A presentation delivered to The Philanthropy Roundtable on April 12, 2005
April 12, 2005
by S. Enders Wimbush
The War on Terror is in many respects a metaphor for the larger context of today's national security research and security policy planning. This war may take a long time, to be sure, but in the broader national security context it is snapshot of the dynamics that have come to characterize the unfolding security landscape. This landscape today is characterized by three prominent features.
First, every day brings new evidence that the number of actors possessing the power to alter the shape of the security landscape is growing dramatically. Moreover, the capabilities that these new actors command is also increasing. I am referring not simply to the actions of terrorists with access to nasty weapons-a trend that is certain to increase-but also to school children with access to the internet, who are proving especially adept at hacking into even the most secure computer networks.
Second, things are happening faster, time is compressed on this new landscape. Many things account for the acceleration of events, including more rapid and ubiquitous communications, the widespread availability of powerful technologies, and the information revolution: that is, in a word, globalization. It is hard to imagine the tempo of change slowing in the future, and it is easy to imagine it accelerating even more.
Third, there is a profoundly interactive quality to events which more and more frequently results in the effects of local phenomena cascading far beyond their points of origin. Today's terrorism is an obvious example, but so, too, is the struggle for energy security, where dependent states are at the mercy of unstable governments, events many thousands of miles away, and long supply lines that traverse hostile territory. As a native Chicagoan, I understand in my DNA that all politics must be local, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that the effects of these politics increasingly are global.
What does all this mean for the world of philanthropy, and where does the philanthropic community plug into a security-oriented agenda? To me, several opportunites are obvious. Here are three.
First, the philanthropic world could play a key role in promoting the development of intellectual and conceptual connective tissue between widely scattered and sometimes hostile disciplines and approaches to the study of security. This is necessary because it has become increasingly difficult to understand the forces that shape the security and risk landscape through traditional analytical filters and disciplines. The War on Terror is a case in point. Presumably if it were possible to penetrate the dynamics of modern terrorism through the exclusive filters of politics, economics, sociology, anthropology, or history-or even through something called "area studies", which purports to wrap many of these disciplines together-we would have been forewarned by our intelligence agencies, universities and think tanks not just of the horrible events of September 11th, but of the emergence of pathologies that led to it. But we were not warned, except by a few prescient individuals who were mostly ignored.
In fact, few institutions are organized to promote the multidisciplinary thinking necessary to understand the sum of the War on Terror's parts; to the contrary, most concentrate only on the parts themselves. Despite the War on Terror, today our institutions of government, academia and the think tank world for the most part organize themselves around traditional functional or regional criteria, for example into Middle East studies programs, technology programs, or governance programs. These disparate outposts seldom talk to each other, if for no better reason than they are often bidding for the same pot of resources. In none of these sectors are the stovepipes likely to be torn down at any time soon because so many interests are invested in maintaining the boundaries.
In practice, for the philanthropic community developing conceptual connective tissue could mean investing in a handful of discrete efforts that aim to improve the quality of our thinking about terrorism and security, rather than simply enhancing the quantity and quality of our information. Almost no one today asks the question: How do we think about this or that issue? To the contrary, the War on Terror has spawned a culture of problem solving like nothing I have seen before. This is lamentable, because we can never get the answers right if we fail to ask the right questions.
Second, the philanthropic community is uniquely placed to make an investment in understanding the security implications of the longer-term future, which is necessary if we are to mitigate surprises and hedge against uncertainties. Each day brings new evidence that we cannot understand much about the future simply by projecting today's trends in a linear fashion. No projection of trends picked up September 11th, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the collapse of the Soviet Union, to mention just a few recent examples. Governments are particularly immune to thinking seriously about the future because of the pressure to respond to more immediate contingencies. To my knowledge, only one government office in Washington, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, routinely explores the future, but only in the context of understanding future military competitions. The National Intelligence Council recently released its "Mapping the Global Future," the second such report in the last six years. It's an honest, though hardly rigorous effort that touches many issues lightly and shuns controversy. The private sector-especially the futurist school that grew up in Royal Dutch Shell, represented today by the work of Peter Schwartz-boasts a more robust analytical capability for assessing the future, but their attention is rarely focused on security matters.
For the philanthropic community, this is a yawning opportunity to invest in innovative approaches to understand how alternative worlds might arise, what the pathways into them might look like, where there might be signposts on the pathways to indicate that we are en route to one future or another, what kind of critical uncertainties remain, and how non-linear events-or "wildcards"-might significantly alter the trajectory of events and strategies. Such an effort would greatly enlarge the spectrum of challenges that policy makers need to see for devising hedging strategies against uncertain futures. The kind of research I am referring to be done with a small cast of characters, and it lends itself nicely to think tanks and universities, or some combination of the two. It is neither complicated nor expensive. Unfortunately exploring future nonlinear security landscapes and analyzing alternative worlds that feature daunting security challenges and downside scenarios is little developed beyond a handful of practitioners. I am unaware of much philanthropic investment in this regard, perhaps because grant-makers, like government agencies, tend to focus their attention after headlines are made and a crisis is declared. The boards of the major foundations generally want to throw money at these big crises. In my view, this makes the need to focus on the nonlinear even more crucial.
Third, the philanthropic community could play a major role in globalizing the security discussion by providing the means for think tanks and others to link systematically with organizations and individuals beyond the United States who bring very different analytical perspectives to the study of pathologies like terrorism. Why is this important? Let me answer with an illustration. As we all know, the War on Terror is at its core a struggle against radical Islam. In the United States and Europe the debate over what has caused some Muslims to turn to terrorism is polarized between those who believe that that Islamic societies suffer a ideological or cultural flaw and those who see radicalism as the result of economic and political deprivation. It's an interesting debate, but how does one explain India? India, a third world country, boasts the world's second largest Islamic population, approximately 170 million, and, yet, to date not a single Indian Muslim has appeared on lists of international Islamic terrorists. What do the Indians know about defusing Islam before it goes radical that we don't know? My response to that question is simple: Ask them.
Indeed, we have begun to do exactly that through a pilot grant from the Smith Richardson Foundation that will eventually take my small team from the Hudson Institute to India and beyond. Ultimately we hope to hold workshops of purely local experts to consider how one competes effectively with radical Islamic trends. These workshops will occur in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Afghanistan and several other locations; that is, in places where local experience with radical Islam is real and immediate, and where local specialists have been analyzing how to compete with radical Islam for much longer than we have. We will focus our effort on how they characterize the problem and on the strategies they have adopted to deal with it. In this way, we hope to take a significant step away from the ever-present tendency in American research institutions to fall into the trap of "mirror imaging." This small initial effort, we believe, will add greatly to our ability to form competitive strategies of our own.
The philanthropic community is the natural partner to establish strong foundations of this kind of research. A good place to start might be to create an international network of think tanks devoted to security issues. To my knowledge, no such effort exists explicitly for working level security discussions on topics such as the War on Terror. Such a network would be easy to set up, it would relatively inexpensive to start and maintain, and it would have value far beyond the War on Terror. For example, it might promote discussion and analysis from diverse perspectives on the security implications of HIV/AIDS in Africa, Russia, India and China; of resource shortages like water in Asia and the Middle East; of demographic change and population movements in Europe; or of environmental depletion in Latin America. Unfortunately these issues and many more today tend to be studied in isolation of the security challenges they are already beginning to create.
Why doesn't the US Government invest in efforts like this? In fact, for many reasons. Some agencies of government are prohibited from this kind of activity by statute. Others have never thought this way before and aren't inclined to begin now. Most have invested their funds elsewhere. And then there are practical problems, for example the difficulty government agencies have in contracting any small outside think tank or with individuals, even if it wants them, because Congress has established highly restrictive competitive practices that favor Beltway behemoths with fulltime contract specialists at the expense small tanks and individuals that possess more specialized knowledge or skills.
And yet it is precisely the kind of research I just described that government analysts need and, in my experience, are calling for. How much do they need it? Consider this. On September 10th, 2001, the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center had a total of six analysts tracking al-Qaeda. Today its staff tops 1500, most of whom were seconded from other parts of the organization or hired right after undergraduate work. It is a truism that many of yesterday's environmental security analysts are now tracking al-Qaeda. How likely is it that more than a tiny number of these new staff have the education, languages, cultural understanding, family background, time in the field and other elementary prerequisites for sophisticated analysis of the War on Terror's complex phenomena?
To conclude, I am convinced that some small investments by the philanthropic community to create connective tissue that make insights on security matters easier to receive, to expand our analytical horizons on security issues further into the future to hedge against surprise, and to globalize the security discussion in a way that enriches the cultural context of analysis for analysts who arrive on the job without it would pay substantial and immediate dividends.
S. Enders Wimbush is a former Senior Vice President of Hudson Institute
Home | Learn About Hudson | Hudson Scholars | Find an Expert | Support Hudson | Contact Information | Site Map
Policy Centers | Research Areas | Publications & Op-Eds | Hudson Bookstore
Hudson Institute, Inc. 1015 15th Street, N.W. 6th Floor Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 202.974.2400 Fax: 202.974.2410 Email the Webmaster
© Copyright 2013 Hudson Institute, Inc.