Russian great power identity in the debate on “killer robots”

Russia prominently opposes new regulations for autonomous weapons systems (AWS), or so-called “killer robots” which can select and attack a target without human intervention. In a new article, Anna Nadibaidze explores the deeply rooted identity-related factors underpinning the Russian position in the global debate on AWS held at the United Nations.

Reports about the use of weapons systems with autonomous features, specifically the Russian-produced KUB loitering munition, in the war in Ukraine have strengthened the already existing concerns about the role of military autonomy and artificial intelligence (AI) in warfare. Only a few days before these reports came in, the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on lethal autonomous weapons systems was meeting in Geneva to discuss potential ways forward on the regulation of AWS. The Russian delegation has blocked any kind of substantive progress by constantly claiming to have been “discriminated” against by the measures taken by the EU following Moscow’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Throughout the years of the GGE sessions, which have been taking place within the framework of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) since 2016, Russia has been vocal about its belief that technological developments in the areas of AI and robotics do not make it necessary to adopt any kind of new regulation on AWS because the latter are sufficiently regulated by current international law.

Given that the CCW operates by consensus principles, de facto giving a veto power to all states, Russia’s agreement to develop a potential new instrument is needed to move forward in the debate, which has had only a discussion mandate so far. Approximately 30-40 states parties, along with several civil society organizations, are arguing for the necessity of a new legally binding regulation on AWS. Can Russia’s position be reconciled with theirs?

Great power identity in Russia’s position on AWS

In order to understand whether Russia could potentially agree to developing a new legally binding instrument, it is vital to examine its position in depth and from different perspectives.

Russia is one of the key developers of weapons systems with autonomous features and has shown strong interest in integrating higher levels of autonomy and AI as part of the modernization of its armed forces. From the rationalist perspective, the Russian position in the GGE debate is associated with strategic interests and quest to gain strategic advantage without any international restrictions.

While I do not dismiss these arguments, I argue for a more thorough investigation of Russia’s position and exploring deeply rooted factors, namely the Russian leadership’s self-perception as a historical great power, which has been a prominent feature of Russian foreign policy, especially since Vladimir Putin came to power.

My analysis of statements that the Russian Federation delivered to the CCW from 2014 to 2022 demonstrates that two integral principles of Russian great power identity have been guiding its position in the global debate on AWS. First, Russia promotes a multipolar world order based on many centers of power. Second, it seeks to ensure recognition of its perceived parity with other great powers and its equal participation in global affairs. These principles feature not only in the literature about Russian foreign policy, but also in its language used in statements on AWS at the CCW meetings.

Russian discourse on the global governance of AWS displays worries about the “politicization” of the debate and fears that the discussion would be monopolized by some states without taking into account others’ (Russian) interests and opinions. Russian statements display worries about the adoption of a polarized definition of AWS, for instance, when stating, “it is unacceptable to artificially divide weapons into ‘bad’ and ‘good’ ones based on the political preferences of certain States”.

The Russian conception of human control, a key element in the AWS discussion, is based on sovereignty. Russia believes that every state should decide on its definition of human involvement in the use of force and weapons systems. While it “does not doubt the necessity of maintaining human control over the machine”, it finds it unacceptable to be imposed with universal definitions and argues for “specific forms and methods of such control” to “be left to the discretion of States”.

Moreover, the Russian position presents technology in a positive light, not agreeing with what it perceives as “alarmist assessments” about fully autonomous weapons inevitably emerging. Russian delegations have constantly pointed out the benefits of military autonomy and warned against making hasty decisions which could “undermine the ongoing research in the field of peaceful robotics and AI”.

What does this mean for the future of the GGE debate?

As I show in my article, Russia’s position on AWS is deeply rooted and is not only guided by strategic costs/benefits analyses. It is facilitated by the Russian leadership’s strong belief about Russia being a great power in the post-Cold War multipolar world, on par with other great powers and deserving recognition, especially in topics touching upon international security.

With current ongoing tensions, the Russian leadership increasingly perceives any action from states it classifies as “unfriendly nations” as attempts to isolate Russia from global governance, or so-called “Russophobic” actions.

These identity-related factors make the Russian position on AWS more intractable and harder to resolve, especially for campaigners using humanitarian-based arguments to raise concerns about the development of “killer robots”, for instance their threat to human rights and human dignity. With its self-perception of a great power and guarantor of global security, Russia is likely to be more open to security-based arguments such as those pointing out the risks of AWS to strategic stability.

In Russia’s view, the CCW represents the perfect balance between humanitarian concerns and national security interests, while the consensus voting rule fits with its broader concerns with being able to have its say. It is therefore unlikely to accept an independent process outside of the CCW, as suggested by several civil society organizations in light of the stalled process at the GGE, or any process which would strip it of its veto power. If an independent discussion were to take place, Russia’s self-perception as a great power and the importance that it attributes to being seen as indispensable in multilateral negotiations is likely to lead it to criticize the process and accuse its organizers of disrupting global security.

Anna Nadibaidze is a Ph.D. Research Fellow at the Center for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark and researcher for the European Research Council funded AutoNorms project. She is the author of “Great power identity in Russia’s position on autonomous weapons systems”, Contemporary Security Policy, and the report “Russian perceptions of military AI, automation, and autonomy”, published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Why authoritarian states participate in liberal international interventions

Do troop contributions lead to democratic change in troop contributing countries as some argue? This is not necessarily the case as Martin Welz argues in a recent article on Chad’s contributions to international interventions.

Troop contributions of authoritarian states pose an empirical puzzle. For the participation in international interventions indicates the support for a liberal-cosmopolitan order that entails the protection of human rights on the international level, while authoritarian regimes deny such rights to their own citizens. The nascent research on this puzzle has produced contradictory findings. Some assume that the participation of authoritarian states in international interventions eventually leads to the implementation of a liberal-cosmopolitan order in such countries in the medium and long term. Others challenge that perspective and speak of a “myth of democratic peacekeepers” or go as far as to argue that troop deployment in fact impedes democratic change.

The article of Martin Welz adds substance to the latter finding through a study of Chad’s troop contributions during the reign of President Idriss Déby who came into power in 1990. The central argument is that Déby, who lacked domestic legitimacy and presided over a little-institutionalized state until his death in 2021, used the participation in international interventions for his own purposes, namely to stay in power. Déby made himself an indispensable ally of France (and to a lesser extent of the United States) and helped them to further their interests in the wider Sahel. He benefitted threefold from his alignment with France and his active stance in international interventions. First, he received large-scale funding that he could feed into his patronage network and strengthen the military; second, he could reduce tensions within the military by sending parts of it abroad; and finally and most importantly, he secured the support of major external actors that helped silencing national and international critique. In 2019, the French government even rescued the Chadian president, once rebels advanced toward the capital.

Indeed, the financial benefits for Déby were significant. France alone allocated €12 million per year for structural cooperation. In addition, donations and other forms of aid worth €53 million was available to be provided through the French forces which had a larger base in Chad. Particularly joining the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multinational Joint Task Force—two coalitions that seek to fight al-Qaida, Boko Haram, and their affiliates—was beneficial for Déby (and his fellow African presidents). Donors were willing to spend more on these mechanisms than they would have been prepared to offer if they had acted on a purely bilateral basis. Another source of foreign funding was the reimbursements paid by the United Nations for the peacekeepers. The 1,090 Chadian troops deployed in peacekeeping operations in 2014, for example, meant a reimbursement of an estimated US$17.4 million. These funds not only benefitted the military itself, but also Déby’s regime in two respects. On the one hand, Chadian troops became better equipped and trained, which helped the Chadian leader in his fight against domestic rebels and other challengers. On the other hand, these funds could be fed into the patronage network, thus resembling a kind of “rentier peacekeeping.” In the slipstream of military assistance, Déby’s Chad received large amounts of development aid, given its support for the Western agenda against terrorism.

Secondly, Déby’s benefitted from the participation in military operations as this allowed him to reduce tensions within the military and appease some parts of it. Sending troops abroad helped Déby to ensure that the military itself would not turn into a threat for his rule. Such a threat was looming since Déby had provided some positions within the military to his group, the Bideyat. This move mitigated some internal tensions within the group, yet it was costly and led to rivalries with other segments of the security apparatus.

Third and most important, Déby’s international reputation increased—as did the dependence on him. Even though oil revenues had generated funds to improve the military’s capabilities and secure Déby’s regime from within (Chad became a large oil exporter in the 2000s) external threats had been abound early in Déby’s rule. Chad had suffered from insecurity in its neighboring states and from a proxy war that had been partly fought on its soil on the one hand and French politicians had vigorously demanded the implementation of democratic norms in Chad on the other. It was the eventual alignment with France, the United States, and their counter-terrorism agenda that led to a situation in which Déby’s rule became significantly less challenged from abroad. Chad’s active participation in international interventions and Déby’s willingness to assume casualties—particularly in Mali, where his troops fought alongside France—were the main factors that brought that change. The Chadian president could translate the external recognition, visible, for example, through several visits of French presidents, into a stronger domestic position that overshadowed concerns about the legitimacy of his rule. At Déby’s funeral in April 2021 Macron dignified Chad’s late president as a “friend” and “courageous” soldier.

However, the international support for Déby and the dependence on his troops had a downside: it came at the expense of democracy and respect for human rights. The Chadian civil society was frequently frustrated with the unconditional support Déby had received from his international backers. Western governments ignored calls from national and international NGOs to hold Déby’s regime accountable for the human rights abuses and antidemocratic practices the president and his regime committed in Chad. The authoritarian rule was effectively strengthened. Déby was just too important—and it looks like same is true for his son, who succeeded him after his death.

Martin Welz is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He is author of “Omnibalancing and international interventions: How Chad’s president Déby benefitted from troop deployment”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

The Indo-Pacific and the decline of the rules-based order

The combination of antagonistic nationalist currents within East Asia and US resistance against the emergence of a post-Cold War order scuttled decades-long efforts to effectively institutionalize an Asia-Pacific region. Facing ever increasing rivalries over how to fill the ensuing void, Christian Wirth and Nicole Jenne analyse  in a recent article how foreign- and security-political elites embarked on strategies for safeguarding the “rules-based order” across the enlarged “Indo-Pacific.”

The past two decades have seen a lot of talk about the need to preserve what many in Europe and the US call the liberal international order and whose institutions and norms have governed international politics since 1945. Particularly in the neighbourhood of rising China, what has now become known as “rules-based order”, we are told, needs to be defended.

Yet, it is hard to defend, let alone bring back, something that has never existed.

Contrary to the framing of the rules-based order, the institutions and norms that undergird the international order of the Asia-Pacific region since the 1950s, remain predicated on a system of military alliances between the United States and its East Asian partners; a system that had been designed to contain the now inexistent Communist bloc.

Unless juxtaposed to authoritarian China, the system where East Asian regional states form the “spokes” converging on the US “hub” neither bears a particularly strong imprint of liberal values, nor has its static conception been flexible enough to adapt to the socio-economic conditions of the globalized world as it emerged in the 1990s.

In this sense, the institutions of the Asia-Pacific rules-based order share some commonalities with the remainders of its former nemesis, the institutions and norms undergirding the Chinese state. It has become precarious and increasingly costly to maintain.

Especially in the past decade, US and its East Asian allies have seen themselves compelled to drastically increase defence expenditures and enhanced centralized control over expanding national security interests in the name of safeguarding the rules-based order. While the US and its allies have increased their military capacities and strengthened their determination to share the euphemistic “burden” of upholding international stability and security, this burden has itself been increasing.

But how did we get this far? Has a post-Cold War order not been emerging?

Our study finds that the costs for maintaining “order” and “stability” have been ballooning after three decades of efforts at imagining and promoting the institutionalization of a post-Cold War order across the Asia-Pacific largely failed. While Southeast Asian governments successfully developed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) framework, early efforts on the part of Australian and Japanese leaders to enmesh East Asian states, including China, as well as the US, in Asia-Pacific wide frameworks faltered.

The obvious reasons therefore have been diverging views about the future of regional order among East Asian elites and governments. Yet, instead of leading the rebuilding of order in the wake of the monumental changes in the early 1990s, US decisionmakers have contributed to the deepening of the problem of order. Anxious about the possible emergence of an Asian bloc, potentially replacing the hub-and-spokes bilateralism, they have been seeking to neutralize East Asian initiatives for advancing regional multilateralism. Crucially, they also refused to lead such efforts themselves.

This lack of pro-active order-building has increased the predicament for US allies in East Asia.

Torn between their deepening economic dependence on China and strengthening military ties with the US, Australian and Japanese elites have once again pioneered efforts to expand the regional sphere. With the hope of retaining their status and forestall the perceived ascent of China’s regional hegemony, they embraced the idea of an Indo-Pacific region. The Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations followed their lead.

Thus, the study finds that, albeit directed against China for preserving the US-led rules-based order of the Asia-Pacific, the expansion of the region to South Asia signifies a dilution also of US power and influence. Numerous actors, such as ASEAN, India, and even the European Union, have jumped on the wagon and pronounced their own views on the Indo-Pacific.

The enlarged Indo-Pacific region provides a larger set of possibilities to cooperate for the majority of states who have sought to find a middle ground between the US and China. Mostly following pragmatic foreign policy practices, they recognize that enlisting on either side in the Sino-Allied struggle offers at best short-term benefits while increasing political and economic risks.

Although this amorphous Indo-Pacific meta-region is unlikely to become formally institutionalized any time soon, it signifies the gradual superseding of hub-and-spokes bilateralism. The US (and its allies) are not alone anymore in defining this strategic space. At the same time, the enlargement of the imagined region dilutes China’s (and India’s) influence. Thus, the ensuing order will remain a mix of conflict and cooperation.

Facing such a fluid “international order”, thinking in Indo-Pacific dimensions can help decision-makers bear the uncertainty over the future of relations between states and remove much of the perceived insecurity caused by tunnel views of linearly shifting power and anxiety about the decline of a liberal or rules-based order that never existed in the imagined form.

Dr. Christian Wirth is Research Fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies. Dr. Nicole Jenne is Associate Professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Institute of Political Science, and a researcher at the Centre for Asian Studies (CEA-UC) of the same university. They are the authors of “Filling the void: The Asia-Pacific problem of order and emerging Indo-Pacific regional multilateralism”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

Defense treaties increase domestic support for military action

Using survey experiments in a new article, Jeffrey D. Berejikian and Justwan Florian show that when Americans are informed about the U.S.-South Korea mutual defense treaty they are more willing to support the use of U.S. combat troops in South Korea and accept casualties.

American political leaders often frame U.S. security interests by emphasizing the specific details of U.S. defense commitments. For example, during a recent high-profile diplomatic visit to the Philippines in July of 2021, Secretary of State Blinken privately affirmed the US commitment to President Duterte. The United States also signaled its intentions to China directly. An American warship was deployed to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to coincide with the visit.

However, in addition, Secretary Blinken took time to both publicly call attention to the specific details of a longstanding alliance between the US and Philippines and explain its meaning; “We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.”

When political leaders focus public attention on existing security commitments in this manner, it is unlikely that they are only attempting to send a signal to potential adversaries. The conventional wisdom is that, in direct state-to-state communication, actions speak louder than words. For instance, as noted above, during Blinken’s trip the US sent a clear signal to China’s leaders by detaching a naval vessel to the region.

We believe that public statements are better understood as political acts designed to mobilize domestic opinion and communicate to potential adversaries that there is sufficient popular support to follow through on promises to defend a security partner. Indeed, mobilizing domestic political support within an alliance during a crisis is critical to the success of deterrence threats, and emphasizing formal security commitments is, in part, intended as a guardrail against shifting domestic foreign policy preferences.

So, does this communication strategy work? The answer is unclear. Foreign policy research has traditionally focused on the degree to which formal alliances shape the expectations of external audiences—allies and adversaries—in the lead-up to conflict. Interestingly, recent scholarship has demonstrated that international law sometimes also works in the opposite direction; it can shape domestic attitudes about conflict behavior.

For example, there is evidence that the public is less likely to support military action when it violates explicit legal commitments to protect human rights. This result extends to the broader obligation that governments should attempt to protect civilians during conflict.  However, because the primary focus of existing research is on human rights law that emphasizes moral obligations to others, this scholarship might not extend to self-interested national security concerns.

To answer this question directly, we conducted a novel survey experiment on a representative sample in the United States. We presented respondents with a narrative describing a military crisis on the Korean peninsula. Half of our respondents received a cue about the American mutual defense treaty with South Korea. The other half of our respondent pool did not receive this treatment. Subjects were then asked (1) whether they would support the use of U.S. combat troops in defense of South Korea, (2) how many U.S. military casualties they would be willing to accept, and (3) how many North Korean civilian casualties they would tolerate.

In a second wave, respondents received a stronger and more detailed experimental treatment that included information about the specific content of the U.S.-South Korean defense agreement. In addition, our experiment included several questions designed to evaluate the causal mechanisms by which defense treaties might potentially influence public support for military action.

Our research produced several interesting findings. First, emphasizing the defense treaty between Washington and Seoul increased support for military action on behalf of South Korea. However, the magnitude of this effect depends on the specificity of the information provided. Merely noting the fact of a prior commitment only affects attitudes of self-declared Independents. Democrats and Republicans, by contrast, were initially less responsive to our subtle priming on the U.S-Korean defense agreement. However, once individuals receive more detailed information describing the specific legal nature of the treaty – modeled on the kind of statements by American officials noted above – the gap between Independents and partisans largely disappears.

Second, we find that the reason defense treaties increase support for military action is that they elicit a belief that the United States is morally obligated to defend its ally and that backing down damages America’s international reputation. Third, formal alliances increase public “casualty tolerance.” Individuals in our treatment groups were both more tolerant of U.S. military deaths and more willing to accept North Korean civilian casualties than other respondents in the study. Interestingly, the subtle prime only influenced casualty tolerance among strong conservatives. However, again, as subjects received information about the specific legal nature of the U.S. obligation the gap between strong conservatives and others largely disappeared.

So, is framing conflict decisions around prior security commitments an effective way to shape public perceptions about conflict? The results reported here suggest that it is. Highlighting an existing promise to defend allies increases public willingness and resolve for military action. We find that this effect is not uniform across individuals and that support for military action and casualty tolerance increases as people receive more specificity about their country’s obligation.

These results demonstrate that security commitments, in addition to shaping the expectations and incentives of external actors, also contour the domestic political incentives for foreign policy action. This is, in part, why pollical leaders take such great pains to detail the nature of their country’s defense obligations to domestic audiences, even as they are communicating directly with allies and potential adversaries. Taken as a whole, these findings reveal a nuanced set of relationships between security commitments and individual-level attitudes about conflict and, as a result, generate new insights into the conditions under which leaders can use existing security agreements to mobilize the public.

Jeffrey D. Berejikian is a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Georgia, and Associate Professor in the Department of International Affairs. Florian Justwan is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Idaho. They are the authors of “Defense treaties increase domestic support for military action and casualty tolerance: Evidence from survey experiments in the United States”, Contemporary Security Policy, available here.

 

The Paradox of the Non-Proliferation Treaty

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is often labelled as a cornerstone of non-proliferation and one of the main factors curbing the spread of nuclear weapons. In a recent article, however, Orion Noda argues that the NPT is a nuclear proliferator; not of nuclear weapons per se, but of their symbolic value. 

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is often labelled as a cornerstone of non-proliferation and one of the main factors curbing the spread of nuclear weapons. Its pillars – non-proliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear technology – were designed by the nuclear powers to counter a perceived immediate threat at the time (nuclear proliferation), whilst promising to disarm in good time.

I argue, however, that the NPT is a nuclear proliferator; not of nuclear weapons per se, but of their symbolic value. Drawing from different fields, such as Anthropology, Linguistics, and International Relations, I suggest a theoretical model to study nuclear weapons and the NPT focused on symbolism and I reach two major conclusions.

Firstly, despite the shrinking nuclear arsenals, we are no closer to “general and complete disarmament” – one of the goals of the NPT. The treaty focuses exclusively on quantitative forms of nuclear proliferation, that is, how many nuclear devices a given state has. In that sense, the NPT overlooks a series of proliferation forms, such as qualitative and, more importantly, symbolic. Qualitative proliferation is linked to the modernization of nuclear arsenals or delivery vehicles, for instance. What I call symbolic proliferation, on the other hand, relates to the proliferation of the symbolic values of nuclear weapons. These values are often connected to ideas of power, status, prestige, modernity, and civilization. In that sense, nuclear weapons evoke and symbolize these ideas, making them valued items.

Secondly, the NPT not only fails to account for non-quantitative forms of nuclear proliferation, but also acts as a proliferator of these symbolic values of nuclear weapons. The way this works is through two mechanisms: historical and conceptual entrapment. Historical entrapment relates to the fact that the values and idea of nuclear weapons contained in the NPT was that of that specific point in time when the NPT was being negotiated. The NPT was negotiated in the 1960s, during a time when the symbolic perceptions of nuclear weapons were strongly associated with positive features, not only material (such as their unparalleled destructive power), but also subjective (such as status and prestige). In that sense, the idea of nuclear weapons brought into the NPT was that of the 1960s, an idea and a set of values unchanged until today, given the few alterations the treaty suffered.

Conceptual entrapment, on the other hand, alludes to how the NPT funnels most – if not all – discussions on the topic of non-proliferation and disarmament and, as a consequence of the historical entrapment, the NPT proliferates the values of nuclear weapons it carries within. In other words, given that the NPT embodies a specific set of Cold War-era values of nuclear weapons and the centrality of the NPT (the ‘cornerstone’ of the non-proliferation regime), most of the discussions on the topic, which goes through the NPT, are tainted with the NPT’s interpretation, perception, idea, and values of nuclear weapons.

In that sense, the NPT has, so far, failed to fulfill its promise of more than 50 years ago. There are some who argue that we should probably abandon the NPT, whilst some argue that the NPT is a stalwart of non-proliferation. In the middle, there are those who argue that although the NPT has major flaws, we would not be better off without it.

In my new article, I have shown that the NPT, in fact, has not done everything it was supposed to do: whilst the curbing of the spread of nuclear weapons may be counted as a positive NPT influence, disarmament cannot, despite the decreasing numbers. In order for the NPT to survive and function properly, it must broaden its definition of proliferation beyond the quantitative realm and, more importantly, acknowledge and reverse its position of symbolic proliferator by engaging with the debate on the immaterial values (or lack thereof) of nuclear weapons.

Orion Noda is with the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, London, and the International Relations Institute, University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil. He is the author of “A wolf in sheep’s clothing? The NPT and symbolic proliferation”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming, which can be accessed here.

Externalizing EU Crisis Management: The EU, OSCE and Ukraine

After years of progressive enhancement of EU crisis management capacities, the Lisbon Treaty should have turned the EU into a more efficient global crisis manager. Yet Maria Giulia Amadio Viceré finds, in a new article, that the EU has relied on third parties to achieve its crisis management objectives, essentially externalizing its activities to actors over which it has no control.

The past decade offers both well-known and lesser-known examples of such externalization across different crisis management areas. Among other cases, the EU’s recruited and supported civil society organizations to promote human rights and democracy in the Middle East and in Northern Africa after the Arab Uprisings; it enlisted the Libyan coastguard and Turkey to manage migratory flows across the Mediterranean; and it relied on the OECD to improve public governance and support socio-economic development in the Western Balkans’ process of democratic transition. Hence, the question arises: Why and how does the EU outsource its security?

Through the lenses of the orchestration model, my recent article addresses this question by examining the EU relationship with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe during the Ukrainian crisis. Not only the EU had deployed several CSDP missions in the eastern neighbourhood already before the Lisbon Treaty came into force, but the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and the ensuing destabilisation of Ukraine were perceived as the most dangerous predicaments in post-Lisbon European security.

For sure, as this crisis unfolded, the EU devised a series of measures aimed at supporting Ukraine politically and economically. At the same time, while the EU sought to compel Russia to solve its conflict with Ukraine trough sanctions, it attempted to soft balance its position in Ukraine by boosting the resilience of the Ukrainian security sector through the civilian CSDP mission ‘EU Advisory Mission (EUAM) Ukraine’. Still, to challenge Russia directly and confront Ukrainian separatists and Russian troops, the EU enlisted a third party over which it had no formal control: the OSCE.

My new article argues that the combination between the capability deficiencies across policy issues pertaining to EU crisis management activities and the OSCE’s capabilities determined the EU enlistment of the OSCE. Following the Russian annexation of Crimea, EU member states favoured an approach that would avoid direct confrontation with Russia, particularly in eastern Ukraine where Russian troops and military equipment had been deployed.

Since the mobilization of EU military and civilian crisis management capabilities largely depends on member states’ unanimous consent and on their willingness’ to coordinate their resources on specific issues, the EU essentially lacked the operational capabilities to confront Russia directly. On the external level, in turn, EU lacked both the competence and the reputation for an acceptable intervention in the conflict. Addressing Ukraine’s destabilisation through NATO was not an option either. Not only Ukraine was not a member of the Atlantic Alliance, but NATO’s expansion was considered by many among the causes of the crisis.

Against this backdrop, OSCE’s regulatory competence over Moscow’s behaviour in Ukraine and its reputation vis-à-vis Russia were crucial in the EU’s decision to enlist this international organization. In fact, the OSCE was the only organisation within the European security architecture that could confront Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine directly. Since both Russia and Ukraine are participating states in this organisation, the OSCE had rights of implementation and enforcement over Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine. Furthermore, the OSCE had a reputation for being an actor committed to ensuring cooperation between East and West.

The article’s findings have relevant implications for EU role as a conflict manager in international politics. Certainly, international organizations experience the absence of competence and/or reputation on a regular basis. Even if the EU had the competence and reputation to challenge Russia directly in the Ukrainian crisis, however, it would have not had the opportunity to mobilize the military and civilian capabilities needed to do this because of member states’ unwillingness to get directly involved in the conflict.

One could argue in this regard that decision-making stalemates and lack of political will to coordinate decentralized resources are typical of consensus based international organizations. Nevertheless, the vulnerability of a large part of the EU’s crisis management capabilities to member states’ contingent strategic preferences inevitably casts a shadow on the Lisbon Treaty’s attempts to boost the pooling of member states’ decentralized resources in the security domain.

The Ukrainian case demonstrates that orchestration has emerged as a crucial governance arrangement for the functioning of EU crisis management post-Lisbon. This governance arrangement can promote solutions to deal with contingent capability deficiencies which may mar different EU crisis management areas. In the case of Ukraine, outsourcing part of EU crisis management activities to the OSCE was not only necessary, but also appropriate given that the EU was perceived as being directly part of the conflict. Nonetheless, the EU’s adoption of orchestration to externalise its foreign policy activities raises serious questions about the EU’s overall capacity to act as a security provider through its crisis management activities.

For sure, the EU has enough ideational and material resources to guide and support third actors in addressing major security threats in its neighbourhood. In the long term, however, enrolling third parties cannot replace the lack of centralised operational capabilities at the EU level to respond to external conflicts and crises. Given the EU’s lack of control over its intermediaries, in fact, orchestration cannot be considered as a panacea for its structural deficiencies. This is especially so in policy sectors where the EU has so far mostly relied on member states’ voluntary coordination of their resources rather than on capacity-building, namely the CSDP’s military and civilian management; and the common foreign and security policy’s sanctioning power. Indeed, at a time when the West’s liberal values are being increasingly contested and hard security concerns have come back into the spotlight, the EU cannot afford to renounce to such crisis management tools.

Maria Giulia Amadio Viceré is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute (EUI) and a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies. She is also an adjunct professor at LUISS and a research associate at Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI). Her twitter account is @mariagiuliaama. She’s the author of “Externalizing EU Crisis Management: EU Orchestration of the OSCE during the Ukrainian crisis”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

The Erosion of the Global Nuclear Order

Starting early in the atomic age, states developed international arrangements intended to reduce the danger of nuclear war. In a recent article, Jeffrey W. Knopf describes the international nuclear order, identifies signs of erosion in that order, and proposes some short-term measures to help arrest these adverse trends.

The global nuclear order developed organically. It was not planned. And with some exceptions, most notably the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), major aspects of the nuclear order were not formally negotiated. Instead, they involve tacit understandings that are shared, to varying degrees, by elites in key countries.

The nuclear order rests upon three major strands: strategic stability, the nuclear taboo, and nonproliferation. The current order does not give similar priority to nuclear disarmament. Although nuclear abolition receives occasional rhetorical support and is listed as a goal in Article VI of the NPT, the governments of nuclear-armed states and their allies do not support pursuing global zero as a near-term objective. This is because these states still see value in the continued possession of nuclear arsenals. Hence, the purpose of the global nuclear order is to minimize the chances, while nuclear arms continue to exist, that they are ever used in ways that would kill people — and specially to ensure there is never a large-scale nuclear war.

Strategic stability, the nuclear taboo and nonproliferation

All three strands contribute to this goal. Strategic stability refers to efforts to minimize incentives for any state to feel pressure to be the first to launch a nuclear attack. Strategic stability can be enhanced by arms control, confidence-building measures, strategic dialogues, and anything else that contributes to restraint in policies and actions related to nuclear weapons. The nuclear taboo involves normative inhibitions against threatening or using nuclear weapons.

There is reason to question whether a genuine taboo exists or the current situation is better described as a tradition of non-use. Either way, however, there is a sense that any state that uses nuclear weapons would be crossing a major threshold. Finally, nonproliferation comprises a variety of measures intended to prevent the spread of nuclear arms to additional states. In the last two decades, nonproliferation has been supplemented by the goal of nuclear security, which aims to ensure that bomb-making materials do not fall into the hands of a non-state, terrorist actor.

The strategic stability and taboo strands of the nuclear order peaked in the early 1990s and have eroded since then. In contrast, the nonproliferation strand continued to get stronger into the early 2010s, but in the last decade positive trends in the nonproliferation regime have also started to unravel.

Erosion and unraveling

Strategic stability has suffered notable erosion. The end of the Cold War enabled remarkable progress in nuclear arms reductions by the United States and Russia. Now, only one nuclear arms control agreement, the New START treaty, remains in effect. And the prospects for a follow-on agreement appear daunting. Traditional approaches to stability also took a blow when the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. All of the nuclear-armed powers are now engaged in nuclear modernization efforts involving new weapon systems that could further undermine stability. More broadly, U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China relations have both deteriorated, adding to the chances of inadvertent escalation. In addition, India and Pakistan openly joined the nuclear club following nuclear tests in 1998. The two countries have since experienced multiple crises, adding a new source of instability to the global nuclear order.

Both the rhetoric and nuclear postures of nuclear-armed states suggest declining respect for the taboo as well. The United States has never been willing to embrace a no-first-use posture, and in 1993 Russia abandoned a no-first-use posture that had been adopted earlier by the Soviet Union. Successive U.S. Nuclear Posture Reviews (NPRs) have envisioned roles and missions for U.S. nuclear weapons that extend beyond deterring nuclear attacks. These include, in the Trump NPR, hints that the United States would consider nuclear retaliation to deter a large-scale cyber-attack. In 2017, an escalating war of words – and tweets – between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un suggested neither felt any normative inhibition against nuclear saber-rattling. And, in 2018, Russia’s President Putin gave a national address in which he unveiled several proposed new nuclear weapon systems. The speech was accompanied by a video simulation that showed a Russian nuclear warhead on a course to strike what appeared to be President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

Until recently, despite occasional setbacks, nonproliferation could be seen as an area of dynamism and innovation. In the 1980s and 1990s, several key countries joined the NPT and renounced nuclear weapons. In 1995, a review conference made the treaty permanent. Just as important, the NPT is now part of a multifaceted nonproliferation regime. Other elements of the regime include several regional nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZs), multilateral export control regimes, cooperative threat reduction (CTR) programs developed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a variety of measures meant to strengthen nuclear security.

In the past several years, however, forward momentum has halted. The 2015 NPT Review Conference collapsed amid unprecedented acrimony among states parties. The 2020 conference was postponed until 2022 due to Covid, but none of the frictions that doomed the 2015 conference have been resolved. In addition, the Trump administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, and despite the desire of the Biden administration to restore the deal, prospects for rescuing it do not appear good. Hopes for adding new NWFZs are even less promising, as a long-sought zone in the Middle East appears dead in the water.

Some ideas to halt erosion

What can be done? Getting the nuclear weapon states to recommit to the goal of nuclear disarmament would help. As a reflection of frustration over the slow progress on this goal, in 2017 the UN General Assembly adopted a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This “ban treaty” has been opposed by all of the nuclear weapon states and their allies, so it appears unlikely to provide a vehicle that in the short term could generate new progress toward nuclear abolition. Efforts outside of (or perhaps alongside of) the ban treaty to persuade the nuclear weapon states of the importance of reinvigorating movement toward nuclear disarmament would be helpful.

Given that nuclear disarmament remains a long-term endeavor at best, however, we also need short-term steps to shore up the existing nuclear order. One approach would be to focus on the cognitive foundations of nuclear peace. It is important for national leaders and their advisors to have a deep understanding of the consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and a belief that nuclear dangers require states to act with caution. Several steps could help reinvigorate an appreciation of nuclear dangers.

First, new works of popular culture could draw attention to ongoing risks. In the Cold War, books and movies like “On the Beach” and “Dr. Strangelove” helped educate the public. Today, there are interesting efforts to utilize social media to alert people to nuclear dangers. So far, however, none have achieved extensive reach. Public awareness could be raised further if there was a breakthrough novel, movie, or TV show like the 1983 TV movie “The Day After.”

Second, it would help to have a policy proposal around which to mobilize people. An effort is already underway to multilateralize the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Russia and the United States recently reaffirmed this statement, and there have been multiple calls for the other nuclear-armed countries to endorse it. A broad campaign to support this goal could provide a vehicle for reminding the world about how catastrophic a nuclear exchange could be.

Third, it is time to reboot the Humanitarian Initiative. This effort, launched at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, sought to educate diplomats about the consequences of nuclear weapons use. The initiative was primarily used to build support for negotiating the ban treaty. Now that the TPNW is in place, a Humanitarian Initiative 2.0 could be used to educate a broader audience of political and military leaders and the world public.

At a time when all the strands of the global nuclear order are getting weaker and the prospects for new treaties or major initiatives are not good, it is vital to halt further erosion of the existing order. Efforts to remind the world of the danger of nuclear war and encourage cautious behavior by states would be one place to start.

Jeffrey W. Knopf is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS). He is the author of “Not by NPT alone: The future of the global nuclear order”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming, which can be accessed here. This post first appeared on the Global Governance forum.

Strategic narratives in the Sino-American COVID-19 “blame game”

In a recent article, Linus Hagström and Karl Gustafsson analyze the Sino-American narrative struggle over the meaning of COVID-19. They argue that the limited success of Chinese and U.S. efforts to gain support for their strategic narratives about the pandemic illustrates the limitations of strategic narratives as both concept and political practice.

“Strategic narratives” has become a popular concept in International Relations research and foreign policy practice alike. Scholars and practitioners have increasingly accepted that narratives matter and can affect world politics by attracting or even fooling global audiences into acquiring a particular understanding of reality. Many states currently spend huge resources on projecting their own stories to the world. Hence, much like discussions on “disinformation,” “propaganda,” “information warfare,” “sharp power,” and “fake news,” current commentary often seems to assume that international actors are able to control narratives and use them strategically.

One issue over which much ink has recently been spilled is the COVID-19 pandemic. After the pandemic hit the world in the spring of 2020, it did not take long until scholars and pundits began to comment on how the world’s two most powerful states—the United States and China—were seeking to construct and propagate strategic narratives about events as they were unfolding. They suggested that the narrative power struggle over the meaning of the pandemic could have implications for the future of world order and the ostensibly ongoing power shift from the United States to China. Some suggested that China’s strategic narratives were superior to that of the United States, and that this could even be a harbinger of China’s emergence as a global leader.

In our article, we examined the construction, dissemination and reception of Sino-American strategic narratives about the pandemic, as well as whether or how they invoked more deeply institutionalized, pre-existing master narratives and with what effects. We also explored to what extent and how those narratives were referenced and reproduced by decision makers in Australia, India, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom—five regional states seen as vital to the future of the current U.S.-led world order.

We found that both China and the United States sought to use narratives strategically. The United States projected two main strategic narratives: (1) COVID-19 originated in China, the country tried its best to hide the outbreak and refused to cooperate with investigations, and China duped the WHO, which is pro-China; and (2) the United States has taken a proactive approach to COVID-19 that is better than anywhere else in the world and the Trump administration has been highly successful.

China also promoted two main narratives: (1) China is the champion of the international system because its domestic crisis management is resolute and effective, and because internationally it is based on multilateralism and assisting other countries by providing medical aid; and (2) the United States engages in politicization and stigmatization, such as the Wuhan lab conspiracy theory, which is more dangerous than COVID-19 itself, and it wasted the time that Chinese sacrifice had given it.

However, we found that all of these narrative were largely unsuccessful. While elements of the U.S. narratives were referenced and reproduced in Australia and to some extent in the United Kingdom, the number of such references was very limited. Indian, South Korean, and Turkish statements praised cooperation with the United States, but did not reproduce U.S. narrative content. Similarly, key elements of the Chinese narratives appeared in statements from all five states, but China was only explicitly mentioned when cooperation with the country was praised. China did not figure at all when support for multilateralism, international cooperation and the WHO was discussed, or when stigmatization of Asians was criticized. Officials in Australia, India, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom primarily emphasized their own efforts and successes in fighting COVID-19, seeking to present themselves in a positive light. Instead of supporting either the United States or China, they had their own agendas and agency.

Based on our findings, we argue that there is reason for caution about the usefulness of strategic narratives as a policy tool. In addition, we argue that the analysis and use of strategic narratives cannot just take narratives about specific issues, such as COVID-19, into account, but must also pay attention to more deeply institutionalized, pre-existing master narratives. Not all Chinese narrative elements originated in China, and some of them—especially the emphasis on multilateralism and international cooperation—were quite general.

Hence, to the extent that Chinese narratives gained some international traction, they did not do so by spreading falsehoods, but rather by appealing to master narratives that are widely shared throughout the world. This demonstrates the limitations strategic narratives, as China’s narrative entrepreneurship around COVID-19 both appealed to and seemed constrained by pre-existing master narratives integral to the current U.S.-led world order.

Our findings suggest that the most significant narrative power resides not with particular states, but with influential master narratives. Therefore, when exploring the possibilities for changing global narrative power dynamics, we should analyze not only the diffusion and reception of strategic narratives, or even just changing master narratives, but also how key actors situate themselves in relation to existing master narratives. With the Biden administration more intent than the previous Trump administration on upholding and strengthening the current U.S.-led liberal world order with its emphasis on multilateralism and international cooperation, it may become more difficult for China, or any other state, to take control of or use these global master narratives for their own strategic purposes.

Linus Hagström is a Professor of Political Science at the Swedish Defence University. Karl Gustafsson is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Stockholm University. He tweets at @KarlGustafsson5. They are the authors of the article “The limitations of strategic narratives: The Sino-American struggle over the meaning of COVID-19,” Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming, which can be accessed here.

Global Britain in the grey zone

In a recent article, Vladimir Rauta and Sean Monaghan analyze the new UK Integrated Review to understand how the United Kingdom attempts to grapple with its hybrid policy. They argue that this presents a good blueprint for thinking about some of the questions grey zone poses, not just for the UK but for all Western allies.

Over the past decade, trans-Atlantic and European security and defense policy have tried to make sense of the grey zone challenge. It framed this debate using a range of monikers: hybrid warfare/threats/interference, sub-threshold/hostile/malign activity, subversion and political warfare. What started with a discussion on combined modes of operations by supposedly weaker non-state armed actors such as Hezbollah took a life of its own in the aftermath of the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia.

On the one hand, with it came supposed Russian doctrines and repetitive claims that war and peace have merged into some strategic blur. On the other hand, it raised serious questions on security and defense policy, capability, and directions of military transformation and adaptation.

One such recent example is the United Kingdom’s (UK) review of national security, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (Integrated Review), published alongside a new Integrated Operating Concept 2025 (IOpC25) and the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) own contribution to the review, Defence in a Competitive Age. The review and its accompanying documents are part of a multi-level, multi-stakeholder conversation about how the UK should view and deal with the present and future security landscape, which for the Ministry of Defence will determine the shape of military capabilities and how they are employed in the years to come.

In our new article, we argue that this presents a good blueprint for thinking about some of the questions grey zone poses, especially as the UK has not the only nation to take a “hybrid-turn” in its security and defense policy in recent years. In fact, both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) have a strategy for countering hybrid threats—not to mention a dedicated institution in the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (NATO, 2017). Similarly, recent strategy documents published in the United States, Australia, France and Germany, all cite forms of hybrid or grey zone conflict as a primary challenge in the coming years.

Our argument invites scholars and policymakers alike to find utility in a simplified conceptual discussion based on distinguishing between threats and warfare. For better or worse, they are established policy terms which not only cement the idea that hybridity is a pervasive and constant feature of statecraft and warfare, but can help spark professional debates and public dialogue about evolving security threats in which both parties might play a part: Whether directly (e.g., cyber-security, disinformation, democratic interference, business resilience) or indirectly (e.g., in supporting government investment and the role of the Armed Forces in new security interventions, from NATO deployments to homeland resilience). Examples of the threat-warfare distinction currently in play include NATO’s policy and Counter Hybrid Threat Strategy, the EU’s “playbook” for countering hybrid threats, and the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats.

Against this background, we use the example of the UK’s attempts to grapple with its own hybrid policy as a national case study in closing the gap between rhetoric and practice which we call the stagecraft versus statecraft problem. There are two issues worth noting here. The first is the inconsistent and opaque language used by the UK government to describe a wide array of threats. The second problem is the need for concrete action to—in the words of Boris Johnson— “tackle hybrid warfare.”

The UK’s previous commitment to adapt to new hybrid realities also looked anemic when compared to the efforts of its allies and partners during the same period. Central European, Nordic, and Baltic nations revitalized Cold War “total defence” style strategies—complemented by highly visible strategic communications campaigns—while the United States Marine Corps spent a year experimenting to develop their new role in countering gray zone strategies and the Australian 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan offer significant detail on the changes to strategy, force structure, and capability.

In contrast to previous efforts, the Integrated Review sets out a clear strategic approach towards hybrid threats through “a force structure that principally deters through ‘persistent engagement’ below the threshold of war”. It also backs this up with a wide array of measures to deliver and enhance the capability required to deliver this vision. In doing so it builds on the UK’s conventional prowess as one of only two NATO allies capable of wielding nuclear, offensive cyber, precision strike weapons and fifth-generation strike aircraft—plus a carrier strike group and “Tier 1” Special Forces. These forces underpin existing contributions to NATO operations in the Baltics, high readiness forces and major multinational exercises—including framework nation leadership through the Joint Expeditionary Force, a multinational force comprising the UK, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, which “offers these countries flexible options for managing sub-threshold competition”.

These are much-welcomed developments on which we draw to outline some avenues—informally, through a series of questions, puzzles and lessons—designed to help international policy and research communities align their efforts to address their own stagecraft-statecraft dichotomies. In doing so, we hope to support international efforts to discover just what the fundamental transformation advocated by the UK establishment really means in practice. For hybrid threats, we highlight three key questions or puzzles that are raised through the UK’s review, but not quite answered: Tolerance, going beyond deterrence, and the role of defense. Taken together they are useful for those wishing to further develop policy and scholarship on countering hybrid threats.

For hybrid warfare, we argue the policy agenda has to be reset and reconfigured in three ways. First and foremost, around conventional war/warfare, understood primarily through the lens of inter-state war. Second, to conceptualize and engage with the “combination” problem: That future adversaries are likely to mix and match forms and modes of warfare to offset conventional battlefield strength. Third, to avoid “Next-War-itis” and instead seek to be prepared for a range of contingencies across conflict and actor spectra.

As such, our article has focused on two related—but distinct—challenges that emanate from this environment: hybrid threats and hybrid warfare. It used the UK’s review to reveal lessons and insights for international policymakers and scholars also grappling with these challenges, forming these into policy and research guidance for both. Yet a closer look reveals a series of lessons, questions, and puzzles on tackling hybrid challenges to which the UK does not provide such convincing answers. These were used to draw a tentative way forward for international scholars and policymakers, using our threats-warfare distinction to provide some structure.

Taken together, this series of questions left hanging by the UK’s review form a loose research agenda for those in the international community developing policy and scholarship on countering hybrid threats and dealing with hybrid warfare—and in so doing, take further steps on their own journeys from stagecraft to statecraft.

Vladimir Rauta and Sean Monaghan are the authors of the article “Global Britain in the grey zone: Between stagecraft and statecraft”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming, which can be accessed here

Do Submarine Data Cables Require Better Security?

Submarine data cables may be invisible, but they are responsible for 99 percent of the world’s digital communications. In a recent article, Christian Bueger and Tobias Liebetrau review the security implications of submarine data cables and outline a research agenda for the future.

Submarine data cables are the core critical infrastructure of the digital age. 99 percent of the world’s digital communications transit through the global cable network: Zoom meetings, emails, hotel reservations, flight bookings, and financial transactions depend on it. All of this data does not travel through satellites or the air, but physical fiber-optic cables that lay on the ocean floor. With the current trend toward remote work, the increasing use of cloud storage and the arrival of 5G and the Internet of Things, industrial production, public services, and our everyday lives will become even more dependent on the smooth working of undersea cables.

The global submarine cable network needs to be governed and protected, but it also has risks and vulnerabilities, and indeed the potential to spur new forms of tensions and conflicts. To date, the network has mainly been viewed in narrow, technical terms, despite its importance for national and international security, geopolitics, and statebuilding and development.

Security Concerns

While protecting and controlling submarine communication infrastructure was a core part of security calculations during the two World Wars as well as the Cold War, in the post-Cold War environment uncontested US naval hegemony and the primacy of non-state threats moved such issues to the margins.

Renewed concerns center around the rise of hybrid warfare, the perceived hostility of Russia’s foreign policy, fears of a large-scale cyber-attack, and the growing technical sophistication of terrorist groups. Some experts have begun to consider the undersea cable network as a national security priority and have called for military responses to mitigate such threats, including increased naval patrols and surveillance activities.

The calls were largely triggered by observations of Russian submarine activities in territorial waters and in proximity to cable routes—which became public in 2015—raising concerns that the Russian navy may tap into cables for espionage and surveillance purposes, tamper with them, or even cut them as part of a hybrid warfare campaign.

Others suggest that undersea cables are inherently susceptible to attacks from non-state violent groups and terrorism since their location is usually public, cables tend to be highly concentrated geographically, and the level of technical expertise and resources required to damage them is limited.

So far, no intentional hostile disruptions to the submarine cable infrastructure have been reported publicly. The scenarios underpinning the threat discourse seem to be built not on prior incidents but on overall assessments of the geopolitical landscape. Arguably, this implies that the threat scenarios being discussed could be exaggerated and suggests a substantial risk of threat inflation and fearmongering.

The Geopolitics of Submarine Cables

Cable systems establish particular forms of transnational relations that often extend or transcend conventional bilateral or regional forms of cooperation. Some countries have a particularly important position in the international cable system, acting as connecting points between political regions.

Cables are, however, increasingly spurring geopolitical concerns. Contemporary geopolitical dynamics concerning the new fiber-optic cables are particularly revealing in at least two regards: the return of geopolitical inter-state contestation and the rise of transnational technology companies as geopolitical players.

Geopolitical competition primarily revolves around two centers of gravity—the United States and China—but pledges to digital sovereignty, technological sovereignty, cyber sovereignty, and data sovereignty are increasingly seen throughout the world.

One example of the geopolitical importance of the submarine cable network and its entanglement with digital sovereignty is the Clean Network Program, announced by the United States (US) in August 2020, which includes five lines of effort—in addition to 5G—to counter China’s influence on US telecommunication networks, mobile app stores, software apps, cloud computing, and undersea cables. The goal of the program is to safeguard sensitive citizen and private company information from intrusions by malign actors.

In Europe, the Portuguese government announced earlier this year that it intends to “focus on the strategic creation of a European Data Entry Platform based on submarine cables, in particular for links between Europe, Africa, and South America, to contribute to greater European digital autonomy, linking infrastructures and data.”

It is, however, not only Western countries that are occupied with the crucial geopolitical role of undersea cables. While discussions among BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) of a shared undersea cable system appear to have been abandoned, major international players, including individual BRICS countries, either have or are planning to build their own submarine cable networks, to bypass what they perceive to be the US-dominated internet and associated surveillance risks demonstrated by the Snowden revelations. The expansion of the cable system is part of the Chinese “Digital Silk Road” strategy.

The rise of transnational Information, Communication, and Technology (ICT) companies is intrinsically entangled with the geopolitics of emerging and disruptive digital technologies and infrastructures, as well as the renewed great power rivalry. The entanglement is evident when thinking of the undersea cable network as an economic trade route carrying the most important commodity of the information age: data.

Until recently, highly specialized international telecommunications conglomerates laid and operated most of the undersea cables, but over the past decade, it is increasingly American tech giants or other state-owned companies that control this critical infrastructure. Internet content and cloud service providers, such as Facebook or Google, now own or lease more than half of the undersea bandwidth and they are behind about four-fifths of transatlantic cable investment planned in 2019-2020. The Chinese company Huawei has also heavily invested in undersea cable systems all over the world. Huawei Marine, its submarine cable subsidiary, deployed over 50,000 kilometers of submarine cable, including 12 submarine cable systems in Africa from 2008 to 2018, before being sold in 2019.

Such trends raise concerns over digital sovereignty, but also the practices of surveillance, algorithmic governance, and cyber security that shape and are shaped by global tech companies. It also raises the question of whether the cable network can be governed as a global common.

Small States and Fragile States

The cable issue goes beyond the industrialized nations that have hitherto been the center of attention. States require stable connectivity for future growth, but they are often dependent on a single, sometimes badly secured cable connection. Breakdowns can lead to major economic harms.

States that are particularly vulnerable are those that are reliant on one or two cables, are in remote locations, such as small island states, or are developing or recovering economically. In 2019, accidental damage to the single cable connecting the Pacific Island state of Tonga took two weeks to repair and caused considerable economic damage. The tourism sector—the country’s main source of income—was hit particularly hard, with all flight and hotel bookings halted.

Cable protection also concerns fragile states and those recovering from civil war. The importance of cable infrastructures for democratic transitions and participation of civil society should not be underestimated. There is hence a need to feature cable governance into statebuilding, interventions, and post-conflict reconstruction programs. Whether and how violent conflict and terrorism can directly threaten the system—intentionally or not—is also of concern.

Whether it concerns small island states or post-conflict states, efforts to secure submarine cable connections should be included in development, peacebuilding, and capacity-building projects.

Protecting The Undersea Cable Network

While many of the threat scenarios of deliberate attacks to cables are over-exaggerated, there is a need to zoom in on the actual vulnerabilities the network faces, mainly accidental damage and non-human hazards. Accidents or malfunctions stemming from marine activities such as fishing and shipping account for at least 40 percent of the damage done to the undersea cable infrastructure. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, landslides, and sharks feature among the non-human threats. Much of the protection of the cables will continue to revolve around mundane technical tasks.

Other vulnerabilities are linked to weak governance, lack of law enforcement, and the absence of effective regulatory policies. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—the primary legal regime governing submarine cables—states are asked to establish national legislation concerning the functioning and protection of the system, including criminalizing the destruction of theft of a submarine cable. Yet most states have not fulfilled these obligations, and in many countries, it is unclear which government agencies are in charge. There is an urgent need for countries to review their protection regimes and strengthen the implementation of existing legal obligations.

Submarine cables must also be considered in broader maritime management and marine spatial planning processes. States could, for instance, establish cable protection zones over submarine cables of national significance in order to prohibit or restrict activities in zones where damage is likely to occur. While such approaches are viable within territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones of a coastal state, the majority of cables are in the high seas, and rights and responsibilities under international law—both of states and ICTs—are ambiguous at best. There is even no agreed-upon definition of cables under international law. Other challenges arise in situations where maritime boundaries have not been delineated or are subject to ongoing contestation and disputes. No international governing body is in charge of overseeing and protecting cables or addressing disputes.

Legal analysts suggest that an ideal solution would be the development of an international treaty specifically on the protection of undersea cables, for which there appears to be little appetite. Other suggestions for enhancing the regulatory regime span using the structure of the UN counterterrorism conventions over proposals for the creation of national cable protection zones, to the deployment of an international agency rooted in the UN system with legal and policy responsibility for submarine cables, which could lead the development of additional law. The negotiation of the new treaty for the high seas under the header of Biodiversity beyond National Jurisdictions could also potentially provide new opportunities for cable protection in international waters.

Overcoming The Triple Invisibility Problem

Physically, submarine cables lay underground, and they are out at sea, rendering them largely invisible. There is a tendency to pay little attention to what happens at sea more generally—a phenomenon that has been described as sea blindness.

Like other types of infrastructure, they often go unnoticed until they fail. It is when streets close, shipping routes are blocked, or the electric power grid fails that we recognize our dependency on them.

Given that data is the defining resource of the twenty-first century, protecting submarine cables is far too essential a domain of international politics to remain a technical addendum to security studies. It concerns how our digital futures will be governed, and how a global free, open, and secure circulation of data can be ensured.

A debate is required on how cables should be governed at the global level, how the different actors can be orchestrated, the industry is regulated, responsibilities and rights are clarified, and which global governance and United Nations bodies are in charge.

Christian Bueger is a professor of international relations at the University of Copenhagen, and one of the directors of SafeSeas. He tweets at @c_bueger. Tobias Liebetrau is a postdoctoral researcher at Sciences Po, Paris. He tweets at @TobiasLiebetrau. They are the authors of the article “Protecting hidden infrastructure: The security politics of the global submarine data cable network”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

This blog post first appeared on the IPI Global Observatory.