We must learn to adapt to a permanent state of ‘non-war but also non-peace’. A more interconnected world means a broader range of potential hazards. Traditional methods of warfare combined with newer elements like online disinformation, cyberattacks, and the use of surrogates results in “hybrid war.” This can exploit ambiguity and be used by state or non-state actors to inflict harm, blur the line between war and peace, sow doubt, and destabilize societies. Such non-linear, grey zone conflicts have been deployed by major powers seeking to undermine rivals while avoiding a full-fledged war.
Building resilience must become a civic duty, and an ongoing process. In recognition of this new reality, NATO allies convened at the 2016 Warsaw Summit collectively committed to enhancing resilience “against the full spectrum of threats, including hybrid threats, from any direction.”
The mobilization of activists and hacktivists enables their patrons to avoid direct attribution while spreading chaos, discrediting adversaries, and making those who retaliate appear as the aggressor. Deniable and indirect conflict including cyber warfare (where distance and military might may be irrelevant) can be coupled with economic and trade sanctions, and the growing prevalence of hybrid war reflects a shifting global order - and a redistribution of power away from states that may be limited in their ability to respond to the threat due to a traditional separation of the military, intelligence services, and private sectors.
Hybrid war poses particular risks to businesses. Because it is designed to evade the constraints of established law and the conventions of war, it can easily endanger commercial activity. Psychological operations and propaganda can impact sectors like media, for example, and insurance - which relies on the stability of long-term investments. These types of operations can also target business reputations. International criminal groups are proving innovative when it comes to hybrid war, fuelling unprecedented levels of violence and political destabilization.
Whereas traditional warfare has a beginning and an end, the existence of multiple hybrid threats creates a “continuum of conflict” that we must learn to navigate. In a permanent state of non-war but also non-peace, we have to find ways to build resilience, or an ability to withstand and survive multiple threats touching every aspect of society.
Diffusion of Power
Global influence has been steadily diffused among hacker groups, terrorist organizations, and private companies. The general democratization of technology has reduced barriers to influencing global affairs; non-state actors (or state-sponsored actors) such as terrorist or hacker groups can use relatively cheap technology to disrupt much larger armed forces and entire nation-states. For example, in 2018 the shadowy “Free Alawites Movement” claimed responsibility for an attack in which 13 low-cost drones targeted Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base in Syria and reportedly destroyed a $300 million missile system.
Technology has granted individuals substantial influence through cyberattacks that can cripple companies and critical infrastructure. An attack on the Colonial Pipeline in the US by the group “Darkside” led to widespread petrol shortages, and elicited a $5 million ransom payment.
Power means being able to make others do what they otherwise would not. Following decades of intensive globalization and in response to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, power has been drawn away from nation-states and towards non-state actors. This has changed the power dynamics between states, particularly amid a perceived decline of the US and resurgence of China - and what power has not been diffused among non-state actors is being consolidated.
Private companies are also gaining geopolitical importance. The role they play in accelerating the spread of disinformation has put pressure on technology companies to help combat it. Facebook, for example, played a part in the turbulent 2020 US presidential election and its aftermath, including the storming of the Capitol. Companies’ economic might alone can be enough to put them at the centre of geopolitical disputes; only a handful of countries have a GDP larger than Apple’s market value.
The Chinese tech giant Huawei is at the forefront of global 5G network rollouts, which has stirred geopolitical tensions with the US and the European Union. States can benefit from exploiting widely-used technologies to bolster their own power and influence; Russian interference in US presidential elections is well documented, and serves as a prime example of how unleashing hacktivists, bots, and online trolls can impact geopolitical realities. Meanwhile US social media companies have played a part in neutralizing misinformation from the Kremlin about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and China has utilized digital technologies to bolster domestic surveillance while also spawning some of the largest tech companies in the world.
The return of great power competition has been accompanied by the outbreak in Ukraine of Europe’s largest ground war since World War II. Meanwhile an arms race conducted through the development of cutting-edge technologies proceeds apace, amid a lingering pandemic, the rising influence of non-state actors like terrorist organizations and hacker groups, and the expansion of conflict into space, cyberspace, the ocean, and the Arctic.
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The current international system has been deemed ‘multipolar,’ ‘bipolar’ and even ‘apolar’. Defining poles is now more difficult, as power can be exercised in many different ways. The 21st-century international system is generally becoming less state-centric as more actors empowered by technology and globalization are able to exert influence. Large private companies, for example, can no longer avoid discussions about their own impact on geopolitical polarity. Amid the multiplication of actors taking part in geopolitics, states have not necessarily been entirely sidelined; the demise of US hegemony has spawned regional powers that increasingly exert influence on select issues.
The bipolar world of the Cold War gave way to the subsequent unipolar order driven by the US. Now, we are faced with a redistribution of polarity - as some see China as a second pole to the US in a bipolar world, some see a multipolar world with many regional powers, and still others see an apolar world where different players are only powerful within regional spheres of influence. The war in Ukraine adds another dimension to the seismic change roiling geopolitics of the 21st century, drawing a line under the end of the unipolar moment and hastening a more contested era where revisionist powers seek to create a new balance of power.
The return of war in Europe has similarly brought power-politics back into sharp focus, and spurred fresh plans for re-armament in European countries and revisions of long-held defence policies. The return of great-power dynamics does not, however, mean that the new geopolitical developments of recent decades - which have included the emergence of hybrid threats, asymmetric warfare, and the greater involvement of non-state actors - are a thing of the past.
The international environment has become increasingly complex as conflicts come to include not only more actors but also added layers and threat vectors.
It is now almost impossible for a single hegemonic power to dominate every aspect of the international system and influence every conflict, though countries like Turkey are becoming major players within discrete regions like the Mediterranean and in conflicts such as those in Syria, Libya, or Nagorno Karabakh. Another prominent example is the conflict in Yemen, which has been highly influenced by regional actors including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
The Transformation of Warfare
Conflict increasingly blurs military and civilian dimensions as technology plays a more prominent role. Countries may now have to include public backlash in their war calculus. Iran reportedly uses a network of Shia militias across the Middle East to exert influence and indirectly confront other countries, for example; Hezbollah is seen as Iran’s senior surrogate and a primary vector of influence, used against Israel and in the Syrian Civil War. Similarly, Russia has reportedly used hacktivists to influence US elections. Non-state actors also delegate to the surrogates they cooperate with, creating a complex web of actors difficult to understand or control. For example, Hezbollah is believed to provide training, technological, and operational support to other non-state actors such as the Houthis in Yemen.
Technology is changing conflict in myriad ways. The increased prevalence of autonomous weapons and drones has altered the human, political, and economic costs of war. Meanwhile advances in neuro-technology are enabling human-machine combinations, with enhanced soldiers likely to appear on battlefields in the near future.
Globalized information means states can be culturally and economically isolated, and subjected to widespread international condemnation, at a scale never before seen - as the case of Russia following its invasion of Ukraine demonstrates. Though the inter-state conflict in Ukraine is conventional, states are increasingly losing their monopoly on war and violence, and often find themselves fighting non-state actors and ill-defined foes. Both state and non-state actors utilize overt and covert actions spanning the social, economic, and technological domains.
Autonomous weapons raise serious ethical questions; soon they may be able to identify, select, and kill human targets with little or no human oversight. This creates a legitimate concern that they will fall into the hands of malicious actors. In fact, the algorithms behind automation can be easily copied and diffused around the world, and the low cost of easily-accessible drones is already enabling smaller players to inflict significant damage on traditional armed forces. For example, it is estimated that the Islamic State flew more than 300 drone missions in one month alone during the battle for Mosul in 2017.
With the possibility of full autonomy looming, these attacks could become even more destructive and render traditional air defense systems ineffective. More importantly, the prospect of full autonomy implies potential technological surrogates - which could play a decisive role in future wars.
In 2016, the UN Security Council called on countries to strengthen their ability to keep non-state actors - who often collaborate with organized crime - from acquiring nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction. The council cited concerns related to unregulated stockpiles of fissile material, new ways of making biological weapons, and the potential hacking of nuclear power plants.
One factor empowering non-state actors like insurgents or terrorists is the growing tendency to engage in surrogate wars - like the US’s partnership with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units to counter the Islamic State in Syria (which ultimately frayed). This surrogate approach can lower costs, but it can also generate instability and spawn new extremist groups. Meanwhile the line between what is a clearly defined, inter-state conflict and what may be more of a civil war becomes increasingly blurred. Some countries have used this ambiguity to advance their strategic objectives, and many violent groups share a knack for adaptation - in 2017, three Islamic extremist groups merged to form the official Al-Qaeda branch in Mali.
COVID-19 has led to an increase in activity among violent, non-state actors. Some, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Houthis in Yemen, have used the pandemic to legitimize their presence - by either providing health services, enforcing health restrictions, or using the crisis as a rallying cry.
Groups like the Islamic State have meanwhile used the diversion of state security forces to deal with the pandemic to escalate their own activity. In Western Africa, for example, non-state armed groups and militias were significantly more active in the early months of the pandemic than average.
The US’s expedited exit from Afghanistan in 2021, which resulted in the Taliban regaining control over the country, further emboldened violent extremist groups across the world. Aside from signaling that the strongest military in the world could be overcome, it accelerated the resurgence of ISIS-K - an Islamic State affiliate - in Afghanistan, leading to dozens of attacks in the first four months of 2021 as the group exploited instability to ramp up its fight against the Taliban, the Afghan Government, and the US military.
Russia’s Ukraine invasion demonstrates that competition with Moscow is a defining feature of security in Europe and beyond
Total global military spending reached $1.98 trillion in 2020, the highest level since 1988. A 4.4% increase in the US compared with the prior year was accompanied by a 2.5% increase in Russia and a 1.9% increase in China. The abrupt exit of the US from Afghanistan in 2021 is symptomatic of a new American era focused less on nation-building and more on vying with China and Russia.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrated that strategic and regional competition with Moscow is a defining feature of security in Europe and beyond; with a war the likes of which have not been experienced in Europe since World War II on its borders, NATO found new relevance. Shockwaves were felt in European countries, as illustrated by Germany’s decision to boost defense spending by €100 billion.
Meanwhile the AUKUS pact announced in 2021 transferring nuclear-submarine technology from the UK and the US to Australia illustrates the growing strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific region. The US aims to bolster Australia as a partner to counter what it perceives as an aggressive China - where survey results indicate the public sees US power and influence as the top international threat facing their country.
Geo-economics has become a far bigger factor in international security. The West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown how sanctions have become a tool of choice in the geopolitical arena, as they enable economic isolation.
Standards have become a geopolitical frontline - in 2019, China submitted more technical proposals to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) than any other country, and in 2020 the ITU approved blockchain standards developed by Huawei and the People’s Bank of China, and facial-recognition standards from companies like Dahua and China Telecom. This creates economic value for China, while lending it soft power.
In terms of technological competition, the US and China have been banning one another’s companies (such as Huawei and Google), and the threat of a decoupling of the two economies still looms. COVID-19 only compounded related anxieties - when the pandemic hit, mostly-Chinese-made facemasks and other equipment were in short supply, highlighting the danger of depending on a single foreign source.
Demand for broader, more inclusive power-sharing arrangements has been evident in the increased prominence of the G20 relative to the G7, and in the emergence of institutions like the Shanghai-based New Development Bank.
The Technological Arms Race
The fusing of new technologies can create deadly weapons and fuel conflicts - or help to diffuse them. Many technologies spring from civilian research and development, effective public-private partnerships are essential. Ultimately, technology can help to contain conflict. Superior analytical accuracy thanks to big data and machine learning could convince potential belligerents that the costs of a war are likely to exceed any potential gains, for example. UN programs for conflict mediation and resolution have made use of AI and big data analytics, such as in Somalia - where the UN has a Big-Data Analytics and Digital Media support project to inform its operations.
The progress made on international accords concerning lethal autonomous weapons has been slow. The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict demonstrated the effectiveness of semi-autonomous kamikaze drones against an adversary that relies on traditional combat tactics - and the war in Ukraine that began in February 2022 only confirmed the effectiveness of drones deployed against a large military power. The Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel under development in the US is a drone designed to track and target enemy submarines, and the US has also developed a Long Range Anti-Ship Missile to semi-autonomously track and destroy enemy targets at great distances. Hypersonic weapons, operating at more than five times the speed of sound, are being developed by major global powers.
The Operational Fires program in the US aims to design ground-launched hypersonic weapons that can penetrate air defenses, in 2019 China unveiled hypersonic missiles believed to have been tested since 2014, and Russia boasts the Avangard and Kinzhal hypersonic missiles. Developments like this have created a growing awareness that technology has the power to upend the status quo, as new weapons potentially tip the balance in one direction or another.
Swarms of drones could challenge a superpower`s nuclear deterrence capabilities, for example. Once a seemingly harmless civilian technology like a drone is developed, it can be repurposed by militaries or malicious non-state actors at relatively low cost.
Dominance in artificial intelligence is now seen as a gateway to economic and military success; the race to reap the benefits of AI is well underway, as is global competition to set related global standards that could impose a particular world view. In recognition of the power of AI and other emerging technologies, NATO launched its own AI strategy in 2021, along with a $1 billion investment fund.