Systems change is an existential must. That includes our national security institutions.
We don’t like to talk about violence. But that we are here at all is as a result of violence - from our Neanderthal forebears to those in our living memory who died for our freedoms. And certainly for those fighting and dying as I write this, defending democracy on the frontlines in Ukraine.
At the centre of our civil societies, it is too easy to forget that the rules and institutions we abide by, that indeed define the notion of the ‘rule of law,’ are man-made, abstract, arbitrary and fragile - as the vulnerable amongst us know too well. The farther out that one goes from the centre, the less firm are these rules, but however ephemeral, these rules-structures are the wrappings that hold our societies together, not unlike the epidermis, or skin, of a jellyfish. Fragile as it may be, this epidermis if sufficiently adaptive, tensile and robust, can protect us from foreign harm. If not, despite the chimera of relative peace since WW2, we still have the capacity to be swallowed up by a violence that is beyond comprehension. It is not for nothing that the Doomsday Clock is the closest to midnight - and our extinction - than it’s ever been.1
I have repeatedly stated that I believe it an existential imperative to achieve an Age of Wonder in the next 10-20 years, whereby we reboot our institutions and rethink the very notion of leadership - systemically and globally. We live in a time now where it is easy to get one to agree that climate action or education or healthcare policy needs to be fundamentally addressed and remade. And yet the eco-systems from which interstate violence emanates - governments, their militaries, their intelligence systems, academia, think-tanks, vendors etc., remain largely unchanged since WWII. It is not glib to point to Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, and China’s clear intent to subjugate Taiwan as evidence of this.
A quick anecdote. In 2015 I travelled to Moscow and then St. Petersburg, just a little less than a year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the consequent imposition of sanctions by the West. The sanctions were starting to bite. I was attending a social event with Russian business leaders, and the liquor was starting to flow, with increasingly animated, even heated discussions occurring around me. I overheard a man behind me with American-accented Russian say of a prospective fight with the West “we lost 20 million people before, we can do it again.” I have to admit I was gobsmacked. I could not believe that such a profoundly stupid and dangerous thing could be uttered in 2015, and certainly not by a 30-something Russian who almost certainly knows the price of his his history. But he said it nonetheless.
On the flight home, I reflected on the fact that NATO would have to strengthen its position against Putin, that we needed to be prepared to ‘stand up to’ him, and possibly fight him, for as we all know, bullies respect no other response. The way of all of Man’s history. But then it struck me that with the lethality of new, AI-enhanced weaponry, and likely soon the pervasive accessibility of such weaponry, the only hope for us all is that we have to devise a world without war. Just as we need to address the climate emergency as an existential threat - changing the very nature of our societies - so too somehow we needed to do the same about war.
To aspire to an Age of Wonder does not make one a pacifist. It is a pressing and immediate reality that we may be on the cusp of violence that is, in its perverse way, necessary. I still subscribe to the mis-attributed homage to Orwell that “people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”2 I believe that to be true, I am grateful that such people exist, and I honour their sacrifice in our name. But I also believe we have no choice but to find a way forward where we once and for ever can retire them. To banish them from our future.
The grand master of strategy, Carl von Clauswitz famously noted that “war is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means.”3 The fact of course is that those who are doing the ‘carrying out’ are, for the most part, old men, while those doing the dying are much, much younger. Exponential advances in science and technology are driving unprecedented adaptation in every sector, in every society, at every level. These same technologies are similarly forcing change in the conduct of war, but not on its employment. That is unacceptable.
We live in a world where the nationalist-populists hope that their efforts to derail ‘globalization’ will ‘win’. That way lies war most grievous. If we globalists are to prevail, acknowledging the fragile nature of our one small world, then we must increasingly see national and global security as inseparable. Somehow, the national security ecosystems of the West at a minimum, must take for themselves the agency to substantively reinvent their profession(s), all the while ready to manage whatever intrusion of violence might come their way. Surely one of the most daunting challenges facing any sector today, but surely one that must be met.
Is it too great to imagine that from the ‘military-industrial’ complex real enough for Eisenhower to first describe it, that there are 10, 20 maybe even 30% of the thought leaders/influencers/officer corps who, if connected, empowered and mobilized, might take on and own this challenge? To ask of their thousands of peers, “what do we have to do - in our sector, within our means - to assure that ‘we’ survive” so that an Age of Wonder might be possible. To reset the Realm of the Possible?
It’s only a vain, naive hope if we make it so. It’s time for Big Ideas. It’s time for Plan B’s in every sector, at every level. It’s time for a Plan B for Humanity.
On War (1943), pp. 280