Image courtesy of Flikr user The National Guard. Image courtesy of Flikr user The National Guard.

Summer Essay Campaign #2: “The Speed Gap”

To Answer Question #7: “How does geography and demographics impact a nation’s grand and military strategic choices?”

By Major John McRae

his book The End of Power, Moises Naim lays out the myriad ways the historical virtue of power has diminished of late, and has in some circumstances become a liability.  As I reflected on the case studies Naim laid out, however, I kept returning to corollary that the author doesn’t fully address.  Namely, the crucial role that speed plays in the reshaping of both power structures and strategic decision making in the 21st Century.  Specifically, I kept returning to the fundamental disconnect between the current capacity for rapid action at the national level and growing expectations worldwide for quick and satisfying outcomes.  A handful of examples can serve to illuminate how this challenge is becoming widespread of late.

An old Chinese aphorism observes that “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”  This is no less true in modern China than it was in the Ming Dynasty.  Given an enormous land mass imbued with a similarly massive population base, the Communist Party of China has among its responsibilities the projection of national unity across an ethnically diverse and geographically dispersed citizenry.  This challenge is exacerbated by the rapid rise of technology in the country.  Just as in the 15th Century Emperor Chenghua had to deal with the challenges endemic to both the Xinjiang province and Guangdong province 2,600 miles apart, so too does President Xi Jinping.  President Xi, however, has the added challenge of a more savvy, more connected, and in many senses entitled China than any of his predecessors.  Again, the speed with which Chinese citizens expect their government to act is of serious concern for the CPC.  Couple this rise in expectations with the notoriously slow-moving machinations of a bureaucracy as vast and entrenched as the CPC, and there is a potentially serious problem afoot.

In modern China, the recent economic boom arrived concurrently with expanded technological dispersion amongst poorer populations, as well as the rise of such social media sites as Weibo, commonly known as “Chinese Twitter.”  Recent estimates put usage rates close to 50% among Chinese web users, around 3/4 of whom are between the ages of 19 and 30.  Without a doubt, this group of young Chinese is experiencing a China unlike that of any previous generation, wherein information is disseminated from the source of an event, frequently unfiltered, across the country within minutes.  Unsurprisingly, this rapid and increasingly free flow of information is of interest to the Communist Party of China, as resentment levels have risen commensurate with expanded knowledge of the party’s failure to act.  One recent example of the speed gap fomenting friction between the party and the populace is a student-run account spurred by a single incident related to food safety in Shanghai.  Frustrated by a lack of government oversight, the student began detailing his experiences, growing his follower base from 10,000 to 5 million in one month’s time, and instantly creating an online rallying cry aimed at government accounts.  Curiously, to date the CPC has largely ignored the overnight assimilation of frustrated populations like these, and has chosen to view Weibo as yet another tool at its disposal with which to retain power.  It remains to be seen if this will prove to be a sustainable strategy, or if a philosophical and structural change will be required of the CPC in order to deal with a new, more rapidly evolving reality.

The Cyber domain yields a different sort of example as well, that of the speed gap evident in world governments’ ability to forestall and react to ever more frequent cyber-attacks.  In April, the Canadian government revealed that 900 Canadian citizens had their social insurance numbers stolen as a results of the malicious Heartbleed bug.  Both the government’s preparation and reaction time were suspect in the incident, with one University of Toronto research fellow noting the Canadian government “was really slow on this”, adding that “if you look at Yahoo, it had begun updating its security practices prior to the [Canada Revenue Agency] fully taking action. The same thing with other larger companies. As soon as they saw what was going on, they immediately reacted and issued public statements.” (Emphasis mine).  Can the speed gap between government and outside sectors really endure as a fact of life, attributable somehow to a lack of profit motive, poor business practices, or the maddening leisurely pace of bureaucracy?  Will people 10, 20, or 50 years from now stand for it?

In some areas, governments are increasingly sidestepped altogether in favor of immediate action.  Sometime in the past twenty years, NGOs have risen from “valued partner” status in international affairs to a driver of policy in their own right.  Global health is one area in which the immediacy of the need coupled with the increased financial strength of NGOs has made prompt and decisive action possible.  Ad hoc partnerships between industry and NGOs are being chartered with the intention of finding rapid, cost effective solutions to a widespread problems.  In the case of tuberculosis, one such alliance recently brought together partners such as drug manufacturers Bayer and AstraZeneca with the World Health Organization and the TB Alliance, enabling expanded information sharing among partners and faster access to TB regimens.  Meanwhile, a troubling lack of innovation and a decrease in both popular support and financial outlays among governmental institutions such as the European Union seems to portend a further decrease in the efficacy of governments in this instrument of national power.

In the macro view, many sovereign nations currently lack the speed required to meet current national expectations and keep pace with domestic and international events.  A rethinking of the institutional and philosophical components necessary to bridge the speed gap might well be in order.  As illustrated, there are a number of alternative extra-governmental means by which this gap can be closed, not all of them favorable to the governments in question.  Just ask Mubarak.


Major John D. McRae is en route to the Naval War College’s yearlong Intermediate Level Education course.  He served most recently as the Executive Officer to the G-3 of the Army National Guard.  Previous publications have appeared in The Daily Beast and Armed Forces Journal.