other disciplines enter Ramo's discourse, about exactly how one should operationalise these ideas. Do I see a sandpile there, that I could expect to collapse into multiple piles at any moment? Do I see a rigid policy there which functions like a bad thermostat and needs to be fully reconceptualised? Is it resilience if we can continue to pour dollars into a flawed-looking policy in the long run? Should a wish to empower include transfers of knowledge in all fields and to all possible recipients? Creative mashups are cool, but what exactly should be mixed to create some new common good? And so on.

The book's point is that one should ponder these questions, and wonder, not more. It does not look to give a recipe for concrete situations. Rather it infects you, if you are receptive to that, with a whole bunch of thought-provoking concepts.

For security policy, the implications of its thinking are profound - even while they are not new to many of those involved in the analysis or the scholarship of security issues. "Threats," as much as they can be objectively identified and described, and as much as intersubjectively they are defined at all, can not really be terminated.
That is just why that fight scene with Jackie Chan was brought up at the beginning of this post. Security policy has to redefine itself, as well as every object it can possibly relate to, all the time. It has to deal with trade-offs. Even accept being hit in certain cases for other options may be worse, with different time-horizons in mind. And so on. Jackie Chan perfectly illustrates this to us in the excellent fight scene above.

This is relevant even with regards to the relation between one's wider interests and Afghanistan policy - be it, say, the US' policy towards Afghanistan (and its relation to US grand strategy).

Think in terms of decades. There goes a punch at the Soviet Union, a punch at Russia, a punch at Iran, a punch at Islamist extremists etc. Providing training, selling weapons, or deploying one's own troops, while more complex effects might be achieved by other means (by timely, well-placed and well-spent aid, for example, or smarter diplomacy; or just one less punch maybe in one direction, or a smarter punch in another...). Elements within the U.S. government (State, CIA, White House staff, FBI, DEA, Pentagon) undermining each other's efforts from time to time (just read Steve Coll's Ghost Wars to see how), behaving too much like bad thermostats, unable to adapt to the requirements of teamplay which constantly evolve with the change of circumstances. Trade-offs needed, to be made all time, for example in order to be able to resupply operations in Afghanistan - our proverbial Jackie Chan needs to leave his back vulnerable to currently only-just friendly by-standers to be able to deliver punches to, and defend from, the Taliban et al. Meanwhile, he cannot really afford to fully retreat from this fight. But there is uncertainty over whether so many punches could really be delivered, as it would take to win. And what else could do besides punches? How to make the other Jackie Chans around give up on some of their goals, help with some of our Jackie Chan's goals, while at the same time achieving meaningful and lasting success where one is fighting right now? And what would make one resilient in general, when one regularly has to face situations such as this one? What is it that needs to be defended in our lives (and in our ways), and what is it that needs to be changed or abandoned?

I will finish this post with these questions. I wanted to present Ramo's book here, and it is more a set of interesting questions than ready-made answers to a herd of sheep. So it is more fitting to finish its review in this way. Of course, this blog is very much involved in discussing the sort of questions listed above, on a regular basis. And I will come back to some of Ramo's concepts here later on.

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