If You Bowl Alone, You Can’t Fight Together

National security depends on a vanishing sense of community.

By Elisabeth Braw, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
James Rebhorn bowls at the Second Stage Theatres 19th Annual All-Star Bowling at Leisure Time Bowling Lanes on February 6, 2006 in New York, New York. (Scott Wintrow/Getty Images)
James Rebhorn bowls at the Second Stage Theatres 19th Annual All-Star Bowling at Leisure Time Bowling Lanes on February 6, 2006 in New York, New York. (Scott Wintrow/Getty Images)

Rural America is suffering from a severe shortage of volunteer ambulance drivers, the New Yorker recently reported. That’s not just a health care problem—it’s a national security one, just the latest manifestation of the failures of voluntarism and cooperation that our societies once depended on.

If countries are to defend themselves against attacks directed against civil society, civil society has to hang together. Today’s hybrid aggression directed against Western countries may, in fact, be a blessing in disguise. When people no longer bowl together (or volunteer for the local ambulance service or pursue any other activity together), societies fall apart.

Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, presciently documented the perils of individualization in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone. When he wrote the book, Americans’ membership in the Red Cross had declined by 61 percent since 1970. “At all educational (and hence social) levels of American society, and counting all sorts of group memberships, the average number of associational memberships has fallen by about a fourth over the last quarter century,” he reported. Communal bowling plummeted by 40 percent between 1980 and 1998.

Bowling increased by 10 percent during that period; it was doing so with others that fell out of favor. And as Putnam noted, that meant a decline in conversations over pizza and beer at the bowling alley. Since then, civic engagement has declined further and not just in the United States. Between 2013 and 2014 and 2016 and 2017, for example, the share of Britons ages 25 to 34 who had volunteered at least once in 12 months dropped from 67 to 57 percent. In the just-released book The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind, the University of Chicago professor Raghuram Rajan approaches the decline from a financial perspective.

Lots of factors drove the decline in civil engagements. But the trend toward individualization has been strengthened by the rise of post-Cold War neoliberalism, where Western governments put the individual ahead of society. Neoliberal policies were paired with decision-makers’ belief in the end of history. With the previously constant cycle of armed conflict and warfare over, why would a country need to come together for a common cause?

Without regular interaction courtesy of a social activity such as volunteering or an amateur bowling league, people are more likely to retreat into a social media-fueled world of egocentric concerns and echo chamber approval. Among the most obvious results of the gradual disappearance of the communal plaza (or amateur bowling league) is the accelerated rise of populist parties and movements—in which people find the sense of community once more gently expressed in hobbies and town hall arguments. Look at the online forums for QAnon and other conspiracy theories, where the participants lament their lack of connection with family or community and talk of the forum as a replacement.

This is also a national security concern, or, rather, it’s time to view it as such. Last spring, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) published a brochure titled “If Crisis or War Comes,” which was sent to every household in the country and soon became famous far beyond Sweden. The brochure instructs residents of Sweden what to do in case of a crisis, including if “the heating stops working, it becomes difficult to prepare and store food, the shops … run out of food and other goods,” the mobile network goes down, or sewage systems stop functioning. It tells residents which goods to always store at home. (Think powdered milk and canned vegetables.)

Every developed country should follow the MSB’s example. If power or the internet goes down, daily life comes to a standstill. A successful attack on U.S. infrastructure is a realistic prospect: In 2017, for example, Russian hackers penetrated the networks of several U.S. utilities and could, as Jonathan Homer, the Department of Homeland Security chief of industrial control system analysis, explained, “have disrupted power flows.” Imagine 24 hours—or 48 or 72—without power. No refrigeration, no heating, no light, no credit card purchases, no cash machines. You get the idea (or you can ask those who lived through Hurricane Sandy).

Prudent residents following the MSB’s advice will cope with a crisis better than those who haven’t prepared. But individual preparedness is just the first step. Without a culture of communal engagement, preparedness becomes an individual endeavor. Picture a country full of preppers who buy all the canned vegetables and powdered milk for themselves. In a crisis, instead of being able to efficiently organize itself aided by the efforts of its residents, the country would risk descending into social Darwinism and anarchy.

Disaster demands people work together—which is trickier if they don’t know how. The routines of planning meetings and regular practice runs, however tedious they might sometimes be, build the habits that save lives later. Whatever one thinks of communal activities in general, in national security collective action is vital. Without coordination and joint action, social Darwinism takes over: everyone for themselves. Yes, good Samaritans always materialize. But if they act individually, even they risk doing more harm than good. One mayor, whose town was recently hit by devastating forest fires, told me of local residents leaving care packages for the firefighters; the mayor found herself with piles of goods such as fresh ground beef that were of no use to the firefighters.

Today, Russia can bring parts of Western societies to a halt by the flick of a switch. So can other hostile countries. According to a recent report by the IT security company CrowdStrike, it takes Russian hackers an average of 19 minutes to hack a network; North Koreans do it in an average of two hours; Chinese hackers average four hours. Companies and the government can do their best to prevent a successful attack, but as Ciaran Martin, the director of Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre, has pointed out: “Some attacks will get through. What you need to do [at that point] is cauterize the damage.”

Cauterizing the damage requires action by the government—and the public. Fragmented populations are a national security liability. Indeed, they’re a liability regardless of whether a country is targeted by hybrid warfare or not. If residents don’t interact on a regular basis, how are societies to hang together? Recent election results, of course, illustrate that they don’t. Hybrid warfare may in fact be a blessing in disguise. If the populations of developed countries are to be resilient against the nonmilitary parts of hybrid aggression, they have to work together.

Let’s say those Russian hackers had decided to flick the switch in the U.S. utilities they had penetrated. Or, say, China decided to disrupt traffic in the undersea cables that transport the world’s internet traffic: a possible scenario, given that Chinese companies now often construct and repair the cables, as retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis has pointed out. Most people would simply panic.

Communal planning and action in local communities could limit the effect. Cities could designate gathering spots much the same way they do for natural disasters, and residents could also organize their own communal gathering places. Waiting out an emergency with others is more sufferable than doing so alone with bottled water and canned tuna. Residents could also prepare by learning how to identify real and fake news. If book clubs can thrive, why not news clubs? Indeed, weekly news discussion groups could serve a social as well as a societal function: disseminating news together as opposed to bowling alone. Or put another way: Get to know your neighbors courtesy of Vladimir Putin. Countries should also consider introducing volunteer resilience corps—which will become a necessity as climate change exacerbates natural disasters.

During World War II, British civilians joined new organizations such as the Women’s Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precautions, which staffed hostels and feeding centers. In some countries, similar organizations still exist. In Sweden, some 350,000 people belong to 18 organizations with crisis functions that include looking after animals and training drivers to assist civil emergency authorities and the armed forces. In most countries, joining the Red Cross is an easy step toward communal action. The very first step, however, should be the simple recognition, in Benjamin Franklin’s words, that if we don’t hang together, we all hang separately.

Elisabeth Braw is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw