“There is still time, but there has to be a fundamental change”

Paul Rogers introduces the new edition of his book Losing Control

Losing Control was written in the late 1990s and published early in 2001, a few months before the 9/11 attacks and the start of two decades (so far) of the ‘war on terror’.  Its basic argument was straightforward: the real causes of global insecurity in the early decades of the twenty-first century would be the widening socio-economic divide, global marginalisation and environmental limitations, especially climate breakdown, and conflict over energy resources.  It further pointed to a world in which irregular warfare from the margins would prevent powerful states from maintaining the status quo: hence the title.

In doing so it cited examples of irregular warfare in the 1990s including the LTTE’s bombing of the central business district of Colombo, an Algerian paramilitary group’s attempt to crash a hi-jacked plane on the centre of Paris, and the Provisional IRA’s five-year economic targeting campaign against City of London.   It also pointed to the 1993 attempt to destroy World Trade Centre. 

At the global level, Losing Control specifically warned of a 9/11-level attack and asked how the US would have reacted if that 1993 attack had succeeded.   Would it have recognised the changing nature of international security and done some serious rethinking? More likely it would have gone for a “massive and violent military reaction against any groups anywhere in the Middle East that were thought to have had even the slightest connection with the attack”.  

When published, the bookdid not quite sink like a stone; sales were reasonable among peace researchers and activists, but in the wider international politics and current affairs communities it was seen as something of a cul-de-sac.  The real international security issues were still seen as state-on-state relations, with little focus on the Global South.  

Then came the 9/11 attacks and attitudes changed almost overnight.   Pluto Press quickly put out a new edition with an extra chapter and this had a much wider readership and was translated into Chinese, Japanese and other languages.  

They did a further edition a few years later with two more chapters and early last year I suggested a fourth edition to mark the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, ditching the three additional chapters and writing a Part 2 to cover the last two decades and also look ahead.   David Castle at Pluto wisely said no to that and recommended a full re-write, essentially a new book, which has ended up as the fourth edition, just published.

I could see several faults with the original which have hopefully been addressed, including an inadequate analysis of the underlying economic drivers of marginalisation, especially the neoliberal transformations of the 1980s.   There was also far too little coverage of the persistent dominance of the military-industrial complex, its power and its culture of hegemonic masculinity; and the coverage of environmental limitations may have been OK for 1991 but needed a comprehensive updating, given the many negative and also positive developments.

So, where are we now?  Three elements of the new edition are central to the updating – four failed wars, a triple paradigm failure and the critical need to rethink the meaning of security in an age of pandemics and climate breakdown.

The four failed wars are Afghanistan, Iraq 2003-11, Libya 2011 onwards, and the 2014-18 air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.   The first three are obvious failures, with Afghanistan staring us in the face, apparent success in Iraq by 2011 changing into a deep threat from ISIS which grew phoenix-like from the supposed ashes of al-Qaida, and Libya’s continuing fragility, insecurity and role as a conduit for arms and paramilitaries south to the Sahel.  

The fourth war, the anti-ISIS air war, may initially have appeared to be a ‘success’ but ISIS is still active in both countries, and its associates sustain their violent progress right across the Sahel and eastern Africa and are already active in Afghanistan.

As to the triple paradigm crisis, this concerns the three failing paradigms relating to economy, environment and security. With many variations and regional developments, the underlying economic model remains neoliberalism. The authoritarian capitalism practised principally in China may not fit in precisely, and newer trends such as multistakeholder activity may channel activity towards a measure of market control, if by unaccountable transnational corporations.   The essence, though, is still a focus on competition not cooperation, and certainly not for the benefit of all.  

An undoubted outcome of forty years of the neoliberal approach is therefore a concentration of wealth that is outrageous, if not obscene.  More generally, the socio-economic divide continues, with the really successful accelerating away, perhaps a fifth of the world’s people comfortable enough but the majority on the economic margins doing little more than treading water or even growing more impoverished.   Furthermore, the global situation is being made worse by the COVID pandemic damaging economies, especially across the Global South, and even more so as climate breakdown starts to kick in.

The problematic environmental management paradigm, especially the failure to act on climate breakdown, is now more recognised than the other two, especially with the growth in campaigning such as Extinction Rebellion. Furthermore, massive improvements in the renewable energy sector give a greater prospect of radical decarbonisation, but the harsh reality is that we are a good two decades late in our responses. These themselves are all too often inadequate and there is simply not the world-wide governmental commitment to be far more forceful.

Then we have security which is all about maintaining the status quo rather than addressing underlying causes – in other words, keeping the lid on, or “liddism”.   Challenges are seen as threats that have to be suppressed, with a premium on the use of military force.  The military-industrial complexes in all large economies are tightly integrated, highly establishment-orientated and focused on preserving the status quo. They have effective and well-funded political lobbies that benefit from each complex’s near-inevitable profitability.  The answer to climate breakdown, for example, will all too often be protecting a state from the impacts rather than working to prevent the breakdown happening in the first place.

By the time the new edition of Losing Control gets near the end, the prospects for the future look bleak, echoing the warning from the economic geographer Edwin Brooks nearly half a century ago of “a crowded glowering planet of massive inequalities of wealth buttressed by stark force yet endlessly threatened by desperate people in the global ghettoes”.

The final chapter argues otherwise, pointing to the huge potential for change, especially if the nature of the global predicament is much more fully recognised. There are many ideas already out there for economic reform: by no means does everything focus solely on competition. There are 950 million members of cooperatives, mostly across the Global South, and the sheer level of ultra-high nett wealth in just a few thousand hands makes a radical rethink more and more obvious and urgent.

Environmental rethinking is already under way as are many welcome technological improvements, but it is no use pretending that it will take anything less than a huge change to alter the current security paradigm, despite those four failed wars.

Hopefully, two things will come across in the new edition.  One is that the three paradigms are closely interrelated. Neoliberal economics cannot handle the macro intergovernmental solutions needed to prevent climate breakdown. It feeds into and empowers military-industrial complexes, and those complexes maintain an inevitable requirement to maintain the status quo by whatever means is necessary.

Against this, there is such vigorous challenging and new thinking in prospect and already underway that the necessary changes can still happen.   There is still time, but there has to be a fundamental change in thinking in the 2020s, if we are to avoid ending up in that deeply unstable “glowering planet”.

The fourth edition of Losing Controlwas published by Pluto Press on 20 July 2021, seven weeks before the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. More information here

Paul Rogers is Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University and international security advisor at Open Democracy.

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