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Losing control: a chequered history

This article was written by Paul Rogers
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As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Paul Rogers, a past Chair of BISA, reflects on the chequered history of his book Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century. The fourth edition, written during lockdown, has just been published. Paul was Vice-Chair of BISA at the time of 9/11 (2000-2002), and Chair during the early years of the Iraq War (2002-04).


Losing Control was written in the late 1990s and published early in 2001, a few months before the 9/11 attacks and the start of two decades (so far) of the 'war on terror'. Although scarcely noticed by early readers it was close to being unique at the time in warning of a 9/11-level attack on the United States and a consequent war.

This was part of a much wider discussion, the basic argument being that the real causes of global insecurity in the early decades of the twenty-first century would be the widening socio-economic divide, global marginalisation and environmental limits to growth. This was hardly in the IR mainstream, where state-level analysis of security challenges in a culture dominated by defence establishments remained the norm, and any focus on the Global South was all too often marginalised in discourses and analysis.

Losing Control went further in arguing that a core trend was being missed, pointing to a world in which irregular warfare from the margins would prevent powerful states from maintaining the status quo. In doing so, it cited some of the many examples of irregular warfare in the 1990s such as the LTTE’s catastrophic bombing of the central business district of Colombo in January 1996, killing nearly a hundred and injuring 1,400.

Another was an Algerian paramilitary group’s extraordinary attempt in December 1994 to a hi-jack an Airbus A300 and crash it on the centre of Paris killing the 239 passengers and crew and as many people on the ground as possible. That was avoided by prompt action by French special forces during a refuelling stop at Marseilles and its significance was largely ignored in security circles.

Losing Control also analysed the Provisional IRA’s five-year economic targeting campaign against the City of London which aimed, successfully, at maximum political impact while avoiding mass casualties. Perhaps most significant was the February 1993 attempt to collapse the north tower of the New York World Trade Centre, bringing it down over the Vista Hotel and into the South Tower, killing upwards of 30,000 people. The attack failed, though only narrowly, and six people were killed and scores injured.

The book asked how the US would have reacted if that 1993 attack had succeeded. Would it have recognised the changing nature of international security and done some serious rethinking? More likely it would have gone for a “massive and violent military reaction against any groups anywhere in the Middle East that were thought to have had even the slightest connection with the attack”.

Not quite sinking

When published, Losing Control did not exactly sink like a stone, sales were reasonable among peace activists and researchers, but in the wider international politics and current affairs communities it was seen as something of a cul-de-sac, with mixed reviews. The real international security issues were still seen as state-on-state relations, with little focus on the Global South.

Then came the 9/11 attacks and attitudes changed almost overnight. Pluto Press put out a new edition with an extra chapter, this had a much wider readership and was translated into Chinese, Japanese and other languages. Pluto did a further edition a few years later with two more chapters and early last year I suggested another edition, ditching the three additional chapters and writing a Part II to cover the last two decades and look ahead. David Castle at Pluto wisely said no to that and recommended a full re-write, essentially a new book. This was written during lockdown and has ended up as the fourth edition, just published. [i]

There were at least three faults with the original which have hopefully been addressed. The discussion of IPE in the early post-colonial era was adequate, but not the analysis of the underlying economic drivers of marginalisation, especially the neoliberal transformations of the 1980s. There was also far too little coverage of the persistent dominance of the military-industrial complex, and while the coverage of environmental limitations may have been just about adequate for the late 1990s it needed a comprehensive updating given the many developments, both negative and positive.

Two decades on

So, where are we now? Four issues stand out from the past two decades, not least the experience of four failed wars: Afghanistan (2001-21), Iraq (2003-11), Libya (2011) and the anti-ISIS air war in Iraq and Syria (2014-18 but ongoing). The failure of the first three is obvious, with Afghanistan staring us in the face, apparent success in Iraq morphing into a deep threat from ISIS which grew phoenix-like from the supposed ashes of al-Qaida, and Libya’s continuing fragility and instability providing a long-term role as a conduit for arms and paramilitaries south to the Sahel.

The fourth war, the anti-ISIS air war, may initially have appeared to be a “success” but ISIS is still active in both countries, and its associates sustain their violent progress right across the Sahel, eastern Africa and south Asia and, as we have just seen, are already active in Afghanistan.

As to the neoliberal transition, this survived the 2008 financial crisis and remains the dominant economic culture, but with many variations and regional developments. The authoritarian capitalism practised principally in China may not fit in precisely, and newer trends such as multistakeholder activity may channel activity towards a measure of market control, if largely by unaccountable transnational corporations. The essence, though, is still a focus on competition not cooperation, and certainly not for the benefit of all.

A consequence of forty years of the culture is therefore a concentration of wealth that is outrageous, the recent runaway success of the hugely wealthy during the pandemic being little short of obscene. More generally, the socio-economic divide continues, with the really successful accelerating away, perhaps a fifth of the world’s people comfortable enough but the majority on the economic margins doing little more than tread water or even grow more impoverished. Furthermore, the global situation is being made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic damaging economies, especially across the Global South, and with the greatest impact on the marginalised.

Then there are the social, economic and political consequences of accelerating anthropogenic impacts on global ecosystem homeostasis, especially the failure to act on climate breakdown. This is at least getting more generally recognised than the other two with the growth in campaigning such as Extinction Rebellion and the impact of extreme weather events as climate breakdown develops. On the far more positive side, too, massive improvements in the renewable energy sector give a greater prospect of radical decarbonisation, but the harsh reality is that we are a good two decades late in our responses, these themselves are all too often inadequate and there is simply not the world-wide governmental commitment to be far more forceful.

Finally, we have a security paradigm which is all about maintaining the status quo rather than addressing underlying causes – in other words, keeping the lid on, or “liddism”.  Challenges are seen as threats that must be suppressed, with a premium on the use of military force. The military-industrial complexes in all large economies are tightly integrated, highly establishment-orientated and focused on preserving the status quo, all within a pervasive environment of hegemonic masculinity. They have effective and well-funded political lobbies that benefit from each complex’s near-inevitable profitability. The answer to climate breakdown, for example, will all too often be protecting a state from the impacts rather than working to prevent the breakdown happening in the first place.

We have just seen the end of the current war in Afghanistan, but it has already morphed into remote warfare using armed drone and other means, with the Daily Telegraph telling us that “The RAF is prepared to launch fresh air strikes against Islamic State in Afghanistan.” [ii] There is little understanding that the United States, UK and France got through over 100,000 precision guided bombs and missiles in the 2014-18 air war against ISIS, killing at least 50,000 ISIS supporters, and yet the movement survives and expands. Western security thinking is stuck in its own silo with too few challenges from the academy. “Liddism” rules OK.

Glowering planet?

By the time the new edition of Losing Control gets near the end the prospects for the coming decades seem increasingly to echo the warning from the economic geographer Edwin Brooks nearly half a century ago of “a crowded glowering planet of massive inequalities of wealth buttressed by stark force yet endlessly threatened by desperate people in the global ghettoes”.[iii]

The final chapter argues otherwise, pointing to the huge potential for change, especially if the nature of the global predicament is much more fully recognised. There are many ideas already out there for economic reform, by no means everything focuses solely on competition, there are 950 million members of cooperatives, mostly across the Global South, and the sheer level of ultra-high net wealth in just a few thousand hands makes a radical rethink more and more obvious and urgent.

Environmental rethinking is already under way as are many welcome technological improvements, but it is no use pretending that it will require anything less than a huge change to alter the current security paradigm, despite those four failed wars.

Hopefully, two things will come across in the new edition. One is that the three paradigms are closely interrelated. Neoliberal economics cannot handle the macro intergovernmental solutions needed to prevent climate breakdown, it feeds into and empowers military-industrial complexes, and those complexes maintain an inevitable requirement to maintain the status quo by whatever means is necessary.

Against this, there is such vigorous challenging and new thinking in prospect and already underway that the necessary changes can still happen. There is still time, but there will have to be a fundamental change in thinking in the 2020s, if we are to avoid ending up in that deeply unstable “glowering planet”.

Pluto Press have kindly offered a 50% discount code on Paul's book. Use code BISA50 at the checkout. Buy the book now.


Paul Rogers is Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, Honorary Fellow at the Joint Service Command and Staff College and and international security advisor at He was Vice-Chair of BISA at the time of 9/11, (2000-2002) and Chair during the early years of the Iraq War (2002-04)




[iii] In: Anthony Vann and Paul Rogers (eds) Human Ecology and World Development, (London, Plenum Press, 1974)

Photo by Magnus Olsson on Unsplash