Geopolitical interdependence and rapid technological advances have transformed the nature of global conflict in recent decades. As the Ukrainian crisis and the debate on the European Union’s digital agenda have shown, security in the 21st century requires a new definition of geopolitical power.
MADRID – European security has once again risen to the top of the global geopolitical agenda. Despite continued diplomatic efforts to defuse the Ukrainian crisis, tension and suspicion between Russia and the West have intensified at levels not seen since the Cold War. This forces us to rethink the current regional security framework, which is based on three fundamental pillars: the United States, Russia and Europe.
Tackling the challenge of European security will undoubtedly dominate discussions among politicians and international relations experts on both sides of the Atlantic at this weekend’s meeting. Munich Security Conference (MSC). But, in addition to the fate of Ukraine, the impact of technological and digital innovation on security will also figure prominently.
The continuing geopolitical tensions around Ukraine reflect a conventional, mainly geographical conception of security – reflected in the frequent use of terms such as “spheres of influence”, “NATO expansion”, “territorial integrity” and “post-Soviet security space”. ” But if this vocabulary is essential to understand the current NATO-Russia confrontation, the enormous geopolitical changes induced by globalization and the technological advances of the last 25 years will increasingly eclipse it.
Indeed, geopolitical interdependence and seemingly relentless technological innovation have transformed the nature of global conflict. As Connectivity Warsa collection of essays published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, clearly indicates that the hyperconnectivity of the global system allows actors – without resorting to open war – to cause serious damage in other geopolitical domains, such as the Internet, on upon which our economies have come to depend.
The cybernetic dimension of the confrontation over Ukraine should therefore not be underestimated. In January, cybercriminals disabled several Ukrainian government websites for hours and published messages threatening Ukrainian citizens and the privacy of their personal data.
Previously, the US government valued that the 2017 “NotPetya” cyberattack targeting Ukraine caused global damage totaling $10 billion, making it the most destructive of all time. The malware infected 10% of Ukrainian computer systems before spreading around the world.
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Nor can we, as then-US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned in 2012, rule out the seemingly remote possibility of a “Cyber Pearl Harborthat cripples critical US infrastructure. In any case, cyberattacks and their consequences are becoming dangerously frequent, and we still lack institutions or infrastructures strong enough to deal with the threat.
In his book The future of power, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., of Harvard University, argues that one of the major trends of the 21st century is the loss of geopolitical influence by states. Cyberspace is a clear example. Great powers may have an unparalleled ability to control the sea, airspace and outer space, but they do not enjoy comparable dominance in the digital world.
Moreover, the nature of cyberspace drastically reduces the Cost offensive action. For example, the costs of hiring a cybercriminal are minimal compared to the nearly $80 million price of a F-35 fighter jet (not to mention the additional costs of maintenance, ammunition and personnel).
Discussions within the MSC regarding the cyber aspect of security will take place within the framework of the transatlantic digital agenda, which reached an important milestone last year when the United States and the European Union established the Board of Trade and Technology. The fundamental question is how to regulate the digital domain in a way that allows us to take advantage of its enormous economic opportunities while protecting us from the potential risks it poses to our democracies.
The EU bases its approach to cyberspace regulation on two fundamental principles: competition in the internal market and the privacy of users. Due to the EU’s large and rich market and its regulatory power, its competition and data protection rules have given rise to the so-called “Brussels effect”. Large multinational technology companies not only comply with EU rules for doing business in Europe, but also, to avoid having to deal with multiple regulatory regimes, often integrate them into their global operations, including in countries where regulatory standards are less stringent.
But a viable digital Europe must include a third pillar: security. As Wolfgang Ischinger, the president of the MSC, has argued, the principle of “security by design” must apply not only to technological products, but also to the development of public policies. In building a digital Europe, safeguarding competition in the internal market should complement considerations of EU security and the bloc’s global status. Digital policy must therefore not only promote economic growth, but also – above all – safeguard our fundamental rights as citizens and protect us from hostile actors.
Digital security is not just a whim of European lawmakers. According to a recent investigation, 38% of Europeans consider security to be their number one digital priority. In the EU, citizens and businesses are rightly the starting point for digital legislation. As the European Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, recently reminded us, we should have the same rights in the digital world as in the physical world. The Commission proposal Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act therefore aim to ensure that the European online environment is governed by the principles of competition which underpin the internal market, while protecting the privacy of users and their personal data.
Here, a constructive dialogue between public institutions, civil society and the private sector will be vital. Above all, forging a digital Europe requires political will, which ultimately is the real engine of European integration.
But these discussions must bear in mind the changing nature of conflict in today’s world. As the Ukrainian crisis has shown, security in the 21st century has many dimensions.