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Security V chaos: no joke

shutterstock_303577103Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford says that the Internet has a lot to answer for in matters of global security

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!”


This unsettling line from a movie takes us beyond the philosophical and ethical frontiers of today’s international security. It does not challenge Rules, but rather The Very Idea of Rules. It insists that fighting according to rules is not fair because rules in themselves stack the deck against certain sorts of behaviour. 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.

Most international problems lend themselves to negotiation of some sort. Sooner or later it suits conflicting states to cut deals and manage their problems. But the sheer implacability of ISIS/Daesh rules them out as potential negotiating partners. The idea of a ‘caliphate’ accepting no limits whatsoever on its borders or its behaviour is a priori unacceptable to all other states that accept international law and all its long-standing rules and limits. ISIS/Daesh demand a world run to stern C15 Islamic principles. The rest of the world community want shared modern values as articulated in 2016. What’s to discuss? How to negotiate? Split the difference and settle on the norms of the early eighteenth century?

Thus the latest efforts to launch a peace process for Syria are ambiguous if not fatally flawed. Yes, it’s more than good that Washington and Moscow and European/Middle East partners are at long last agreeing (more or less) on a way forward that might end of Syria’s horrendous civil war. But where do ISIS/Daesh fit into the picture? They control significant tracts of land in Syria and Iraq, and what they want is completely at odds with the aims of everyone else.

Faced with both the philosophical and practical problems of the ISIS/Daesh, it’s no surprise that world leaders struggle to find effective responses. Repeated bombing raids look good on YouTube and obliterate some key ISIS/Daesh leaders, but remote-controlled military intervention goes only so far. Large numbers of troops on the ground are needed to retake and start to rebuild territory now controlled by the ‘caliphate’, and few states want to commit to that. But can anyone imagine a lasting solution that does not involve ISIS/Daesh being militarily crushed, if not annihilated?

Diplomats and political leaders have no choice but to continue believing that international borders make sense and are a vital part of global security. Yet an increasing amount of what we do in our daily lives whizzes across the Internet in blithe disregard of any such borders.

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.

The former Chief of MI6 Sir John Sawers tackled these policy and moral issues head-on in a speech in London late last year. [Side note: I helped him hone his arguments]:

“Technologies that empower us, empower our enemies. You link to anyone in the world. Anyone in the world links to you.

The good news is that we can track down people like Jihadi John and ensure he can no longer brutalise and murder his captives. The bad news? You and your family are only a couple of clicks away from people who print 3D guns, or make synthetic drugs. Or from ISIS and al-Qaeda and paedophiles, all pumping out disgusting videos and propaganda …”

‘Security’ is all about trade-offs, many of which are implicit or invisible to most people most of the time. If a society faces attacks from disparate but skilled and motivated jihadists, only sophisticated surveillance techniques give the police a chance to intercept them (and even then they may succeed – see the terrible events in Paris). That requires the police and security forces to plunge deep into the planet’s data-oceans and search for patterns that point to suspicious behaviour deserving a closer look. That in turn means that ‘your’ private data swimming around in those global data-oceans in principle can be monitored by intelligence agencies, or by anyone clever enough to do some hacking.

Intercepting phone calls and emails sometimes leads to perverse results: the Obama Administration has been embarrassed by revelations that in eavesdropping on senior Israelis it also scooped up telephone conversations of members of the US Congress.

As Sir John explained: “Terrorists are using technology to change their methods and targets. We have to change the way we defend ourselves. You follow terrorists and potential terrorists where they are…

Your choice as free citizens here tonight is unambiguous and unrelenting. You can try to avoid reality. Reality will not try to avoid you.

You can trust the skill and restraint of the people working day and night to protect you. Or you can pray that the people working day and night to destroy our societies don’t hit your town or your family.”

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.

That may or may not be fair. It won’t allow us much security.



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