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Connectivity Conflicts and the Contest for Cyberpower: On the Age of Unpeace

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Biden, Xi and Putin surrounded by computer servers in front of a map of the world

Last month the head of Britain’s MI5 joined his counterpart at the American FBI to issue an unprecedented warning.

China, he said, represents the single greatest threat to the economic and national security of the West. The threat comes not only from the increasing role Chinese state capital plays in global circuits of commodities and goods but its relatively new potential to exert power through new technology whether via hacking, surveillance or intellectual property theft.

In this context, Mark Leonard’s latest book The Age of Unpeace – recently published in paperback – convincingly demonstrates that the same bonds that make for a more interconnected world are simultaneously the cause of its current dangers.

Leonard argues that conflict is one of the features of interconnection and not just a temporary glitch in an otherwise seamless globalisation. Rather than calling an end to great power rivalry, the age of connectivity carried over cold war geopolitics in a transformed guise and with a different set of tools through which to seize and wield power.

Insecurity runs through this new world as national interests jostle and citizens compete in global markets. Contrary to the optimistic belief that a more open world would foster consensus and compromise, interdependence and cooperation have actually exacerbated competition and coercion between countries.

Some hoped globalisation would bring a ‘flat’ world where the nation state was side-lined. Instead states have become more relevant as established and rising powers lock horns in a type of conflict that often blurs the lines between war and peace.

The perceived costs of conventional war have created a geopolitical climate where, as the extension of politics by other means, wars are fought between competing powers through a range of tools and instruments centred on the connectivity that exists between them, such as sanctions and cyberattacks.

The ambiguity of this ‘age of unpeace’ presents a long-lasting challenge to all governments. This is because, Leonard argues, the conditions of the connectivity that binds the world’s states together also give them the opportunities, reasons and weapons to contest the terms of that world through conflict.

Conflicts Between and Within Nations

Connectivity alone does not itself cause conflict. However, it has increased the risk of it through strengthening the desire for power or status that has sat at the core of tensions and conflicts between countries for much of human history, challenging and reconfiguring countries’ sense of ‘identity and interests’ in the process.

In this way, combining economic and cultural concerns, the consequences of connectivity have also cascaded down through our domestic politics, just as they have simultaneously bubbled up from local tensions. Globalisation saw jobs offshored and risks proliferate for working-class communities opening up opportunities for populists to exploit. Connectivity meant that for many of these communities the world felt increasingly out of control and impossible to bring back under any kind of order with the dwindling reserves of power, agency and voice available to them.

In this context, the reason the demand to ‘take back control’ was so persuasive was because it resonated with the pervasive lack of control brought about by a more connected world, not only at the level of work and everyday life but at a broader level of nations seemingly left powerless as their polities found themselves reeling in the face of technological, economic and societal shifts.

"Connectivity alone does not itself cause conflict. However, it has increased the risk of it"

In these ways and others, the conflicts that have arisen between nations are intimately associated with those that have arisen within them, both driven by fear, envy and victimhood. Now, as we face recession and the global economic pie diminishes, actors are pushing harder to bag themselves a bigger slice of what little remains, both at home and abroad. Domestic and foreign policy coincide, with internal and external threats combining – for instance, in cyberspace. In the age of unpeace, technology brings the geopolitical to the front doorstep in a way that was previously not possible.

The domestic and the global are more closely intertwined in this new era of conflict by the character of the technology that occupies its core. In the cold war, it was the Soviet launch of Sputnik that spurred the US to invest in initiatives like DARPA, which eventually produced innovations on the scale of the internet. Today, technologies like AI are the battleground between the West and China or Russia. The pervasiveness of these technologies means that the contest between nations and blocs has direct implications for nearly all areas of everyday life and work, and across all areas of critical infrastructure, in most parts of the world.

Trade and Power

The new challenges of connectivity are not well recognised in either our domestic or international political arenas. They raise the key issue of security, not just at state level but across our society.

Leonard cites the Biden administration as a possible model for how to address conflicted connectivity. It has attempted to reengage voters who have felt hard done by in a more connected world, whilst reorienting US policy on trade, technology, and foreign affairs to be more cautious and competitive, namely with reference to China. This recognises, rather than runs from, the fact that trade itself has become a tool of the power politics that has re-emerged from out of the liberal internationalist order.

Other states in the orbit of the two big power blocs forming around the US and China have followed these countries’ leads by also prioritising, subsidising and encouraging local consumption from domestic producers against international suppliers. The risks of interconnected supply chains having been exposed by COVID-19, this trend has been exacerbated by the pandemic but generally tends to represent a longer-standing tendency that pre-exists the past two years alone.

The networked character of contemporary production and supply chains creates points of weakness where relations break down, as exhibited with recent ruptures around the global shortage of semiconductors. Among those countries that can, this creates tendencies to withdraw from interdependence towards independence in areas such as energy, the internet and other goods and services central to national infrastructure, as countries seek to reduce vulnerability to security concerns and exposure to supply chain shocks.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in front of a Taiwanese semiconductor factory.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in front of a Taiwanese semiconductor factory.

Pivotal here is cybersecurity, where the two main global actors, leading their own sometimes loose blocs of other allied states and state-aligned groups, are the US National Security Agency and China’s Ministry of Public Security. This defence and national security struggle reverberates through the corporate world as the West and China pit their own tech giants against one another in the market for hardware (e.g. chips and 5G) and software (AI, platforms, data, algorithms).

In the age of ‘Global Britain’, even the generally pro-competition UK government is belatedly recognising challenges around technology takeovers. NVIDIA (a US company) was effectively blocked by regulation from taking over ARM and Huawei has been explicitly, banned from a role in the 5G rollout.

Ideas matter too in defining global power, Leonard argues, not just material advantage. The internet and how it is used are intimately entwined with values and ideas of how society should be organised. Each model – from the libertarian laissez faire data market of the US’s Silicon Valley; the surveillance and security architecture of China’s closed cyberspace; what Leonard calls the ‘bourgeois internet’ the EU has attempted to establish, policing conduct through privacy laws; to the sphere of active disinformation and hybrid warfare propagated by Russia – reflects something about that society.

Where the UK stands in this has been given some thought in the government’s Integrated Review, which proposed to have liberal democratic norms and values running through the technological innovations produced by the UK’s cyber industries.

Informed by these different moral and political worldviews, the ability to set rules and regulate new technology is a core area of advantage to players for global power in the age of unpeace. China, Leonard suggests, is actively leading attempts to govern the implementation of new technologies like 5G and AI so as to grant its national state-capital competitive advantage worldwide, including in rival countries.

As social media divides the internet into separate spheres around competing nationalisms, ideologies and versions of the truth, these tendencies all make cyberspace not simply a field of connections, but of conflict and fragmentation, shaping ‘the flow of ideas, intellectual property and patents’, as Leonard puts it.

The Contest for Cyberpower

From the perspective of those charged with protecting the UK’s national security, this poses a threat not only to privacy or intellectual property, but also to human life and the functioning of society and state. An example is the Russian cyberattack on UK businesses and public sector organisations in 2017, which disrupted NHS systems causing appointment cancellations, a forced return to analogue recordkeeping and ambulance diversions as hospitals struggled to accommodate emergency admissions amidst the chaos.

 

This provides only a glimpse of what state or state-aligned hackers could achieve were they to target the National Grid, the Trident submarines or the UK banking system. Such a scenario was starkly set out in the recent Channel 4 drama series The Undeclared War, where a Russian cyberattack on BT is augmented by a campaign of social media disinformation designed to erode public trust.

The battle for cyberpower, characterised by the spiral of imitation and competition that characterises conflict in the era of connectivity, means that the West is increasingly compelled to create its own version of the ‘big security’ Xi Jinping espouses in China, whereby national security is recalibrated away from a narrow focus on conventional armed force to a focus on how enemy actors can manipulate interdependence in every aspect of society and everyday life, such as telecommunications, media, the financial system, industry and supply chains.

Here, the Biden presidency again presents a model of how Western states can respond to the new threats. While Biden does not promise a simplistic ‘America First’ programme such as that of his isolationist predecessor, stopping short of total decoupling from China, there is an attempt to connect foreign policy with the domestic needs of working-class communities in the US, Leonard suggests. This places jobs – often unionised – at the centre of trade, national security at the centre of industrial policy and supply chains, and competition with China at the centre of American interests overseas, including its relationships with allies.

This will result, Leonard contends, in a US-led bloc wherein rules are set to collectively govern the novel and shifting terrains of technological, political and economic power in the age of unpeace. Rather than openness to, and integration with, the whole world, then, what we will increasingly see is ‘deeper integration and coordination only with trusted friends’ – something that the UK in particular stands to potentially benefit from.

President Biden signing the CHIPS and Science Act on the White House South Lawn
President Biden signing the CHIPS and Science Act

One of the key outcomes of this will be to drive the regulation of cyber, 5G, AI, semiconductors and so on, in such a way as to ensure that Chinese state-backed firms fall afoul of guidelines on privacy and other issues, facing barriers to trade, competition and expansion beyond their immediate borders.

This bloc-based power politics – likely to be replicated with a rival China-led grouping and further evolution of EU approaches – will therefore increasingly come to supplant, in the making and breaking of global governance, established institutions of the liberal order like the ailing UN. One of the forms this might assume, Leonard suggests, is a US-led ‘Economic Prosperity Network’ that, resigned to the impossibility of bringing China into the democratic fold, creates a new set of trade, investment and regulatory relationships in areas such as supply chains and data markets based around some fidelity to liberal norms – ‘a parallel universe from which Beijing is excluded’.

Such an initiative would be swimming with the tide rather than against it. US attempts to decouple from China are mirrored in China’s own plans to introduce a ‘dual circulation economy’ insulated from global competitive pressures and disruptions, whilst Europe too is sporadically beguiled by its own vision of ‘strategic autonomy’, not only from China but from its erstwhile but unpredictable allies in Washington.

A Wholesale Redesign

The task for countries like the UK in this context is to walk the narrow tightrope between wholesale interconnectedness and protectionism. In order to avoid a retreat from globalisation into the nation-state alone, it helps to understand global connectivity not as something imposed upon nations otherwise sovereign and at odds with one another, but rather that connectivity and a system of competing national interests exist in a kind of contradictory unity that must be navigated with care and sophistication.

Whilst, as Leonard writes, the aim must be to ‘insulate Western economies and political systems from Chinese interference’, this can realistically only take the guise for now of a ‘selective decoupling’ that prioritises independence in, say, telecommunications infrastructure but some independence in raw materials, for instance. This would accept the continuing need to compete, in some cases robustly, but tries to minimise the emergence of direct or indirect conflict.

Thus, the vexed but intractable relationship between global connectivity and local control needs to be managed rather than wished away. This management will not be confined to the relatively abstract and distant field of foreign policy and international relations. It will have huge domestic implications and a renewed industrial strategy focused on work and secure jobs has to be part of the solution.

In order to navigate this new world, we need a new policy foundation focussed on what some commentators call the ‘left behind’ and a new wider of politics of work utilising our values around security, fairness and respect. This puts secure and rewarding work as a central priority for government and elevates ideas such as the current government’s Levelling Up agenda from local polities to part of our national infrastructure and future security.

"The task for countries like the UK in this context is to walk the narrow tightrope between wholesale interconnectedness and protectionism"

One example Leonard recommends is the steps taken by some Scandinavian social democracies to lower pensionable age for workers who enter the labour market earlier, often without having pursued higher education. This is a small example of a broader project Leonard proposes it is incumbent on Western leaders to embrace: a wholesale redesign of ‘national education, healthcare, social care, welfare and industrial policies’ in order to generate wealth more productively and equitably in the domestic sphere so as to better defend power at home and project power abroad.

Another example is the New Zealand Government’s approach to Fair Pay Agreements to lift the prestige and quality of work in key areas of public interest, such as social care and public transport. The EU itself has set a goal to increase collective bargaining as part of its approach to addressing worker voice and to create a floor against rising inequality.

The difficulties, Leonard contends, may arise where domestic consent is sought to scale up local initiatives to the level of transnational blocs and agreements designed to counterweigh the global reach of rival powers. The story of TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – is a case in point, an agreement to create durable, independent economic links between the US and Europe eventually coming a cropper on the basis of the sometimes exaggerated complaints of populists and anti-establishment political forces in EU member states.

Forever Conflict?

The nightmare scenario Leonard describes is one of a ‘forever conflict’ that falls short of a clearly defined state of war or peace but, owing to this ambiguity, slowly produces debilitating cyberattacks, economic crises and disruptions to the supply of goods, all exacerbated by the underpinning crisis associated with climate change.

Since Leonard’s book was first released, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has realised some of these aspects, raising the stakes and playing a major part in sharpening the sense that such a scenario is imminent. At the time of writing, China’s escalatory rhetoric and military provocations in Taiwan’s sovereign waters are having a similar effect.

These tensions and aggressions have also increased the urgency of the mission confronting our politicians and policymakers, including any future Labour government in the UK. This mission is to comprehensively reconfigure our creaking economy and society so as to restore trust, bolster security and build resilience in the context of a more dangerous and uncertain world where the binds of connectivity are rapidly fraying.

For a discussion about one potential solution to how the UK can reconfigure its economy, see ‘Should we nationalise energy to tackle the cost of living crisis?