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The Gupta Option


Things to Read or Do

State In A Box Overview which briefly outlines a radically new approach to SSTR based in distributed infrastructure and Jeffersonian ideals.

Winning the Long Peace - about extending the concept of the nation state to reflect the realities of current American policy.

STAR-TIDES and Starfish Networks: Supporting Stressed Populations with Distributed Talent - National Defense University, Defense Horizons 70, co-author

Soft Development Paths - Is there any way that everybody in the world can live reasonably well? Yes, but we need to work on the basics...

The Future of Poverty - how computers and networks give us new ways of knowing which may end poverty forever

STAR-TIDES briefing at National Defense University - one hour video plus supporting documents of the presentation I did about distributed infrastructure and the Hexayurt Project for NDU.

Severe Panflu Response Strategies - a really serious look at losing 25% of the human race in a single year, and what we can do about it.

STAR-TIDES - notes and boards from our demonstration at the Pentagon. Six ages of good stuff on infrastructure and resilience half way through. See the STAR-TIDES home page for context.

Hexayurt Project - my main activity, a free/open source disaster relief and emergency shelter system.

Networked Domestic Disaster Response - presents a well-reviewed plan for evacuating millions to tens of millions of American citizens in catastrophic emergencies.

Facilitating International Development through Free / Open Source - about changing the direction of international development by giving away free designs for great and useful technologies, like autorickshaws and water purifiers!

State In A Box - Identity Services Architecture - about re-engineering the nation state based on modern technology, starting with identity management. Includes extensive material on biometrics, OpenID, PKI and is fully buzzword compliant. It's the start on a book.

Our Future With Islam - about Islam as a religion, culture and political system, and long term prospects for peaceful co-existence without falling back on Mutually Assured Destruction.

Saving the World on the Cheap - about charities, governments, and the need for a new way to fund lifesaving engineering projects.

Resilience and Opportunity in 4GW - on decentralized infrastructure and microfinance as was of moderating 4GW conflicts.

Discuss at The Sietch Forums

My blog

Winning the Long Peace

The future of the nation state in the age of disaggregation
or, why "be nice to people" is always a good idea.
This is version 2, 2007. A lot has changed since then. Version one is also available.


Individual and small group destructive power will continue to increase for the foreseeable future, with novel and potentially dangerous social organizations springing up as modern technology evolves and collides with conventional "underground" cultures, like mafias and terrorist groups.

A future that attempts to deny small nations, potential terrorists or non-state actors of other kinds access to common-but-dangerous tools is likely to be a profoundly fascist future. Danger lies in medical equipment, in computers, in machine shops, in chemical plants. Without extremely comprehensive global monitoring it is unlikely that WMD capabilities can be kept out of the hands of such enemies forever. But the very act of doing such monitoring may incite the kind of hatred and distrust which leads to support for terrorism in the long run.

Worse, asymmetric warfare with high tech WMDs lacks the potential for the stabilizing logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD) because only the larger, more organized side can be effectively targeted with such weapons.

MAD does not even reliably exist between nuclear nations. The barrier to the nuclear club continues to fall due to technological leakage and ever-cheaper computing. Smaller, weaker nuclear powers may not be fully MAD capable even in regards to their local enemies, creating a new calculus of survivable and therefore possible, nuclear war.

A new approach to stability is needed. It must go beyond the simple binary logic of MAD, and offer a viable strategy for a multipartite world inclusive of such troublesome groups as non-state actors.

The Winner's Trilemma

Having come out ahead in the last round of superpower conflict, the US finds itself in the position of being unquestionably the world's most powerful nation state, militarily speaking.

From this position, moving forwards, America has to choose one of three paths:

It is important to understand the distinction between winning the mandate from other governments, which can be done by treaties and trade, versus winning the mandate from the global population which is by-and-large a matter of ethical excellence, consistently moral behavior, and trustworthiness in negotiations. Public relations sways people for a short time, but "truth is the best propaganda."

To continue to wield armed dominion without legitimizing it by gaining a mandate from global citizens will make America the target for generations of attacks of all kinds, all justified with the rhetoric of freedom from American Imperialism. There is no stability down that path.

Long Term Approaches

The policy of containment lasted for around 40 years. There must be a similarly effective long term approach to WMD terrorism and unconventional warfare. This plan should credibly promise to restore the security of the American people relative to these threats.

The Global War On Terror attempts to solve this problem at the "tooth" end of the equation, with limited success so far.

The "tail" of terrorism has always been broad popular support. Broad support provides many services to potential terrorists. Firstly, there is the well-known spectrum of soft support services provided to guerillas by sympathetic populations, such as secret financial services often provided in partnership with organized crime.

However, a second support structure is located within the self-concept of the fighters. With broad popular support, a psychopath can style themselves a hero under the guise of doing the will of the people, or sacrificing for the cause. Without such a popular mandate, the heroic self-image may become harder or even impossible to maintain.

Terrorists who do not believe they are acting on behalf of an oppressed population are simply mass murderers, criminals, psychopaths. The terrorism which has been committed by such people so far (such as Columbine in America, Aum Shrinko in Japan) is certainly less frequent, and arguably less effective than political terrorists with strong social ties and a political power base.

The most important long-term action to prevent terrorism is to close as many as possible of the open political wounds that allow mass murderers to think of themselves as fighting for a cause, transforming largely ineffective psychopaths into potentially very effective terrorists.

Serious long term work on finding peaceful, equitable solutions to issues like Israel, or the bloody borders of Islam, or Maoist insurgency in places like Nepal should be thought of as parallel to Cold War efforts to restrict Soviet bloc power: a long haul project to be passed forwards through generations. The policy of containment was never designed to be an overnight success.

This long-term peace building process is based on the understanding that a political situation which produces effective terrorists anywhere is a problem everywhere. A clear example of this is LTTE ("Tamil Tigers") who are held responsible for the invention of suicide bombing and are currently experimenting with using light planes as bombers. It is clear that terrorist R&D is conducted globally, not locally, because they are united by technique and not by ideology. But one cannot hope to stamp out a technique of war - only to remove the perception of just cause and turn these people back into ordinary criminals.

Any individual "cause" could eventually give rise to the leadership, will and technical capability to hit America, particularly if supported by hidden nation state backers. It took 60 years for Arab anger about Israel to contribute to the US taking a serious blow, but it did eventually happen.

"The Long Peace" is an alterantive model to the "Long War." The "Long War" envisages defeating terrorism by depleting terrorist resources until they no longer function effectively. However, given the relatively low start-up costs of a new terrorist group this seems likely to be a fruitless long-term strategy. The "Long Peace" suggests an alternate model: focus on converting the passive support base of terrorists by multi-decade programs to settle the conflicts which give rise to terrorism, coupled with active outreach on issues like global poverty, AIDS and the environment to get the US the broad popular support that it will take to finally win the war on terror.

The Globalized State

Understanding the political foundations for such a global effort starts with asking a simple question: what does it mean for a single country to mount a global war on foes which typically reside in other countries with whom no hostility exists?

This "Global War" is not the global war of WW1 or WW2, but a global war in time when "globalization" is about franchises and supply chains, not shifting colors on maps.

We have to go back to fundamentals to understand what is happening in a way which gives us conceptual leverage on the situation.

A definition of the state:

that single entity claiming and exercising a monopoly on the legitimate use of lethal force in a geographical region

America now implicitly asserts this geographical monopoly of force over the entire world whre certain kinds of military power are concerned, specifically the possession of WMDs. Dormant stockpiles in the hands of trusted allies or stable, non-expansionist rivals are tolerated, but there is a consistent and growing trend to regard conventional concepts of sovereignty as moot where WMDs in particular, and terrorism in general, are concerned.

One way of examining this position is to consider it a nascent, new form of transnational sovereignty.

American transnational sovereignty is a new political mode, as it does not parallel previous claims to transnational sovereignty from entities like the British or Roman empires. This is partly because the "map" is increasingly complex and non-contiguous because of air travel, exposed linear assets like pipelines, and rapid movement of cultural groups around the world. The terrain is not land, sea, and air, but a complex amalgam of factors many of which only hold value when combined with certain subtle prerequisites, like industrial capacity or financial market liquidity. Old concepts of strategy and tactics often assume that war is about control of topography at profound levels.

Clarifying Compound Sovereignty

In this shifting landscape, vectors for expressing power outside of conventional military force projection exist, and in keeping with trying to design a "Policy of Containment" for the GWOT, we need to consider the political level first.

What does it mean for the US to be implicitly asserting a global monopoly on certain kinds of force? How can it be balanced politically? One morally consistent approach to stabilizing America's transnational sovereignty is for the US Govt. to provide state-like services to non-US citizens, making policing WMD affairs only part of a broader global mandate.

To push this model even further, if the US Govt. offer services directly to the citizens of other states, the consumers of those services begin to have multiple governments. Within this framework, the global reach across otherwise sovereign borders in pursuit of terrorism becomes internally consistent at a political level, which it is not currently.

We are in deep here, exploring the margins of the concept of the nation state in the 21st century. To understand the newly permeable boundaries of the nation state from all perspectives is essential. The supply chain is, in many ways, the new equivalent of the fertile field or the standing factory, and such a view offers new options, but at the price of a dislocated sense of territoriality. What is it that we are striving to protect, and where are its threats?

But this unravelling is a quintessentially American process, as much now as it was at the foundation of America as a network of States. The internet and the complex modern financial and trade agreement architectures are all heavily influenced by American political and business values. Although globalization does not necessarily mean Americanization, Americanization is often the first sign of the arrival of global culture and, in many way, the American model of relationship between semi-sovereign entities - the States of the Union - informs some of the thinking behind the GWOT.

Examining practical examples of compound sovereignty will help untangle the levels of this sovereignty model.

Examining the State as a Service Provider

A first concrete instance: what if American embassies the world over issued extremely hard identity credentials to people - US citizens or otherwise?

This is a function typically strongly associated with conventional nation states, but in this age of ICT, there are no technical problems in issuing a biometric identity card to any person who asks for one. Obviously such a card is more limited than, say, a passport. The US Govt. has no access to the criminal files or identity databases of the country of origin of the person requesting an ID. It does not vouch for government knowledge about you, only that you are this person and no other. Such a card might not even bear a name, only vouch for recorded biometric uniqueness.

However, these secure biometric identity documents unambiguously state that the US Govt. has established that this face goes with this US-issued identity number, fingerprints and retinal scan. In many chaotic situations, these credentials would become the gold standard for identity verification, much like the extraterritorial dollar is the definitively hard cash.

Obviously such an identity credential has many positive security implications. Also consider its utility to, say, a college professor in an impoverished, unstable country trying to conduct business abroad. Possession of a US-backed digital ID could differentiate a real business transaction from an attempted fraud.

Correctly managed and designed, acting as an identity credential provider is a service, not an intrusion. This becomes even clearer when dealing with refugees, IDPs, citizens of utterly failed states and many other groups who lack solid enough identity credentials to gain access to international financial infrastructure or other services delivered by the global economy.

There are many US Govt. services which could be extended internationally. The EPA, FDA and OSHA all do work which small nations cannot afford to replicate. Efforts like translating reports and making them available in a coordinated fashion might help a lot of people at relatively low cost to the American people, and harmonize certain global policies with America.

Outsourcing certain kinds of regulations and research is the legislative equivalent of pegging a currency to the dollar. For example, a developing world country could state that their banned chemical list will be the same as the US list of 20 years ago except in the case of new urgent discoveries. In areas which rest on objective hard science, the downside of pegging one's national policy to that of a scientific superpower is negligible.

America stands to gain from these activities many ways, but most strikingly in the case of failed states, where the soft services, primarily scientific and technical, that America could provide would help keep these areas sane and governable without rendering them American protectorates. US backed key services like identity and property rights registers could help tie these nations together in times of real trouble like regime changes or civil wars, and help the new governments keep the bureaucracy functioning through the political unrest.

Much work has to be done, and many axioms of government must be re-examined to enable this process, but there is great promise here.

Other Potential Transnational Services

Extraterritorial Defense Using US Air Power

Many nations wish they had US protection from hostile neighbors. However, it is not viable for the US to send troops to small conflicts across the entire globe. Consider, however, an approach like Air/Ground war with American air power and local ground troops defending their own borders.

In the most extreme version of this model, the US forces would only operate in the airspace of the country they are defending, and no ground forces would be committed. The defensive effect, however, would be near-absolute as relatively light local armor could likely defend against ground troops deprived of all vehicular support.

This model presents a very low risk to American fighters, and yet could serve to make even a relatively small, weak nation nearly impregnable. Many nations would be grateful for this support in defending their borders.

Citizens of countries with such a defense pact would be acutely aware that the US Govt. is protecting them from their hostile neighbors. No small nation could afford to buy the kind of protection that a treaty like this would provide, but the marginal cost to the US for providing the cover is relatively small because the force already exists. This appears to be an effective use of resources.

What are the costs for providing this kind of defensive service to other nations? Could nations foot part or all of the bill for the coverage they are provided as part of the treaty, or would strategic interests like widespread scattering of bases within friendly countries provide the budget for the cover?

This also provides an interesting alternative to MAD for regional security: nations with these deals with the US cannot effectively be invaded by their neighbors. This hinges on countries seeing a deal with the US Govt. as being a better long haul security investment than a WMD program or even large conventional forces. There is much work to be done here on the economics and policy preconditions of entering into these kinds of defense pacts.

Critical Infrastructure

The US Govt. supports critical global infrastructure like GPS, Iridium, aspects of the Internet, the FDA, OSHA, patent databases and so on. If the US Govt. really pushed the international value of these infrastructure services and maximized the utility of these services to foreign citizens how much impact would that have? How can the US maximize the return on these investments?

Technological and Development Support for the Global Poor

Socially responsible technology development projects aimed at stabilizing and then improving the conditions of the global poor can easily be created from America's scientific and technical base. Many projects already exist, such as the One Laptop Per Child initiative, but these projects are seen as stand-alone initiatives, rather than parts of a coherent policy approach to the developing world.

Target areas could include global access to clean water through simple technologies like solar water pasteurization, development of new appropriate technology power systems, low cost basic medical technologies and so on.

The close analogy to the Air-support-only defensive pacts is that the US would take responsibility for developing and testing these technologies, but would only make the designs available free of charge - essentially providing design and laboratory services, and leaving nations, NGOs and individuals to capitalize the designs and handle resource distribution. This keeps costs down, and makes clear where US responsibility ends, which is an important consideration when considering how to reach outside of our borders on non-military levels.

Another critical area is farming. Roughly 50% of the world's population makes a living by simple farming, mainly using manual and animal labor. One recent study shows that modern organic agriculture techniques could roughly double the food output of these farmers (Perfecto et. al. "Organic agriculture and the global food supply.") Organic agriculture practices could be disseminated using modern ICT. For example, a farmer could send an SMS message to the local American embassy while standing in their field. The GPS data about their location could be correlated with satellite imagery showing the condition of their fields over the previous few years using techniques from precision agriculture, a common first world farming practice. Individualized recommendations could then be delivered. The cost per individual helped is relatively small: the heavy work is done by computers. But the effect on global food security, and on how the US is viewed by perhaps 50% of the world's population is beyond price.

Similar approaches are possible in medicine. Carefully prepared information packs, tailored to the health risks of each climate, geography and lifestyle could be coupled with existing medical expert systems to provide very basic, but still very useful, global health support at relatively low marginal costs. Education is similarly an open door: primary and even secondary education materials, vetted for accuracy and cultural appropriateness, and then translated into many world languages could help countless people at very low cost, and the more educated a population is, the less vulnerable they will be to rumors and propaganda.

Private service providers are incentivized to provide global network services, but nobody has the combination of budget and long range interests to foot the bill for developing the services which would save lives by reaching across the networks to help people.

Think of this as "Voice of America" for the Internet Age.

The mandate won by taking care of this kind of work as part of the core business of the US Govt. would be overwhelming popular support for the US as a country that ends the worst consequences of poverty: a reputation which cannot be matched by any other nation, and which is culturally important in many different traditions.

Projected benefits include improving the quality of life in slums and especially villages all over the world, encouraging some villagers to remain on their own land, rather than migrating to the slums, which are prone to extremism and unrest. Villagers are also typically ecologically benign, being organic farmers by trade. Would a villager who's children went to school, who was taught advanced agriculture, who's own life was saved during an illness by network services provided free of charge by the American people drop the dime and inform on terrorists operating from his village?

There is no human intelligence network like a population which genuinely supports America and has a vested interest in America's continued prosperity and survival.

Global Human Rights Monitoring and Reporting

While America cannot expect all other nations to meet American standards of human rights - and many nations currently exceed American standards - the US Govt. could support free speech, habeas corpus etc. as global values. There already exists a mandate for this: the Founding Fathers make clear the basic human rights which they consider universal, and these rights clash in no way with those of most other cultures. The unalienable rights to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" represent a standard that may apply widely, even if some areas of the Bill of Rights may be less globally applicable.

This is an incredibly delicate area, and yet also very important in terms of transnational sovereignty. The mandate to prevent terrorism logically extends to preventing people being terrorized in other ways, although the line between support and interventionism must be carefully drawn.

Could the US Govt. provide a global human rights monitoring and reporting system as a global service to the citizens of other nations? What about an extremely streamlined asylum process, perhaps housing asylum seekers in countries other than the US while cases are processed? Measures like these could provide strong support for human rights without being unreasonably intrusive to other governments or expensive to the US taxpayer.

Identity Services and Property Databases

The digital ID card system examined earlier can also extend to support for property rights databases - particularly for small land holders. This service could be provided relatively cheaply using GPS and satellite data, helping keep people on their land, safeguard their property, and perhaps join the global economy if de Soto's ideas on property rights at the bottom of the pyramid are correct. Higher level financial infrastructure like stock markets may also fall into the category of services which the US Govt. could support in the developing world at reasonable expense for very broad positive consequences.


Citizens of strong, well organized states with good services may have little to gain from working with the US in these ways. However, a rural subsistence farmer may actually get better services in many areas from an "extended services package" from the US Govt. than from their own state in areas where the service can be provided remotely over the network, such as for identity services or scientific information about topics like water purification.

It is nearly certain that within 20 years internet access will be nearly universal even among the very, very poor through cellphones and new generations of extremely low cost computing devices making parts of this outreach cheap and global.

SSTR makes no sense in the conventional nation state/Marshall Plan sense for many of the areas where the military might be expected to try. Is it realistic to expect countries which were chaotic and violent before the US arrived to become placid and well organized afterwards? How far up the curve do we expect to be able to push a state in one generation?

Rather, the goals of SSTR work should be to provide services to individuals rather than to transform states from the top down. We should focus on providing basic infrastructure, services and amenities with the appropriately sized and positioned programs, in the hope of building systems that will remain functional if trouble starts after the US presence is gone. State-like services which are anchored in the US or at secure facilities closer to the users can provide individuals with government services, whether it is defensive air power, an ID hard enough to permit international banking, or water purification technology that works in their climate. In the US all of these services are either provided by the State, or are heavily State regulated. However, most of them can be supported or provided globally at marginal cost to the US taxpayer as a stepping stone to long term global security.

By placing the policing aspects of the GWOT in the context of a comprehensive service package offered by the US to the governments and citizens of other countries, it is possible to integrate the currently confusing messages about US sovereignty at a global scale.

The US Govt. can chart a path to a long term national role which allows it to keep military preeminence without making all of US citizens seem like legitimate targets for unconventional war. The crux is to rationalize the theoretical basis of US transnational sovereignty to include state services other than military security operations.

This piece is adapted from a series of email exchanges with some thinkers on national security issues.