A Review of John Robb's Brave New War

"A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty." - James Madison.

"Please treat [Brave New War] as a buffet table and not a five-course meal. Take what you want of my vision of the future and discard the rest with alacrity." - John Robb, preface to Brave New War.

Brave New War is the book that has evolved out of John Robb's blog, Global Guerrillas.First, I'll go over a brief rundown of what I think Global Guerrillas are. Then, it being July 4th, I'll relate it to American democracy, specifically Madisonian conceptions of democracy. Then I'll look at where Global Guerrillas theory can go from here.

1. Brief overview of Global Guerrilla theory, as I understand it

Global Guerrillas describes a new tactical system in which miniature "armies" based around non-state entities are able to use modern technology to attack states, major corporations, and other symbols of the modern world.

Essentially, Global Guerrillas have taken advantage of the same technology that enabled programs like Assault Breaker, Follow On Forces Attack, and Network Centric Warfare and reapplied it to their own social organization. This technology means that it is easy to break things (states, societies, etc.) and difficult to put them back together. The way I see it, Global Guerrillas combine Effects Based Operations with Mao's old idea of insurgency into a kind of insurgency 2.0 (similar to Web 2.0 in that it is more collaborative than hierarchical). The ease with which new Global Guerrilla organizations arise (low barriers to entry in the Bazaar of Violence) leads to a dynamic called open source warfare.

Robb doesn't go into the motivations of Global Guerrilla armies - nor should he. He's been criticized for not delving into the motivations of these new actors. But, as Soob and Shloky get at, as Global Guerrillas are an organizational framework and a theory about war, not an attempt to explain the motivations of individuals. The motivations of Hitler are not crucial to understanding the development of blitzkrieg.

The predicted rise of Global Guerrillas has strategic implications for the United States. While Global Guerrillas are tactical organizations, the communications environment that helps create them means that tactical operations have strategic consequences (the concept of Strategic Compression). On top of that idea, radically new tactics have always required new strategies - if a new tactic renders the forces you've bought obsolete, you need to buy entirely new forces. Future American strategy is the last couple chapters of Robb's book. Robb compares caricatures of two possible futures - that of a knee-jerk police state and a future with dynamic decentralized resilience. I'll give away the ending - a knee-jerk police state is unable to deal with Global Guerrillas.

2. Global Guerrilla theory and its relationship to Madisonian democracy1

In the time since America has been a Great Power, we have rarely been satisfied with our organizations tasked with national security. In times of crisis we've tried to give our national security organizations more power, and in times of relative calm we've tried to rein them back in. There's a long list of distinguished books that argue for or against various reorganizations – for me, the historiography begins with Ideas and Weapons, by I. B. Holley, about the U.S. security establishment's failure to organize effectively to incorporate airplanes.

There's a progression of centralization of power that starts with the National Security Act of 1947 and continues with the reorganization in 1958, Goldwater Nichols in 1986, the creation of a DHS and DNI, and the proposed “Goldwater-Nichols II.” There has been pushback. Recently, Andrew Bacevich proposed the elimination of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. From different perspectives, others (the Church Committee, Cato, other libertarians who are generally seen as crackpots) have argued against centralization of power based on the danger such power can pose to democracy. However those who push back have been swimming against the tide.

That, as much as the terrorism/insurgency context, is the context in which I put John Robb's Brave New War.

Robb argues that in this new era of globalization, the large centralized bureaucracies with anticipatory functions (the same ones that pose dangers to our liberty) will be unable to react to unforeseeable events that disrupt the infrastructure we depend on, whether those events are attacks like 9/11 or natural disasters like Katrina. Instead, he advocates for dynamic decentralized resilience, placing the responsibility for security on small-scale resilient communities connected through open-source networks and platforms, and, crucially, depriving these large-scale organizations of reasons to exist. This model, on the extreme "coordination" end of the spectrum between coordination and centralization, empowers a Madison conception of democracy.

In both Madisonian democracy and in Robb's resilient communities, power is distributed not between the branches of federal government, but is largely devolved to local governments and shared with state and federal agencies. The weakness of this type of organization historically is that it would take forever to get anything done, and in wartime, as Madison himself found out during the War of 1812, centralization can be necessary. For the first time since this country's founding, if John Robb is right, advocates of Madisonian democracy will have an answer to Hamiltonians who have argued that centralizing power in an executive provides for greater security (from outside threats) for the people.

This is not the context in which Robb conceived of his book – I am clearly hijacking Robb's ideas for my own purposes. However I think it fits. The devolution of strategic power2 that Robb believes was necessarily preceded by the devolution of economic power may lead to the devolution of legal power as well, by stripping authority away from an ineffective and clumsy federal government.

3. The ultimate impact of this book

I hope/think that this book will spawn qualitative and quantitative research. Narratively, Global Guerrillas theory makes sense, but to be accepted as a Theory with a capital T, quantitative research needs to confirm GG's various hypotheses. Contrary to Tdaxp, there are crucial elements of Robb's theory that are falsifiable. Here are a few off the top of my head:
  • You could look at the start-up costs of creating new insurgent groups (similar to evaluating start-up costs for various companies) to test the “open source” hypothesis.
  • You could look at funding sources to see if Global Guerrilla armies really are entirely self-sufficient, or whether successful ones are merely proxies for other states.
  • You could look at whether levels of state failure rise perceptibly after attacks on so-called "systempunkts" (one possible example of a systempunkt is the Samarra mosque bombing in 2006).
  • You could evaluate various non-state centered conflicts to determine the number of different groups fighting - an increasing number would confirm Robb's hypothesis on open source warfare.
Robb's most controversial hypothesis – that Global Guerrillas want to hollow out the state, rather than destroy it completely or take it over - faces an uphill battle to acceptance. It's been ridiculed by numerous DoD employees in various off-the-record conversations I've had, Tdaxp thinks its crap, and ultimately its not really falsifiable except through long-term observation. I have yet to decide whether or not I buy into it. It makes sense if you believe that the current internationally legitimate version of the state is ultimately a Western creation that has been superimposed on areas for which it is ill-suited (an argument of Mohammed Ayoob, who I'm glad I was forced to read for class). Now that economic, strategic and possibly legal superempowerment is on the horizon, it would make sense for individuals dissatisfied with the status quo (not just the status quo's power relationships, but its architecture as well) to try to reinvent that architecture. The relationship between Global Guerrilla groups and the state system will be one of the most interesting trends to follow in the future.

Ultimately Brave New War is a easily accessible and coherent narrative of the future that Robb sees for conflict. It is a large cluster of hypotheses that hopefully will prove fertile ground for research. It leaves you wanting more, and hopefully we will soon get it. Robb has mentioned he's in the early stages of a second book “on superempowered individuals and their ability to change things for the better.” I'm looking forward to it.

For other reviews of Brave New War, see Robb's website, Global Guerrillas, or Soob's rundown. Robb also has a second, less formal blog you can read.

Notes

1. This section draws upon a hopefully-soon-to-be-published paper in Defense Horizons - I'll post a link to it when it is published. If people want more information, leave a comment or drop me an email.

2. Robb writes on page 8 that "this threshhold will finally reach its culmination – with the ability of one man to declare war on the world and win.”

8 comments:

CurrentConductor said...

"this threshhold will finally reach its culmination – with the ability of one man to declare war on the world and win.”

James Bond super-villains, anyone?

Adrian said...

Well when ZenPundit described it, I think he used a picture of the Hulk.

subadei said...

Great review. My hope is that Robb's next endeavor will include a realistic and better detailed account of how we can achieve the Madison (to borrow your reflection) approach to the GG threat. Like you I found a noncentralized approach to be a bit unrealistic. Rather, I'd prefer a shift in ideology and logistics that starts with the pentagon (a few less F-22's a tad more A-10's) and envelopes the populace. In short a shift from bigger and badder to smarter and more relevant to the hurdle we face.

And thanks for the nod.

Dan tdaxp said...

# You could look at the start-up costs of creating new insurgent groups (similar to evaluating start-up costs for various companies) to test the “open source” hypothesis.

I grant the existence of open source warfare, Robb did not come it with it and OSW's existence does not imply the existence of other things that Robb discusses.

# You could look at funding sources to see if Global Guerrilla armies really are entirely self-sufficient, or whether successful ones are merely proxies for other states.

Robb hasn't provided a definition of GGs yet (though he's provided many descriptions), so it impossible to test this without making up your own definition.

# You could look at whether levels of state failure rise perceptibly after attacks on so-called "systempunkts" (one possible example of a systempunkt is the Samarra mosque bombing in 2006).

Indeed. My presumption is that there is a U curbe where developed states (famously, Nazi Germany) and undeveloped states (famously, North Vietnam) are able to withstand systempunkt attacks, while fossilized states (famously, Iraq) are not. A good research area, though.

# You could evaluate various non-state centered conflicts to determine the number of different groups fighting - an increasing number would confirm Robb's hypothesis on open source warfare.

(a) How is it Robb's hypothesis? and (b) How would this confirm? Open Source markets can create hegemons (Apache in web servers) or splintered markets (the BSDs, for example).

PS: I look forward to the DH paper!

Adrian said...

Thanks for the comments, Soob and tdaxp.

Dan, re: the numbers of groups fighting - lower barriers to entry would logically mean that more groups would organize and fight. Assuming the groups organize separately due to different motivations (for instance a Marxist group vs. a Baathist group in Iraq), an open source hegemony would squash such groups after they pop up, not preclude them from ever existing, therefore they could hopefully still be counted.

Pat said...

its both amusing and horrifying to hear the term "open source" appilied to warfare and terrorism.

but just FYI, my understanding is that for the vast majority of OOS projects, very few people contribute to them who arent paid by Sun or whoever to do so.

this model of warfare may lower the barrier of entry for involvement and dictate looser hierarchies, but people aren't going to blow themselves up without the proper motivation to do so. and the ones who really really want to do so are going to find ways to do it anyway.

so i hope the next step is to look at the motivation. i would hope understand that would be a huge help. but i dont know what i'm talking about in this area anyway.

my main point is that like programmers not wanting to work in their free time and thus OOS getting most of its contributions from people with an actual stake ($$) in the project, so too people out engage in this type of warfare are going to do so regardless as to which model organizational model they follow.

Pat said...

bah, i cant find the article i read. it was on slashdot awhile ago but going to that site and searching for "open source" doesnt exactly filter out a lot of results. hopefully i'm not full of shit.

Adrian said...

The Defense Horizons paper I mentioned is finally published. I have 25 paper copies but no electronic copy yet. When I get that I'll post a link to it!