This is the second part of an essay on the evolution of the digital environment in geopolitics. Click here to read part one. Antonia Colibasanu is an expert on geopolitics and strategic intelligence analysis, and an associate lecturer at the Academy of National Intelligence and the University of Bucharest in Romania. The views expressed are the author's own.
To understand geopolitics is to understand power. The Oxford English Dictionary defines power as “the ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way, to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.” Science offers a more precise definition. In physics, power is the rate at which work is done -- the work/time ratio, showing the amount of energy consumed per unit of time. The two definitions complement each other -- power has to do with efficiency and influence, building on energy. The digital environment stands astride the logical patterns the human mind develops -- it depends only on innovation and need, with limited to no state intervention. But the nation-state is not completely absent in the digital world and all that regards it, cyberspace included.
Digital power embraces and enhances the three dimensions that traditionally define national power -- political, economic, and military. In order to establish how nation-states build digital power, it is essential to understand the developing factors for the digital environment and the way states facilitate, use, or impede evolution in the sector.
While the internet remains an important component of cyberspace, networked technologies that allow industrial machines to communicate with each other and with their operators are the defining features of the fourth industrial revolution that cyberspace now encompasses. It is these technologies that bring competitive advantages to nation states. Their goal is to increase efficiency, reduce downtime, and monitor quality. The way countries support innovation and promote technological advances, forging dependencies among themselves, will help shape geopolitical trends. Digitalization starts by affecting the economics of a country, forcing it to adapt its policies.
In early July, German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Sigmar Gabriel called for a European company or consortium to step up and buy robotics manufacturer KUKA AG after China’s Midea put up a $5 billion bid for the German company on May 18. Gabriel’s main concern is that sensitive data could get into the hands of the Chinese government, as Midea is expected to receive funds under the "Made in China 2025" program, which emphasizes digitalized production, and thus to collaborate closely with the government. Midea’s acquisition of KUKA is also being seen as a move by a Chinese company to tap into Germany’s significant expertise in industrial and high-end manufacturing. Should China be able to replicate German success in heavy and high-end industrial manufacturing, it would represent a significant step in China’s manufacturing evolution and would undermine German export competitiveness. Gabriel’s comments were echoed by those of European Commissioner for Digital Economy Gunther Oettinger. But China is one of Germany’s main trading partners, so there is a limit to what Germany can say about the potential transaction.
Current dependencies stand at the basis of future ones, and the German call for keeping the robotics manufacturer at home relates to a structural change in what are considered essential resources for securing development and growth. Human intellectual capital was understood to be essential for economic progress in the early 2000s. Now that idea is being enforced, and to it is added the technological element. The factors defining national competitive advantage emphasize the importance of access to digitalized data, and ultimately, to digitalized knowledge. Thus, the state’s economic power is defined by various international dependencies and its own digital innovation efficiency rate.
Beyond trying to keep innovation at home so that it can advance the national economy, states have ways to politically influence the way cyberspace develops, increasing a state’s political power through digitization. Cyberspace is not only a constantly new environment but also a completely free, in part lawless space. In this sense, countries -- and other global actors such as corporations or civil society -- have discovered a newfound independence in cyberspace, interpreting it as an area where they can build and use tools that are either not functional in the physical space or not suited to it.
Political power is the capacity to influence, condition, and control human behavior with the aim of accomplishing political objectives. With humans being the most important component of cyberspace, it is clear why, even though full control is impossible, seeking ways to influence and eventually control the new environment has become an imperative for nation-states. States have found ways to filter the information available to citizens, and they can propose policy and legislation regulating the telecommunication and trade sectors, which are intrinsically linked to the digital world. Copyright enforcement regulation is another tool the government can use. The policies states develop to support innovation contain control elements -- state funding for new technologies implies that the state has direct access to the production of such technologies. Direct communication and coordination with innovators gives governments more knowledge on potential technological advances.
States Embedded in the Digital System
In essence, the state needs to develop its ability to understand the industrial digital (r)evolution, so that it is able to govern accordingly. The accessibility of cyberspace, which gives more power to the individual in democracies, could also empower central administrations. The binary language universally used for programming works across many varied operating systems. It is therefore the system developers that give meaning to the IT language -- and it is those developers who set the cyberspace culture. The nation-state’s culture is often embedded in the operating system. For example, Russia is seeking to increase its independence from American technology by 2025, hoping that non-Russian mobile operating systems will account for just 50 percent of total usage by then. Russia’s minister of communications has made explicit Moscow’s support for local mobile operating system developers since 2015. Such a move is not unique, nor is it casual. National interest and culture go together, and as the digital age shifts cultures, states need to adapt, understanding and building on digital governance to serve national interests.
At a time when influence comes through the binary language of the digital world, perception becomes more important, as it is the most important filter for what we call “big data.” In managing networks and webs of influence, states deal with two major questions: first that relating to the laws of innovation, and secondly that relating to censorship (and everything referring to cyberspace administration). It is hard for states to define what the legal boundaries or even the directions to limit or support innovation are. This legal void will likely persist, and that creates new risks to be managed by the state as it doesn’t and, to a certain extent, cannot have a proactive attitude in the regulatory environment.
Censorship in cyberspace involves filtering at the internet service provider level. This is why the censorship profile of each country relates to both its policies and its technological infrastructure. In some countries there are several entry points for internet connectivity, while in others there is only one. Some countries have developed regulations covering private and public telecommunications operators, while some only have a national internet service provider, making filtering and thus censorship easier. It is usual for states to put restrictions on the gateway router that connects the country as well as on the DNS -- domain name systems. This allows them to either block a website or process web content using special software allowing the router to look inside the packets of data passing through it. The more states invest in technology to improve data processing, the more censorship there is on the internet. Increased censorship can lead to internet balkanization, which would eventually transform the global internet into a series of connected nation-state networks.
The other important component for national influence is language. While the universal logarithmic language stands at the basis of digitization, countries’ languages are still very important when it comes to defining markets and policies on the internet. This mimics the way in the non-digital world,consumer behavior defines how languages are used for transactions or cultural exchanges. Ultimately, the users have the power to influence language preferences online. They establish the commercial value of words that search engines are using worldwide, and through usage they establish political influence trends, contributing to building up a nation's digital ‘soft power.’
Interconnected Utility and Development
The organic growth of digitization makes the human resource more important for the nation-state than any other resource. Even if robotization accompanies technological progress -- and is meant to solve the demographic problems countries face -- it is the human resource that makes the difference when it comes to analyzing processes and developing perceptions. The internet builds on and enlarges networks, sometimes transforming them into webs of knowledge. This ultimately brings power to civil society, which gains leverage over the political decision-making process, and at times this even translates into how governments decide to shape their international alliances. Thus through cyberspace, foreign policy is becoming more accessible to the individual. Such a fact poses opportunities and vulnerabilities from the national governance perspective. In the case of the new economic development models, based on more informational flows and interconnections, cyberspace not only supports innovation, but it is also a source of new risks -- some of which evolve rapidly and are not well understood by states, companies, or civil society.
In terms of defense, digital technology brings forth the question of satellite technology for defense purposes --a new technological layer attached to geography. The use of cyberspace for conventional and unconventional warfare is another issue that refers to the military domain. Military robotization is also a topic likely to appear in future defense programs -- the more robotization evolves, the more we will need to take into account the ethical aspect of robots fighting in the army, and whether ethics can be programmed or not (and if so, who takes responsibility for defining ethical codes for robots).
Technological progress therefore creates new challenges for the military domain. As Henry Kissinger put it in his book, “World Order”: “[T]he history of warfare shows that every technological offensive capability will eventually be matched and offset by defensive measures, although not every country will be equally able to afford them.” Therefore, understanding the differences between developed/active and emergent actors -- the United States, Israel, China, Russia, and Iran versus the rest -- is key for understanding trends in military technological advancement. Political and economic relations between countries draw the background for influence projection and military developments, which at their turn are moved forward by the political forces within the nation-states.
The diffusion of networked communications into social, financial, industrial, political, and military sectors is creating new vulnerabilities around the world. The information revolution and the technological advances that support it have forced the political leadership to adapt, accelerating in many ways the decision-making process. If a terrorist attack happens somewhere in the world, administrations need to have a reaction within minutes and communicate it to the public through all communication means, social media included. The connections among all sectors needed to support a functioning society have become the critical ingredient -- but at the same time, this higher connectivity has translated into higher levels of risk and uncertainty.
While deep and strategic thinking is still a must for leadership (as it is for all of us), the speed induced by digitization makes humans behave more in a reactive manner more than proactively. We no longer write letters --we write emails. We no longer make phone-calls -- we’re more likely to use text messages. In such a society, dependencies among nation-states are determined on one side by the intensity in communications among individuals, communities, and the government, and on the other side by the limits of those interconnections. Economic links are also forging those relationships -- trade policies and the financial sector integrate relations among countries or communities, but also determine the limits of that integration. Vulnerabilities relating to online purchasing, for instance, or those coming from the international capital markets are also forging specific bonds between countries. All these components are drawing up a map supported by digitization.
The linkages between the political, economic, and defense sectors that regard or involve technological progress in cyberspace build on the existing critical infrastructure that nation-states need to protect. The nation-state’s digital power is determined by how those crucial national development sectors coordinate with one another and structure a national competitive advantage that helps extablish the country’s geopolitical imperatives.