The symptoms are unmistakable yet hidden in plain sight. The massive disruption of Texas and what turned out to be a highly vulnerable power grid to a super snow and ice storm last week should have been no surprise. Nor should the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive cyber intrusion of the Solar Winds software have been entirely unpredictable.
Many more of these disruptions are coming, whether acts of man or nature. But will governments and elected leaders recognize these massive dangers and threats and take preventive action? Or will the thinking of the past century, when state and non-state actors constituted the basis for the assessments driving national security and safety continue, much as China, Russia and violent extremism are?
Here is breaking, unreported, news: The greatest looming threat to mankind has arrived in the form of a fifth horseman of the apocalypse, armed with a 21st century variant of the Cold War Mutual Assured Destruction. That concept argued that if both the United States and USSR maintained sufficient nuclear weaponry after absorbing a “first strike” to destroy the other, both would be mutually deterred.
The new MAD is Massive Attacks of Disruption. Unlike the old MAD, the new MAD cannot be deterred. And containing the new MAD must become central to the nation’s security.
Consider one example. More than half a million Americans have died of COVID-19, more than were lost in World Wars I and II and approaching the number killed in America’s Civil War. Today, the nation is spending about $740 billion on defense in which, thankfully, few service personnel are dying in action. How much are we spending on COVID-19?
If the disruption of Texas’ power grid and the cyberattacks on Solar Winds were combined, how much damage would that do? The prospect is one of the nation’s worst nightmares. How did the fifth horseman arise and what can be done to corral it and MAD?
Ironically, the combination of globalization and the diffusion of power were the unlikely parents. As societies modernized, new vulnerabilities were created. Standards of living rose and people became more dependent on sustaining those levels. The Internet and cellphone are two cases of massive societal dependencies. Suppose both were disrupted for extended periods.
Further, globalization and the diffusion of power ended the centuries-old Westphalian system of politics dominated by states. While individuals and non-state actors always had the capacity for generating major disruption — Gavrilo Princip assassinating the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 igniting World War I — these societal vulnerabilities and global links have asymptotically increased as have the number of potential outside disruptors.
Today, beyond pandemics, seven major disruptors should be of primary concern if MAD is to be contained or prevented. The most existential are climate change and failed and failing government. Texas reinforced the first. The Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill sadly mirror the second.
The remaining MAD agents include: cyber, social media, terror, debt and drones. The first three are made more dangerous when linked: using cyber, social media and terror to disrupt society. And each is not confined to small groups. At some stage, the nation’s debt will become crippling when interest rates rise. And as guns kill people, imagine how more dangerous drones can be as they are easily and cheaply bought or built in garages and armed with explosives or electronics devices. The use of drones in battle as used in Syria, Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh are illustrative and transferable to non-military groups seeking to disrupt.
What can be done? First, greater understanding and acknowledgement of the consequences of MAD are essential. Second, the concept of national security must be expanded to include MAD beyond other traditional dangers. Third, MAD is also an argument for more international cooperation. Virtually all states are vulnerable. Without international action, climate change will never be addressed.
Changes in strategy, policy and government organization will be needed. And perhaps most frighteningly, the major danger of MAD may well be to the U.S. Constitution if broken government cannot be repaired. The Declaration of Independence makes this clear.
“When government becomes destructive, it is the right of the people to alter it and establish a new one.” That was tried in miniature on Jan. 6. But what happens if MAD imposes such lasting destruction on society, the public has no option? If we do not start now, we will never have the answer to that question.
Harlan Ullman is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist and author of the upcoming book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endangered, Infected, Engulfed and Disunited a 51% Nation and the Rest of the World.”