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The time has come

So, about NGOs. Non-governmental organizations, if you’re not down with the acronyms.

I think the events of the last five years have made it patently clear that NGOs of whatever sort can have a huge effect on the world we live in. Example one is 9/11. Al Qaeda is not a government in any sense of the word, but they’ve touched everyone who lives in the United States and most of the rest of the world. Example two is Microsoft. The antitrust trials of the last few years have been simply fascinating from the point of view of a territorial government trying to deal with an economic powerhouse whose interests don’t coincide with the country in which it resides. Further, when Bill Gates gives a hundred million dollars to India to combat HIV — that’s power; that has results.

There are organizations out there who can affect the nations of the world to a greater degree than many nations. An unlikely hypothetical: what if Microsoft decided to embargo Pakistan? What if Windows 2005 contained code that would shut down the computer if it had an IP in Pakistani netblocks? Wouldn’t be a universal barrier to operation, but it would make Pakistan’s life hard. It’d be noticed.

There’s no context in traditional diplomacy for the power that arises from non-territorial ground. It’s assumed that powerful economic interests will share the interests of the country from which they originate. The great trading companies of the colonial age were trusted to the point where they’d function as arms of the government; we see this with the Netherlands, with England, and so forth.

The Sherman Act (and other anti-trust legislation) meant that the value of such a relationship to the corporate sector was diminished. Modern communication technologies and travel times mean that there’s less value to physical location than there once was. It’s unclear how much value there is to cooperation, at this point. Microsoft knows this. If the Japanese government ever becomes less cooperative with the large keiretsu, they’ll know it as well. The rise of shady Russian capitalist endeavours? Yeah, that’s another example of the same dynamic.

Al Qaeda and similar terrorist groups are the flip side of the same coin. You couldn’t organize a large globe-spanning terrorist organization without modern technologies.

It seems to me to be foolhardy to treat influential non-aligned powers as if they were second-class citizens. Ignoring the ability of either economic titans or criminal organizations is risky at best. This doesn’t mean that I think we should treat with Osama bin Laden any more than I think that parleying with Pol Pot would be wise. I think characterizing the hunt for Al Qaeda as a war is in fact appropriate; it’s recognition that we’re dealing with an entity who in nature if not in scale is a peer.

We need to take that recognition and extend it to other such entities.

The difficulty here is that such recognition is fundamentally subversive in nature. An important component of most political theory is that governments have a fundamental right to govern. The lines of thought which lead to such a right do not generally leave room for Microsoft to become a peer of Uganda.

It’ll be interesting to see if practical necessity erodes the foundations of the rule of law over the next few decades. Cyberpunk, ho.

One Comment

  1. Eric Raymond’s just published another internal memo from Microsoft. (Hint: the fisking doesn’t improve your credibility, Eric.) I recommend skipping

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