Here’s my latest piece for DIPLOMAT magazine, on global security or not.

It starts with a quote immediately familiar to diligent readers here:

WHO SAID THIS (the answer is at the end of this piece)?

“Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos … Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!”

There are, it turns out only two issues in pretty much anything:

Who decides the rules?

Who decides who decides the rules?

But even that stark formulation rests on some hitherto unarticulated assumptions. Such as the idea that in principle rules can be established and applied, by someone or other. What if that too is no longer clear?

Thus my analysis:

Rules are made by people who like rules. They are not made by people who want to win at any cost, or by people who might prefer very different rules.

Modern civilisation is all about the patient agglomeration of rules and processes. Western societies typically see rules as a source of strength and good order (even if in far too many walks of life, useless process is now squeezing out substance). In the best case, rules set an agreed context within which things can happen. Once you know the rules and have enough confidence that they’ll be enforced fairly against all-comers, you can make plans and invest. That’s why the City of London is a global powerhouse.

There is a rival, much more dangerous view: that rules are a source of weakness – that anyone accepting rules is weak, unwilling to do what it takes to prevail. Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin now seems to subscribe to this view. He is having disconcerting success in challenging European rules on many fronts. Above all, Russia’s annexation of Crimea has been a direct blow against global order: for the first time since World War II, a major power has grabbed itself a slice of territory of one of its neighbours. It’s no surprise that the vast majority of states do not recognise this as a legitimate move.

Vladimir Putin nonetheless acknowledges that Russia works within a framework of rules that Russia itself has accepted countless times. However cynically, he justifies his Crimea/Ukraine policies in terms of international law and European standards. He knows that Russia is in no position to benefit from generalised confusion or collapse. On the contrary, a key aim of his overall policy is about getting Russia fully and finally ‘accepted’ (above all by Washington) as an equal partner within current international counsels.

The horrible ISIS/Daesh phenomenon is quite different. Is there any modern rule or standard that its proponents respect? International borders as per the UN Charter? No thanks, we’ll have a medieval caliphate instead, occupying whatever territory we choose to conquer. International standards on the rights of prisoners and women? No thanks, we prefer to burn people alive and/or brutalise them as slaves.  This is about as close to chaos as the modern world can imagine.

So on the one hand we have forces denying that rules exist. We also have technology eroding categories (and therefore what rules mean in practice):

Down the ages our most basic sense of security has come from feeling safe in our own homes. Now? Not so much. For 99.99 per cent of human history, someone sitting in (say) Canada has not had to worry too much about being directly attacked by someone who hates him in (say) Cambodia. Now that someone in Cambodia can get on the Internet and hack into his Canadian enemy’s computer, or remotely steer a small drone armed with a poison dart through his enemy’s open window.

How to formulate any global rule that counts for that sort of thing? It’s so incredibly small, yet so incredibly unsettling simultaneously. And that’s just what can happen now. In ten or twenty years when all this technology is far more powerful and far cheaper?

Conclusion? The Internet is collapsing all our instincts about time and distance, and gnawing at institutions built up patiently over centuries based on those common sense instincts. Digitalisation dissolves categories: from physical things such as books, music, films through organisations and organisational principles, up to and including states themselves.

As categories fray, so do the rules that define those categories, and the legitimacy of the people setting the rules. And when both rules and the very idea of rules dissolve, you do open the way for agents of chaos.


Time for a coffee while it still is available.