Thursday, February 23, 2012

We Need a Treaty of Westfailia

Member states of the United Nations are supposed to be the only really recognized actors in the world. But technology is enabling sub- and trans-national entities to act as sovereign states with their own foreign policies. The online Anonymous collective is groping its way forward to being an actor on the world stage.

This fits in with the broader development of private warfare which is the subject of the first volume of collected essays from The Dignified Rant, with a retrospective commentary, that I have published and offer for sale on Amazon in Kindle format. The Dignified Rant on Private Warfare is available for 99 cents. This and future titles will be available through the tab at the top of the blog called "Buy the Dignified Rant."

Anonymous has emerged as a cyber-state that wages war for its own goals:

It's been denounced by NATO, targeted by the FBI, and subjected to dozens of frenzied editorials. Targets as varied as Bank of America, Sony, the Justice Department, and the government of Egypt have felt its wrath. Its trademark symbols have appeared everywhere from the streets of Cairo to Occupy Wall Street to the Polish parliament. For a group that sprang organically from an Internet forum normally devoted to anime cartoons and cat videos, the amorphous hacker/prankster collective known as "Anonymous" has become a surprisingly potent actor in global politics. But to understand the forces that make the group tick, let's look back to a time before SOPA and the Arab Spring and consider the strange story of one "Agent Pubeit."

So far, missions are coalitions of the anonymous willing:

In operations, as in communications, Anonymous follows a simple model: Anyone can propose anything. The measure of success is simply whether other Anons join in. Want to hack Muammar al-Qaddafi's websites? Take down MasterCard? Wipe out a child-porn haven? Put out the word and start doing it. The result has been a dazzling series of "ops" against everyone from the government of Sweden to right-wing billionaires David and Charles Koch to the strategic consulting firm Stratfor.

Heck, I got an email or two from the Anonymous collective tweaking Stratfor with messages purporting to be from the company but obviously not from the company. But the company didn't have my credit card information so it was more interesting (to me) than annoying or dangerous (again, to me).

The group has grown from talking to pranks to acts that try to affect the physical world from the cyber-world. Right now, the group is oriented by a common view of the world (at least in some respects) but lacks leadership that focuses the group. Will that last?

Will someone assert control and will others follow? Will a traditional state subvert the group for its own purposes? Could Anonymous fragment as members continue to slide away from the prank and talk side of the spectrum of action more toward direct actions against the physical world? Is the membership just unsuited to following orders or becoming a real actor in foreign affairs rather than a factor that impacts foreign affairs like extreme weather that can hit a place and then dissipate?

And as governments react to being attacked by going after the Anonymous members, what do we do? Some are kids? But are they pranksters, criminals, spies, or unlawful combatants? What does one country do when another country decides that the first country's Anonymous hacker who stole secret documents are spies and snatch them while they are on spring break in the Bahamas? Or just kill them with a poison-tipped umbrella?

But don't count on the Westphalian international community's professional guild--the United Nations--to productively address this issue. They're just unhappy that their is a demand for a service that nation-states don't provide. Security isn't security if the wrong people provide it, apparently:

A United Nations expert panel today warned of an alarming resurgence of the use of mercenaries in armed conflict, and called for regulating private military and security companies, whose activities raise numerous human rights challenges.

“Mercenaries pose a threat not only to security, but also to human rights and potentially to the right of peoples to self-determination,” said Faiza Patel, who currently heads the Working Group on the use of mercenaries. “It is crucial that States cooperate to eliminate this phenomenon.” ...

In addition to mercenaries, the “ever-expanding” activities of private military and security companies continue to raise a number of challenges, Ms. Patel said.

“Providing security to its people is a fundamental responsibility of the State and outsourcing security to private military and security companies creates risks for human rights, hence the need to regulate their activities.”

She noted that these companies continue to undertake a growing range of activities in an increasing number of countries from drug-eradication programmes in Colombia to post-conflict reconstruction.

“And it is not just governments who take advantage of their services, but also NGOs [non-governmental organizations], private companies and the United Nations,” she added.

I don't know, but I think a majority of UN member states pose threats to security, human rights, and the right of peoples to self-determination. UN troops, too, have been involved in some pretty ugly human rights violation cases, after all. Mercenaries are a tool that can do good or be abused, as any tool that can coerce people can be abused regardless of who wields it.

But the UN admits that it isn't providing enough UN-level collective security to meet demand. And it admits that member states aren't providing it. Heck, even the UN uses private military service companies. So in the end, the UN just wants to regulate it:

For the Working Group, “the potential impact of the widespread activities of private military and security companies on human rights means that they cannot be allowed to continue to operate without adequate regulation and mechanisms to ensure accountability.”

I'm sure they mean UN regulation. This report simply sounds like a threat to ban private military companies as the stick to get them to accept UN regulation and oversight. But if the UN can't provide collective security at the nation level because countries disagree about who should be the target of collective security action, who thinks the UN could enforce mercenary regulations without member nations doing the job? And how would authorization to enforce UN rules be any easier than collective security decisions when some member states will defend "their" mercenary companies from UN action?

Well, they've done a bang up job with what they are responsible for already. I'm sure this new UN job will work out just swell.

Mercenaries are simply responding to demand. If they are to be regulated, it would be better handled at the national level where a nation can enforce the rules and the nations can be held accountable by others for failing to control their own mercenary companies. Privatized military power is a fact of life.

Anonymous is a forming post-Westphalian entity that represents one type of a class of private warfare actors who increasingly challenge the nation-state that formally has a monopoly on military power. We need to come to grips with this trend to develop new rules of the road--a Treaty of Westfailia, so to speak.

Private warfare is the subject of the first volume of collected essays from The Dignified Rant, with a retrospective commentary, that I want to put together and offer for sale. The Dignified Rant on Private Warfare is available for the low, low price of 99 cents. Wow! And if you print it out on absorbent paper, it can function as a kind of ShamWow!, so it's really a two-fer.

I have a long list of topics that I want to mine The Dignified Rant for future volumes. If you have suggestions, email me at You probably have ideas that I haven't thought of.