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Resilience: A Container Term with Strategic Significance

Container terms arise when a word suddenly becomes so en vogue that everyone somehow knows what to do with it, and uses it to describe new challenges, changed problem situations, as well as the unknown and uncertain. The word then serves as a large container into which passers-by throw completely different meanings because they feel that what is meant and what is signified might somehow fit together. When, after a while, academia striving for precise terminology sets out to sort out the various meanings in order to restore order by deleting some meanings and providing others with more precise adjectives, this does not mean that clarity has been achieved. On the contrary, the disorder of the container concept is often more helpful in perceiving problems than the strictly delineated compartmentalization that academia strives for. Where there is diffusion of meaning, separation usually only creates a lack of understanding. This is also the case with the concept of resilience. 

Originating in psychology, the term carries a variety of meanings ranging from adaptability to robustness. Both were soon transferred from individuals to groups or entire societies, and in the process the term came to mean their ability to deal with their vulnerability, which then made the term interesting for security research. In contrast to rigid defense, resistance and repulsion, fortifications and armor, the term stands for a flexible and fluid approach to vulnerability, which refers to processing and learning, renewing and healing, changing and adapting, or the like. There are no limits to the expansion of meaning here. In a broader sense, resilience describes a disposition, capacity or strategy that does not seek to close and seal vulnerability under all circumstances. It is based on the idea that such fortifications and armor often have greater drawbacks than allowing certain vulnerabilities to exist, and that protection from attacks directed at them must be provided in some other way than by strengthening the threatened places. To put it more generally: resilience training is the practical application of the theoretical observation that “more” is not necessarily “better,” that optimization follows different rules than maximization.

This sounds simple, but it is far from self-evident. As a rule, conscious learning tends to strengthen those areas that have proven to be weak, just as it has proven to guarantee invulnerability in other areas. However, as the example of knights’ armor shows, this is not always helpful, as additional armor makes a knight heavier and less agile, which limits his ability to fight and results in him being defenseless once he is knocked off his horse. A more recent example is the French Maginot Line built after World War I, which was designed to extend the resistance and defensive power of the French army at Verdun in 1916 to an entire section of the frontier. By 1940, however, it had the effect of rendering much of the French army immobile and unable to engage in combat during the decisive phase of the campaign. Critical infrastructure, for example, can be much better protected than it is in Germany today by burying it deep in the ground or encasing it in reinforced concrete. However, there is a risk that the cost of protecting this infrastructure will then skyrocket to the point where funds are lacking elsewhere or the community becomes insolvent. Resilience, on the other hand, means looking for more flexible solutions that ensure that closing vulnerabilities does not lead to new, ultimately much riskier vulnerabilities.

As a strategy, resilience represents a way of dealing with vulnerability that is copied from nature, one that accepts wounding because it is doubtful that a focus on invulnerability will, in the long run, be conducive to the resilience and survival of a habitat or society. Admitting vulnerability can be a measure to build political trust, a precondition for preventing a dangerous arms race. But it can also be a strategic response to changing conditions that blur the previously distinct lines between war and peace and that, instead of building up defense preparedness in the face of imminent war, require a continuous defense capability, even when one is officially – and according to the general impression – in a state of peace. In the first case, the U.S. abandonment of the idea of creating invulnerability to ballistic missile attacks contributed to the termination of the research previously initiated by President Reagan for a missile defense system, the successful construction of which would have dissolved the political order of equilibrium between East and West and, in turn, led to an exponential increase in offensive weapons on the part of the Soviet Union. A North America that tended to be invulnerable would have made the world less, not more, secure. This, of course, was not directly aimed at developing resilience, but merely at keeping vulnerabilities open – assuming, of course, that one was resilient enough to be able to afford such vulnerability.

The situation is quite different when resilience capabilities are systematically developed in response to what has come to be referred to as “hybrid warfare”. This is concerned with a flexible staying power that is not directly linked to the event of war and is not intended as a measure to prevent it, but rather to ensure the survivability of a political order and a corresponding community, irrespective of war or peace. In earlier times, more precisely before terrorism developed into a global strategy and before the creeping spread of cyberwar, i.e., in times when states were still monopolists of war and threatened each other or were friends in alliances, one prepared for possible wars in peacetime by analyzing the nature of the threat as well as the capabilities of the potential aggressor to wage war, or to threaten to do so with coercive intent, in order to then take appropriate countermeasures on this basis. The more accurately the threat could be analyzed, the more accurately it could be responded to in order to deter the adversary from taking up arms or, if it did, to prevent it from achieving its purposes and objectives. The level of preparation and effort was mutually determined by both sides. Either symmetrical constellations prevailed, or both sides focused on maintaining or establishing symmetries. How the supposed adversary was viewed was decisive in this regard.

States no longer know with any degree of certainty who is threatening them. Attacks, as in the case of terrorist or cyber-attacks, come as a surprise, and it is not immediately possible to determine who the attackers are and what goals they are pursuing. Therefore, focusing on the perceived adversary and the threat it poses is no longer a reliable security strategy. The target of the attack is no longer the security forces themselves – which are rather bypassed or circumvented – and the attack is directed at the unstable collective psyche of post-heroic societies. As a consequence, the preparation for its defense or containment cannot be limited to these specific specialists, nor can it be planned as a state of emergency. Rather, society as a whole must be prepared at all times, and it can be assumed that such an attack could occur anywhere. Under these circumstances, we need to look at our own body politicand analyze its vulnerability in order to have as much staying power as possible. This is what the term resilience stands for, which is why it is reasonable and appropriate not to specify it further. Resilience is a multifaceted and flexible response to diffuse threats. It can consist of buffers and reserves in critical infrastructure, rapidly available repair capabilities, prudent protection of control and communication systems, or the composure, even calmness, with which the population responds to such attacks. In this sense, resilience ranges from reserve equipment and the widest possible range of capabilities to the mental state of the population.

Of course, this does not mean that the usual threats from states and the use of conventional weapons systems would disappear. However, the war in Ukraine, which is being waged with kinetic energy on the fronts and in Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, is accompanied by hybrid warfare that, although it is also directed against Ukraine, is primarily targeting Ukraine’s Western supporters. It is part of a policy of destruction aimed primarily at the will to use weapons and capabilities, rather than at the weapons and capabilities themselves. In this context, it is clear that German society leaves much to be desired in terms of the necessary resilience: it is nervous, intimidated by threats, especially those involving the use of nuclear weapons, and open to conspiracy narratives that retell the Russian war of aggression as an act of defense. This shows that neither politicians nor society have grasped yet how comprehensive and multifaceted resilience is as a strategy.

Herfried Münkler

Herfried Münkler, born in 1951, is an emeritus professor of political science at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Many of his books are considered standard works, such as “Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen” (2009, awarded the Leipzig Book Fair Prize), as well as “Der große Krieg” (2013), “Die neuen Deutschen” (2016) and “Der Dreißigjährige Krieg” (2017), all of which were on the bestseller list for months. Herfried Münkler has received numerous awards, including the Aby Warburg Foundation’s Science Award and the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Fellowship.

All articles by Herfried Münkler

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All articles in this issue

Resilience: A Container Term with Strategic Significance
Herfried Münkler
Resilience – Normatively Conceived, Transformatively Developed
Kerstin Schlögl-Flierl
Resilience from the Perspective of Christian Theologies: An Essay on Current “Resilience and Humanities” Research
Cornelia Richter
Resilience, Virtue Ethics, and Mental Health Care
Craig Steven Titus
Disinformation and Disinformation Resilience
André Schülke, Alexander Filipović
Resilience: A Care Ethical Perspective
Eva van Baarle, Peter Olsthoorn


Ulrich Wesemann Peggy Puhl-Regler, Alexandra Hoff-Ressel, Peter Wendl Rüdiger Frank