Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Towards An Unruly World: Ideas Of Interest (Day 1 -- International Security Forum)

Related Posts:
Live-blogging The ISF
BBC Monitoring

The ISF Conference began yesterday at the International Conference Centre in Geneva. It is a magnificent facility, with 640 attendees, and the speaker's list looks very interesting but the rules of the conference are going to cramp my style.

The whole ISF is being held under the Chatham House Rule and this prohibits me from citing who said what. That said, I can report some of the ideas to emerge from the conference.

Some of these ideas were unsurprising but some of them either had surprising twists or were brand new ideas entirely. I will start with the unsurprising ones first:

The Parade of Horribles. Climate change, war, terrorism, energy, food and water shortages, the demographic time bomb, WMDs, cyberwar, economic collapse... Lawyers call a lengthy string of terrible things like this the "Parade of Horribles". It is a rhetorical device designed to engage attention and compel action and it was used in much the same way here. What was interesting was the degree of consistency -- the same list of threats came up in multiple different contexts.

China and India. There seemed to be a good bit of concern and a certain sense of inevitability that China and India would emerge as future powerhouses. Nothing new here, of course, but the degree of certainty about this shift in power was noticeable. Certainly I heard more of this type of talk here in 24 hours than you do in the States over the course of several months. In addition, it was rarely just "China" and mostly "China and India".

Solutions. There was also a remarkable consensus about solutions: Reinforce international institutions (including the UN Security Council and regional initiatives); establish the "right amount" of regulation for markets; and increased coordination between defense, diplomacy and development agencies/organizations.

Some of the surprises:

Cyberwar/crime. There was far more talk concerning this issue than I thought there would be. If you take a look at the panels in detail, you can see that cyber takes up quite a bit of real estate. Interestingly, there is not a single panel devoted exclusively to terrorism (though it permeates the discussions here) but there are several devoted exclusively to cybersecurity issues. At one point there was even talk of Alternate Reality Games!

Emphasis on intelligence analysis tools and methods. No one called it that, of course. No, they used code words such as "security foresight" but they couldn't fool me -- they were talking about intelligence. Collection of information did not seem to be an issue; figuring out what the info we have actually means did.

"Resiliency". I think I witnessed the birth of a buzzword. The word "resiliency" kept coming up. The need to build resilient societies, have resilient systems. I think that the use here is similar to the way environmentalists use the word "sustainable" and the way network theorists use the word "robust". There was a sense that the runaway process of globalization had sacrificed too much of the world's resiliency for the sake of efficiency and that at least part of the current set of problems was due to this imbalance (Note: John Robb has been talking about the "resilient community" for quite some time but it was interesting to see the same term crop up here).

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