On Point: Nexus and Eve of Destruction: Lessons in Change

by Austin Bay
December 9, 2008

History changes -- historians make sure it does. Historians re-evaluatethe past in the light of new events. That's the past reinterpreted, or historyrenewed. Strategists --and the best are well-grounded in history -- attempt toleverage history and an estimate of current conditions to speculate on "pendingchanges." In other words, the future.

Two books published this year admirably reflect history renewed andhistory pending -- Jonathan Reed Winkler's "Nexus: Strategic Communication andAmerican Security in WWI" (Harvard) and Thomas M. Nichols' "Eve of Destruction:The Coming Age of Preventive War" (University of Pennsylvania Press).

Put both books on Barack Obama's Christmas reading lists -- put them inthe stocking marked "Strategic Guidance Regarding Change."

Winkler's book provides a lesson in the evolutionary nature oftechnological change. Winkler explores the first global Internet -- theinternational telegraph cable system that began shrinking Planet Earth at theend of the 19th century.

Winkler illustrates that the "new" is rarely a radical break with thepast. Undersea cables broke the great silence of strategic distance,establishing the first near-instantaneous global communications network. Thehackers on this Internet literally hacked cables.

As the 20th century dawned, Britain emerged as the global informationpower. "The world's cable industry was almost entirely in British hands,"Winkler writes. Britain had the cable-laying ships and controlled production ofgutta-percha, the "latex wrap" for insulating long-distance cable. Britain had alead in wireless radio -- the next-wave global link. Moreover, Britain hadencouraged "countries to land their cables in Britain and overseas colonies ...ensuring ... their communications came under British control in wartime."

When World War I erupted, the British "hacked" German cables andintercepted both cable and wireless traffic. This produced an intelligence edgeand gave Britain imposing economic and political advantages. U.S. internationaltraders remained at the mercy of the British cable and wireless companies -- andgot a harsh lesson in "the information economy." British dominance distantlyechoes current U.S. Internet dominance.

Tom Nichols teaches at the U.S. Naval War College. "Eve of Destruction"is not a Beltway clerk's wonk tome about how fine the world would be if peoplewith multi-syllabic vocabularies and the right friends were running it. This isa warfighter's book written by someone prepared to deal with 9-11, Mumbai andthe next terrorist horror.

Nichols argues the "previous pillars" of order -- tradition,international law, "concrete deterrence" -- can "no longer promise" protection.The Westphalian idea of "absolute" state sovereignty is over (think Kosovo), andinstitutions "founded upon it" (e.g., the United Nations) are "in transition."Al-Qaida-type terrorists nix the "logic" of Cold War-type deterrence, andterrorist weapons of mass destruction make the risk of a misjudgment too great.These concerns have furrowed brows for the better part of two decades, butNichols' focus on the "burden of action" and consequences of inaction frame thediscussion -- a "grimness" the author acknowledges.

Nichols sees three choices: First, "continue to pretend the status quo isviable ..." (denial) or, second, great powers will "grant to each other theexceptional right to use violence as they will" ("global jungle" choice). Optiontwo produces a system where small nations face "a system based on coercionrather than comity" (think Russia and Georgia). Nichols' tentative third choiceis reforming international institutions, beginning with the United Nations. Hefavors a "Community of Democracies" (something like John McCain advocated) butconsiders other reforms. For example, membership in the General Assembly"derives" from simple existence, but Security Council membership is "a privilegeearned by a state's behavior, both internal and external."

Will his reforms foster comity? I'm not so sure, but Nichols makes thecase the age of preventive war has already begun. "We don't have to like thatfact," he writes, "but we do have to deal with it."

Nichols' "burden of action" now falls on Barack Obama.

Read Austin Bay's Latest Book

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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