As technological prowess has become more critical, the old pattern of an international balance has started to erode. More players have emerged in the strategic balance of power, global stability based on a small number of players, similar in their identity and objectives, is fading and strategic rivalry is rising, writes Juan Battaleme, Academic Director of the Argentinean Council of International Relations. The publication of this article continues online collaboration between Valdai Club as part of its Think Tank project and Argentine Council on International Relations (CARI).
We are living at a time which many consider to be a “new” geopolitical frontier. Digital frontiers have an impact on real life. Most people realise that profound concepts, such as liberty, are at odds with these new changes when looking at big tech companies’ digital stores. Choosing apps in one country or another is getting more challenging because of several barriers or even economic competition between corporate titans.
The political discussion is not new. Once again, we have empowered human capabilities, but this time it has been done through digital tools, changing previous understandings of society, politics, economics, and warfare. Like previously-created frontiers, they are exciting, and there is a lot of discussion about the consequences of the latest changes. We are pushing several things to the limit.
The technological change has put a revolutionary new landscape in front of us. Enhanced data processing and collection, autonomous learning, artificial intelligence, and the promise of a 5G infrastructure are leading us to rethink politics. All of them impact what we can call the “XXI century race for what is next”.
For state actors, ‘what’s next’ may entail pushing the political frontier to obtain primacy. When exploring how this may transpire, we should consider three aspects that shape the race. First, who will have access and who will have the capacity to deny it, commonly known as the access and anti-access dynamic. The second is who is able to obtain an advantage with respect to knowledge and decision-making, providing leverage over all political contenders on the international stage. Finally, the weaponisation of interdependence presents a significant challenge in terms of political autonomy. For some states, linkage politics could be costly, opening frequent opportunities for leverage against any actor working within a specific network. In that case, disengagement will be the preferred political option for those who can achieve it. As we can see now, the concept of one global internet under one single political project is nearing its end.
As technological prowess has become more critical, the old pattern of an international balance has started to erode. More players have emerged in the strategic balance of power as technologies expand; global stability based on a small number of players, similar in their identity and objectives, and a stable reputation is fading. Strategic rivalry is rising, driven by the clash between great powers to obtain and access capabilities related to their military and economic needs as they seek to secure dominance. As the power transition comes to an end, rivalry is becoming more acute, and every region has had to accommodate a more competitive and less stable international system. We remain in a generally defensive posture in the real world, but we are entering an offensive dominance posture with respect to cyberspace and outer space.
Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman have described in a recent work the existence of two problems that arise with the expansion and centralisation of networks in a few central nodes related to the structure of communications, financial exchanges, and physical production. Those have an unequal capacity for influence, and they create a differentiated impact, since belonging to a particular network can entail lower benefits than one with more substantial connections. In that sense, relative gains remain essential, even in a non-zero-sum world. That is a problem for countries in regions such as Latin America.
First, rigidity in an interdependent world affects the autonomy of countries with fewer resources. Even if we intend to maintain good relations with all great powers, being commercially connected with one of them and agreeing to be bound to the use of their communication infrastructure could preclude connections with others, which may cite national security concerns. The newest digital frontiers could create spheres of influence.
The permanent monitoring or “panopticon effect” provides advantages that allow state actors to understand and therefore anticipate hostile intentions and tactics, helping prevent, deter, or derail actions considered dangerous or against specific interests. Simultaneously, the “chokepoint effect,” which is based on states’ privileges through existing capacities (critical geographical places, materials, and operating systems), limits or penalises the use of these in some areas by third parties. Expensive and painful to replace, this takes interdependence vulnerability to a new level. Economic strategies employed in statecraft exploit this effect to pressure the weakest partners or specific points in the value chain. An example of that is the US decision to deny China access to the Android operating system.
Several examples help us to understand both effects. Between 2010 and 2013, the NSA spied on political authorities and key companies’ directives in Brazil, Mexico, and Germany to gain information about energy production negotiations, financial dealings, and projects, using several internet tools to access proprietary information, helping to advance US companies’ understanding of the business environment.
Simultaneously, the GCHQ (the British equivalent of the NSA) deployed a similar programme with two objectives: Gaining access to Argentine communications networks was the first objective. They tried to understand and monitor the information traffic and critical information about Argentina. The second was a campaign to affect several different countries’ public opinions concerning the Malvinas Islands (Falkland Islands) controversy, known as “Operation Quito”. Large-scale psychological operations proved possible.
In 2020 we understand the ability to hack computers but, a more problematic and troublesome development is that we can hack minds collectively. In a post-truth era, the old phrase “I want to believe” from the 90’s TV series X-Files rings true: many people are ready to believe whatever they want to believe.
Understanding multiple transformations as their impacts occur provokes optimistic views about abundant possibilities in a brave new world. Simultaneously, even greater pessimism arises in anticipation of a fractured scenario emerging as a consequence of social transformation.
The emergence and promotion of “agile governance,” which can articulate different logic, objectives, and actions to navigate the present, is a better way to think of governance. State actors with decreasing weight, transnational corporate actors with growing importance in international affairs, and civil society interested in specific niches will demand governance where “multiple stakeholders” are accounted for.
At the moment, there are two views about how to pursue governance. Russia and China are pushing for multilateral agreements, as they have a densely supervised private sphere. Simultaneously, the West promotes multi-party governance, as its private sphere has greater autonomy and regulations lag behind them. While it may seem contradictory, thinking “big” in the coming years will require more intense work in the diplomatic and security spheres. It is more feasible for a small number of actors to share views concerning specific issues and topics and work on agreements that work for them. The future of our digital world lies in the advancement of the communication infrastructure; it depends on building trust among major players and avoiding stiff power competition.