Resilience Theatre

Main Image Credit A queue for airport security. Courtesy of Karl Baron/Flickr.

Some thoughts on the current fad for pledges to enhance national resilience.

That the post-9/11 era is over, supplanted by a pandemic, is now taken for granted. In the defence and security world, the intellectual fascination with counterinsurgency has long since passed, replaced by ‘great power competition’.

One term has persisted, however. It has even gained in strength. That is ‘resilience’. It is heard almost daily from the lips of politicians, from Marco Rubio to Ursula von der Leyen. In defence-speak, resilience is ‘the ability of an architecture to support the functions necessary for mission success with higher probability, shorter periods of reduced capability, and across a wider range of scenarios, conditions, and threats, in spite of hostile action or adverse conditions’.

Resilience offers us a double-edged sword. It is an important concept in that it provides a way to psychologically survive the trauma of the present moment and tacitly enhance preparedness for similar unforeseen challenges that may come our way. But in doing so, it delivers an easy and false panacea of performative gestures that, in themselves, do little to protect or make us more resilient, and may even, in fact, do the opposite.

However, it remains a convenient concept in the current era for a number of reasons.

First, it keeps the securocrats in business. They do not even need to invent a new vocabulary. Resilient societies, so long as they remain vigilant as well, can recover from any number of disasters. But vigilance and the expertise it demands carry heavy costs.

Second, resilience is indefinite in scope and duration. It can, in theory, become a permanent state of affairs. Back when Donald Rumsfeld declared a ‘long war’ against terrorism worldwide, it was difficult to tell how many people took the label seriously. But it is difficult for most of us now to imagine that the current war of resilience will ever really be, or that we will want it to be, over.

Third, it reassures people that they are fighting not just against but also for something. Resilience implies incipient threat, but also allows for positive action. That was the brilliance of Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms: two of them – the freedom to speak and the freedom to worship – were positive; the other two – freedom from want and freedom from fear – were negative. Each freedom is eminently scalable, and none loses its power at any point of the scale, from individual, to family, to city, to country, to world. Together, all four galvanised society as they inspired individuals.

Resilience shows every sign of doing the same. Or does it? Resilience is by its nature aspirational. This is a key aspect of its power to inspire. Nobody can reach a perfect state of resilience, whereas it is possible to live in an imperfect world that is still for the most part free.

Herein lies the terrible temptation. The more that people seek resilience, the more vulnerable they are likely to feel, especially during crises like the one now underway. And the more each individual will look to their surroundings (which includes other individuals) as a threat. Which means they are all the more likely to turn to ever more blatant and expensive performances of ‘resilience’, instead of attempting to achieve a resilient state. In the performance, the aspiration is lost.

Critics of the War on Terror coined their own term: ‘security theatre’. It became something of a cri de coeur whenever removing belts and shoes at the airport. It encompasses, in the form of ‘border theatre’, the performance of security and immigration control at national checkpoints. We see this type of behaviour again today, but what has always been inward-facing has become neurotically domestic: the borders of the country have become the borders of the home.

This is not to diminish the seriousness with which anyone should take social distancing, and the necessity for personal protective equipment during a pandemic. It is not the measures that are at issue. Rather, it is the way governments and the media speak about them. There is something undeniably theatrical about it. Such performance has a dangerous, self-replicating tendency that often leads to our being so wrapped up in the modus operandi that we forget the reason for it all in the first place.

‘Performativity’ may be the key to galvanising the collective at a political level, but both security and resilience theatre are antithetical to their stated aims: to make us both safer and more resilient. A resilient society cannot be wrapped in cotton wool. What is needed, therefore, is a closer alignment between the language of resilience and resilience itself with closer attention to the deep-seated irony of the current and ongoing performances of resilience theatre.

That challenge is familiar. For the past century much of the world has been in a state of crisis. The enemy was often labelled a pernicious abstraction, an ‘ism’: Bolshevism, Fascism, Communism, Terrorism. The mobilising concept or strategy was also vague to the point of confusion: containment, deterrence, enlargement, engagement. And they were sometimes mutually exclusive, as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and similar insurgencies where intervening superpowers struggled to define what and whom they were containing and deterring at the same time.

Some people say the root problem is the tendency of modern society to define everything loosely in crisis terms. The Cold War, for instance, bred numerous other long, twilight struggles: wars against poverty, disease, culture, etc. Perhaps if we stopped calling things we do not like wars, they would be easier to defeat.

Or perhaps not. A global pandemic (demonstrably not a war) has required the mobilisation of enormous resources, not least in feeding the hope that our societies will recover from the losses in blood and treasure. Mundane and repetitive performances in the face of grave difficultly can only be sustained if hope of recovery is offered as a future salve. Such performances are the essence of resilience.

Again, during the Cold War, the contradictions of strategy and policy became axiomatic. The word that was used most frequently then was not resilience but ‘survival’. The Soviets and their allies were known to prefer ‘hardening’ their targets by burying them so deep underground that destroying them was thought next to impossible.

The West for the most part used a different approach: ‘redundancy’. Many targets, including command headquarters, were easy to find and destroy, but there was always redundancy, so if one or two or even many were hit, there would always be more than one to substitute. Combined with decentralisation, this is the basic principle of the Internet, which the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency conceived during the Cold War.

A resilient system can also be redundant, but the two principles are not really synonymous or even mutually consistent. For the components of a system to bounce back and thrive means they cannot be discarded so easily. There is little room, in the current era of ‘resilience theatre’, for redundancy, nor for competing national systems.

In other words, resilient systems must be not only flexibly maintained but hardened, too, at least on the inside. Unlike survival, resilience is above all a psychological concept which is also a practice. Physiologically, one becomes adaptable, responsive to that same external aggressor. Psychologically, one is ‘hardened’ so as to appear resilient against an external aggressor. It is a sort of hardening in the current vocabulary, the shifting of the mood from ‘pandemic’ to ‘war’ that we must be most wary of.

So long as hardening is seen for what it is – the management through protection of the symptoms of fragility rather than its singular antidote – there is nothing wrong with it. The same goes for adaptability. It is not wholly antithetical that this hardening must be self-reflective, must move in response to the needs of both what is being made resilient and what it is practicing resilience against. To put it with due irony tempered by just seriousness, we must learn to read beyond the face-mask and acknowledge public performances of resilience for what they are: individual gestures enacted in hope of full, worldwide, recovery.

If we do those things, and continue to think and act collectively on the best ways to protect ourselves, we may overcome the fungible, problematic nature of resilience. It need not be replaced with another galvanising political concept for a society in the midst of a pandemic or other traumas, and neither need it become an empty concept, recognisable only through the performance of associated empty gestures in the service of politics.

If, however, ‘resilience theatre’ is the world-stage of our present and future, then all of us must be wary of such differences between appearances and reality. For every crisis brings out opportunists, profiteers, and charlatans, who will revel in the benefits of resilience theatre.

The costs, however, will be steep, for nothing destroys resilience more quickly than the realisation that it is wearing no clothes.

Kenneth Weisbrode is an historian. His latest book is Practical Lessons from US Foreign Policy: The Itinerant Years (with James E Goodby).

Heather H Yeung is a writer. Her latest book is On Literary Plasticity: Readings with Kafka in Ecology, Voice, and Object-Life.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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