Iklé, Fred C., Annihilation from Within: The Ultimate Threat to Nations, Columbia Univ. Press, 2006. 142pp.
[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]
Recently, Jay Manifold posted a review of this book which included an insightful summary and an extended discussion of the impact that science and technology will have on the survival of the nation-state.
A brief synopsis of this book:
- The separation between the values of science and the values of political and religious systems is stark, and ever-widening. One deals in uncertainty and constant revision, the other with certainty and idealized end-points.
- The lethality and portability of “weapons of mass destruction” has increased since WW2. Dual-use (peaceful/military) of nuclear technology has spread the knowledge necessary to create a variety of nuclear and radiological weapons.
- New forms of weaponry, including direct chemical control of human minds, are under development.
- Modern nations are now extremely vulnerable to decapitation strikes — removing much of their administrative infrastructure — by non-state actors.
- For many of America’s enemies, throwing the nation into chaos is reward enough. For others, however, it is merely the first step in a political agenda of national control.
- A nation with a missing or damaged national government would be extremely vulnerable to a domestic coup, and we have examples in the 20th century in Germany and the Soviet Union.
- It is time that the government respond to these issues with (1) better nuclear detection methods, (2) improved assurance of continuity of the US government, (3) mobilization laws to establish law & order, (4) better control over territorial sovereignty, and (5) a clearer sense of the importance of national unity in the face of such threats.
- In the event of a “clandestine mass destruction attack,” four principles of restoration must be applied: (1) the legal and constitutional foundation must be reconstituted (and revitalized), (2) a way back to nuclear non-use must be found, (3) a refocus on the global economy must be supported, and (4) the spiritual dimension of restoration must avoid aggravating violent religious conflict.
In contrast with Jay Manifold, I’d like to take a cultural approach to Iklé’s long essay. I found myself struck both by Iklé’s valuable insights (which will be familiar to anyone following discussion of Fourth Generation Warfare), and his bizarrely academic attitude to American culture and politics (when assessed from the perspective of Anglosphere exceptionalism).
Mr. Iklé is a former American arms control mandarin and a man with many years of foreign policy experience. His book is blurbed on the back cover by the likes of Henry Kissinger and James Schlesinger. So this gentlemen has both experience and serious reputation. Does he have any familiarity with American life outside the Beltway or think-tanks? In Iklé’s world, danger comes from technology and religious passion, despite sixty years of American history when the country has had overwhelming capacity for both. No effort is made either to reconcile the American capacity for self-control with the current dangers generated by people whose cultural background gives them none.
In “Annihilation from Within” (AFW), we have a very European view of the problem of WMDs, dangerous technology, and national administration. The global spread of WMDs, the negative empowerment of individuals, and the domestic takeover of government (à la Hitler or Stalin) through decapitation are reasonable themes. But they really ring hollow when applied to the American political system and its people. America is not, I think, just “France with fast food.” It’s very instructive to see a foreign policy wonk reflect on the future as if it were. This is a book that worries about the dangerous, violent American people as much as any foreign adversary. And you’d never know that America had a federal system from reading this book. The Western world is very ill-prepared for serious WMD attacks. Granted. But the idea that authoritarian rule is one Washington DC bomb away seems to fly in the face of a great deal of contrary evidence. No surprise that it’s evidence that never makes its way to the RAND Corporation or the halls of the federal bureaucracy. A lot goes on in the country without the direction of the State. AFW ignores it … except for the capacity for religiosity and riot.
The crux of the Anglosphere argument, in contrast, is that culture matters. That it has mattered in the past, that it matters now, and that it will matter in the future. The Anglosphere habits of decentralized authority and popular responsibility are deeply ingrained in the culture, the law, and government. Every town hall and state capitol is rife with the same challenges and passions as the national capital. Out of chaos, Americans have a blueprint for self-organization and self-regulation. In America, to paraphrase a recent book by Frenchman Frédéric Martel, ” the national government is missing, yet government is everywhere.”
Surely even the most brilliant insight into current events is ungrounded when a problem is posed or a solution offered without reference to how the issue will be received politically and culturally. A glance at the history of America and the English-speaking world, and its engagement in existential struggles, shows that timing and cultural values had everything to do with when the American people fought and how they fought. Why should the future, rife with radiological and biological dangers, be any different? And why should it be a painless or bloodless process, especially for America’s enemies? The Anglosphere arrives late to every existential war, suffers horribly, and prevails. Can we expect anything better from the future, and still be ourselves?
It forces the reader of AFW to wonder whether biographical experience of the author hasn’t removed much of what would be really interesting about an American response to the increasing lethality of WMDs and individuals. Iklé has written a book that can be read with profit by any national bureaucrat in the industrialized world. It’s just that the book is less valuable to any Anglosphere (and especially American) bureaucrat. Which is a strange twist of fate for an author who worked for Reagan’s defense department.
One of the great cautions of life is watching brilliant, gifted, or lucky men and women stray from their areas of expertise and extrapolate their personalities and experiences to Life In General. Bohemian scoundrel Albert Einstein on God and dice. Southern Protestant E.O. Wilson on mobilizing humans for global conservation. George Clooney on any subject of importance. The pattern is clear and never-ending. If cleverness or charisma could fix the world’s problems, Bono and his friends would have solved things a decade ago. We all assume that our personal experience of life somehow scales accurately and effectively out to geopolitics. It doesn’t. And blogs like this one are an attempt to escape our own blinkers through reading and discussion.
When we turn to commentary on current events, it’s always worth matching purported “solutions” with the personal history, cultural background, and academic training (if any) of the commentator. In the past I’ve referred to the “Thomas Barnett conundrum” (actually, I wasn’t that polite) … which I define as the creation of a credible geopolitical strategy without a credible set of Americans to execute it. Somewhere along the line, some vast number of Americans are required to be doormats for well-meaning bureaucrats. Living in terror and dying in ignominy so that some idealized European vision of “peace for all mankind” can be executed. Fred Iklé’s discussion of how the nation-state should prepare for WMD attack, and adjust afterwards, makes a similar mistake of assuming that all civic power in America derives from that state, all security tools are controlled by it, and all rationales for living and dying are dispensed by it. America’s future is apparently dependent on the federation and Constitution that current exists.
I disagree. I have my doubts that the Cold Warriors, with their fixations on the nation-state, have much to offer as the world turns to a stage for dueling nuclear-armed tribes. In my view, the multi-ethnic Anglosphere tribe can spin out governance and lethality faster than any on the planet, and can catch up on the legal paperwork afterward. It cannot do so, however, without turmoil and bloodshed. Messy history is an Anglosphere feature, not a bug.
The Anglosphere discussion over the last few years has been all about resurrecting the facts and scholarship associated with explaining why America in particular, and the English-speaking world, in general, seem to be so different from the rest of the industrialized world. This “meme archaeology” has meant a real reassessment of historical events. As Lex mentioned in a recent post, the Anglosphere was exceptional before it was Protestant. It was exceptional before it spoke an English we’d recognize. It was exceptional before the franchise, and a thousand years before it had Americans.
It is this fact that we must match against any proclamation of geopolitical fixes for the future. Not tweaks to legal papers and government procedures. In applying Iklé’s justifiable concerns with (a) the divergence of scientific and cultural values, and (b) the continued spread of WMDs to non-state actors, we need to begin with a credible model of American (and more generally Anglosphere) culture.
For Iklé, apparently, once a certain level of economic structure has been reached, previous history is irrelevant. The nation-state stands as a uniform condition, and the deployment of its strengths requires a well-established approach. The author can only imagine a bureaucratic/governmental solution because without the State, there’s no coherence. This, in my opinion, is wrong generally, and very wrong for the Anglosphere.
I’d like to turn briefly to some short quotes from AFW to illustrate the culture-less, rather anachronistic, attitude of the book:
p. Xiii “[…], bear in mind, only sovereign nations can marshal troops and rally political support to defeat terrorist organizations, deter aggression, enforce UN decisions. When push comes to shove, only nations can keep some order in the world.” “Military history offers no lessons that tell nations how to cope with a continuing global dispersion of cataclysmic means for destruction.”
The focus on “nation,” as if human success is now predicated on its existence seems in conflict with liberal democracy in the Anglosphere. If WMDs are, in fact, escaping control by nation-states, the capacity for their creation and deployment is just as likely within the western world as without. But more likely as a response to attack rather than to initiate it. As for how “nations” respond to the global dispersion of cataclysm … I’d say that World War 2 gave us plenty of intellectual fodder. The scale and speed of cataclysm may have changed but this only re-inforces the key point made by Jim Bennett in The Anglosphere Challenge … that the Anglosphere has a superior culture for responding to change. As bad as it may get for humanity as a whole, the Anglosphere will have the best of it.
p.5 “It seems fair to say that the essence of America’s political order — its political soul — was created by a nation of fewer than four million inhabitants, more than two-thirds of whom worked on farms.”
Here again, we can see how the new generation of scholarship on the roots of American culture can offer a wider and deeper interpretation of the Anglosphere advantage. We carry traditions independent of our religions, independent now of our ethnicities. Denigrating “farmers” as being unable to respond to the needs of the “nation-state” is a laughably Continental view of modern Americans.
p. 14 “My interpretation of the divergence between the two cultural spheres — the scientific one and the ethical-religious one — is shared by John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics.”
[cough] Not an authority who holds much sway in my household. The European capacity to work themselves up into a lather over the mote of American religiosity, while blithely ignoring the beam of Third World barbarity, will be a source of endless amusement in years to come.
p. 80 “We do not know how to build a citadel to protect democracies from nuclear or biological weapons.”
Indeed, we don’t. Yet. God forbid we have to. Mostly for what it will mean for those living outside America.
p. 83 “We have seen that nuclear deterrence as a strategy for preventing attacks with conventional arms was oversold, while the policies against proliferation were gradually undone by the curse of “dual use.”
It seems to me far easier to accept that the genie is out of the bottle permanently than envision an America willing to enforce a nuclear-free world. And any other entity with the ability to help enforce such an embargo (with the resulting disruption to electricity supplies and medical technology across Europe, Japan, and the developing world) would be authoritarian, not democratic.
p. 106 “That leaves us intellectually ill-prepared to throttle the dark side of technology without stumbling into a prolonged economic depression.”
Hmm. Economic depression should likely be the least of our worries. Because of the role and scale of the Anglosphere in the global economy, a depression for us is a “problem.” For everyone else, it’s a nightmare. We can go back to making sneakers and steel, far easier than most nations can go back to planting rice and sorghum by hand. The dark side of technology isn’t something that can be micro-managed, as far as I can see. Here again, the Anglosphere perspective offers the basis for optimism and the foundation for public discourse (on disintermediated knowledge and practice) about preparing and coping with disasters.
Setting aside my critical comments above, Annihilation From Within is a good book. Brief, well-written, and with a useful perspective. If you’ve been short on things to worry about, this book is just the ticket. A domestic coup after nuclear or radiological decapitation of national government is liable to get everyone’s attention. And if you already have plenty to worry about, this book will tide you over during those rare moments of contentment you may experience in the future.
For readers thinking about how an actual America will respond to actual problems, AFW is more problematic. Like Tom Barnett, Iklé has little apparent interest in the question of how American domestic political culture is to absorb sacrifices on behalf of the rest of the world, with no history of ever having done so before. Nor in how the nation is to hand over unprecedented power to its national government to deploy its people and funds. Missing the Anglosphere perspective on how culture underlies the political and constitutional paperwork, both authors are frustrated with the current situation and consider it anachronistic.
While acknowledging all the valid points in the book about the dissemination of vile weaponry to those with finite religious and political goals, I remain unconvinced that the future is friendly for “nation-states” anyway … or that the “nation-state” per se is the likeliest source of innovation and security for most of the world’s peoples. In this, the odds are more in favour of Neal Stephenson’s fictional high-tech tribes (phyle in ancient Greek) as outlined in his book, the “Diamond Age” (reviewed on this blog recently).
As the stakes get excruciatingly high, the distinction between Them and Us will become necessary, inevitable, and fraught with all the tragedy that history confirms.
Table of Contents
1. Mankind’s Cultural Split 
2. Science Pushes Us Over the Brink 
3. Five Lessons of the Nuclear Age 
4. Annihilation from Within 
5. Time to Get Serious 
6. Restoration