Belmont Club

Nation Building by Reduction

As states fail across the world, the public safety function is increasingly being filled by private security companies. When out of work Mexican drug gangsters started a kidnapping, robbery and extortion crime wave, that country’s middle and upper classes didn’t turn to the police. They turned to private security. Chinese oil workers in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, upon hearing gunfire outside their compound when local political factions decided to battle it out among themselves, didn’t call the local authorities, they called the local offices of the Chinese security firm DeWe for help. Many of DeWe’s men were veterans of the PLA and knew how to provide shadow extraterritorial protection for Beijing’s citizens abroad.

For Kong Wei, head of DeWe’s Juba office and a veteran of the People’s Liberation Army who retired five years ago, it was the start of a 50 hour-marathon without sleep as he and his colleagues executed an evacuation plan. “Bullets and shells flew over our compound all day and night,” says Mr Kong. … Details of the operation last year, revealed here for the first time, point to the greater role being played by China’s fledgling private security industry. …

“The intermingling between PLA and private security contractors often staffed by ‘former PLA’ is a blurry line,” says Andrew Davenport, chief operating officer of RWR Advisory Group, a risk consultancy. Though private, few doubt the groups are solidly under the control of China’s national security bureaucracy. They represent “a parallel security strategy”, as Mr Davenport puts it.

“Parallel security strategy” is a nice way of describing doing the police work local cops can’t do. Sometimes the cops are ethnically local — they just don’t work for the government in situ. “Headquartered in Lima, Peru, Defion Internacional is a private military company that supplies specialist security staff who are mostly recruited from Latin America. … Latin American security staff stationed in the Middle East have been described as ‘guns for hire.'”

Increasingly, medical evacuation, kidnap and ransom negotiations and even intelligence gathering services are being offered on a private basis. One African magazine complained that private security was taking over the continent. With so much high-quality military talent left over from the War on Terror, only a fool would continue to rely on the local corrupt gendarmerie when a vastly superior alternative was available. When a friend complained that the Philippine police were now “squads of killers loose with a licence to kill” my first impulse was to say: “stop thinking of them as cops”. Because they’re not cops. They’re killers in government uniforms.

More generally, it is hard to keep thinking of failed states as “governments” when they don’t govern anything. The provision of what used to be called “public services” in failed states will be long delayed if the advent of a Westphalian structure is first awaited. The answer to the long-standing problem of “nation building”  may lie in embracing the suck, in exploiting the situation. In many failed states it is really much easier to provide privately operated transportation,  utility provision (including telecomms) and health care than it is to build the public equivalent. Failed states from one point of view are a business opportunity. The key lies in recognizing it.

This will distress progressives who see the state as the ultimate engine of good and continue to put their faith in “nation building”.  While they may rend their garments at the prospect of their beloved public space being filled by private enterprise, 21st-century technology may be redefining the role of the state permanently. With the growing availability of the Internet and the imminent arrival of robotics and distributing manufacturing it may no longer be necessary to wait on the rise of the state to provide schooling, postal service and healthcare. These are being provided despite the state. As we are in fact seeing — even the police are replaceable.

The cellphone revolution is particularly instructive. The combination of technology and private enterprise provided, almost overnight, communication services that governments failed to provide for decades. Its effects spilled over into education. A study by UNESCO found that cellphones have ignited a “reading revolution in the Third World. Whole populations may learn to read, no thanks to their failed state.

With many of the secondary state functions now within the capability of private entities and the tasks of national defense and the maintenance of freedom of navigation (including the security of undersea cables and satellite links) the responsibility of great powers the residual role of the 21st century country can be greatly simplified. In the main, its only role is maintaining a general political consensus — preventing the outbreak of large scale violence inside its borders — and no more.

The future of nation building may lie in downsizing the governments of the Third World, not in massively building them up. When John Lennon wrote the song “Imagine” he may have gotten the lyrics wrong. Imagine there’s no state — not no country. Imagine there’s no bureaucracy. Imagine if you can.

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War With Russia: An urgent warning from senior military command, by General Sir Richard Shirreff, former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Russia’s invasion and seizure of Georgia in 2008 was our ‘Rhineland moment’. We ignored the warning signs – as we did back in the 1930s – and we made it ‘business as usual’. Crimea in 2014 was the President’s ‘Sudetenland moment’ and again he got away with it. Since 2014 Russia has invaded Ukraine. The Baltics could be next. Our political leaders assume that nuclear deterrence will save us. General Sir Richard Shirreff shows us why this will not wash.

Bread Illustrated: A Step-By-Step Guide to Achieving Bakery-Quality Results At Home, In this comprehensive cookbook, America’s Test Kitchen editors break down the often intimidating art and science of bread baking, making it easy for bakers of all levels to create foolproof, bakery-quality breads at home.

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961, by Nicholas Reynolds. This newly released book is the stunning untold story of an American literary icon’s dangerous secret life — including his role as a Soviet agent code-named “Argo” — that fueled his art and his undoing.

Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, Authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT bring together a range of statistics, examples, and arguments to show that technological progress is accelerating, and that this trend has deep consequences for skills, wages, and jobs. They make the case that employment prospects are grim for many today not because technology has stagnated, but because we humans and our organizations aren’t keeping up.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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