The IR Film Festival

Over at Duck of Minerva, Rodger Payne responds to Stephen Walt‘s list of favorite international relations films with his own picks. Dan Drezner offers his own set of IR movies at Foreign Policy. I can understand the impulse. International relations theory, especially the statistically addled variant now dominant in many political science and international relations departments, is so abstract that it’s begging for a humanizing device–like say, relating neorealist balance of power theory to Independence Day.

Of course, the danger is that certain cinematic visualizations can become so powerful that they end up providing a misleading view of policy dilemmas. Hollywood’s role in the debate over torture and the “ticking time bomb” scenario is a case in point. Likewise, as I pointed out in my “Legacy Futures” commentary, our favorite science fiction visualizations of future conflict may colonize our imaginations and crowd out other alternative futures.

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Exploring Design

David Axe has a nice little blog entry on Army attempts to use Operational Design to deal with the chaos of the modern day battlefield, tying it in to the “vortex of violence” he reported on last October. Design, originating from a framework developed by IDF BG (ret) Shimon Naveh, uses a critical method devised from systems theory, philosophy, and architecture to handle “ill-structured” problems. Design has proven hugely popular in the Army, finding its way into both FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency and FM 3-0 Operations as well as countless Military Review articles.

To some degree, the dualism that Design sets up between “engineering” and “design” thinking is a straw man, much like the binary that Basil Liddell Hart sets up between the “indirect approach” and head-on confrontation. Design’s novelty is also somewhat suspect. Its utility, however, should be determined by whether it aids in defense planning–something independent of its theoretical construction. I’ve only seen one article critical of the framework so far, written by a Naval War College professor.

A Global Social Netwar

I’ve been having a valuable dialogue on Mexican politics and the dynamics of netwar with former RAND researcher David Ronfeldt, co-author of “The Advent of Netwar“,”The Prospects for Cyberocracy“, and many other influential works on conflict and state-building in the information age. Ronfeldt has a new post on my post about the aftermath of the Zapatista social netwar that evaluates the conflict’s larger implications:

“In a sense, the significance of the Zapatista social netwar is barely about the Zapatista indigenas in Chiapas. …This netwar was able to occur in 1994 because so many activist NGOs were already networked and mobilized outside of Mexico, ready for a new target, after having tried (quite unsuccessfully) to protest U.S. policy in Central America and/or halt passage of NAFTA. Then, years later, as we discuss in the Appendix, many Mexican and foreign NGOs turned away from the Zapatista struggle to focus (quite successfully) on other high-impact efforts: e.g., in 1999, the protest movement known as the ‘Battle of Seattle’; and in 2000, the presidential campaign and election in Mexico that displaced the ruling PRI party from power. In sum, the Zapatista social netwar was about much more than the Zapatistas.”

This goes well with Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak’s comments about the information era’s compression and nonlinear intermingling of tactical, operational, and strategic levels in “Three Block Wars.” One other netwar question comes to mind though: what happened to the anti-globalization movement?

From the mid 1990s to the dawn of the Iraq war they were a major non-state movement in international politics that substantially shifted the normative ground in discussions of trade (for better or worse). Have they collapsed from lack of momentum or simply been subsumed into larger movements such as the global antiwar movement Or is Robert D. Kaplan correct when he argues that the backlash against globalization has been transmuted into a backlash against capitalism itself?

“It’s tempting to dismiss [the December 2008 Greek riots] as a purely Greek affair that carries little significance to the outside world. But the global economic crisis will take different forms in different places in the way that it ignites political unrest. Yes, youth alienation in Greece is influenced by a particular local history that I’ve very briefly outlined here. But it is also influenced by sweeping international trends of uneven development, in which the uncontrolled surges and declines of capitalism have left haves and bitter have-nots, who, in Europe, often tend to be young people. And these young people now have the ability to instantaneously organize themselves through text messages and other new media, without waiting passively to be informed by traditional newspapers and television. Technology has empowered the crowd—or the mob if you will. Pay close attention to Greece; at a time of world-wide economic upheaval, it might eerily presage disturbances elsewhere in 2009.”

Swine Flu and Social Media

Foreign Policy 's techblogger Evgeny Morozov thinks that the swine flu outbreak is exposing Twitter's Achilles heel: it's herd mentality and lack of context:

Who knew that swine flu could also infect Twitter? Yet this is what appears to have happened in the last 24 hours, with thousands of Twitter users turning to their favorite service to query each other about this nascent and potentially lethal threat as well as to share news and latest developments from Mexico, Texas, Kansas and New York (you can check most recent Twitter updates on the subject by searching for “swine flu” and “#swineflu”). And despite all the recent Twitter-enthusiasm about this platform's unique power to alert millions of people in decentralized and previously unavailable ways, there are quite a few reasons to be concerned about Twitter's role in facilitating an unnecessary global panic about swine flu.

Morozov argues that Twitter, far from being a "global brain" that co-produces better understanding, is merely providing people with a platform to voice their ill-informed fears about swine flu. There's also a social dimension to the Twitter swing flu scare that goes beyond the "echo chamber" effect:

"Unlike basic internet search – which has been already been nicely used by Google to track emerging flu epidemics – Twitter seems to have introduced too much noise into the process: as opposed to search requests which are generally motivated only by a desire to learn more about a given subject, too many Twitter conversations about swine flu seem to be motivated by desires to fit in, do what one's friends do (i.e. tweet about it) or simply gain more popularity.

In situations like this, there is some pathological about people wanting to post yet another status update containing the coveted most-searched words – only for the sake of gaining more people to follow them. And yet the bottom line is that tracking the frequency of Twitter mentions of swine flu as a means of predicting anything thus becomes useless (however, there are plenty of other non-Twitter ways to track the epidemic and Mashable does a good job of summing them all up)."

What's very ironic about Morozov's sadly accurate critique is that Twitter's rise to fame as a communication medium was largely due to its disaster reporting function during the Mumbai attacks. Perhaps the lesson of the swine flu outbreak is that Twitter excels at geographically focused and instrumental events (such as terrorist attacks) but struggles when faced with distributed disasters like public health crises.

Medical Dimensions of Security

According to CNN: the latest count in Mexico's swine flu outbreak is 81 dead:

No kissing to say hello. No large crowds. No close contact. That's the advice of the Mexican government as more and more people die of swine flu, which has turned into a 'public health emergency of international concern,' according to the World Health Organization. The WHO advised all countries to be on the lookout for 'unusual' outbreaks of flu, following an emergency meeting Saturday as the seriousness of the outbreak became clear. By Sunday, 81 deaths had been deemed "likely linked" to a deadly new strain of the virus by health authorities in Mexico. Viral testing has confirmed 20 cases, said Dr. Jose A. Cordova Villalobos, Mexico's health secretary.

Going beyond the specific case of swine flu here, the prospect of global pandemics brings up larger theoretical considerations for security policymakers. While I may have specific theoretical and policy disagreements with the Human Security school, I do think that their holistic conceptualization of security is admirable. The case of this Mexican pandemic demonstrates the need to consider things like pandemics from a security as well as a public standpoint.

The crux of the problem is how precisely to integrate non-human (but obviously, in many ways, human-influenced) security threats into a larger security framework. Or is it better, conceptually, to separate security and public health policy frameworks in a conceptual sense and only integrate them on policy and operational levels?