John Arquilla Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

International Relations in the Information Age: Conversation with John Arquilla, Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey; March 17, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Societal Networks

In your book, Networks and Netwars, what is fascinating for a reader like myself who is not into military studies is the range of realms that you consider. When we talk about networks and the various activities and development of these organizations, you find them in strange places like international crime, where international criminal networks have been quite innovative in building connections to do their criminal work. But on the other hand, in humanitarian efforts, among NGOs to establish movements, for example the anti-landmine movement and others. Why have these different kinds of organizations been innovators in this realm of networks?

Both the civil society actors, the nongovernmental organizations and such, and the uncivil society actors, the terrorists and the criminals, have had to learn how to maximize their power in a world dominated by great states. That's a hard problem set for them to deal with, and so it encourages innovation. What both of them have found, both civil and uncivil society actors, is that there is a tremendous power in networking. They've been willing to explore, because, frankly, they don't have the kind of power that's needed to go head-to-head in a direct way, in a hierarchical way, against states. Reaching out and making these hidden connections has made crime ... It's funny, in an era where John Gotti died in prison and the Cali Cartel was pulled apart, what we find are criminal networks emerging that are small and supple, and connected to others. And we have, basically, no way to deal with them. There are more drugs coming into this country now than before we dealt with the heads of the large, organized crime cartels. We think that if we take care of the leader, the problem is gone. Well, it's not. It's just like music-swapping. Once Napster was taken care of, well, there were all kinds of other informal networks that emerged, and now more music is being swapped than ever before.

At the level of NGOs and civil society actors, they didn't even begin with cartel leaders or great individuals. They've always been mass movements in nature, and it's the most natural thing in the world for them to become networked. The international campaign to ban landmines has something like a hundred countries who are observing it, and now, four years after its enactment, it's a remarkable success. Various democracy movements around the world have stopped nuclear testing. We're talking about a civil society on the march and beginning to flex its muscles.

We talk often about the counterweight to American power in the world. It's very hard to find another country willing to step into that role. But here, civil society is moving in, and including many civil society actors within the United States, who believe that even a superpower should conform to certain ethical norms of behavior. The long time it took for the Iraq crises to come to a boil was a sign of the power of civil action networks, and I think of the many, many changes around the world that we have seen in terms of authoritarian states withering away and even some of the more totalitarian states like China being greatly liberalized by networks, both commercial and civil in nature. So I see this as something on the march, bringing a set of values that a wide civil society can adhere to, and something that, in the end, will constrain even great American power.

What do you think in a globalized age the consequences for the nation state will be? It strikes me that you, as someone who comes out of political science, don't think that the nation state is a goner. But you seem to be suggesting that it will have to adapt to these realities, even as it continues to have goals.

Yes. It used to be that they talked in terms strictly of realpolitik, which is real politics. It goes back to Thucydides and the Melian dialogue: "The strong do what they will; the weak suffer what they must." Well, now the weak are doing what they will. And increasingly, nation states will suffer what they must at the hands of this civil society.

Now, clearly, the situation is not entirely upended. Most power in the international system still resides within nation states, and, frankly, within a very few of those. But power is diffusing. That's the other part of the Information Age, the empowerment of small groups and individuals. In recognition of this diffused power, the smart nation states are going to be the ones who transform themselves, who learn to network themselves, learn to embrace civil society actors around the world, and learn that the story they tell the world about their role as a country is every bit as important as any of the other national measures of power. If a country is not trusted, is not believed, then that country is going to have a very much harder time in the future in carrying out its policy.

You write that in this age, the age that we haven't quite left, the game that was a model for the world was chess -- you mentioned it when you were reminiscing about consulting with Schwarzkopf's staff. You propose that another game is the metaphor for this new age that we're entering. Tell us what that game is and explain why you think it provides a more relevant map for where we're going.

It's the oriental game of Go, in which a move may be made almost anywhere on the board from one turn to the next. book coverThat's whether you're a civil society actor or you're al Qaeda, thinking "We will move here," on one end of the board or the other. This allows you to do things in a distributed but powerful way, as opposed to a concentrated or masked way. On the chessboard, you have to mask your forces. You have to control the center of the board. Well, Go is about the edges, not the center. It's about distribution, not concentration. On the Go board, if you build a fortification, it's subjected to an implosive attack. In the best of moves, there is a mix offense and defense. If you're looking for non-linear logic, if you're looking for very discontinuous notions of action and attrition, Go is the game. Whether it's military affairs or business -- do we put a franchise here or do we put one there -- it's a metaphor that's valuable in almost every endeavor. It suggests that the classic Western chess paradigm, where we see war and commerce and even social interaction in such linear ways, is going to pass away. So we need to start getting our head around something that captures as a metaphor a far better notion of what the real space and range of action might be.

The other metaphor that Ronfeldt and I like is one we did in In Athena's Camp, which suggests that even in the business of conflict, it's no longer the brute force of Mars; it's Athena, who is both a warrior and a wise god, knowledge and power fused in her. And that's really what we must do as we embrace the future.

Next page: Conclusion

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