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A new letter from the Director of the Centre for International Security Studies

25 April, 2014

CISS Director James Der Derian reflects on the significance of MH370 and other missed signals from recent global events in his latest Director's Letter.

Beacons have been lighting up the Australian airwaves.  When I boarded the flight back home from Singapore my seatmate looked up from his smart phone long enough to inform me the Royal Australian Navy had picked up a ping from the locator beacon of the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.  Before I could drill deeper into the story the take-off announcement came on, instructing us to buckle up and turn off all electronic devices.  Unencumbered by iPhone Location Services, our Boeing 777 - yes, the same aircraft model that had disappeared weeks earlier some 1000 kilometers northwest of Perth - taxied down the airway and headed to Australia.

Traversing the Pacific over the past few weeks, I pondered the significance of MH370, first among the annual gathering of the International Relations tribe at the International Studies Association Meeting in Toronto; then the hipster geeks, telecommunication gods, and somewhat superfluous academics at the Cyber Dialogue conference; and finally, with governmental officials and a handful of scholars from 26 Asian countries eager to take up the challenge of ‘Complex Systemic Resilience’ at the 8th Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior National Security Officers (AAPSNO) in Singapore.  In these differing yet related contexts I was wondering what, if anything, did the disappearance of MH370 mean - besides the possibility that the television series ‘Lost’ might have been tapping more than the collective unconsciousness  - for the field of security studies?  

Apparently, not much.  One could not walk through an airport, enter a bar, or access cable news without a breathless report and an endless loop of images about MH370. Yet the disappearance of and search for MH370 barely registered among the experts, scholars and others gathered at these three events.  Was this in spite or perhaps because of the excessive media attention it was getting outside the hermetic bubble of Conference World?  The media reports did lack substance:  indeed, they were about nothing -  but about a nothing that had become everything by the very absence of anything. ‘Zombie Flight 370’ on one cable station, ‘Ghost Flight 370 on another, had disappeared, and day after day, there was zero, nada, zip to report, except on the relentless effort to find something.  The absence of evidence in this case was, pace former US Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, evidence of absence.  

Senior Chief Marshal Angus Houston indicates the search area in the Indian Ocean for flight MH370. CREDIT: PAUL KANE/GETTY IMAGESir Chief Marshal Angus Houston indicates the search area in the Indian Ocean for flight MH370. CREDIT: PAUL KANE/GETTY IMAGES 

The discrepancy between what was happening inside and outside the conferences was telling.  With a few exceptions (mainly blog-based individuals) IR is a lumbering field, not too quick off the mark on breaking events.   Partially this is due to the obligatory if not always preferred format of dissemination in the IR field, with the most common route of presentation to journal submission to published article:  all told, a gestation of about a year if one is blessed with competent editors as well as efficient referees.   By then, the event has passed, the battery-life of its beacon long expired.  It is also the case that topics with discrete causes, deliberative (if not always rational) actors, and predictable outcomes (hence the proliferation of hypothesis-testing models in IR) make easier disciplinary fodder than irruptive, low probable, high consequence events like a disappearing airliner.

The question of not only how but whether to respond to such unexpected events is also begged by the recent (if perennial) fulminations heard in the press, various representative bodies, and some philanthropic foundations about the need to ‘bridge the gap’ between the Academy and the Public, between knowledge production and policy application. Many in the social sciences would prefer the task be left to think tanks, pundits, and public intellectuals.  But why should such a critical function of a working democracy, to frame, interpret and explain the significance of events, be left to more ‘interested’ parties?  Especially so, one would think, in the field of international security studies. Natural disasters and man-made fiascos, with immediate and potentially long-term effects on individuals, complex economic systems as well as democratic freedoms (always vulnerable when order and security are threatened) need swift and smart interventions.  Otherwise, local or regional incidents, media-magnified, force-multiplied, and national-securitized, can easily turn into full-blown crises, with their own auto-immune and blowback set of consequences. For these very reasons, Steve Flynn and others at the Singapore conference made a credible case for making resilient communities rather than state-based security systems the best first response to such events.

Do we, in the IR community, then, not have a public responsibility to join the search for MH370, using our own particular and critical faculties?  In this case, IR might benefit from Derrida’s insight, that every absence signals a presence, every presence an absence. Outside the conference rooms the missing signifier was the electro-magnetic beacon that would locate the airliner.  What seemed to be missing inside was a response to the emotional stimuli that engulfed and perhaps occluded the issue for IR.  This is not to say that there was an absence of empathy for those lost and suffering from the loss.  Difficult to model or quantify, emotions, or more precisely, the political and societal impact of collective affects, are a bad fit for much of IR, especially its most dominant one, realism:  based on a state-level of analysis and calculation of rational interests, it is epistemologically and emotionally handicapped and when it comes to responding to global events like MH370.  

MH370 image

Matters were not helped when the ‘black box’ of the State, the central concept of realism that holds states to be uniform and fairly indistinct in their pursuit of national interest, proved inordinately inept at finding the black box (actually orange) of MH370.  The twenty-odd Indo-Pacific nation-states that joined the search effort  - yet just months before many of whom had been clashing over the straits, sea lanes, and islands of the East and South China Seas - were outsmarted and outdone by a commercial satellite firm (that is, unless one takes conspiratorial view that US National Security Agency was keeping its powder dry, seeking to protect what little operational secrecy and capability, post-Snowden, they might still command).  The British firm, Inmarsat, used the ‘Doppler shift’, (most familiar in acoustic terms, as the waxing and waning of train approaching and passing), in wavelength frequency relative to the aircraft’s distance from one of its 10 satellites as they picked up the routine ping of the passing aircraft.   Like our mobile phones, each Aircraft Communications and Reporting System (ACARS) keeps on pinging even when the apps are turned off.  Inmarset could then roughly calculate from rates of fuel consumption the point 2,000 (later narrowed to 1,000) kilometres off the coast of Western Australia where the plane most likely plunged into the Indian Ocean.

Understandably, it is difficult for IR to be worthy of such events, which require considerable fluency in the visual or scientific languages that dominated the reportage of MH370, especially when it was conducted in images of nothing. Desperate for content to fill the blank expanse of the ocean, news outlets began to generate a variety of simulacra.  The stock cutaway for a reporter looking out from an aircraft window over an empty sea became a studio anchor talking to or sometimes sitting next to a pretend pilot in a mock cockpit of a 777, walking (flying?) the viewer through one increasingly incredible scenario after another. I watched this happening over and over again on CNN, mesmerized, until there came a brief interruption: a five-minute clip of President Obama speaking from Europe on a event deemed much less significant, the Russian take-over of Crimea.

Upon arrival at the Sydney airport, new beacons filled the headlines. I did a double-take when I saw in bold print on the front page of the Mirror: ‘A Beacon of Confidence’.  This beacon came not from the black box of MH 370 but the visiting Royal Couple.  Excerpted from the Duke of Cambridge’s address upon arrival in Sydney, his words sounded like a ping from an Anglo-island to the Asian archipelago: ‘Australia and Australians have always been for us a beacon of confidence, creativity in the arts and sporting ability.’  Then, on the cusp of President Obama’s visit to the Pacific region, a new beacon of hope appeared in the headlines: 20 nations  - roughly the same ones that had been searching the past month for MH370 - signed a ‘Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea’ at a symposium in the northeastern Chinese port city of Qingdao. 

What sense can security studies make of these mixed signals, from beacons of lost aircraft, old confidences, and future hopes?  Stay tuned for a message in the medium of the global event, the first CISS short documentary:  ‘The Q Effect’.

Contact:Raelene Loong
Phone: 61 2 9351 7663 (Mon & Tues)

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