Power, Control and Extortion: these

Power, Control and Extortion: these are good times to be a terrorist As reported by Philip Stephens in the Financial Times of Friday, July 13, David Miliband, the new Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom is much impressed with the following statement by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US National Security Adviser under President Jimmy Carter: For most of human history, the power to control has been greater than the power to destroy; now he power to destroy is greater than the power to control.

The semi-quote above is from Brzezinski’s book, Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower, published by Basic Books in 2007 (ISBN: 0465002528) “The combined impact of global political awakening and modern technology contributes to the acceleration of political history. What once took centuries now takes a decade; what took a decade now happens in a single year.” This global awakening is “historically anti-imperial, politically anti-Western, and emotionally increasingly anti-American.”

Brzezinski illustrates the shift in dominance between the power to control and the power to destroy y contrasting the current state of affairs with that of British India in the 19th century; then the British ruled India with only four thousand civil servants and officers; “it took less effort to govern a million people than to kill a million people.” As the impotence of the US in Iraq illustrates, the opposite is true today “and the means of destruction are becoming more accessible to more actors, both states and political movements.”

Not only has the power of the state to control become less than its power to destroy, the power to destroy has been privatized, dispersed and democratised to an astonishing extent. Anyone with high-school-level command of chemistry and a mobile phone can put together a remotely controlled explosive device of enormous destructive power using ingredients that can be bought off the shelf in everyday shopping centres. If you are a suicidal maniac as well as a mass murderer, you don’t even need a mobile phone. Dirty bombs and chemical or biological weapons are somewhat more demanding as regards technology and organisational ability, but are also increasingly within reach of rather small groups of dedicated and reasonably well-financed private groups, such as the terror-franchising outfit Al Queda.

One implication of the privatisation and dispersion of the power of mass destruction is that the scope for political, ideological and religious extortion (as well as for old-fashioned financial extortion) has increased massively. Private groups will be able to extort political, ideological and religious concessions from state actors, as well as from other, more scrupulous, private actors.

I don’t yet foresee the day that, threatened with the destruction of London, by Al Queda, the Taleban or some North African Salafist outfit, the British government will order all British men to grow beards and all British women to wear burquas (or indeed all British women to grow beards as well), but who knows? Following the threats and attempted intimidation by the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs of Pakistan, Sher Afgan Khan Niazi, assorted high-level Iranian clerics, Al Queda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri and many other odious personages and bodies in response to Salman Rushdie’s Knighthood, I don’t anticipate a peerage for Rushdie any time soon, even if he were to write half a dozen more Nobel-calibre novels.

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Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

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