The Technological Revolution and Identity/Security Crises

This paper was presented at the International People’s Diplomacy Forum in Volgograd, Russia, on November 1, 2016.

Throughout human history there have been profound changes in the way societies organize and function. Several changes have been dramatic: From food hunter to food gatherer; from writing on papyrus to paper to using the printing press and typewriter; from tools such as pens to computers to smart phones; from sending smoke signals to talking on telephones to sending faxes; from riding horses to riding trains to driving cars to flying airplanes; people have engineered radical paradigm shifts that have caused immense societal transformations. (See Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962)

These radical shifts have led to disruptions since they all called into question traditional means of production and livelihood. Often times these changes have caused backlashes. The English Luddites (1811-1816) revolted against industrialization by destroying machines in the textile factories because they felt workers would lose their jobs. The Industrial Revolution led to gross inequalities in wealth – the so called Gilded Age – which can partially explain the Russian Revolution of 1917, if not the founding of the International Labor Organization in Geneva in 1919.

Today we are in the midst of a technological revolution with all the disruptive elements of previous dramatic changes. Positively, communication has been facilitated. I can easily fly to Volgograd. I can easily communicate by email and telephone from the Russian Federation to Switzerland. All of that is positive. We are in touch with more people more rapidly. Previously unimaginable sources of information are at our fingertips.

But there are other consequences of radical change that are less positive, and less easy to grasp while the changes are taking place. The disruption of the everyday in this technological revolution has not only changed traditional means of production and communication, it has also disrupted traditional feelings of identity and security. People feel less secure during periods of radical change. Traditional patterns are being upended, causing many to be nostalgic about the past, about that which was familiar. Reactionary movements in the United States with Donald Trump (Make America Great Again) and right-wing political movements throughout Europe are indications of national unease and profound insecurity. All change is threatening; radical change is highly disruptive.
The technological revolution has led to insecurity and individual and national questioning of identity. What does it mean to be able to communicate by email or Skype instantaneously all over the world? What does it mean to fly across continents? How do multilateral trade agreements affect local workers? How do important migratory flows affect national identity?

It is through this prism of the identity that we can better understand challenges to global and regional security. Whether in the Middle East in conflicts between Shi’ite and Sunni Moslems; in the identity of the Russian Federation in terms of Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia; in France with clashes over covered bathing suits on the beach; in Central European countries voting against allowing migrants to enter; in Great Britain’s relationship to the European Union, in Scotland’s relation to Great Britain; in Spain’s separatist region of Catalan; in all of these we are witnessing identity questions manifested in identity wars and conflicts rather than traditional geopolitical or ideological conflicts between states.

“New Wars are the wars of the era of globalization.” (Mary Kaldor, “In Defence of New Wars” Stability: International Journal of Security & Development. May 7,   2013. P. 4) Mary Kaldor’s analysis of “New Wars” or what have been called “identity wars” is fundamental to understanding what security means today. As Kaldor notes: “Old wars were fought for geo-political interests or ideology (democracy or socialism). New wars are fought in the name of identity (ethnic, religious or tribal). These “New Wars” are reactions to globalization and technology. They are backlashes against historical feelings of belonging to a specific group in a specific place and specific time. While global communication has improved, it has deterritorialized our traditional sense of belonging. (John Herz, “The Rise and Demise of the Territorial State.“ World Politics. Vol. 9, no. 4, 1957. Pp. 473-493)

As an example: In today’s world we ask a Frenchman living in western France to be a Breton, Frenchman, European and citizen of the world all at the same time. Faced with the demands for multiple identities, people have reverted to one-dimensional identity. At the same time the world is witnessing increased interdependence, unilateralism is returning. Fusion and fission are happening at the same time. Increased integration, such as multilateral trade agreements and associations, is occurring at the same time countries and associations are disintegrating – Brexit and the US questioning of North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

While the state continues to be the official legitimizer of violence, by Max Weber’s definition, the state is no longer the only guarantor of people’s security. Private military and security companies (PMSC’s) are playing a greater and greater role throughout the world. At the same time the officials of the City of Volgograd are organizing this conference, we are talking about People’s Diplomacy, something that is unofficial. When we refer to People, we are outside legitimate institutions.

The state can no longer respond to the growing insecurity resulting from globalization. The need to belong, whether as part of a tribe or ethnic group, cannot be fulfilled by official anthems. People need to feel securitized in their identities that are becoming more and more local. Physical security, previously called defense, guaranteed by the government, is necessary but not sufficient to overcome the current crises of identity. 

What is to be done to overcome this identity crisis at the individual and state levels? The very title of this conference is a good illustration of a solution. To talk of public diplomacy is to realize that diplomacy is not the exclusive realm of officials. Public diplomacy combines both the notion of diplomacy – relations between groups – and the idea of public – not only reserved for official figures. (See Carne Ross, Independent Diplomat : Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2007) Public diplomacy is an inclusive concept. Diplomacy alone implies relations between official groups.

It is the very notion of inclusiveness which is the key to solving the current conflicts/wars of identity. Cosmopolitan politics is a politics of inclusion. It allows patriotism and the continued presence and importance of the state while not entering into nativist patriotism that is exclusive and inherently violent. Public diplomacy is every cosmopolitan citizen’s responsibility. It is not a question of passports – although we note with satisfaction the passports delivered by the late Garry Davis to “Citizens of the World.” The world passport was itself recognition that there was a citizenship beyond national borders. Passports are themselves exclusive to those who do not possess the proper citizenship.

Overcoming fear and insecurity cannot be done by more isolationist and exclusive methods. In a world of increasing interdependence, exclusive methods such as building walls or police patrolled fences are outdated. If diplomacy is the art of resolving conflicts by non-violent means, public diplomacy is the recognition that beyond nationalistic state borders ordinary citizens and civil society can be active participants in diplomacy. For example: Richard Falk and Andrew Strauss proposed a People’s Assembly which would counterbalance the state centrism of the General Assembly of the United Nations. (Richard Falk and Andrew L. Strauss, ”On the Creation of a Global Peoples Assembly: Legitimacy and the Power of Popular Sovereignty.” Stanford Journal of International Law. Vol. 36, no. 2. Pp. 191-219)

Identities that are created through fear and hatred are based on insecurity and can only lead to conflicts and war. Identities that are multilayered and based on secured identities will resolve conflicts through legitimate means. But, in a time of radical technological change and disruption, can we imagine increased security?

The challenge to global and regional security, therefore, is to see how increased technology, which makes communication easier, can respond to the sense of dislocation it creates. How to be particular and universal at the same time? The notion of public diplomacy is an intriguing one. It recognizes that individual citizens can, and should, play an important role in creating and maintaining positive relations between peoples.

Garry Davis was arrested at myriad borders because his World Passport Number 1 was not deemed legitimate. I had to receive a visa from the Russian Consulate in Geneva to be admitted into the Russian Federation. Millions of refugees and internally displaced persons cannot travel because they lack official papers. There is no free movement of people in today’s world. Perhaps by sharing the idea of public diplomacy we will make one step forward in promoting public diplomacy and the power of the individual, in whatever capacity, to foster positive relations between peoples.

Each of us can be an independent diplomat. Each of us can be a member of a group as well a citizen of a country while at the same time being a citizen of the world. We can have multiple identities. We can all be independent diplomats if we see our role as cosmopolitan rather than limited. That is the power of the idea of public diplomacy and a way out of the terrible insecurity resulting from the current technological revolution.   

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