Can Chipmunks Defeat Tigers?

Assertions that states have lost their monopoly on the use of force, at least in cyberspace, are charmingly naïve (when not driven by ulterior motives). The accuracy of these assertions depends on the existence of certain international political conditions, the most important of which is that the tigers will accept and be bound by rules that give the chipmunks equal footing in a contest. But a state not bound by the rule of law does not suffer the involvement of private actors or the multi-stakeholder community lightly.

Nonstate actors have grown in economic power—some of them immensely—and the revenues of the biggest U.S. and Chinese tech giants dwarf that of many nations. This economic strength is sometimes assumed to translate into political or military power. This has led to assertions that nonstate actors are as powerful as states, particularly in cyberspace. Usually, those who make this case have never experienced the range of destructive power available to a major state even without nuclear weapons. Email is not a weapon, and private actors are chipmunks when it comes to using force.

If a state accepts the rule of law, it will be constrained in its use of force, and in most democracies, it will be subject to the decisions of legislatures or an independent judiciary. In these circumstances, wealthy nonstate actors can be powerful. Unfortunately, a number of formidable states reject this democratic construct. They do not observe the rule of law, there is no independent judiciary, and there is no ability to compel them to change (unless another powerful state is willing to go to war). More unfortunately, the most powerful of these rejectionist, authoritarian states are the United States’ most dangerous opponents. Let's call them tigers.

A famous statesman of the mid-twentieth century once asked dismissively, "How many divisions does the Pope have?" We could ask the same question of any corporation. It is not that states have lost their monopoly on the use of force, it is that at least in the West, they have lost the political will to use it.

So, the first conclusion is that states still have the preponderance of the tools of violence. There has never been a monopoly on force (when we consider pirates, warlords, or criminal gangs). Pirates, warlords, and criminals can be heavily armed and use force, but they are not the peers of an organized, well-equipped, and determined military. Truly destructive weaponry is in the hands of states. This includes cyberattacks, and it is worth noting that the most damaging cyberattacks have all been carried out by states or their proxy forces.

A second conclusion is that nonstate actors are "powerful" against Western democracies but are largely powerless against authoritarian states. Democracies are bound by the rule of law. If all states were bound by the rule of law, the continuous weakening of state power would not be a problem (and this was the expectation of millennial foreign policy). It becomes a problem when democracies are weak, and authoritarians are strong. The disparity creates problems in the larger contest between democracy and authoritarianism that we have entered. If the authoritarian states, heavily armed and not reluctant to use force, are tigers, can even an agglomeration of civil society groups and businesses armed only with lawyers realistically expect to oppose them or to defend our human rights?

A third conclusion is that partnerships between government and private actors are valuable but only in properly defined circumstances. Companies can do well at uniting to bring down a criminal botnet but not a state actor. Many private actors have neither the capability nor the inclination to act against the interests of authoritarian states. Some companies are reluctant to even criticize China for fear of losing market access, something that makes them weak defenders of democratic values. This, however, is not really their function: the "Friedman Doctrine" that states the business of companies is to make a profit still applies. Partnerships between public and private sectors can give democracies an advantage over authoritarians but only if we recognize the central role of the state in delivering public goods.

Conservative political guru Grover Norquist once said that he wanted to shrink government until he could drown it in a bathtub. If this made sense in the 1990s (a doubtful proposition), where the United States apparently faced no enemies, it makes no sense now when it is in a contest with powerful authoritarian states. These regimes would like nothing better than to drown democracies in a bathtub, and U.S. actions may have unwittingly helped them move closer to this goal.

A larger skepticism about democratic government has reshaped American politics and increased reluctance to use what Franklin D. Roosevelt called the “instruments of public power.” This skepticism puts the United States at a disadvantage in the current competition. It is an illusion to think that anything other than a state can counter authoritarians in the defense of democracy (in cyberspace or elsewhere). Combining weak states with civil society and a few corporations does not change this. Only in the movies do bands of lightly armed but noble amateurs defeat trained and motivated troops.

The U.S. public has become accustomed to thinking of democracy as undefeatable and thus assume its success is automatic. It is not. A close study of the history of U.S. contests with authoritarian opponents shows the opposite. The United States began these contests at a disadvantage until it built the tools of public power needed for success. An adequate defense now requires that the United States repair the tools of public power, sadly neglected for two decades, and discard ideological blinders. Chipmunks may tell themselves fables of victory, but they should not really expect to defeat tigers.

James Andrew Lewis is a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program