Our Rapidly Changing World
Our world is entering into a period of rapid and unprecedented change. Although it is a truism that the only constant is change, there is a quantum difference in the degree and scope of that constant in today’s highly interconnected environment. It is not my intent to detail all of the causative factors in this trend, but rather to anticipate, in a limited way, how the environmental, social, and politico-military systems are and likely will continue to respond to these factors. In broad terms, regionalization is one of those major responses. I will attempt to lay out some of the broad, though not seminal, causative factors in this trend, different organizational methods anticipated to be adopted within a regional context, and lastly to anticipate some of the potential impacts of these responses.
The threats to the current nation-state system’s continued viability are numerous and growing. This growth is occurring concurrently with a contraction in the nation-state’s legitimacy as an organizing principle in international politics due to its seeming inability to deal with the numerous challenges it faces. Many would support this conclusion yet quickly make the follow-on statement that, although it may be imperfect, there is nothing to replace it. Such viewpoints take a rather short view of history in drawing this conclusion as the nation-state system is a rather recent phenomenon. It takes only a slightly extended view to survey additional forms of politico-military, economic, and social organization. The society of man has been on a constantly changing balance beam which alternates between different forms of centralization and decentralization of its various organizational systems as far as recorded history. The current trend, due to the myriad threats presented, is towards regionalization of the current nation-state system concurrently with a continued centralization in that portion of its social system dealing with laws and norms. These changes are a direct result of the various threats.
In regards to these threats, it is important to note their key differences with those of the past. First, they are common to many, if not all, nation-states. Second, they are coincident in their occurrence. Third, they require a collective response, the costs for unilateral action being simply too great of a burden for one to tackle alone without experiencing, perhaps precipitously and catastrophically, national overstretch of resources and capabilities. Lastly, the responses required are long term responses requiring collective, multilateral partnerships which will, more and more, become of the very committed rather than simply the willing as the character of these threats becomes more evident. These threats include those related to the environment, resource access, criminality, and disease control.
The world we live in is, to state the obvious, finite. It seems important to highlight these limits due to our actions and lack of planning which seem to belie an underlying weak grasp of this fact. The finite nature of these resources impacts us in many ways, but one whose effects are very difficult both to predict as well as to respond to is the significant environmental change being brought about by the impact of man’s activities. That the planet is warming is a fact admitted by all sides in the debate. It is slowly becoming apparent to more and more that man’s activities are a significant causative agent in this condition. The impacts of this warming trend are also becoming increasingly apparent by the year in terms of sea level rise, in some cases coupled by adjacent city subsidence as most recently evidenced in New Orleans, the loss of coastal riverine and estuarial environments, and the attendant economic impacts to our coastal communities, as well as in less predictable ways such as changing weather patterns. Almost 50% of the great lung of the North American continent, the boreal forests of Canada, are under tenure to large scale forestry operations, this at a time of concern for the impact of CO2 emissions on the warming trend. The impacts of these changes as well as other areas, regardless of your political persuasion, are larger than national politics or, for that matter, any one country. They require, if not global, at least regional consensus in measures to deal with the issues.
The ability of people to communicate, collaborate, and produce goods and services for others has been expanded incredibly by globalization, which I will simply term the interconnection of everything. Unfortunately, the capability to effect good comes with a price. Those who do not have good intentions share with us these same capabilities. Trans-border criminal collaborative capabilities have increased exponentially along with the capabilities to effect good. The ubiquity of technological access and know how due to the information revolution has really only begun. The democratization of information has come concurrently with this large threat – the threat from those with equal access who would use that information for personal gain without thought on the impacts on others. The pace of technological innovation and access to that technology to anyone with either the time to research it or the money to buy it means that transnational criminality and collective actions to deal with it will be a constant theme at least in our lifetimes. The access to devastatingly lethal means which could impact or hold hostage large populations make this threat not only transnational but also of vital importance to us all.
As previously stated, we live on a finite physical planet with finite resources. The gas in your car’s gas tank is approximately 70 million years old. We are running out of some of those resources upon which we have become dependant to provide us with the means we need to live and to live well. At the same time, a significant portion of the planet’s population is “coming on line” as users of those same finite resources. World daily oil consumption has now reached 84 mbd, with oil production in decline in 33 of the 48 largest oil producing countries, this concurrent with rapidly rising demand. Unfortunately, focused national efforts have started no where to ensure a stable transition to alternative sources of energy. Also unfortunately, we have now waited too long to ensure a smooth transition. Competition for scarce resources, always an issue, will be a continual theme in international politics. This situation, as well, is trans-national requiring multilateral solutions.
The confluence of the above factors with the ease of population movements afforded by modern technology and commerce compound the threats of disease containment. The plagues of children’s nursery rhymes are unfortunately likely to reoccur, calling for new ways to socialize the healing and learning process. Evidence of this can be seen, thanks to modern medical science, through the genetic tracking of disease strains from their points of origin across the globe. More and more, both governmental and private organizations are coming to realize the national security implications of globalization on the spread of infectious diseases, both those we are aware of as well as the 99% of world microbes that remain unidentified. Coupled with the threats from criminality and intentional population infection or its threat, terms such as apocalyptic are not un-called for. The current social, politico-military, and economic organizations exist concurrently with these threats. The evolution to new systems of organization will be gradual, resisted by culture, tradition, and social norms perpetuated over generations. As well, many of the threats detailed above will be remotely relevant, or at least apparently so, to those far removed from their point of origin. This is not to say that the global threats are less real, but only that they are apparently localized and distant to many due to the difficulty, and in many cases impossibility, of seeing the linkages which can quickly make distant threats all too proximate. Because of this fact and the real, proximate, and significant regional impacts, regional solutions will be the norm and increasingly taken. Responses to these threats will cross the politico-military, social, and economic organizational spheres.
The threats we are facing will result in closer collaborations, and in many cases a lack of distinction due to merger, of the political and military organizational structures. This will occur for two primary reasons. First, the sheer speed of impact, complexity of the issues, diversity of factors, and required responses to deal with the threats will increasingly require a multi-functional approach to deal with both the immediate threats as well as their causes. Second, the normative standard of civilian control of military power is being strengthened rather than lessened. This, coupled with the factors first noted, require a much greater degree of integration between political and military, as well as law enforcement organizations to ensure coordinated and synchronized actions. Although perhaps an imaginative stretch due to its contrast with our current government structure, a transition from Regional Combatant Commands to Regional Command Authorities with a truly integrated politico-military structure is not perhaps as radical as it sounds or, for that matter, a distant possibility. As extensions principally of executive authority, it is also likely, if these RCAs occur, that congressional liaison functions will also expand to ensure legislative oversight, and some level of control, of such organizations. The same speed and complexity before mentioned will cause the fused organizations to decentralize within the current national structures as well as to connect trans-nationally within their respective regions. All of this will be supported and enabled by quantum capability leaps both in IT and collaborative technologies as well as their application.
This same IT growth in capability and use will likewise impact the social realm. Computer social networking does not decrease social interaction in local community; rather it expands the concept of community, making it less defined solely by geography and more by shared interests. Networked communities will mobilize across traditional boundaries, requiring enhanced governmental capabilities to respond to fluid, rapidly emerging social demands. Such social swarming on niche issues will require a corresponding fluidity in government response, especially in the realm of the info-sphere where truth projection or mis-information inform such reactions.
The rapid rise in gated communities, whether they be a lifestyle, prestige, or security choice is an unfortunate development in our societies; however, the trend towards the many but separate and walled off communities rather than those characterized by an open and inclusive commons is likely to continue. The causative factors are too numerous to detail, but the trend that we are and will continue to form more and more physical or virtual niche “communities of interest" appears persistent.
Regionalization internationally will continue as competition for scarce resources continues and regional communities with some religious, cultural, political, or societal affiliation or shared consensus band together to survive and thrive against the myriad threats to their pursuit of a good life for themselves and their own. A large part of this pursuit is obviously economic. As Benjamin Franklin once so aptly put it, “It’s hard to make an empty sack stand upright,” and regional participants will increasingly demand and obtain the freedom which accrues from economic emancipation rather than simply political democratization. The equation of liberal economic policy with democratic development is often not obvious to those countries exposed to the social impacts of radical and rapid economic restructuring. Spheres of economic union and influence will continue to form regionally, such as the European Union, the Association of South East Asian States, the various and sundry economic arrangements on the African continent such as ECOWAS and IGAD, and Western Hemisphere arrangements such as the Free Trade Area of North America and Mercosur. These economic blocks will evolve into, and in concert with, regional politico-military cooperative structures; however, the bounds of these structures, as well as the degree of cooperation between them, will be defined more by the community of shared interests rather than the influence of a singular regional power as the issues become less manageable unilaterally.
Increased political/military cooperation and regionalization will enhance capabilities to both shape as well react to regional issues. Concurrently, the complexity of those issues and the speed of impact which drive such organization will decrease capabilities to centrally command national responses. Authorities will be increasingly decentralized requiring a high degree of training, expertise, and professionalism of regional actors. The oversight requirement to vet such authorities, if not effective, could result in rapid, long term negative impacts. If effectively implemented, however, they will not only increase the effectiveness of coordinated government action but also, and in consequence, increase the legitimacy of the nation state system. The social changes noted tend to de-couple the concepts of community consensus and national consensus. The rapidity with which issues arise from the milieu of 0’s and 1’s floating in cyberspace will increasingly require integrated information systems to inform government responses as well as to strengthen that sense of national community which accrues through effective government policy and action. Economically, an inclusive regionalization requires politically difficult choices for national economies and their at risk groups. However, a disregard of the trends towards exclusive arrangements and retrenchment from democratic reform in some areas will forfeit national opportunities and invite international opportunism and influence.
The recurrent historical patterns of centralization and decentralization are difficult to understand as they occur on so many levels. While we continue down the path towards a centralization of normative standards globally in terms of commitments to democratic systems of government and respect for basic human rights we are concurrently tending towards decentralization of power from the nation-state both outwardly to regional associations and inwardly to empowered niche communities. It is also difficult to predict the future impacts of such change, except to note that workable solutions must be rapidly sought in the near term to answer the numerous threats that we face. As in most other human endeavors, dramatic change will probably require some individual or series of dramatic realization of the impacts of these threats. Some incremental steps along the trends outlined are already occurring although many are transparent to those not familiar with the national political and military organizations. These changes are both necessary as well as in consequence of the factors outlined. However, there are many perils in this evolution that we should carefully consider as this evolution continues. What are the legal issues which should be addressed? How quickly do they need to be addressed? What are their priorities? What precedents are we setting which, had we been more circumspect and careful, we would all agree should have been subject to greater debate? Some of these questions are beginning to be asked, although national debate is still lacking, and some are being worked out as a practical matter both in the field and in the courts (e.g., Hamdi, Paddilla, Hamdan cases). The question is, can we afford the luxury of waiting for some precipitating event of large impact? We are in a period of both great and rapid change due to the threats we face. It is imperative in this time that we seek out people of wisdom and understanding to guide our discussions and progression through this period. Otherwise, we may face a future both difficult to imagine due to the rapidity and degree of change as well as undesirable in terms of our real good.
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 For a discussion on the spread and impacts of transnational criminal activity, see “Gangs, Hooligans, and Anarchists – The Vanguard of Netwar In The Streets,” John P. Sullivan, http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1382/MR1382.ch4.pdf
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