The era of Mutually Assured Disruption

The five forces that are 'liquidising' global security

As the liberal order frays and geopolitical competition returns, it is natural that people turn to Henry Kissinger. No one has a more finely-grained understanding of power politics, and his treatise on world order sits on the bedside tables of many global leaders (even if few have actually read it).

But Kissinger’s ideas of order represent an impossible aspiration in the world of ISIS and fake news. They are designed for a slower world of powerful states, rather than our age of permanent uncertainty, rapid change, and disruption.

Many traditional concepts – even well-tested ones – have been overtaken by events. Deterrence, alliances, even diplomacy, seem out of fashion; old certainties are gone. Kissinger’s order was based on two pillars: legitimacy and balance of power. The defining moment of his worldview was the Peace of Westphalia. He laments the disappearance of the split between domestic and foreign policy. But, in spite of the return of power politics, the world is not ‘Kissingerian’ anymore.

Ironically, the person best placed to explain the new world died in early January this year: Zygmunt Bauman. Few people did more to help us make sense of the world we live in today than the Polish-British sociologist who developed the concept of liquid modernity. In Bauman’s liquid modernity, many previously solid things have become fluid – jobs, sexual orientation, relationships, places of residence. Society is no longer held together by a collective project that offers the individual a sense of cohesion and direction.

Bauman was mostly interested in the liquid modern man and the individual’s role in society. But the modern man has also given shape to a world in which security is defined by liquidity rather than order. Five forces are leading to ‘liquid security’:

  1. Distinctions between foreign and domestic policy are no longer valid. Challenges like terrorism, cyber warfare, climate change, and refugee flows have removed the distinction between the internal and external, between domestic and foreign. This also changes our ideas of legitimacy, as foreign policy is no longer a prerogative of the state but a central realm of domestic politics – one which is ripe for manipulation by outside powers.
  1. There is no longer a clear divide between war and peace. It is many years since countries last formally declared war on each other. In the physical realm, many are trying out new kinds of coercion that fall short of conventional warfare – through little green men, coastguards impinging on international waters, or proxy wars through rebel groups. This is supplemented by a perpetual conflict between countries online that spans hacking and leaking to the destruction of nuclear facilities. The era of mutually assured destruction has given way to one of mutually assured disruption.
  1. What brought the world together is tearing it apart. Connectivity – the idea that trade partners do not wage war against countries they have supply chains in – was heralded as the way to peace among nations, but it  is now being weaponised. Dispersed networks used to be a safeguard against volatility, and international links a way to ensure good relations, if not cooperation, with everyone. Today, whether it is with sanctions or migration flows, countries are like spiders caught in their own webs, constantly threatened by enemies that are cutting away at the ends.
  1. The time of firm security alliances is over. NATO has been declared obsolete by the American president, a statement that follows years of debates about the institution’s usefulness. The European Union is losing a member and is weakened by internal disputes. In the age of Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, alliances will need to be built in different ways around domestic politics on every single issue rather than being taken for granted because of treaties and institutions. But, unlike the coalitions of the willing we have already seen in the past, they will rely much less on values and far more on narrow and short-term interests.
  1. The world is no longer mainly defined by great power balances. A teenager in her bedroom can bring down companies and plunge societies into chaos by hacking into their systems. Whistleblowers and leaks pose disproportionate risks. A terrorist group can draw a state into open-ended wars. A tech company can determine what people see and thus what they believe. A reality TV star can entice the electorate and end up commanding the most powerful armed forces in the world. Players that we do not know yet may soon be deciding the fate of nations.

In Kissinger’s old framework, legitimacy was defined by great powers. Today’s legitimacy stems from deliberation and national politics, so we need to find ways of knitting alliances together by framing issues in ways that appeal to citizens in this new environment.

The ideal of international order has become an impossible aspiration. But flexibility, speed, and resilience will not be enough to live in a disorderly world without risking Armageddon. As frightening as Mutually Assured Destruction was during the cold war, it helped to take a particularly deadly option off the table. In today’s world, we need to develop norms around the internet, economic warfare, and new technologies – if not to achieve order, then at least to create some boundaries to chaos that can save the world from implosion.

For the EU specifically, new mechanisms of collaboration and alliances are needed. In this dangerous world 500 million Europeans can no longer rely for their security on 300 million Americans. They will need both to invest in their security – and to transform their thinking. The EU needs to break out of the compartmentalised frameworks of the past, in which criminal, terrorist, economic, and military threats are viewed as separate challenges to be dealt with by separate and often competing agencies, each drawing on separate expertise.

The rationale for EU action must be grounded in the diverse domestic politics of its key member states rather than in the complex decision-making machinery in Brussels. EU institutions must find ways of empowering and bolstering member states and their ministers and governments. And new, more flexible arrangements are necessary to engage with post-Brexit Britain, with Turkey, Norway, and other neighbours. To make its citizens feel more in control in an era of uncertainty, the EU needs to liquefy rather than seeking impossible ideals of order. To hold this delicate balance will be the task of today’s statesmen and stateswomen. 

If security has become liquid, Europe’s response must become more fluid as well. Traditional military analysis must be supplemented with an understanding of the domestic context of policing, anti-corruption efforts, intelligence, cyber defence, and sanctions. It must have a deep wealth of regional expertise, but have a wide enough lens to incorporate the newer dangers of connectivity and new technologies. It must understand the business models of the private sector actors that control the connections of the global economy. This is the guiding principle of ECFR’s New European Security Initiative. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.