Annihilation from Within, by Ikle, Fred Charles
- ISBN: 9780231139533 | 0231139535
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 1/1/2010
View in pdf format
WHAT THIS BOOK IS ABOUTThe story line of this book is at once forward-looking and historical. The prospect ahead features revolutionary new threats to national security and could end in demolition of the existing world order. Looking backward, the story traces this coming upheaval to historic forces that have been centuries in the making. Today's menaces -- jihadist terrorism, rogue nations producing nuclear bombs -- may be viewed as mere symptoms of these forces, as the rustling wind that foretells the gathering storm. Few military strategists and political experts have grasped the dimensions of the storm awaiting us. Fewer still are mindful of its historic evolution.
The emerging crisis is the outgrowth of technological progress. It reflects the dark side of progress. Globalization guarantees the ceaseless spread of new technologies, whether beneficial or destructive. The nuclear age offers the clearest lesson of this problem. Until the end of the Cold War, it appeared that we were somehow managing the nuclear threat. Over a span of half a century, the political and military leaders of the nuclear powers were able to pursue strategies that averted the use of nuclear weapons. Their long-run success in maintaining the regime of "non-use" is one of the greatest achievements in the history of military strategy.
Alas, the world is now different. After our stressful journey through the Cold War -- a journey with a happy ending -- we now face a ghastly new predicament. One nation after another is starting up nuclear programs, allegedly for peaceful purposes, but often and obviously as a stratagem for getting to an arsenal of nuclear weapons. And the proliferation problem does not end there. A cascade of frightening news reports tells us that the control of national governments over nuclear materials and bombs is far from secure. The inescapable subtext of these reports is that, all too soon, we must expect these weapons to be acquired by doomsday cults, anarchists, and terrorist gangs.
Other technologies, not yet on the radar screens of the world's media, will be even more resistant to political control. It is well known that immensely beneficial advances in the life sciences can be misused to develop biological weapons. But the most revolutionary impact of the life sciences might be the most difficult to control: the conquest of the human mind by brain science. A vast enhancement in intelligent decision-making might be just decades away. Some powerful nations have already built elaborate command and decision centers that exploit the capabilities of the latest computer systems. As day follows night, these projects will gradually take advantage of the rapid advances in brain science to complement the strengths of computers with the unique capabilities of the human brain. If these projects are successful, they will achieve a superhuman intelligence able to trump the performance of first-rate human experts and the latest super-computers. Any such leap forward in intelligent decision-making would be a change comparable to the evolution from primates to Homo sapiens. The transition would pose the most fundamental challenge to all religions. It would upend human civilization. It would instantly obliterate all previous notions about relative national power. And in light of our experience with nuclear proliferation, it would be absurd to expect the United Nations to "control" this new intelligence. Today, the United States uses computerized command centers for its military leaders, while China is experimenting with computerized decision centers that can serve both the military and its political leadership. If China moved ahead of America in the race to develop superhuman intelligence systems, would the U.S. Government wait for UN approval to catch up?
Today, our policymakers and analysts are preoccupied with terrorist attacks by militant Islamists. These attacks, often by suicide bombers, have been painful and enormously costly for the victims, but they cannot defeat established democracies or indeed any nation that is not already a failed state. The fact is that contemporary Islamic terrorism does not have a strategy for victory. It is swayed by impulses animated by a fervidness for revenge and religious utopias. It is as if these jihadist terrorists -- enraged by their impotence -- seek gratification from bloodshed and self-immolation. While these murderous assaults hurt us, they also spur us to increase our military power and to strengthen the defense of our homeland. What does not kill us makes us stronger.
Yet terrorists, anarchists, and other evildoers seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and some of them are bound to succeed. Most of them will merely want to use these weapons to inflict immense damage without knowing how to achieve a lasting victory. But keep in mind that, throughout history, mankind had to suffer the depredations of leaders who can rally throngs of followers and intimidate the masses. The twentieth century offers vivid examples. Among such historic evildoers, the most relevant in this context are Lenin and Hitler. The greatest threat to the world order in this century will be the next Hitler or Lenin, a charismatic leader who combines utter ruthlessness with a brilliant strategic sense, cunning, and boundless ambition -- and who gains control over just a few weapons of mass destruction.
This new threat, still offstage, now awaits us. Any such evil but charismatic leader will be able to attack a major nation from within even if that nation possesses enormous military strength and capable police forces. If this new tyrant turns out to be strategically intelligent, he could prepare to launch a couple of mass destruction weapons against carefully chosen targets -- without training camps in another nation, without help from a foreign terrorist organization, without a military campaign across the nation's borders. He would thus offer no targets for retaliation and render useless a nation's most powerful deterrent forces. By contrast, an expanding caliphate -- the utopia that jihadists dream about -- would offer the leading democracies plenty of easy targets for retaliation.
The purpose of this new tyrant would not be to destroy landmark buildings, highjack airplanes, attack railroad stations and religious shrines. His aim would be to paralyze the national leadership and spread nationwide panic, to ensure that the center could not hold. He would be well prepared to exploit this chaos by seizing complete control of the nation's government and imposing his dictatorship. Success in any such endeavor would be a shattering event, signifying to democracies everywhere that their world, their basic institutions, their national security strategies, their citizens' everyday lives -- that all this was now up for grabs. Living comfortably on borrowed time, most democratic societies lack the will and foresight needed to defend against any such calamity.
Non-democratic governments will also be vulnerable -- indeed, more vulnerable -- to annihilation from within. In those Central Asian republics, for example, where authoritarian rulers confront large Muslim populations who want a fundamentalist Islamic state, the detonation of a single nuclear bomb in the capital would create a political vacuum. This could enable a religious leader (perhaps a cleric like Iraq's Muqtada al-Sadr) to mobilize his throngs of followers and seize control of the country.
Today's military planners have not given much thought to averting annihilation from within. The conventional wisdom about the world's future holds that it is steadily becoming more democratic and therefore more peaceful. Technological progress is said to make all countries interdependent -- to push us toward a unified world in which distance is no longer an impediment to travel and trade and, thanks to the Internet, has been erased entirely as an obstacle to communications. The appealing vision of a new "flat world" has left many commentators blind to the dark side of technological progress.
The historical passages in this book explain the origins of our new predicament. If we hope to navigate our way past the deadly threats confronting us, it will help to understand the roots and evolution of the historic forces that have unleashed them. They originated some 250 years ago in Western Europe, in a schism in mankind's culture. Science was rather suddenly freed from political and religious controls. The ascendance of Enlightenment thinking diminished the influence of religious beliefs, a development in which the Protestant Reformation also played a role. And government policies that increasingly promoted a free market served to promote, and handsomely reward, technological advances.
Since then, technological progress has brought immense improvements in the human condition. These gains seemed to outweigh all the potential applications of technology that would be destructive or harmful. But surprisingly, already at the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution, many thinkers had a foreboding of technology's dark side. And today we begin to understand the dangerous dynamic of the cultural schism.
As a result of this schism, two modes of human thought and activity split apart. One mode is animated by religious faiths, ethnic and national traditions, and societal customs. This mode remained essentially the same as it had been before the schism. It shapes the basic structure of society and nourishes the sense of patriotism and loyalty that enables nations to function. But the other mode of thinking is guided by science, which seeks to understand the workings of nature by relying on empirical verification, not on a definition of "truth" handed down through generations. Our growing knowledge of the physical universe has enabled us to transform our environment progressively and to alter the human condition. Following the initial cultural schism, the accelerating scientific and technological progress gave us the Industrial Revolution, which in turn spread progress to more and more countries and changed the face of our planet.
One might plausibly observe that this story is old hat. But what the standard narrative leaves out is the most important part of the saga, namely that the cultural schism is still widening -- and dangerously so. Technological progress and the global political order march to different drummers.
Science makes cumulative discoveries and hence can advance at an accelerating pace. It has acquired an inner dynamic of progress that is nearly self-sustaining. But the sphere of government and international affairs is marked by alternating periods of advance and decline, of gains and losses. Individual liberty expands and is suppressed again. Peace is followed by war and war by a new peace. Religious tolerance is followed by theocratic repression, to be replaced by a more secular regime. Periods of free trade are followed by protectionism and again by new efforts to spread free trade. In sum, the political, social, and religious sphere moves in a zigzag course, while science makes cumulative advances.
The two modes of human thought and activity that split apart some 250 years ago are destined to drift farther apart because disparate aspirations of the two modes aggravate the widening schism. Science and technology do not have a final goal. They pursue a continuing conquest of nature in which disproved theories are replaced by new knowledge. But political endeavors have finite goals. Marxism did not aspire to be followed by capitalism, Islam does not seek to be replaced by Christianity, America's propagation of democracy does not strive to be succeeded by autocratic governments.
This widening divergence in human culture might overwhelm the political order of the world in a way that endangers the survival of all nations. And, bear in mind, only sovereign nations can marshal troops and rally political support to defeat terrorist organizations, deter aggression, enforce UN decisions. When push comes to shove, only nations can keep some order in the world. Annihilation from within is not a temporary peril, but the end point and ultimate impact of this elemental historic force that has gained ever more strength over two centuries. Military history offers no lessons that tell nations how to cope with a continuing global dispersion of cataclysmic means for destruction. Because of the cultural split some 250 years ago, the threat of annihilation from within is now woven into the fabric of our era.
Let us admit it: mankind became entrapped in a Faustian bargain. In the famous medieval legend, Faust sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the magical powers of science (or rather the imagined powers of alchemy in those days). There is much that we can do to avert the worst disaster. But as we begin to discern the trials that lie ahead, our exuberance about unending progress is tempered by a premonition that our "bargain with the devil" might end badly.
COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Columbia University Press and copyrighted © 2006 by Fred Charle Iklé. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. For more information, please e-mail or visit the permissions page on our Web site.