Many claim that we are currently living in the age of the Second Cold War, that we are possibly experiencing a Third World War. Others suggest that we have already started experiencing the very intensified international wave of deglobalization. Looking through the lens of politics and rational decision-making won’t answer the question of which of the above is true. In a decade when much has already started coming under scrutiny, when political developments occur at an unyielding pace and when economies have become the weapons of choice, we have to rethink what conflict means for us and how the game will unfold in the times to come – welcome cyberconflict.
Now more than ever, we stumble across references to artificial intelligence, big data and quantitative tools which interpret rapid political developments. Not so long ago, decoding leaders’ political decisions or organizations’ pivots in the global arena could simply be put down to ideological preferences or misalignment of interests. Now, however, it all comes down to the dynamics of recent means of technology which are here to change the nature of conflict. The classic image of armies disembarking planes and entering warzones is one that has been branded in our minds, yet the face of warfare may now turn more subtle and far more lethal.
Cyberwarfare is a topic that resembles some faraway reality, and even that cannot have concrete implications on human development. This is partly because no media attention has been placed on an issue that is increasingly permeating across sectors of political, social and economic development. In the sphere of cyberwarfare, cyber-attacks seem to have become the norm; they are considered natural, necessary and normal. Reports of hacks, espionage, leaks and attacks perpetrated through cyberspace may not be flamboyantly mentioned in the news, but if you look close enough, you will always see references in major stories. Internationally, many actors, most notably Iran, have openly declared their interest in the future emphasis that will be placed on these newly introduced means of effective warfare.
Despite their attractiveness due to their efficiency, they are complex strategies with constantly changing characteristics. They may be the tools of the elites, but they are understudied and greatly undiscovered. These drawbacks are certainly attributed to the uncertainty that dominates the field of cybersecurity and cyberconflict. Uncertainty pervades a broad set of cyber issues, such as the potential political and legal restraints in cyberspace, the viability of export control, the strategic value of cyber operations and the way in which state and non-state actors can cooperate, clash and homogenize their individual preferences.
Cyberconflict is the new era of warfare, not just because of the elite tactics, means and methods that are employed in a constantly changing world where everything is being questioned. It is the future of war due to its ability to overstep the notion of boundaries, disregard the concept of borders and redefine the idea of national sovereignty. This initiates a discussion on the relationship between decision-makers, perpetrators and citizens. Clarity rarely constitutes the building blocks of these relationships, which only raises the barriers of the cyber community and makes the cyber field less permeable. This only harms the prospects of stability and harmonized actions.
The rising timeliness of the matter is made even more intense when US foreign policy actions come under scrutiny. Ever since the end of the Cold War and little before the collapse of the USSR, the US primarily focused on topics of deterrence, resiliency, acquisition of ideological space and the maintenance of the international status quo. After the end of the 20th century, however, the US became increasingly more engaged in persistent engagement across international spheres and decisive yet subtle involvement on a global basis. The US example brings forth food for thought on the way cyberconflict will become a cornerstone of national security, of international stability and of the future of political developments as it will determine the way resources are allocated, borders are secured and countries halt destabilization from the outside.
In a time when all political developments become increasingly harder to follow given continuous technological developments, the COVID-19 pandemic has additionally highlighted the interconnectedness of states and the linkage between societies around the world. Ideally, the pandemic would have made differences between international actors less stark and would have roused states from their deep geopolitical bitterness and nationalistic insularity. On the contrary, it further flamed distrust, suspicions, geoeconomic rivalries and challenges. This implies that nations will now be more caught up in world tensions and will need to prepare for a more contested cyberspace, in which information, strategies and rapid actions will become harder to keep secret.
What the current pandemic also showcased was the prioritization of national actions. For many, deepening their political competition with one another was far more important than contributing to research and development towards the elimination of the virus. The US-China trade war hard turned into a war that has already affected or is soon to affect many actors, such as emerging Asian nations and Latin American countries in crisis. The concerns for economic and political intimidation by their rival made both US and China keep up with the issuing of threats and challenges and the pursuing of means to destabilize the already weak international order. Flexing muscles by pursuing economic coercion, low-intensity violence and cyber operations deviates from the traditional issuing of challenges and moves towards a grey zone composed of non-military means to achieve goals. These actions seek to gain advantage without provoking direct conventional military responses; this makes it increasingly difficult for free-market democracies to predict, counter and overcome. And this is exactly why cyberconflict has become the epicenter of contemporary warfare.
Cyber operations in the grey zone may still be a complex and not clearly defined issue, yet the increasingly frequency with which it is employed stresses how significant it is. It has the potential to undermine and intimidate opponents, influence allies, and reshape entire regional orders. From the seemingly simplistic practices of hacking the digital infrastructure and networks to cognitive attacks that weaponize national information, cyber operations impose indirect pressures on governments to pursue different policies and to adopt new economic initiatives.
The world is filled with examples of constant cyberattacks. When Australia experienced a cyberattack campaign, all eyes turned to its pacific neighbor, China, shortly after Australia called for research into the origins of the virus. In Indo-China, at the disputed Himalayan border, strategic analysts have suggested that China has stepped up its efforts using cyberattacks to extract national information from neighbors like India and Pakistan. Not so far away, explosions in sensitive locations in Iran have been allegedly caused due to US-originated computer worm, intended to extract data.
Looking ahead, it becomes clear that cyberattacks are going to intensify rather than simmer down and they will become far more common than governments are currently prepared for. As the current pandemic and its aftermath are expected to linger for quite some time, states may need to rebalance their national budgets, placing greater emphasis on national health and marginalizing spending on conventional security. This is what will ultimately revive the digitalized economy, interconnected operations and will bring cyberspace to the forefront. Actors, unitary and states alike, may exploit the still properly undefined and vast cyberspace and pursue overconfident attacks, which may ultimately lead to greater digitalization of economies, societies and politics, as actions rely more heavily on indispensable technology tools.
The ones caught up in this whirlwind of changes will need to learn how to increase their resiliency, brace themselves for unpredictable actions and pursue policies that will strengthen the homogeneity of their states. As support for multilateralism declines, states must learn to be independent in a still very interlinked world. States will have to employ grey zone tactics, like subtle hacking or more elite practices to circumvent conventional warfare costs that they will no longer be able or willing to endure.
In a period when geopolitical tensions are increasingly more entrenched, we may be called to revisit Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue and wonder whether “the difference between right and wrong” is as burred as we believe and whether “strength is what makes a change”.