Risks, Priorities, and Empowerment

Francis “End of History” Fukuyama cautions us that in concerning ourselves too much with ISIS we’re not paying enough attention to “more menacing foes”:

The focus of today’s debate ought to be: how should we prioritise the threats facing us and how bad are the most serious? This year we have seen a fast-moving sequence of events, from Russia’s annexation of Crimea to China’s assertion of sovereignty over the South and East China seas to the collapse of the Iraqi government’s power. Authoritarian forces are on the move.

It is on this point that US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy speech at the West Point military academy in May was wrong-headed. It laid out various abstract criteria for the use of force (actions must be “proportional and effective and just”; where no direct threat to US interests exists, “the threshold for military action must be higher”). It is hard to disagree. But he went on to state that the only direct threat we face is terrorism. He said virtually nothing about long-term responses to the two other big challenges to world order: Russia and China. There was great fanfare surrounding the US “pivot” towards Asia – one of the most important initiatives of Mr Obama’s first term – but he did not mention the word once.

Despite the recent successes of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis), I would argue that terrorism is actually the least consequential of these challenges in terms of core US interests. What we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria is the slow spread of a Sunni-Shia war, with local forces acting as proxies for Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is a humanitarian crisis in the making. However, we could barely contain sectarian hatreds when we occupied Iraq with 150,000 troops; it is hard to see how we can act decisively now.

Identifying priorities and establishing subpriorities is always good advice. Is potential risk or actual risk a higher priority? The reality of the last forty years is that the only foes that have done us any serious harm have been violent radical Islamists (in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, in African embassies, and here in the United States) while neither Russia nor China has touched us.

To be sure Russia and China have national interests of their own and I would expect them to pursue them. Both countries are large enough and powerful enough that their neighbors will inevitably be nervous and changing that is beyond our power. Other than nervous neighbors what national interest of ours do Russia or China threaten? Dr. Fukuyama alludes to a case but doesn’t really make one.

Russia and China both have large militaries but they are more intended to be used domestically or in their near abroads than against us. It is their nuclear arsenals that we should be most concerned about which is why nuclear deterrence still matters.

Our long-time grand strategy has consisted in promoting freedom of trade and of the sea lanes and I think I’d add the free exchange of information to that. Transnational corporations may threaten those interests more than Russia or China do and perhaps they should be added to the list. Not to mention the U. S. government itself.

While I don’t lie awake nights worrying about the threat posed by violent radical Islamists, I think that dismissing them as a few primitive savages in the desert is a grave error. After all, a few dozen Saudis, Egyptians, and Gulf Arabs with a budget of a couple of hundred thousand dollar managed to kill 3,000 people and do hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage. How many people could a thousand with a budget of a billion dollars kill?

Equating destructive power with size or productive capacity is mid-20th century thinking. It is woefully obsolete.

If there is a thrust to world history it has been in the direction of personal empowerment. Since 1945 it has been the case that one country could destroy the entire world, something never the case before. Today one individual can be as powerful as an army of a millennium ago and with the developments in desktop manufacturing, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology that will only be exacerbated in the years to come.

Personal empowerment is a jinn we cannot return to its bottle, at least not without bringing the modern economy crashing down around our ears. It’s not something that we can successfully oppose with armies or even armed drones—another example of that personal empowerment and something we should be expect to be used against us sooner rather than later.

To mitigate the risks that empowerment poses we’re either going to need to start ignoring mass casualties, something that shows few signs of happening, or consider our policies more critically, with flinty-eyed objectivity. Since so many fabulously wealthy individuals, companies, and other institutions depend on Things As They Are for their riches and power, the likelihood of our doing that seems to me vanishingly small.

For more on personal empowerment and superempowerment see

The Super Empowered Individual
Zenpundit on the Super-Empowered Individual
The Boston Bombers and Superempowerment

19 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds Link

    Yes. Absolutely. This evolution of the super empowered individual is new and it is fascinating and potentially very, very dangerous. As in potentially the end of civilization as we know it. This is our Goths and Vandals and Huns. (Oh, my.) This is the stuff that could have us begging for a police state in the relatively near future.

    It’s one of the reasons I think complaints about the surveillance state are largely anachronistic, as is the peculiar conservative paranoia about our own government. As Ronald Reagan’s old campaign ad had it, there is a bear in the woods, and we are not ready to fight it.

    We need more intel, not less. We need one hell of a lot more effort going into countermeasures against weaponized microorganisms. We need modern entry points – airports, ports, borders, where we can mount more effective monitoring. We need a lot more international cooperation, including with the Chinese. And we need to avoid, where possible, making enemies. The enemy may turn out to be Chinese, (there are quite a few of them) but I doubt it will be the Chinese government. I worry that we may be right around 1912 and still training cavalrymen.

  • As in potentially the end of civilization as we know it

    As I mentioned in my old post linked above I don’t think that many people realize just how fragile “civilization as we know it” is.

  • jan Link

    I’m going to focus on the opening sentence ” in concerning ourselves too much with ISIS we’re not paying enough attention to “more menacing foes”, by pointing out that what’s menacing one moment could be preempted in the next by something else.

    Basically, we can intellectualize and/or analyze all we want, however crisis oftentimes occurs when least expected, and from people, places and things that we have defined as innocuous or passe. Remember during the last presidential debates when Romney pointed to Russia as being a tenable geopolitical foe, and was only mocked by Obama as being behind the times and lodged back in a Cold War paranoia mentality. Is that warning, in lieu of Ukraine’s present turmoil, still considered opaque and out-of-step, or was it prescient of adverse actions to come? The same assumption, of one terrorist group being decimated and “on the run,” led to the dismissal of another more lethal one in the wings and on the rise.

    IMO, many events in the world have elements of importance attached to them, such as: non enforced immigration policies creating confusion and a flood of unknown illegals coming across the borders; a myriad of weak domestic policies and conditions arising from them; increasing energy prices keeping pace with more regulations limiting domestic energy production, while the ME burns under sectarian conflicts, handicapping fuel costs even further; China pursuing outer space exploration as we decrease funding for such adventures, leaning on Russia to catch rides to the international space station, as tensions worsen because of Russia’s aggression to recapture some of the eastern bloc they once controlled. From time to time North Korea invokes it’s petulant missile launching, as Fukushima continues to be a nuclear disaster — only one that’s not discussed anymore, while we posit about a recent anthrax contamination possibility in one of our very own CDC labs.

    Such a prioritization list is diverse, endless, foreign/domestic, and one that is constantly adjusting itself, much like the annual billionaires list keeps changing. After all, life is nothing more than a set of dynamic circumstances which one has to keep a constant, vigilant eye on in order to make adequate corrections before it’s too late. It’s like not checking your doors at night to see if they are locked. One door skipped — albeit, one that is seldom used — is all it takes to put the entire house in jeopardy solely because of a judgment error made on behalf of a faulty prioritization of threats on any given day .

  • In a much smaller frame, I started the summer in an English class. The first day, Dr. Adams (the prettiest little girl you could hope for, I suggest 43, major time in Oklahoma, she said so) went through our rules and told about what to do in the case of tornados (family members have been homeless. She takes them seriously).

    I asked her what we should do in the case of a shooter, like Virginia Tech. She was flabbergasted. Hit the deck? We had tiny desks. Hide behind them? What now?

  • michael reynolds Link

    Is that warning, in lieu of Ukraine’s present turmoil, still considered opaque and out-of-step, or was it prescient of adverse actions to come?

    It’s still kinda silly. Russia is a major nuclear power, that’s it. Ukraine is fun to get worked up over but it’s pretty much not our problem. The Russian “threat” is much more about accidental launch or loss of control over nukes than any action by their government.

    The same assumption, of one terrorist group being decimated and “on the run,” led to the dismissal of another more lethal one in the wings and on the rise.

    No, our invasion and botched occupation of Iraq led to the rise of ISIS, if any one outside event could be said to. Killing Osama Bin Laden did not. (Nor did the drone war against Al Qaeda – you remember them, 911? The guys Mr. Bush couldn’t get?) And the reason sensible people did not want to get involved in Syria was not because the rise of a new jihadist militia was unforeseen, but because it was quite foreseeable.

    Thank God Obama (and that low-rent thug Maliki) got us the hell out of Iraq.

    Thomas Ricks, when asked if we’d be better off having forces in Iraq:

    TR: That’s nonsense. If we had the force there, what we’d be doing now is facing this question: Do we retreat ignominiously and get the troops out of the country, or do we use them in a way—or do we find ourselves forced to use them—in a way we don’t want to, supporting Maliki without reservation? Or do they just sit there inside their camp gates and everybody mocks the Americans for doing nothing? So I think by not having troops on the ground there it greatly simplified the issues for the United States and actually gave the United States more leverage rather than less, because clearly Obama does not simply want to act on Maliki’s behalf. I think Obama sees Maliki more at fault here than he does the Sunnis.

  • TastyBits Link

    Few people have anything more than a surface knowledge of history, and they know nothing of how power works. Hence, the idea that a brutal dictator would give WMD’s to a terrorist organization would only originate from a comfortable parlor.

    The US has spent more money and lives preventing terrorists from attacking than the terrorists could actually inflict. Terrorist attacks are like airplane crashes. Because many people die at once, planes are considered dangerous. Automobiles are more deadly, but the deaths are less spectacular.

    The printing press profoundly changed the world, but history did not end or change. Until humans evolve, the 21st century is no different than the 1st.

  • Having read Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, I’m a little apprehensive of this new debit card and bank draft economy.

    A smart boy like our own Dave Schuler could do magical things with our accounts, had he the desire. I think that’s the warning.

    It must be nice to be superempowered, yea, Dr. Schuler? I attribute it to your great-looking Irish mother.

  • With completely dispassionate objectivity, I think my mom was good-looking rather than beautiful. However, she had a beauty of spirit that simply burst out of her that made her beautiful

  • Until humans evolve, the 21st century is no different than the 1st.

    I agree with that. However, technology advances much faster than physical evolution does which makes certain strategies practical that wouldn’t have been a millennium ago or fifty years ago.

    That’s why, for example, terrorists don’t need world-spanning organization or tremendous productive capacity to wage a global war. They have cell phones. They have personal computers. They can just piggyback off the civilization they’re trying to destroy for logistics and production.

  • michael reynolds Link

    They can just piggyback off the civilization they’re trying to destroy for logistics and production.

    Yep, like various barbarian tribes who used Roman roads to get to Rome for a good sacking.

  • TastyBits Link

    The technology that terrorists use can also be use against them. The cell phone is used in the drone war to locate a target. Their banking transactions were tracked prior to the NYT leak. The Bush administration had put in place an anti-terror program in which the terrorists had to be right all the time.

    The technology does allow greater participation on the micro level, but the goal of terror is to amplify the risks beyond the actual results. Furthermore, some of the risks are simply unrealistic. A suitcase nuclear weapon has a shelf life of about 6 months. Had the Boston bombers worn black trench coats, they would have been crazy, and it would have been forgotten in a few days.

  • TastyBits Link

    My actual comment was directed toward those with limited historical knowledge. You, @michael reynolds, and I have complex positions on these issues, and many times our differences are over nuances, goals, or acceptable means.

    The Genghis example on a previous may seem trite to somebody with limited knowledge of history, but it was like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. If he understood history, he would have compared Putin to Genghis. (power basis)

    We could debate that last sentence for a week, but that is the point. I doubt that the article writer could.

  • steve Link

    Yes, we dont set priorities very well. We have spent way too much money on terrorism and not nearly enough on the things likely to actually harm us. We really do need to get over the Cold War mentality. Russia and China are competitors. They have their own interests. Those will overlap with our sometimes and other times they won’t. We gain nothing by trying to turn it into an eternal war with both of them.

    We also need to accept the things we cannot do much about. If a lone guy with guns decides to go shoot some people we really cant stop it. We could have prevented airplane attacks long ago just by having locking, sturdy doors leading to the front cabin. A lot more cost effective than mass screening. When something does happen, and it will, we need to not overreact. We are our own worst enemy.


  • TastyBits Link


    We need to get back to a Cold War mentality. Everybody cannot be friends no matter how many Cokes you buy them. Having two or three big dogs running their areas is better for everybody. It gives a clear choice.

    An unspoken part of the Cold War mentality was that the other guy had a sphere of influence. While we tried to limit his sphere, it was understood that certain places were his, and we were only making gestures towards them – Hungary 1956.

  • michael reynolds Link


    I came late to loving history. I blame schools which do an awful, awful job of teaching it. Kids are less likely to be interested in looking back, but a clever curriculum could tie past events to their own possible futures and just might work. The current approach tries the “look how we got here. . . and by ‘here’ I mean 20 years ago when this textbook was written. You know, back when you kids were not born yet.”

    History taught as the story of how your parents’ world came to be. Because gosh teenagers just love hearing about their parents’ childhood days.

  • michael reynolds Link


    When something does happen, and it will, we need to not overreact. We are our own worst enemy.

    I would turn that around a bit. The reason I have supported security theater and am un-horrified by the NSA, is that when a major terror attack hits we will inevitably react by trying to shut the barn door. And that will mean more loss of individual liberty. You think we have too much security now? See what happens when half a dozen bombs go off in shopping malls at Christmas. Or far worse, a weaponized flu gets loose. The best defense against overreaction is to prevent the attack in the first place through means that may be uncomfortable but still manageable.

    That said, I agree we must not overreact. London managed it fairly well during the IRA war, but London has a 1000 year history of managing. Everything from Saxons to Normans to the plague to fire to the Blitz to the IRA. We don’t have that history. The US is rather virginal.

  • TastyBits Link

    @michael reynolds

    I found most of school boring, but they would not be able to build a curriculum around me. Or at least not one that any sane parent would approve.

    With CGI, they are able to bring history alive in a way never dreamed possible. You could see the filth of an actual middle age town or the running water in a Roman home.

    I am more concerned with our decision makers and the opinion writers. It would be the same thing as a dentist not understanding the circulatory system or an engineer not knowing thermodynamics. It may not be a primary area of concern, but you had better damn well know about it.

  • I had the dual good fortune of starting to read history before I was taught it in school and history being part of our dinner table conversation as managed by my unconventionally-thinking father.

  • Janis Gore Link

    Brings to mind that picture of your father fiddling with the manual,or whatever. What a good a looking couple.

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