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14 February 2002

Promoting a Singular Global Threat -- Terrorism

Strategy of choice for world governance

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Complexity of abandoned approaches to world governance
The promise of single-factor policy-making
Need for a threat
Single factor threats: past experiments
Single factor threats: terrorism as threat of the moment
Single factor threats: provisions for the future
Avoidance of global social issues
Learnings from personal strategic analogues
Future prospects for viable alternatives


The manner in which the 'war on terrorism' has been justified and developed calls for reflection on the use of singular threats as a preferred strategy in response to the many dilemmas of world governance.

The past decade has seen much focused concern on the challenge of world governance in the light of the multiplicity of interdependent problems faced by society and the planet. This has been associated with the articulation of a multitude of strategies to deal with them. Some efforts have been made to articulate these strategies within global plans, such as Agenda 21, but with relatively little success.

It is recognized that the need for new approaches to world governance are urgent if the crises are not to interact to engender a chaotic uncontrollable situation. At the same time the democratic governance processes in many industrialized countries are themselves becoming problematic in unforeseen ways -- to a degree that causes many to suspect that key services are becoming unmanageable. Coping has become problematic, notable in the case of utilities (railways and health service in the UK; energy and health services in the USA). Not only is it now a real question as to whether individual countries are governable in any meaningful sense, but the reflection of this challenge on a global scale has become daunting.

In this context the 'war on terrorism' has come as a real relief to many in that it provides a way of simplifying the complexity through radical deprioritization of many of the factors that have proven to be an impossible strain to manage. The wide variety of 'health' and 'poverty' issues, for example, are easily framed as of secondary consideration in the face of the dramatic issues of 'terrorism'. The question is whether this approach should be understood as the key to future world governance.

Complexity of abandoned approaches to world governance

In exploring the potential of a singular threat, the problematic nature of responding to the problematique should be recognized:

In this confusing dynamic environment, it is no wonder that coherent consensual strategies are both difficult to engender and difficult to sustain -- even though they may focus on sustainability. Worse is ahead, as recognized by the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century [more]:

New opportunities notwithstanding, the challenges ahead will include traditional and novel threats. A growing web of financial, cultural, technological, and political interdependence now characterizes the world. While this web promises more freedom, security, and prosperity overall, it also means that novel and serious security problems now lay at America's doorstep. "Americans are far less secure today than they believe themselves to be," Co-Chairman Warren Rudman stresses. (April 2000)

In this light there is a strong case for an alternative approach that offers greater opportunity of success. Rather than becoming a victim of the unpredictable quality of novel threats such threats can be exploited to focus and sustain coherent strategies.

The promise of single-factor policy-making

The various International Development Decades, and the global strategies formulated under the auspices of individual UN Specialized Agencies of the UN, or Agenda 21 itself, have all demonstrated in practice the inability of global society to 'get its act together.' The international community has been strong in its rhetoric and vision and weak in its ability to follow through on implementation or the respect for commitments made. This might be said to have been the track record of the 'positive' approach to global strategy and governance.

The 'war on terrorism' is an illustration of a 'negative' approach to world governance. A single factor is selected as the necessary focus of global attention. It is framed, in the case of the dramatic attacks of 11th September, as a 'challenge to civilization', and a war against 'evil' forces -- notably sustained by an 'axis of evil'. The credibility of the challenge and the necessary response is rendered unquestionable through the logic of 'if you are not with us, you are against us' backed up by the implicit threat to any groups that fail to associate themselves with the logic of that single threat. This has the effect of suppressing dissenting opinion, whether within the world's superpower, amongst allies variously persuaded of the merits of this logic, and amongst those opposed to this perspective. Those failing to accept this logic can easily be framed as dangerous -- if not 'evil' in their own right. If necessary allegiance or loyalty tests can be imposed to ensure early detection of opposition.

The case for isolating a singular threat may also be made by generalizing the Peter Principle first introduced by L. Peter in a humoristic book (of the same title) describing the pitfalls of bureaucratic organization. The original principle states that in a hierarchically structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their "level of incompetence". The generalization proposed in the Encyclopedia Cybernetica is that in evolution systems tend to develop up to the limit of their adaptive competence [more]. Focusing on a singular threat ensures that the threat remains within the scope of the organizational system responding to it, rather than being beyond its collective comprehension as in more complex responses to global governance. Conceptual effort is usefully bypassed and any latent paranoia can be usefully harnessed. As the old adage might put it: 'if all you have is a strategic hammer, every problem can only look like a nail'.

At one stroke, many of the factors inhibiting effective global action are eliminated or marginalized. World governance becomes an operational reality. Issues and concerns that might otherwise have been considered vital to the design of any approach to governance of a civilized world are set aside as irrelevant. A credible case can be made for benevolent imperialism led by the world's superpower with 'very big teeth' -- Tyrannosaurus usa? Any anomalies can be covered up by appropriate news management and media gag orders -- preferably self-imposed as a demonstration of loyalty and patriotism. The opportunity can be used for the further 'dumbing down' of the news.

In the management literature, and at every business school, criticism has traditionally been voiced regarding the non-strategic inadequacies of what is caricatured as a 'fire-fighting' strategy. This is management in response to the emergence of problematic exceptions without any effort to anticipate or plan strategically. However, as with the 'war on terrorism', fire-fighting has the considerable advantage of focusing everyone's attention on immediate necessities and framing any other concerns as dangerously irrelevant. It places control in the hands of professional fire-fighters who 'know what to do' and have the right to eliminate any obstructions to doing so. It is perhaps no accident that the 11th September attacks framed the New York firefighters as heroes and in doing so provided a new set of role models for the American people.

Perceived complexity can thus be usefully transformed into threat -- reinforcing dependence on leadership to deal with the resulting conceptual confusion (see Being Bushed). The level of threat can be easily maintained at very low cost by judicious use of suitably publicized scares -- as demonstrated by the use of anthrax subsequent to the 11th September attacks. This has the further advantage of dramatically alleviating the currently widespread political apathy and building a new level consensus.

Need for a threat

A number of authors have recognized the need for a viable threat as a means of giving coherence to policies of industrialized countries. For example, as stated by Hermann Goering at the Nuremburg Trials (1946):

Why of course the people don't want war... But after all it is the lmeaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship... Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.

The political theorist Carl Schmidt, for example, believed that sovereignty is not founded upon the elevated principles of law and order, but rather upon the ability of a chosen few to implement decisions at crucial moments, including, rather ominously, installing a dictatorship. Schmidt believed that political liberalism had failed to supply an effective alternative to the inefficient apparatus of the modern state. He defined politics as the search for enemies.

The comments of Pakistani scholar-activist, Eqbal Ahmad, in November 1998, are particularly useful:

After the Cold War, the West had no viable threat around which it could organize its policies. All powers, all imperial powers -- especially democratic ones -- cannot justify their uses of power only on the basis of greed. No one will buy it. They have needed two things: a ghost and a mission. The British carried the White Man's Burden. That was the mission. The French carried la mission civilisatrice, the civilizing mission. The Americans had, first, Manifest Destiny, and then found the mission of "standing watch on the walls of world freedom," in John F. Kennedy's ringing phrase. Each of them had the Black, the Yellow, and finally the Red Peril to fight against. There was a ghost. There was a mission. People bought it.

Right now, the United States is deprived of both the mission and the ghost. So the mission has appeared as human rights. It's a very strange mission for a country that for nearly 100 years has been supporting dictatorship, first in Latin America and then throughout the world. And in search of menace, it has turned to Islam. It's the easiest because the West has encountered resistance here: Algeria, then Egypt, Palestinians, the Iranian revolution. And a portion of it is strategically located: It's the home of the oil resources for the West. [more]

See also Needing Evil Elsewhere (

Single factor threats: past experiments

It is useful to trace the history of single factor threats since it is from previous efforts that the coherence of this reductionist approach to world governance can be better understood. Presumably it is from such historical experiments that the keys to a successful implementation of a single factor governance strategy emerged.

Possible examples include:

Single factor threats: terrorism as threat of the moment

'Terrorism' may be understood as the strategic device of the moment to enable the world's superpower to manage global society. Whether or not the 11th September attacks were deliberately instigated or evoked to this end by al-Qaida agents, Mossad, rogue segments of the US government, or others, is essentially irrelevant.

The key point is that the 'war against terrorism' can be, and is being, effectively used to deploy a 'fire-fighting' mindset and to deactivate the complexities of the socio-cultural ecology that is the qualitative basis for planetary society. As Gregory Bateson pointed out: If you destroy the pattern that connects, you destroy all quality. This is however irrelevant to ensuring control of global society by the world's superpower -- the modern emergence of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651) [more; more], as envisaged by Yehezkel Dror (The Capacity to Govern: A Report to the Club of Rome, 2001) [more].

Rather than requiring the world's strategists to rise to the complexity of a globally interdependent society, it reduces that complexity to the simplistic capacities of the strategists in power. In cybernetic terms (cf Ashby's Law) it is a reduction in the perceived complexity of a system to the capacity of those charged with controlling it.

The Foreign Minister of France, Hubert Vedrine indicated (7 February 2002):

"We are friends of the United States, we are friends of that people and we will remain so. But we are threatened today by a new simplism which consists in reducing everything to the war on terrorism. That is their approach, but we cannot accept that idea. You have got to tackle the root causes, the situations, poverty, injustice." [more]

As Denis de Rougemont said rightly with regard to the complexities (envisaged as necessary for global governance): "Federalism is marked by its love for complexity, in opposition to the rough simplism of totalitarian regimes".

Addendum: September 2003
Comment by the former UK environment minister (May 1997- June 2003)
Michael Meacher (This war on terrorism is bogus, Guardian, 6 September 2003),
following Gore Vidal (Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Bush-Cheney Junta, 2002) and
Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed (The War on Freedom: How and Why America was Attacked, September 11, Tree of Life Publications, 2002),
in the light of public domain documents

None of this assembled evidence, all of which comes from sources already in the public domain, is compatible with the idea of a real, determined war on terrorism. The catalogue of evidence does, however, fall into place when set against the PNAC blueprint [Rebuilding America's Defenses, 2000]. From this it seems that the so-called "war on terrorism" is being used largely as bogus cover for achieving wider US strategic geopolitical objectives. Indeed Tony Blair himself hinted at this when he said to the Commons liaison committee: "To be truthful about it, there was no way we could have got the public consent to have suddenly launched a campaign on Afghanistan but for what happened on September 11" (Times, July 17 2002). Similarly Rumsfeld was so determined to obtain a rationale for an attack on Iraq that on 10 separate occasions he asked the CIA to find evidence linking Iraq to 9/11; the CIA repeatedly came back empty-handed (Time Magazine, May 13 2002)....

The conclusion of all this analysis must surely be that the "global war on terrorism" has the hallmarks of a political myth propagated to pave the way for a wholly different agenda - the US goal of world hegemony, built around securing by force command over the oil supplies required to drive the whole project. Is collusion in this myth and junior participation in this project really a proper aspiration for British foreign policy? If there was ever need to justify a more objective British stance, driven by our own independent goals, this whole depressing saga surely provides all the evidence needed for a radical change of course.

Single factor threats: provisions for the future

Identification of the above threats may be seen as individual attempts to focus strategic debate and tie it to a single issue. Whether such novel threats have been fabricated, deliberately or inadvertently, is irrelevant to the learnings that they each provide for the use of single factor threats as a means of managing the challenges of global governance -- freed of some of the inhibiting constraints of human rights and freedoms. It is obvious to all that when faced with a 'fire', the niceties must be set aside until the 'fire' is brought under control. If the heroic fire-fighters inadvertently cause harm or damage in the process this is only to be regretted as unfortunate 'collateral damage'.

The end must necessarily justify the means. The most helpful articulation of this attitude is Madeleine Albright's response (12 May 1996), as US Secretary of State, to a query as to whether the death of 500,000 Iraqui children was justified in order to further US policy. She indicated: "the price is worth it" -- an attitude that has been the subject of commentary in relation to the 11th September attacks [more]. The same might be said of the US avoidance of intervention to prevent the Rwandan genocidal massacre in 1994 [more].

The problem with the threats listed above is that they each seem to have a relatively short life span as credible threats -- even though they may be presented as requiring that a country be on a war footing (possibly 'for the next 50 years'). George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) [more] has however provided indications of measures to be taken to render threats sustainable:

Orwell's approaches may however quickly lose their novelty value. The challenge for world governance is then to envisage a series of novel future threats whose level of threat can be enhanced whenever earlier threats lose their credibility. Already 'in the pipeline' are:

Other threats that may play a singular role in the near future are those associated with the dramatic consequences for the increasing generational divide -- with the increase in the number (and proportion) of elderly and with the increase in the frustration of young people made responsible for supporting them through fragile social security systems. The threat to older people by younger people might be usefully labelled as the 'Golden Peril' whilst that of older people to younger people might be labelled as the 'Silver Peril'. Homosexuality, as a lifestyle preference widely perceived as threatening (notably by those focused on singular threats), might be labelled the 'Pink Peril'. Another perceived threat deriving from lifestyle preferences is that associated with hippies, drop-outs and travellers -- possibly to be labelled the 'Orange Peril'.

Avoidance of global social issues

It is important to contrast the selected singular global threats (Class A threats) with those of world problems in general (Class C threats), and those particularly identified as major (Class B threats) [see database on over 30,000 world problems]. The singular threats legitimate the 'fire-fighting' response which allows action on the the other problems to be 'temporarily' set aside. The singular threats allow for simple 'silver bullet' responses like carpet bombing and political assassination -- achieving the kind of 'success' associated with the campaign against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The other problems are essentially intractable and interwoven. They confront society with many strategic dilemmas [more] which do not lend themselves to resolution -- and indeed undermine collective resolution to change.

To be a useful strategic basis for world governance, the singular threat should ideally permit resources to be allocated in a controlled manner to reinforce the integrity of the controlling regime. It should minimize any allocation of resources to efforts to change the social structures and behaviours engendering the threat. Thus in the case of terrorism it is vital to focus on investments in the military industrial complex that enables the creation of new security systems (cf. intelligence resources, Echelon, etc). Token humanitarian investments can be allocated for rebuilding, although the emphasis should be made on rhetorical support for such rebuilding. But investment in any effort to actually remedy the engendering conditions should be minimized behind a screen of stirring public relations and commitments that are in no way associated with any intention to fulfil them. In these respects, the responses of George Bush and Tony Blair to terrorism have been exemplary.

It is useful to identify some of these intractable problems and to recall attempts made by those most sensitive to them to promote them to the status of singular threats -- whilst recognizing the ways in which they have been reframed to minimize the resources and attention accorded to them. Of particular interest is the degree of avoidance of any effort to reconcile the conflicting priorities amongst them and the dramatic requirements for social change that they call for:

Learnings from personal strategic analogues

The viability of structuring behaviour in terms of a singular threat is more readily comprehensible in the case of an individual. Indeed it has been argued that the individual psychological biases of leaders significantly affect the collective strategies that they advocate and find credible.

Identifying -- or being exposed to -- an immediate threat focuses the awareness and eliminates the paralysis associated with endeavoyuring to reconcile a multiplicity of conflicting desires and obligations. It is irrelevant whether the threat is real or imagined, or simply over-exaggerated.

The important learning relates to identification of the conditions under which the response to such threat becomes dysfunctional -- as in the case of pathological obsessions and phobias. But, as has been said, the fact that a person suffers from paranoia, does not mean that someone is not 'out to get them'.

Future prospects for viable alternatives

Those promoting singular threats are inherently incapable of envisaging more appropriate responses to the challenges of world governance and are effectively threatened by the possibility that alternative responses may be viable and preferable -- to the point of denying such posibilities as dangerously naive. Elements of a more complex response might however include perspectives such as the following:

From a strategic perspective 'one-plan thinking' is necessarily doomed to failure faced with a problematique that, hydra-like, takes many forms and is in continuous mutation. The conceptual challenge is, paradoxically, to find a suitable form for the plan which is many plans, and which itself evolves over time as the ecology of those plans.

It is how the ecology of strategies is to be understood that is the challenge -- prior to, and during, any well-meaning global intervention. But paradoxically intervention there will necessarily continue to be, even in the light of necessarily inadequate comprehension. Perhaps the metaphor for what is missing is provided by the contrast between allopathic medicine and homeopathic medicine -- recognizing the threat of homeopathic medicine to the mindset of a medical profession controlled by the priorities of the pharmaceutical industry.

For related arguments associated with the Global Strategies Project with some 30,000 interlinked strategies;, see other documents on governance through metaphor


The shift to a singular focus offers an instant solution to the many difficulties and dilemmas of effective world governance. In the history of ideas and beliefs it may be compared with the shift from polytheistic to monotheistic systems. This shift was necessarily accompanied by the destruction of beliefs, practices and institutions associated with numerous old deities of significance to particular social groups -- but the suffering occasioned by the means employed could be considered well worth the ends achieved.

A number of eminent scholars have criticized single factor explanations in response to the widespread hope that a simple answer can be formulated to the challenge of the times. Many believe fervently that such answers exist in single-factor statements such as "peace", "love", "order", etc. Whilst a necessary feature of the psychosocial system, such belief obscures the richness and significance of the fundamental disagreement concerning the ways such conflicting answers can be implemented in practice. Edgar Morin (1981) and Kenneth Boulding (1978) both note the dangers of single factor explanations at this time. In Boulding's words:

"The evolutionary vision sees human history as a vast interacting network of species and relationships of many different kinds, and there really is no "leading factor" always in the forefront. At times, changes in material technology are the major mutational developments and create niches for social changes of various kinds. At other times, however, intellectual or spiritual movements take the lead and create niches for new material artifacts and technologies; sometimes climatic changes dominate the scene, or sometimes biological mutations dominate, such as the disease bacteria that caused the great plagues." (Ecodynamics: A New Theory of Societal Evolution, 1978, p.19-20)

Despite the resources of society, and the considerable efforts deployed to identify alternatives to the singular approach, it is important to recognize that demonstrations of such alternatives have not proven sufficiently viable to attract permanent commitment to them even by their advocates. Such efforts have been significantly, if not systematically, undermined by those favouring more simplistic solutions -- notably as in the case of the Nixon regime's response to the Chilean experiment under Salvador Allende. Indeed it is debateable whether industrialized societies have given any official support to social experiments commensurate with the investment associated with technological research and development [more; more; more; more; more; more].

'There is no war on terror'
Sir Ken Macdonald, Declaration by UK Director of Public Prosecutions, 23 January 2007

'It is critical that we understand that this new form of terrorism carries another more subtle, perhaps equally pernicious, risk. Because it might encourage a fear-driven and inappropriate response. By that I mean it can tempt us to abandon our values. I think it important to understand that this is one of its primary purposes.'

Sir Ken, head of the Crown Prosecution Service, told members of the Criminal Bar Association it should be an article of faith that crimes of terrorism are dealt with by criminal justice and that a 'culture of legislative restraint in the area of terrorist crime is central to the existence of an efficient and human rights compatible process'.

'We wouldn't get far in promoting a civilising culture of respect for rights amongst and between citizens if we set about undermining fair trials in the simple pursuit of greater numbers of inevitably less safe convictions. On the contrary, it is obvious that the process of winning convictions ought to be in keeping with a consensual rule of law and not detached from it. Otherwise we sacrifice fundamental values critical to the maintenance of the rule of law - upon which everything else depends.'

The criminal justice response to terrorism must be 'proportionate and grounded in due process and the rule of law,' he said. 'We must protect ourselves from these atrocious crimes without abandoning our traditions of freedom.'

Sir Ken warned of the pernicious risk that a 'fear-driven and inappropriate' response to the threat could lead Britain to abandon respect for fair trials and the due process of law. (Clare Dyer, 24 January 2007, The Guardian)


Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed. The War on Freedom: How and Why America was Attacked, September 11. Tree of Life Publications, 2002 [review | review | review]

Arden B Dahl. Command Dysfunction: minding the cognitive war. (Thesis presented to the Faculty of the School of Advanced Airpower Studies, University of Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, 1996) [text]

Susan George. The Lugano Report: On Preserving Capitalism in the 21st Century. London, Pluto Press, London, 1999 [review | review]

Brent Heeringa and Paul Cohen. An Underlying Model for Defeat Mechanisms. 2000 [text]

Gary King, Brent Heeringa, David Westbrook, Joe Catalano and Paul Cohen. Models of Defeat [text]

Leonard C. Lewin. Report from Iron Mountain: The Possibility and Desirability of Peace. Dial Press, 1967 [review | review | review | review | review]

Union of International Associations. Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. K G Saur Verlag, 1994-5, 3 vols. [overview]

Gore Vidal. Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Bush-Cheney Junta. Thunder's Mouth Press, 2002 [review]

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