The digital world expands every day but it happens so pervasively that most days no one really notices. Then something dramatic happens and the significance of digital technology takes on a new notability. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is about to add a pledge of joint defense against cyber-attacks. A cyber-attack on any one of the 28 member countries will bring a response from all other NATO members. That’s a big change. It changes the nature of “them” and “us”.
Prior to this new treaty pledge, digital interactions were not officially part of the geopolitical game of how countries align themselves in alliances that establish who is considered “them” and who is considered “us.” But is this new development really such a surprise? NATO has floundered for the last ten years as it became more and more a relic of the Cold War and less and less viable. However, many NATO country’s biggest concern with Russia is no longer their military empire – that’s gone from the global stage and Russia is now a regional actor; instead cyber-attacks coming out of Russia or her previous Eastern European satellites have become a continual concern. It’s a whole new world and offers NATO a new value – maybe even a value that makes it worth maintaining NATO.
The new European geopolitics are confusing: the old lines of European culture are reemerging now that Western Europe is no long the most powerful group of countries in the world. Prior to the rise of the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and British Empires dominance of world politics and trade, Europe was organized around two bodies of water – the Mediterranean and the Baltic Seas. Once again Mediterranean Europe and Northern Europe are becoming the new “old” cleaving lines for European politics. In this reemergence process there are a lot of lose ends and ill-defined boundaries. NATO was built in 1949 on assumptions about a unified Europe rather than on Mediterranean and Baltic spheres of European organization. Cyber-attacks offer NATO a new commonality among European countries that has been otherwise lacking.
How Did This Happen?
Cyber-attacks have become a part of how countries interact with each other. It’s early in the game because the internet is only a few decades old, but by 2007 there were already several international cyber-attacks. In fact, in 2007 there were three widely observed cyber-attacks: Russia disrupted Estonia’s banking system, Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear enrichment facility by hacking the Syrian air defenses so Israeli jet bombers could fly into Syria, and the United States and Israel together attacked Iran’s nuclear centrifuge facility and destroyed over a thousand nuclear enrichment centrifuges with a computer worm. It was an impressive kick-off year for international cyber-attacks.
In 2008 Russia used a cyber-attack to shut down Georgia’s banking and mobile phones. In 2013 the United States used a cyber-attack on Pakistan’s air defenses in order to allow Navy Seal helicopters to approach Abottabad, Pakistan in order to kill Osama Bid Laden. And, in 2014 Russia used a cyber-attack to support their military move into the Crimea in Ukraine. Aside from these highly visible cyber-attacks there are hundreds and even thousands of cyber-attacks that occur as unofficial events. China is notorious for cyber-theft of American technology and hacking into U.S. infrastructure. Cyber theft is epidemic and frequently is strategically arranged over international networks. Due to a flourishing digital network, who is “them” and who is “us” is no longer clear cut.
The Real Opportunity
The problem in Russia as well as many of the Eastern European countries boarding Russia is that they are in transition from centrally planned economies. That transition has been difficult in many of these countries and leaves lots of people unemployed. Employment is a huge issue everywhere including most European countries, but in countries where the economy is only recently adapting to a free enterprise system it is especially challenging. The opportunity to use digital technology to grow the economy is sometimes being lost.
If the country is engaging in online crime and cyber hostility, economic growth of the digital sector is all the more challenged. For example, in Ukraine the economy was the second most productive sector of the Soviet economy. It was an agricultural powerhouse and a manufacturing powerhouse. As the Soviet system declined both the agriculture and industry in Ukraine were neglected. Then, when Ukraine established independence in 1991, Ukrainians were at a disadvantage due to their outdated industrial technology and equipment, and their neglected agriculture with its centralized organization. To foster digital growth in the new economy would be an ideal alternative, adding a third area of economic growth. Estonia is the shining example of how this can be done, but most of the other former Soviet countries are not as focused on digital development as Estonia and that is likely to leave them far behind as the twenty first century unfolds.
Although computers have, thus far, not proven their worth as a job producing technology, the culture that is developing around digital society is learning how to create jobs. Hackathons are a start in that direction and hackathons may prove to be a catalyst for changing employment systems and employment markets completely. Do the Russians want to make themselves pariahs in this newly developing digital geopolitics? Do they want to be the “them” on the other side of the digital divide? Do Middle Eastern autocrats want to play that same game? It seems like a poor choice in the newly evolving digital geopolitics of “them” and “us”.