Security in the network-state

Adam Elkus John P. Sullivan
6 October 2009

Questions of state change and sovereignty are becoming intimately linked with issues of global security, with talk of "failing states," "lawless zones," and "ungoverned spaces" increasingly dominating public discussion. While valuable, the state decline perspective has come to dominate public discussion at the expense of alternative ideas about change in the state system. Because concepts about state change are increasingly the basis of political-military debate, considering a wider range of futures provides a much wider range of options for current strategy. Security analysts should be aware that it is not at all clear that the state itself is necessarily collapsing-and that many political-military scholars and economic sociologists are analyzing potential state changes with far-reaching implications. We may be, as Paul Rogers observes, witnessing a A World in Revolt but its nature is far more complex than many analysts believe.

John P. Sullivan is a career police officer. He currently serves as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism (CAST). He is coeditor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter-Terrorism Network (Routledge, 2006)

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. He is currently Associate Editor at Red Team Journal. He blogs at Rethinking Security, Dreaming 5GW, and The Huffington Post. He is currently contributing to the Center for Threat Awareness’ ThreatsWatch project. )

Widening the Scope

Network theory is increasingly being applied to terrorism, but the most exciting analysis about state change looks at the network effect on the state. Like Manuel Castells, the economic sociologist Saskia Sassen's work points to a changing world at best dimly acknowledged in national security analysis. Her seminal book The Global City revealed the rise of a global economy built around a series of nodal points. Sassen, and other human geography scholars, discuss what Scott Lash calls "disorganized capitalism," a system distinguished by increasing deterritorialization and overlapping commercial, legal, and political networks. It is these "global cities" and the networks that connect them that are increasingly the centers of economic power. In a recent article for OpenDemocracy, Sassen also notes that far-reaching economic trends have resulted in a structural "hollowing" of many state functions that has paradoxically enhanced state functions.

One military implication of the framework from which Sassen writes is that capture, control, or disruption of strategic nodes in the global system and the intersections between them can have cascade effects. Sassen's focus is mirrored by recent American geostrategic thought focusing on the notion of the "contested commons," a series of strategic frontier zones(air, sea, and cyberspace) that states and hybrid forces contest for control of commerce and resources. Sassen takes a wider view, expanding on the notion of a growing "frontier zone," a zone of difference where identities, allegiances, and organizational forms exist in a state of constant flux.

Geostrategist Thomas P.M. Barnett has similarly argued that the true struggles of the 21st century are about the penetration of certain kinds of globalization into states dangerously disconnected from the outside world. Sociologist Benjamin Barber goes even further to posit a conflict between notional zones of traditional or neo-traditional practices and a postmodern globalized state. Philip Bobbitt, a professor of law studying the evolution of war and the state, sees terrorists as a kind of "plague at a feast" that must be conquered to preserve the integrity of a growing "market-state" emerging across the globe.

The idea of the network state, however, goes far beyond the social and economic sphere. Some scholars analogize the new state to a kind of distributed computer network. Military and information society scholar David Ronfeldt, for example, sees the new state as a proliferation of transnational network forms he calls the "cyberocracy"; Ronfeldt's conception of the cyberocracy is rooted in a primarily cybernetic vision of the government that rules by the use of information and of society, a vision reminiscent of the cybernetic sociology of Talcott Parsons. Elites derive power from control of information and the tools associated with it, much in the same way as elites in the industrial era employed mastery of certain scientific, economic, and technological modes of practice to wrest power out of the hands of traditional authorities such as the aristocracy and the Church.

The core of Ronfeldt's research involves the concept of the "nexus-state," a new networked state entity enabled primarily by technology and networks. While many tech boosters see technology as a primarily liberating force that empowers individuals and groups, Ronfeldt argues convincingly that there is an equal potential for centralization of power. Centralized control of information can lead to the construction of a systematic apparatus of control that uses information collected on the populace to keep them in check. In a more decentralized system, the state becomes the arbiter that sets the protocol that defines a complicated set of networks, actors, and relationships.

If we are to take Ronfeldt's speculative idea on its own terms, we must go beyond the simplistic web 2.0 slogan that "information is power." Rather, the problem lies in transforming certain kinds of information into power. There is a large disparity between the "soft power" represented by the global networks, social media groups, and non-governmental organizations and the critical and overwhelming mass needed to contest political power, especially when faced with a force that holds an overwhelming military advantage. All of the hype about the Iranian "twitter revolution" placed a naïve faith in the ability of technology to overcome the loyal security forces of an authoritarian state. Twitter, in the end, could not overcome the truncheon, gun, and bayonet.

Ronfeldt and his frequent writing partner John Arquilla suggest in their RAND monographs on information-age "noopolitik" that power politics will increasingly revolve around attempts to shift the structural norms of a the global system on the ideational level. However, such a task will remain a grave challenge for most would-be revolutionaries. It is far easier to disrupt the political bonds through violence. Military theorist Robert Bunker has often argued in his essays on "Revolutions in Political-Military Affairs" that contested zones of political and state power lie in what he calls the "trinitarian" bonds between the state, the people, and the armed services. Bunker suggests that non-state actors can manipulate these bonds in a much easier fashion than the state. The 9/11 attacks' ripple effects on American politics and grand strategy are an obvious case of his thesis, but the media-induced fear generated by the activities of the DC Sniper in 2002 are a subtler reminder of the growing power of individuals to generate fear through the (mostly inadvertent) use of information as a weapon.

It is also worth emphasizing that the debate that lies behind simplistic notions of "failing states" is much more complex than one might gather from public discourse. Instead of failing states, we may be witnessing the rise of "parallel states," zones of authority (or impunity) in which social bandits and sectarian groups create overlapping zones of sovereignty within a nominal state. These interior groupings can be seen in many parts of the world and even within nominal elements of the developed world. "Parallel states" also exist within "hollow states" that have the nominal appearance of government and interaction with the outside world but are "hollow" and bereft of effective or legitimate government authority.

One school of thought holds that parallel states and hollow states are signs of the gradual decline of the state in the global system, while another argues that they are signs of an evolving new form of sovereignty. A more traditional but equally plausible explanation is that Westphalian norms never entirely penetrated across the globe and sovereignty has always been a complicated and stratified venture involving the interplay of many different kinds of authorities and identities. It is important to emphasize that all of these views are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

What are the consequences for military theory? Martin van Creveld and Michael Vlahos have always focused strongly on the interplay of warrior identity as a curious mixture of fear, honor, and drive. The singular power of charisma possessed by social bandits, terrorist leaders, tribal chieftains, and religious authorities have an animating power that demonstrates the continuing relevance of the Great man (or woman) theory of history as an explanation of world events. Van Creveld and Vlahos's world, often caricatured as rote visions of apocalypticism, in reality depicts powerful individual forces that are often lost amid the airless discussions of structural international systems so beloved by neorealist international relations scholars.

Van Creveld and Vlahos are not necessarily speculating on the future but producing a dark lens from which to view (and explain) the problems of the present era. The interplay of what Thucydides called "fear, honor, and interest" has been a feature of conflict since the beginning of organized human civilization. The problem is that theorists have only focused on "interest" while brushing aside "fear and honor." Carl von Clausewitz's "remarkable trinity" of emotion, chance, and rationality also expresses a similar conflict between rational strategic objectives set by leaders and the elemental passions and paradoxes unleashed by war. Critics who denounce Clausewitz as a cold-blooded rationalist with no applicability to modern day conflict often miss this more complex concept of the "remarkable trinity" – one of many concepts that justifies the long-dead Prussian's hold on strategic studies.

The Strategy of the State

The crystal ball of state change is far from clear. Strategy and the course of American strategic options cannot be divined from a hazy and unclear vision of a world that may never come. However, knowledge of various forms of state change and a more sophisticated understanding of existing orthodoxies in the debate can clear away misconceptions and point the way to certain unpleasant truths. If, as Army War College Professor Steven Metz suggests, extremist networks do not need "safe havens" but instead can mobilize in dispersed space online, projecting force to strike every lawless zone may be a fool's errand. As we suggest in our paper "Mexico's Criminal Insurgency", the battle within states to close internal zones of challenges may become just as important as the external war.

Sustained debate over state change and discussion of alternative forms to the dominant "failing states" hypothesis can seek to remind policymakers of the immense challenges associated with divining the future and the need for alternative analysis to counterbalance dominant perspectives. It is always hard for states and policymakers in times fo change to disentangle the transitory and the trend. The complexity of the new is tamed over time, and re-conceptualisation works in fits and start, by trial and – unfortunately – error.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData