In an earlier article, we proposed the Crack of Dawn Test as a thought experiment to ascertain a nation-state’s level of resilience and self-sufficiency.

We now pose an equally important thought experiment, the First Shot Test.

Were your country to find itself at war tomorrow, how extensive would its Fifth Column be?

Who would take up the gun against their host country?

Would it depend on who the adversary was?

Who would turn on their community and neighbours?

Who would back insurrection regardless of the cause?

Some Qualifications

A few things have to understood about this test.

Firstly, it is not always wrong to be a ‘fifth columnist’. A patriotic North Korean under the Kims or patriotic Soviet citizen under Stalin would be morally justified, perhaps even morally compelled, to resist his or her government.

Secondly, this is not a religious or ethnic test. There are religious or ethnic minorities who would fight for a country they consider to be their homeland in spite of disagreement or difference. Equally, there are those belonging to the politically dominant religious or ethnic group who would fight against it.

Thirdly, committed pacifists necessarily fall outside of the scope of this test.

The First Shot Test

It is clear, however, that many countries do harbour confirmed fifth columns, namely individuals, groups, or communities that are so estranged from the dominant culture that they would take up arms against the host state in the event of an armed conflict. These individuals and groups may conceal their animus in peacetime, but would join some or any foreign actor in a time of war. Alternatively, a particular society might be so divided that a precondition for a civil war is established.

A moment of crisis such as 9/11 or the COVID-19 pandemic can be helpful in revealing those that harbour extreme ill-intent towards their host state. Even in peacetime, governments do not need to look far to find terror-supporting Islamists, radical Marxists or agents of foreign states.

While we are rightly appalled at authoritarian regimes’ counter-productive efforts to indoctrinate national loyalty on estranged populations – viz the Turkish Government’s approach to the Kurds – liberal regimes are sowing the seeds of their own demise if they ignore the reality of the challenge posed by individuals or communities harboring ideological, ethnic or religious animus.

Liberal democracies should make better use of the two main policy responses at their disposal: separation and rapprochement.

Under the separation response, an individual committed to terrorism might be exiled or repatriated, while separatists might be granted independence. Governments are often reluctant to use this response as it might be seen as an admission of defeat. In truth, separation responses are an acknowledgement of the power of conviction and the limits of state powers of persuasion.

Under the rapprochement response, efforts to win hearts and minds on behalf of estranged individuals and communities should be made, including addressing the root causes of estrangement, while also recognising intractability when it is encountered.

What is not acceptable is for liberal democracies blithely to ignore fundamental threats to their integrity!

The World Is Rugged, Thomas!

A world where nations have greater self-sufficiency and internal integrity is one in which the world, as a whole, will be less fragile.

The pursuit of global peace through global interdependence has been tried and has failed for too long now. The reality is that better boundaries make better neighbours.

A renewed localism could help tame the excesses of global capitalism, help nation-states become more crisis-resilient, and bolster cultural diversity in the face of homogenising globalising tendencies.


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