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The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones

The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones, by Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum. Basic Books, 2015, 366 pp.

Military doctrine in the Unites States asserts that although the character of war can be affected by many factors including technology, the nature of war is enduring. Military academies and war colleges across the world often explore this relationship, yet the nature of peace is typically explored less thoroughly. With The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones, Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum have developed a thoughtful argument that emerging technologies have fundamentally changed the nature of peace in the twenty-first century. The authors describe the threat posed as “technologies of mass empowerment” (p. 22), followed by the implications of these technologies on society. Finally, they offer some specific recommendations for navigating this change. In sum, their vision of the nature of peace in the future is both compelling and frightening.

The authors begin with a description of three mass-enabling technologies: networked computers, modern biotechnology, and robotics. Individually, each of these technologies distributes vulnerability on a massive scale, but together these advances possess explosive potential when exploited by creative minds. While some of the hypothetical examples these authors describe may seem far-fetched, the result is summed up in the following prescient statement: “it is possible for an individual to have his own personal weapons-of-mass-destruction program” (p. 2). The authors acknowledge that only some of this technology is new (bioweapons have been around for millennia). However, the rapid pace of technological advances such as DNA modification can quickly overcome the ability of modern nation-states to provide security for their citizens. This will alter the relationship between society, the individual, and the government, as well as the role that force plays in those relationships. In short, there is no denying that these relationships are changing.

Blum and Witte describe the “hostile symbiosis between liberty, peace and security” using a trinity in peace that resembles Carl von Clausewitz’ iconic trinity of forces in war. Their most provocative argument opposes the traditional dilemmas that pit liberty and privacy against security. These authors show that in some cases, security is a prerequisite and essential supporter of liberty and privacy. While such cases have been rare in history, the authors show how we may soon be forced to re-examine the values that some of our most cherished principles really protect. For instance, Blum and Witte argue compellingly for empowering law enforcement to gather the type of metadata that has been so controversial in Congress since the revelation of the National Security Agency’s data-gathering programs. In this case, as in gun control, identity theft, and others, they argue that “the very idea of privacy is eroding” (p. 126).

History certainly shows that no technological or tactical innovation can endure forever against a cunning and adaptive foe. Blum and Witte provide several examples of how nation-states, governments, and individuals can adapt and endure despite the ubiquitous threats of the modern era. Instead of perpetual fear and mistrust of our own and neighboring governments, the fear of fellow citizens may create more tolerance for powerful police capacities. The fear of big brother may gradually be replaced by a greater fear of little brother. Thus, technologies may enable super-empowered states in much the same way they enable super-empowered individuals. For instance, the authors show how transregional terrorist threats may drive levels of international cooperation to new heights. Although the authors place undue faith in international law and norms in their analysis of international cooperation, they clearly show how mutual vulnerability may force nations to reconsider traditional claims of sovereignty and create space for shared responsibilities. While the concept of super-empowered states may be troubling, Blum and Witte clearly show that the relative balance of power between individuals and the state is shifting dramatically toward the individual.

In the end, the impact of technology on the nature of peace is a subject that should be of interest to military strategists equal in importance to the nature of war. Witte and Blum provide a compelling description of the future of peace, along with provocative questions and practical solutions to help navigate this new reality. This is a must read for students and practitioners of national security alike.

Lt Col Cameron Pringle, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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