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The 16th Book: Brave New War

by C. Ross Jam on September 10, 2008

Brave New War Cover.jpg John Robb’s Brave New War was another member of the 4th of July reading binge. BNW is an exploration of how relatively small, decentralized, non-state actors can radically disrupt nation states.

BNW argues that globalization has put Western, and Westernizing, nation states in tightly coupled configurations, exposing key leverage points to attack. Moreover, the cost/benefit ratio of attacks is extremely favorable to the small actors. An example might be a small terrorist group attacking large stretches of mostly unmonitored oil pipelines. Such easy attacks, thanks to interlocking markets, can lead to billions of dollars of impact, and can destabilize a nation state’s economy. Globalization has amplified asymmetric warfare.

Robb makes an analogy with open source software in that a wide range of strategies and tactics may be employed by these groups, the elements of said approaches being openly visible to peers. This can lead to rapid, replication, adoption, and adaptation of winning strategies. Also, technology advances across a wide range of fields, similar to enabled by computing, is further empowering these groups well past their historic means.

Released in April of 2007, it feels like BNW has been around much longer, probably because I’ve been reading Robb’s Global Guerillas weblog, where many of BNW’s ideas were test driven, since long before the book came out. Even in the short 18 months since publication, bits of confirming evidence have been seen in the real world.

In general, I’m quite sympathetic to Robb’s take on the world, but didn’t swallow it whole hog. For example, a key element of his response to these conditions is the development of platforms, “a collection of services and capabilities that are common to a wide variety of activities aggregated in a way that makes them exceedingly easy to access.” But platforms are tricky to design, trickier to deploy, and trickiest to build a healthy ecosystem around. There’s also an insistence on these being open platforms, which I don’t think are mandatory for large, scale success, c.f. Microsoft and Apple.

All in all though, I can recommend Brave New War, it’s well worth the time spent.

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