Note: this article originally appeared in Air University’s The Wright Stuff

Broken Windows, Black Swans, and Global Security

By Mark Stout

Economist James Q. Wilson is associated with the ‘broken windows’ theory.  This theory is a public order (crime and safety) hypothesis from an article of the same name which Wilson co-authored in the early 1980s.  Polymath Nassim Taleb is well known for the Black Swan concept where seemingly improbable, rare, or even thought to be impossible things can and do happen.  And global security is, of course…global security.  Sometimes it’s more stable, like during the Cold War (and such stability is frequently thought to be good unless, for example, you’re an East German); other times, not so much.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is often the face and voice of global security.

The ‘broken windows’ assertion goes something like this: once a threshold of conformity (unbroken windows) has been violated (windows are broken), a lack of action (the windows are not repaired) or even unawareness of the issue (a lack of surveillance, for example, or understanding) may then signal that any additional deviancy (crime) is unlikely to result in punishment.  The security and public order imperative thus becomes to fix damage as soon as it occurs as further damage may well be avoided. 

Now consider Taleb’s Black Swan events, those high-impact, hard to predict events thought to be rare or even impossible.  You might think of recent devastating earthquakes (Pakistan in 2005, China in 2008, Haiti in 2010, and Japan in 2011); heat waves (Europe in 2003 and Russia in 2010); or nuclear power failures (Chernobyl in 1986 and Japan in 2011), but Taleb addresses the concept along a bit different line: think the internet, personal computers, World War I, 9/11, and the financial crises.  

After the fact, Black Swan events can be explained and even understood; some are devastating while some are seemingly beneficial.  One of Taleb’s focus areas is to get society to become more robust and protected from the devastation of Black Swan events.  He uses examples from anatomy (redundancy in our kidneys, eyes, ears, lungs) and nature (big often means fragile which is why no land animals are bigger than an elephant or sea creatures bigger than whales).

From a broken windows point of view, the best public order outcomes are often to prevent damage from occurring in the first place.  After all, the purpose of a police force isn’t just to arrest criminals, but rather, to help people live safely.  Often this entails reducing crime and goes beyond merely dealing with transgressions that have already occurred.  While reducing crime might well entail arresting criminals, at other times it might mean something else, such as intervening before a crime even occurs. Similarly, the U.S. military exists not just to fight and win the nation’s wars but rather to sustain or enhance national security.

However, the great challenge for both public order and national security is in knowing when to intervene.  Taleb points out that our understanding of the world is not nearly as good as we think and that we are fooled by false patterns, have lousy forecasting skills, and that the world’s complexity and interconnectedness have increased the challenges even more.  So if you’re a broken windowist, would you intervene when a young vandal stoops to pick up a rock, when he looks like he might throw the rock at a window, or might you constrain yourself to just cleaning up the mess after a window’s been broken?  Or back up the intervention options up even a bit more: do you get involved when a group of “disreputable” people or a bunch of young “rowdies” simply gather together?  Conversely, if you’re a black swanist, do you put up metal shutters or ensure an ample supply of glass is on hand?

The black swan theory holds that some events have a much bigger impact than could be imagined.  So fold in the broken windows construct but instead of thinking about the idea from a public order point of view, substitute Iran or North Korea for the young vandal and nuclear weapons for the rock.  Or imagine other “vandals” picking up “rocks” in Asia, the Middle East, or Africa. 

Well, no, actually don’t imagine such a thing because Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently said “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army” into any of those locations “should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”  Is Secretary Gates advocating for a form of neo-isolationism (buildings, so to speak, without any windows to break) or is this a well-veiled recommendation for the U.S. to get involved in the intervention stage (before things really get hard), or is it to avoid the expense, danger, and unknown outcomes of trying to build democracy and Western values? 

On the other hand, how do you reconcile Secretary Gates’ statement with the fact there are already over 25,000 U.S. troops in South Korea (we’ll call that Asia), that we might have vital national concerns in the Middle East and Africa (we’ll call that oil), or are likely to be able to need to respond to as-yet unforeseen and highly challenging events (we’ll call those wicked problems)?  Establishing a cause and effect relationship between the use of the military and changes to national security is probably impossible to measure and assess.  Similarly, many of the actions pursued today are to fix problems that were themselves once considered as solutions.

While many consider the internet as a great blessing, one issue Taleb ponders is the order of magnitude increases in the amount of noise associated with the information we receive as well as the fact our information is often highly flavored, filtered, and selectively edited, processes which are all capable of distorting the accuracy of our mental maps.  Sometimes distant dangers are presented as clear and present; sometimes pressing risks are underreported.  If our perceptions are flawed and our understanding is flawed, it seems to reason our actions will be flawed as well (unless you’re lucky, which happens from time to time).

So where does all this end and how do we reconcile these apparent contradictions?  I’m not really sure, but I’m working under the assumption if we try and ask the right questions, we’re more likely to come to the right solutions.  On the other hand, if you have the solutions (and the questions) all figured out, give me a call.  I’d love to talk.

Mark Stout is a researcher and analyst at Air University’s National Space Studies Center and runs its unofficial blog Songs of Space and Nuclear War.  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and may not reflect the views and policies of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.



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