As of late January 2013
, with Egypt in turmoil from violent civil unrest, Libya in militia-enforced stasis, Syria in all-out civil war, and now French troops intervening in Mali, readers might be interested to learn that despite the trillions of dollars spent by the international community in the last 12 years to prevent, combat, and quell the sustained violence flowing from chaotic nation-states, we still lack an effective and practical understanding of how to most effectively engage in such challenges. While we readily recognize the symptoms, we still struggle to fully understand the underlying disease.
Since it's clearly not a matter of insufficient attention — these conflicts dominate our news — or insufficient budgets — the costs of these conflicts dominate our budgets, with governments voting time and again to fund them — that frustrate our efforts, perhaps it's a matter of asking the wrong diagnostic questions and therefore treating only the symptoms of a condition that has not yet been clearly identified. We appear to be in real need of a new mode for delivering geopolitical healthcare.
Given the reality of the increasing number of chaotic nation-states — combined with our decreasing economic wherewithal to sustainably counter these perpetual geopolitical problems — we might start by acknowledging that while our budgets have been diminished, we are far closer to bankruptcy in terms of the intellectual resources our institutions require to meaningfully challenge outdated doctrines. In sum, we appear to be in real need of a new model for conflict analysis.
The Soufan Group
has written extensively about the opportunity costs inherent in consistently and reflexively implementing unexamined policies and tools. (Please see, for example, our January 15th IntelBrief
, Mali apres la guerre: Adieu to Nation-Building and Bonjour to Sanctuary Management
and our January 25th, IntelBrief Tools of the Trade Part One: Static Sanctions in a Dynamic Economy
for two recent discussions). We return again to the premise that any practical attempt to adequately address our many challenges must begin by asking the key strategic questions. While these questions may appear so basic as to be childish, the consistent lack of positive results from our by-the-numbers effort is sufficient proof we really need to ask them again — and again — until they finally lead us on a path toward the deeper answers that will ultimately make a deeper difference.
"How can we know so little about the issues and conflicts on which we spend so much blood and treasure to counter?"
A partial answer is that with policymakers facing a steadily increasing array of critical decision-making moments — and with ever decreasing time to make those decisions — the emerging policies are too often "informed" by one-page summations of the problem. The common wisdom in policy circles is that if you can't capture the crucial aspects of a geopolitical issue on a single page, you don't really understand the issue. At The Soufan Group
, we take a contrary view: if you think you can capture on a single page what a policymaker needs to understand about a major geopolitical issue, one that would enable them to render a constructive judgment, then you don't really understand the issue.
"Why are multi-million-dollar foreign aid packages that are designed to generate goodwill and social stability so easily overturned by five-thousand dollar internet film clips or free rumor?"
To be sure, geopolitics has its own unique method for accounting, one where a dollar spent rarely returns a dollar's value. In World War II, for example, a soldier generously giving a chocolate bar to a child in a recently liberated village could buy an allegiance that could last a lifetime. In modern conflict, the burning of a Koran by a smalltime religious fanatic half a world away could offset literally billions of dollars in economic aid, military assistance, and diplomatic intervention. (We shall subsequently return to this question.)
"Why is it that only violence and kitten videos go viral?"
We do have an opinion here relating to the kittens (which we will reveal at the end); in the interim, we will leave both the question and the answer as they relate to violence to Dr. Philip Zimbardo (author of The Lucifer Effect) and his colleagues in the behavioral sciences.
A Germ Theory of Violence
In 1997, Dr. James Gilligan developed his "germ theory of violence" based on decades of experience with prisoners. He posited that violence spread through the contagion of emotion, primarily shame. We might adopt the framework of his theory for our discussion about conflict resolution and chaotic violent nation-states. In the end, it is undeniable that violence spreads through chaotic states — such as Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, and Egypt — like a virus, while efforts to counter it, like a cure, do not. Through the lens provided by this theory, it might be helpful to examine age-old problems in new ways.
Perhaps the international community's intervention efforts (be it foreign aid or military assistance) can't address the virus of violence in these countries for the same reasons our bodies fight lifesaving organ transplants: these unwelcome or unexpected foreign bodies (or foreign intervention programs), called antigens (or aid) invariably cause the body (or country) to produce antibodies to fight them. This would partially explain the well-documented failure of modern nation-building and most attempts at counterinsurgency. It doesn't matter to the host body that the antigen really intends to rebuild or reconstruct a stable society; all that matters is the imperative to fight the foreign presence that created the infection. While this observation superficially explains the profound contradictions inherent in our current policy framework that assumes there will be no prolonged antibody reaction to our prolonged antigen-interventions, it still doesn't sufficiently answer our key strategic questions.
Applying a Medical Model to Geopolitical Realities
It's not just foreign policy practitioners who wonder why the unexpected or unwelcome possibility goes viral while allegedly well-conceived and properly implemented policies go nowhere. Countless media and marketing experts spend countless hours trying to catch lightening in a bottle and manufacture a truly viral product. Despite their best efforts, most Internet or social media sensations are entirely unpredictable, rarely make sense, and even less often make a profit. So what do violence and viral Internet memes have to do with each other? The answer to this — and, perhaps, to our earlier key strategic questions — might be found by focusing less on what the violence is and more on what it might be in response to; that is, to treat them as antibodies responding to specific antigens. For just as it is fruitless and exhausting to attempt a guess at what might prove to be the next Internet viral sensation, it is equally fruitless, but much more consequential, to guess which new foreign policy symptom might go viral. Just reverse the search and look for the antigen.
This is not as theoretical as it sounds at first glance. Rather, it is fundamentally quite practical. After all, doctors cure diseases by focusing on the original antigen, the original irritant that caused the symptoms. The antibody is of interest primarily because it leads back to the antigen...and therefore leads to the cure (or, at least, it should). For the purposes of our discussion, the antibody of extremism and violence is of interest primarily because it provides clues to the antigen of irritation (be it economic, political, or social)...and also provides clues to the cure.
This understanding would materially help answer our key strategic questions, especially the second one: "Why are multi-million-dollar foreign aid packages that are designed to generate good will and social stability so easily overturned by five-thousand dollar internet film clips or free rumor?"
The answer might simply be that most foreign aid packages are antibody focused, which makes some sense because the symptoms are what attract all of the attention...and all of the funding. Palliative approaches, however, will only last so long, and they are exceedingly vulnerable to collapse when the host body undergoes additional stresses or the underlying disease is left untreated. That explains why an idea that began as a rumor can ultimately topple a program (or a regime).
We've built an entire foreign aid and security doctrine on the wrong side of the antigen-antibody divide. We submit that this just may explain why the most rigorous planning and administration of foreign aid programs are attacked and rendered inviable by the most trivial and unpredictable bouts of civil fever, and why we never understand the disease that is causing the symptoms we are attempting to treat, or why violence spreads so quickly through a weakened host.
As for why kitten videos always go viral, that is simple: kittens are really cute.