Adam Elkus: The Power of the State, Policy and Operational Technology

Posted on September 27, 2010


As I wrote last week, my Afghanistan paper will be eating up my time now and anything I write on here will probably be running commentary. To spice things up a bit, though, I have asked some friends to submit posts and Adam Elkus has written about the relationship between policy and technology in countering attempts to overthrow the state. He blogs at Rethinking Security.

Super-empowered individuals–men and women whose actions can have an effect on a strategic scale through access to crucial nodes in the global system—have been a topic of intense discussion in military circles and the defense blogosphere for a while. Aside from the concept of “global guerrillas,” this has mainly been a theoretical discussion. It is plausible that technology will, in time, give individuals the power to challenge state power in ways that we would see as far-fetched today. But the problem with these analyses is the implicit assumption that the state would remain helpless or be superseded altogether. This is unlikely to happen—and the state’s response poses some problems of its own.

In his book Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, the historian and military strategist Edward Luttwak describes the state as a powerful and robust machine that can utilize its organs to effectively crush internal threats. While states can certainly be “hollowed” out to the point of incoherence, Somalia-type situations are truly rare. Most governments have the power to focus police, military, and intelligence services to root out and destroy most threats to their own control. This ability is independent of their own Weberian monopoly of violence. Their abilities to do so are greatest in urban centers—hence the historic failure of urban guerilla warfare to succeed beyond the tactical levels.

If technology enables an individual to take on a state, then the state will in turn concentrate as much force as possible on the individual. The more difficult it is to target the individual, the more discrete, calculating, and personal the application of violence will be. There is consistent record of states reacting to individuals utilizing aspects of modernity to increase their own criminal or military power by generating operational technologies to utilize state power to crush them.

The 1920s-1930s expansion of gangster violence in America led to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s expanded powers and utilization of special units (comprised in many cases of hardened Old West lawmen) to hunt down and frequently kill bank-robbing gangsters. The 1960s-1970s New Left wave of terrorism led to the genesis of special police and military counter-terrorism units capable of storming a hijacked plane on the runway and putting a quick end to dreams of revolution.

Today, drones, counter-network warfare concepts, and modern updates of old techniques of bush tracking and manhunting are the modern state’s means of dealing with those who challenge it.  While these technologies would not be unrecognizable to 19th century military and lawmen tracking border raiders, Indian guerrillas, or fugitives, they have been modernized for the digital age. If the United States is truly moving away from the use of general-purpose forces for counterinsurgency in the near-term, these tools of coercion will surely become more important to American strategy.

The biggest challenge is not necessarily the ability of the modern state to focus its power. Technology is not entirely disruptive. If the power of individuals is increased by technology, it also gives the state greater coercive power and more tools to use to enforce its writ. The problem lies in changes in public perception, law, policy, and strategy that would come if individuals ever gained the power to create change on the large-scale that futurists predict. Policy informs operations. If individuals ever truly become super-empowered, then sound thinking about a political and legal framework to preserve order will be more decisive than operational technologies.

There has been a lot of thought about operational and tactical questions concerning non-state groups and future capabilities. These are important discussions, but they do not touch on the larger policy implications of future internal challenges. These high-order policy issues, however, are the meat of the problem. Current legal, ethical, and civil liberties conflicts posed by today’s transnational terrorism threats will be considered quaint if futurists’ predictions about individuals taking on the state come to pass. That is why it is crucial for futurists and strategic thinkers to examine the policy dimension, rather than just operational or tactical questions.