Erik Prince: What happens when America outsources its craziest security assignments to a private contractor, then throws him under the bus?
"Now, sitting in a boardroom above Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, he explains his newest title, acquired this month: chairman of Frontier Services Group, an Africa-focused security and logistics company with intimate ties to China’s largest state-owned conglomerate, Citic Group. Beijing has titanic ambitions to tap Africa’s resources—including $1 trillion in planned spending on roads, railways and airports by 2025—and Mr. Prince wants in."
Once, policymakers traded blame for “losing China.” Will anyone ask who lost Erik Prince?
Prince himself is clear about what sent him packing. Though the ordeal of falling out with the federal government was intense — Prince claims he was the top target of IRS auditors — that’s all in the past. It’s America’s future that has Prince turning to China. “”I would rather deal with the vagaries of investing in Africa,” he told the Journal, “than in figuring out what the hell else Washington is going to do to the entrepreneur next.” While America has lost its stomach for massive adventures, China “has the appetite to take frontier risk, that expeditionary risk of going to those less-certain, less-normal markets and figuring out how to make it happen.”
Some might see in Prince’s lament a particularly hard-nosed case for more “national greatness” programs favored by the dominant policy minds who came of political age in the 1990s. But if neoconservatives and neoliberals can ruefully pat themselves on the back for using Prince’s semi-defection as proof of the wisdom of enterprise zones, global interventionism, and rivalry with China, paleoconservatives, libertarians, and old-school leftists can see in the private-security kingpin a confirmation of their own biases too. A big-government military-industrial complex, too clumsy and fearful to take on its own toughest security challenges, can’t take the heat when the guy it hires to do so makes a mess — so it proceeds to clumsily and fearfully flog him out of Washington. What happens? Blowback, that favorite word of American foreign-policy critics.
But this isn’t just a foreign policy story. Whatever your politics, this is a story about the kinds of perils you can best grasp when you set aside a partisan policy lens and pick up the analytical frameworks offered by systems theory. Consider how the contours of our concern about Prince shift when we think of big government as a systems problem instead of an ideological one. It’s a truism that the bigger a system, the harder it falls. But we don’t focus enough on the how of it. The lesson is the same whether you’re looking at the pattern of global order in the post-Cold War world — where only a few outliers of major political risk (“the Axis of Evil”) persisted at the margins of the international political economy… or the pattern of international finance that produced the economic crisis of 2008… or the pattern of data collection and control that culminated in the “catastrophic” leaks released by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. When a system gets so large that its catastrophic threats become as marginal as possible, the nature of those threats becomes difficult to see, understand, and address. In theoretical parlance, rather than trying to predict unpredictable “black swans,” we should focus on whether we’ve created structural environments that amount to “black lakes” (or might we say… black water?).
The systems-theory approach to catastrophic risk is not, of course, free from strong criticism. One of the biggest names in systems theory, Nassim Taleb, has been drawn into the political controversy surrounding the potential systemic risk created by US monetary and fiscal policy. For some, there’s a lot at stake politically in theories potentially predicting that very loose money will provoke a collapse of America’s financial system (and the world’s) — or, at least, a lot of inflation. Rather than becoming ensnared in those debates, however, we’re best off approaching systems theory from the kind of standpoint that Erik Prince’s turn to China affords us. Rather than using systems theory as a tool for predicting painful events, we should use it as a heuristic for living what Taleb calls an “antifragile” life. Unlikely as it may at first seem, there’s a real connection between the shocking events that shake a system and our personal exercise of anti-fragile habits.
I could lay out an argument trying to persuade you of this, but I think it’s ultimately more powerful to just point back to Prince. After all, his explicit rationale for his new venture is that the US, as a system, has ceased to be anti-fragile, in both political and cultural terms. I’d suggest that the harder a system pushes against antifragility, the more dangerous the antifragile become to the system. Intentionally or not, that’s how you “create monsters.” It’s hard to guess just how dismaying an impact on Africa China will have with Erik Prince at its side. But it’s hard to see how any American can be happy with these latest fruits of our Blackwater experience. And though our pattern is to commence with the finger-pointing and the assignation of personal blame, it’s time to consider what it means for us to hold culpable our whole social and political system of bureaucratic bigness.
BY JAMES POULOS