Departing Westphalia II: A Review of Three Books

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Robert Kaplan [the author of The Coming Anarchy] went to West Africa and saw the future of the world. I said ‘No, it’s West Africa.’”

Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett [the author of The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century], interview with BBC radio, 12/16/2004

Nigeria is located on the southern coast of West Africa and became independent  in October 1960.  Nigeria is a country of 170 million people in an area of 357,000 square miles, about the size of California, Nevada, and Arizona.  The most populous country in Africa, it accounts for over half of West Africa's population.  According to the CIA World Fact Book, Nigeria ranks as the 31st largest economy in the world, with an estimated GDP of $387.8 billion (2010).  The economy is based almost exclusively on oil production, which is concentrated in the Niger River delta.  Nigeria is the world's 11th largest oil producer (2.46 million barrels per day, 2010) and the world's 9th largest oil exporter (2.10 million barrels per day, 2009).  According to the U.S. Department of State, Nigeria is home to over 250 ethnic groups, of which the Hausa-Fulani, Igbo, Kanuri, and Yoruba are the largest.  The principal religions include Islam, Christianity, and indigenous African. The State Department summary benignly states, "The variety of customs, languages, and traditions among Nigeria's 250 ethnic groups gives the country a rich diversity."  The reality, as stated in the CIA summary, is far more acute: "Oil-rich Nigeria has been hobbled by political instability, corruption, inadequate infrastructure, and poor macroeconomic management."  In the 2011 edition of its Prosperity Index™, the Legatum Institute ranked Nigeria as 104th out of 110 countries.  The country brief for Nigeria includes the following bleak assessments:
  1. “National security in Nigeria is extremely low, while risks to personal safety are very high;
  2. “The Nigerian government is inefficient and undemocratic;
  3. “Nigeria’s economy is not strong, and citizens’ access to food and shelter is far from adequate;
  4. “Nigerians are dissatisfied with the low levels of individual freedom afforded to them.”
Given this dreary assessment, how is Nigeria emblematic of the post-Westphalian era?
Warfare, After Westphalia

In Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization, John Robb presents a harrowing future.

To Robb, an increasingly connected world is marred by two related hazards – growing complexity and the incentive for actors to capitalize on disruptions to such a system.  Robb recognizes communities and economies may be thriving on technologically-enhanced communications and transportation, but separatists and saboteurs are proving adept at adapting otherwise benign innovations for malign purposes. In the realm of warfare, this portends a future of enraged gangs and individuals undeterred by the modern state’s military might and more than capable of wreaking unprecedented destruction.

While this future is hardly new, Robb has presciently detected two related phenomena.

First, belligerents can now succeed via systems disruption, not necessarily system destruction.

In the modern era’s last major conventional war, the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the United States triumphed by systematically targeting Iraq’s command and control systems; without it, Iraqi ground forces were no match for superior American armor.  In the first major war of the 21st century, those of America’s campaigns against Al Qaeda and Afghan and Iraqi irregulars, insurgent forces demonstrated the efficacy of systems disruption.

Given the breadth and ambition of the nation-building objectives, guerrillas readily understood deadly strikes at key nodes of newly emergent, but brittle, political and social networks would have enormous effects.  In Iraq, bombing the United Nations complex in early 2003 ensured the United States would operate without significant multilateral support.  Bombing the Samarra mosque in early 2006 ensured the delicate Sunni-Shia sectarian balance would collapse and would unleash a bloody civil war.  Wherever the American military sought to introduce stability, insurgents introduced instability.

Second, Robb’s “guerrilla entrepreneurs” can share the latest in systems disruption innovations -- either tactical or hardware -- via “open source warfare.”  

Akin to open source software, disparate groups and individuals can collaborate online to discuss and adapt the latest advances in systems disruption.  The prime example is the proliferation of improvised explosive device (IED) knowledge.  Improvised explosive devices are simply just that - munitions cobbled together from available materials.  IEDs became ubiquitous because the raw materials were abundant and cheap.  Their lethality became more notorious.

According to, an independent website that tracks casualties in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the number of IED-related fatalities comprised 51 percent of all fatalities in 2011.  (As American journalist Mark Thompson scathingly wrote, “their very simplicity is an erect middle finger to U.S. military might and technological prowess.”)

To counter them, the United States committed approximately $13 billion between FY2007 and FY2010 to fund its Joint IED Defeat Organization within the Department of Defense.  In 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had to intervene personally to ensure the department procured more than 16,000 mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles at a cost of approximately $22.7 billion.   As Robb clinically notes, the insurgents’ return on investment easily dwarfs that of the American military’s.

Lastly, Robb warns the reader that global guerrillas are not interested in overthrowing the state -- they just want to hollow it out.  Contemporary insurgents are simply seeking to displace state sovereignty with their own authority and the opportunity to reconfigure the existing social and economic relationships according to their design. The corrupt and cumbersome machinery of the state is what invites global guerrillas to move against it in the first place, so why replicate it?

Especially a dysfunctional state like Nigeria.

Since 1960, Nigeria has been ruled by the military for more than half its existence.  Nigeria experienced a bloody civil war from 1967 to 1970 and has remained susceptible to ethnic and religious conflict.  Dissatisfaction with current civilian rule has manifested in unrest in the oil-producing Niger Delta region and turbulence among Nigerian Muslims.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) objects to the environmental degradation and underdevelopment of the Niger Delta region and the lack of benefits the community has received from its extensive oil resources and is one of the largest militant groups operating.  MEND has sought a greater proportion of the oil revenues and the withdrawal of government troops from the area. In Brave New War, Robb noted the group’s growing sophistication, citing swarming-based maneuvers, improved firepower and combat training, and systematic targeting of oil production, principally because of access to insurgent expertise via open source warfare.  On his Global Guerrillas blog, Robb profiled MEND’s leader, Mr. Henry Okah, describing him as “one of the most important people alive today, a brilliant innovator in warfare… the perfect guerrilla entrepreneur.”

Islamic extremist terrorism has come to Nigeria in the form of Boko Haram. The group emerged in the early 2000s under the leadership of local religious leader Mohammed Yusuf and sought to establish Nigeria as an Islamic state.  In 2009, Nigerian governmental forces cracked down  and Yusuf died while in police custody.  Yusuf’s death was a setback but Boko Haram returned with a vengeance less than two years later.

In 2011, the group launched a wide-ranging bombing campaign that include the use of vehicle-borne IEDs and (eerily evocative of Iraq), an attack on a United Nations compound.  In January 2012, the group launched a wave of attacks over three days resulting in 211 deaths.  According to the private intelligence firm STRATFOR, the attacks indicated ready access to explosive materials, sufficient technical bomb-making expertise, and a sizable pool of recruits.  Moreover, the readiness to attack foreign targets raised concerns Boko Haram might become a Nigerian auxiliary to Al Qaeda.

Boko Haram recovered by practicing systems disruption tactics and innovations spread via open source warfare by Robb’s “guerrilla entrepreneurs.”

Governance, After Westphalia

In How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance, Parag Khanna depicts a future of daunting complexity but one also of potential progress.  

To Khanna, the cacophony of today’s globalized world mirrors that of the Middle Ages.  Khanna recognizes the latter conjures up images of religious wars, feudalism, pestilence, and illiterate peasants, but he reminds the reader the period witnessed tremendous East-West commercial expansion and, more importantly, was a precursor to the “the rediscovery of classical wisdom.”  

To achieve an equivalent transformation, Khanna warns a recourse to tradition or ideology would be counterproductive.  Instead, he contends contemporary interconnectedness offers a rare opportunity for experimentation -- even though globalization has expanded the number of actors, technology allows new actors to quickly organize and tap new resources and ideas if experiments should fail.  In the same fashion as Robb’s global guerrillas swapping tactics and techniques, Khanna envisions “new diplomats”, both public and private, coming together in an era of “mega-diplomacy” to produce local solutions to global governance challenges.

Khanna catalogues an abundance of examples.  Charitable non-governmental organizations publishing metrics, data, and lessons learned online to facilitate the targeting of resources and scaling up of successful undertakings.  Private military corporations protecting envoys, foreign aid providers, critical infrastructure investments, and pacifying obscure locales.  Multinational corporations and foreign investors modeling progressive local administration that compensates for an absentee (or worse, abusive) national government.

Like that of Nigeria’s notorious kleptocracy.

Royal Dutch Shell has been working in Nigeria since 1936 and an association with Nigeria’s numerous dictatorships has been unavoidable.  When the dispossessed of the Niger Delta rebelled in the mid-1990s, Shell was not exempt and had to leave the country.  When Shell returned to Nigeria, its “CEO-statesman” sought to become a responsible corporate steward and persuaded the government to spend more than 10 percent of its oil revenues on the communities in oil-producing regions.  Shell additionally supported Nigeria’s participation in the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global multi-stakeholder effort to improve transparency and accountability in extractive industries.  Separately, Khanna recognizes some Western security specialists are concerned about China’s growing involvement in Africa, but he argues its arrival should be welcomed.  Unlike earlier European or American ventures, Chinese companies are not simply paying host governments for extracted resources, but also engaging in barter agreements, providing much-needed infrastructure development for local communities.

Shell and China may be concluding deals with odious or derelict regimes, but their presence is accomplishing more in local governance and development than international opprobrium or sanctions ever could have.

Commerce, After Westphalia

In Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy, Robert Neuwirth pulls the veil back on a future built on sweat equity.

Neuwirth peruses the millions of kiosks dotting the back streets of underdeveloped countries around the world and discovers System D, a massive global economy virtually ignored by establishment economists.  As introduced by Neuwirth, System D is short for “l’economie de la débrouillardise,” which is French slang for “the ingenuity economy, … the do-it-yourself economy.”  The French describe individuals who are self-motivated and resourceful as “débrouillards” and their former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean have embraced the moniker.

Like Khanna, Neuwirth observes the rediscovery of classical wisdom, albeit that of Adam Smith, the founder of modern capitalism.  Neuwirth describes how self-starting capitalists are hustling with an intensity that would make Smith proud -- selling, buying, trading, importing, exporting, and/or copying virtually any and every product and service under the sun.  The result has been an estimated valuation approximating $10 trillion, according to the research of Austrian economist Friedrich Schneider.  

Moreover, these men and women are saving.  Although débrouillards operate on the periphery of the modern global economy, they have continued laboring right through the the financial collapse in 2008 and have been a critical source of capital and growth as the world’s major economic powers have stagnated.  

Despite this size, System D is rarely acknowledged, given its alleged “informality.”  As Neuwirth points out, it is not so much an informal economy as it is an under-documented economy.  Débrouillards would join the taxed and regulated economy if the government didn’t squander revenues or enact regulations favoring market incumbents, if the banks didn’t arbitrarily restrict credit, if every transaction didn’t require a bribe.  

Then again, System D is more than just adaptation to economic realities; as Neuwirth respectfully observes, “System D is the economy of aspiration.”  How else to describe the enterprise of individuals living in the “the urban nadir, the vilest, most squalid and criminal place on the planet.”

Again, like Nigeria.

The West African nation figures prominently in System D.  To Neuwirth, Lagos, Nigeria is the world’s first city “to be designed... by System D.”  Eighty percent of the working people in Lagos labor in System D and, System D’s contribution nationwide is estimated at 70 percent of Nigeria’s GDP.  The expanse of African garbage dumps may make the continent’s economic challenges seem insurmountable, but débrouillards labor for hours in them knowing the rising price of commodities increases the premium for recycling.  The chaos of African urban thoroughfares may appear the epitome of futility, but self-starters can easily provide taxi services (i.e. skip licenses, licensing, registration) by simply hiring out their Chinese-made motorcycles.  African water services are nonexistent so local firms produce and independent distributors (e.g. roadside vendors) sell half-liter plastic bags of water.  At two cents each, they’re considered expensive, but it is still the cheapest way for Nigerians to get clean drinking water.  More notably, these débrouillards are easily earning a sizable multiple of the prevailing minimum wage.

System D delivers economic development -- “hidden in plain sight” simply because Westerners expect entrepreneurs to file for incorporation, observe regulations, and possess credentials.  System D may indeed be “unstructured, unofficial, and, to many, unfathomable,” but its ability to motivate and reward the labor and determination of new entrants to the global economy is far superior to that of multilateral aid packages and sovereign debt restructurings.

After Westphalia We Will All Be Nigerian

The above headline is, of course, hyperbole.  The country of Nigeria does not epitomize the future.

But the aspirations, exertions, and resourcefulness of Nigerians do.

The futures drawn by Robb, Khanna, and Neuwirth share a common thread in that each testifies to the capacity for individuals to define their own fate, even amidst the failure that is the Nigerian state.

In the realms of warfare, governance, and commerce, it is these trailblazers ceaselessly improvising solutions to everyday challenges who are ushering in the future.

Globalization has challenged the concept of Westphalian sovereignty and the momentum will continue to ebb and flow between states and the empowered individuals and communities emergent across the globe.  

States are extremely reluctant to relinquish sovereignty and they have demonstrated the capacity to adapt.  (Witness America’s forging of its own counter-network to Robb’s global guerrillas -- the Joint Special Operations Command, a veritable “industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.”)

Nonetheless, Khanna captured the paradox of globalization best by explaining how oversight of global affairs has long passed from being the sole province of sovereign states.  The next phase in Westphalian governance may be as Khanna predicts -- a “hybrid sovereign state” -- where the actual government is not necessarily the most influential actor in its own territory and where corporations and non-governmental organizations perform when governments do not.

Kaplan undoubtedly witnessed firsthand unprecedented savagery and justifiably feared for the future.  But the impulse to destroy has not superseded the impulse to build a future.  Barnett is not completely dismissive as he is rather bullish about Africa’s prospects and how its future may constitute the culmination of globalization’s potential.

To close, again with another of Khanna’s exceptional insights, in the final analysis, resolution of global matters will be elusive without the improvisation and initiative at the local level by empowered individuals.

The author wrote the first Departing Westphalia in April 1997.

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