Geopolitics 2.0 (ARI)
ARI 144/2009 - 14/10/2009
Theme: An entirely new form of virtual weaponry is transforming the dynamics of geopolitics.
The threat of cyber warfare is not new. The Internet was a product of
the Cold War built in the 1960s by US military scientists to protect
American communications infrastructure against a Soviet nuclear strike.
Nearly a half century later, those threats remain. Today, however,
cyber weapons are not only in hands of enemy and rogue states, but are
being exploited by isolated individuals ranging from bored teenagers to
wild-eyed terrorists. Today the impact of Web 2.0 goes beyond political
mobilisation inside countries and digital diplomacy between states. It
now includes virtual weaponry that has brought an entirely new form of
warfare which is transforming the dynamics of geopolitics. We call this
new global reality Geopolitics 2.0, which is –broadly speaking–
characterised by three
significant shifts: (1) states to individuals; (2) real-world to
virtual mobilisation and power; and (3) old media to new media. Forced
to react to the impact of these three Geopolitics 2.0 shifts, states
are alternatively censoring or deploying Web platforms to achieve their
goals and assert their influence –and in some cases, they are doing
Analysis: In the
aftermath of Iran’s massive street protests in June, no one was
surprised when that country’s authoritarian regime blamed the unrest on
Western intelligence agencies and big media organisations like the BBC
and Voice of America. This time, however, the ruling mullahs’ litany of
accusations included a new list of Western enemies: Twitter, Google,
YouTube and Facebook.
Web 2.0 social networks had indeed played
a powerful role during the uprising –not only in mobilising action
inside Iran, but also in influencing global opinion–. The global media
described the turbulent events in Iran as a ‘Twitter Revolution’ due to
the widespread use of ‘tweets’ to organise spontaneous protests and
disseminate information about what was happening in the country. Also,
a young Iranian protestor called Nada became a tragic icon for the
Iranian protest when, after being shot during a bloody repression,
video images of her bleeding to death in the streets of Tehran were
posted on YouTube, provoking horror and outrage throughout the world.
the Iranian regime was not toppled in the summer of 2009, the ‘Twitter
Revolution’ marked a turning point in global politics. Whereas in the
past states were acutely conscious of the power of traditional media
like CNN and the BBC in shaping world opinion, the sudden explosion of
Web 2.0 networks was imposing a new lexicon on the emerging
geopolitical realities of digital diplomacy. The so-called ‘CNN Effect’
was now the ‘YouTube Effect’.
The powerful significance of this
shift was not lost on Barack Obama as he moved into the White House in
early 2009. In fact, President Obama owed his electoral victory in part
to the mobilising power of Web 2.0 networks. As a candidate, Obama
–constantly pictured thumbing his BlackBerry– had run a campaign that
shrewdly leveraged not only Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but also
MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, Digg, BlackPlanet, LinkedIn and many other
social networks. Obama’s masterful use of Web 2.0 platforms marked a
major e-ruption in electoral politics –in America and elsewhere–. Since
the US presidential elections of 2008, political campaigning has been
shifting from the old system of top-down political machines towards
Web-based mobilisation that gives a powerful role to the bottom-up
dynamics of online social networks.
Obama also learned
first-hand during the 2008 campaign how the Web can be used as an
offensive weapon in political warfare. Hackers had broken into his
election team’s computer system and stolen sensitive information about
campaign travel plans and Obama policy positions. After being sworn in
as President, Obama offered this reflection on that experience: ‘It was
a powerful reminder, in this information age, one of your greatest
strengths –in our case, our ability to communicate to a wide range of
supporters through the Internet– could also be one of your greatest
Not surprisingly, President Obama quickly
grasped the strategic importance –and potential threat– of Web-based
networks for America’s role as a global superpower. The US and other
Western powers possessed reliable intelligence that numerous states –in
particular Russia, China and North Korea– were engaged in cyber warfare
in various forms: espionage, black propaganda, Web vandalism, data
theft, cyber attacks on critical infrastructure and denial-of-service
attacks. Facing these threats, one of the first measures President
Obama announced after taking office was a White House programme to
bolster America’s defences against cyber attacks. Declaring that cyber
warfare was ‘one of the most serious economic and national security
challenges’ facing America, President Obama earmarked US$335 million
for securing US Internet infrastructure and appointed a White House
‘cyber czar’. The Pentagon meanwhile was spending more than US$100
million to repair and strengthen its computer networks. In the US
Congress, four Senators were introducing a new bill called the Cybersecurity Act.
the same time, the Pentagon signed off on the creation of a US ‘Cyber
Command’, headed by Lt.-Gen. Keith Alexander, that was expected to be
operational by late 2010. General Alexander declared that, in his new
role, his mission was to ‘defend vital networks and project power in
cyberspace’. While the Cyber Command’s work remains top secret, it is
believed that its cyber-security efforts include blocking thousands of
foreign electronic attacks on US network systems that occur every year.
increasing dependency on cyberspace, alongside a growing array of cyber
threats and vulnerabilities, adds a new element of risk to our national
security’, noted Defense Secretary Robert Gates in an internal Pentagon
memo. ‘To address this risk effectively and to secure freedom of action
in cyberspace, the Department of Defense requires a command that
possesses the required technical capability and remains focused on the
integration of cyberspace operations’. Gates had good reason to be on
high alert about a cyber threat. In 2008, Chinese military hackers were
believed to have broken into an unclassified e-mail system in his own
Pentagon office, creating embarrassment at the highest levels of the US
government and triggering an immediate review of Pentagon IT
procedures. And yet only a year later, Chinese and Russian cyber
hackers were believed to have infiltrated the US electrical grid,
leaving behind software programmes to disrupt the entire system.
threat of cyber warfare is not new. In fact, the Internet itself –a
product of the Cold War– was built in the 1960s by US military
scientists to protect American communications infrastructure against a
Soviet nuclear strike. Nearly a half century later, those threats
remain. Today, however, cyber weapons are not only in hands of enemy
and rogue states, but are being exploited by isolated individuals
ranging from bored teenagers to wild-eyed terrorists. Today the impact
of Web 2.0 goes beyond political mobilisation inside countries and
digital diplomacy between states. It now includes virtual weaponry that
has brought an entirely new form of warfare which is transforming the
dynamics of geopolitics. We call this new global reality Geopolitics
Geopolitics 2.0 is, broadly speaking, characterised by
three significant shifts: (1) states to individuals; (2) real-world to
virtual mobilisation and power; and (3) old media to new media.
States to Individuals
first shift is from a state-centric approach in international relations
towards a new dynamic involving a widely disparate number of non-state
actors, even individuals, who can use Web platforms to exert influence,
threaten states and inflict violence.
This shift has been
occurring for some time, as states lose their monopoly as the exclusive
actors on the global stage, but is now accelerating due to the impact
of Web 2.0 networks. Geopolitics 2.0 does no evacuate state-to-state
conflict. Make no mistake, states are using Web 2.0 instruments against
other states. Communist North Korea is widely suspected, for example,
of being at the origin of cyber attacks against neighbouring South
Korea and other countries. Another example occurred in April 2007, when
the normally tranquil nation of Estonia came under a cyber attack
–targeting government, banks and media– following the relocation in
that country of a Soviet war memorial. The Estonian government blamed
the Kremlin for the sudden and unexpected cyber attack. While the
Kremlin denied any direct involvement, the incident prompted the NATO
military alliance to step up its readiness for cyber warfare.
is unique about Geopolitics 2.0, however, is that Web networks like
Google and YouTube empower not only states and non-state organisations,
but also isolated individuals who can, due to low entry barriers, act
upon global events –both constructively and destructively–. The Web 2.0
revolution has allowed individuals with virtually no resources to act
and exert influence on the same playing field as powerful states that
control massive economic and military resources. Today a lone hacker or
influential blogger can play cyber David against Goliath states. This
was powerfully demonstrated in 2009 when the Russian government
allegedly inflicted a denial-of-service attack on Twitter in order to
neutralise a single blogger in Georgia. Twitter users world-wide faced
a paralysing brown-out because the Kremlin had launched a cyber attack
against one individual.
The Georgian blogger turned out to be a 34-year-old economics professor in Tblisi who –known only as Cyxymu–
had previously been unknown on the international stage. The identities
of many individuals using Web 2.0 platforms in cyber war activities
are, in like manner, either unknown or difficult to discover. This
marks a major shift from previous models of geopolitics, where the main
actors have been either states or other easily identifiable non-state
actors, including terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. In Geopolitics 2.0,
the identity of individual actors in the global system is frequently
not apparent, and sometimes a baffling mystery. When hackers and
cyberspies attack, governments may accuse China or Russia, but its
origins and perpetrators are never verified with total certainty. In
short, it’s possible to be a significant actor in the global system,
and inflict major damage on traditional states, without ever becoming
known, let alone apprehended and punished.
Real-world to Virtual Mobilisation and Power
The second shift is from ‘real-world’ to ‘virtual’ forms of mobilisation, action and aggression.
use of Twitter in Iran provided a powerful example of how Web 2.0
networks diffuse power to the periphery. In Iran, an authoritarian
regime was so destabilised at first by the ‘Twitter Revolution’ that it
was forced to physically repress its own population to prevent its own
overthrow. In liberal democracies, Web 2.0 platforms like Facebook,
YouTube and Twitter are now indispensible tools of electoral
mobilisation and civic organisation. All governments are now acutely
aware that their citizens can use these tools to voice their views,
organise action and even challenge their authority.
In terms of
coercive power, we are witnessing the same shift from the vertical
centre to the horizontal periphery –or, expressed differently, from
military ‘hard power’ to ‘virtual power’ forms of aggression in
cyberspace–. Virtual power is different from ‘soft power’ in one
important aspect: whereas the latter conveys values through culture,
consumer behaviour and lifestyle (from Mickey Mouse to McDonald’s),
virtual power is located exclusively in cyberspace. America is a
soft-power superpower, but is more vulnerable in the sphere of virtual
power. This explains why the US is scrambling to invest massively in
programmes that strengthen their arsenal of cyber weaponry –both
offensively and defensively–. Lt.-Gen. William Shelton, the US Air
Force's chief of warfighting integration, has said that in the past the
Pentagon relied too heavily on industry efforts to respond to cyber
threats. This industry-led approach, he added, failed to keep pace with
the threat from cyber space.
‘Threats in cyberspace move at the
speed of light, and we are literally under attack every day as our
networks are constantly probed and our adversaries seek to exploit
vulnerabilities’, General Shelton told the House Armed Services
Committee in May 2009. A US National Security Council report concluded
meanwhile that the American government’s policies on waging cyber
warfare have been ill-formed. While these statements may be motivated
by a desire to obtain more substantial budget allocations, it cannot be
doubted that they reveal how states –with their traditional
institutional bias in favour of ‘hard power’– have been slow to
understand the velocity and significance of the cyber war threat.
the so-called ‘military-industrial complex’ may need to rely less on
giant arms manufacturers and four-star generals and more on computer
geeks with formidable skills on videogames like World of Warcraft.
That assertion may seem flippant, but it is actually a fact. The US
Army is now using Web 2.0 platforms like Facebook and YouTube as
recruitment tools and, what’s more, is looking specifically for certain
skills sets that include familiarity with virtual worlds and online
videogames. The example is being set at the highest level of command:
the US Joint Chiefs of Staff is on Twitter and has a Facebook ‘fan’
page. The British army, for its part, actively encourages its soldiers
to use Twitter and Facebook. The CIA meanwhile has its own internal
wiki, called Intellipedia, which is used as an information-sharing
network that replaces old bureaucratic silos with a transparent
collaboration system to gather intelligence on potential threats. As
the new generation of so-called ‘millennials’ move into positions of
responsibility in government and the military, they will bring with
them powerful cyber skills that will be instrumentally useful in
espionage and warfare.
Old Media to New Media
third shift is from old media (like CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera) to new
media like Google, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook as effective platforms
of global diplomacy, communication and opinion shaping.
past, governments have used mass media to wage information warfare.
Prominent statesmen, including Presidents and Prime Ministers, have
been willing to appear on CNN and the BBC to be interviewed about their
positions and policies, and state and non-state actors have exploited
the global media to stage events –and pull off stunts– to attract
attention to their causes. Old media have been the privileged forum of
global diplomacy. The era of old media dominance is coming to an end.
We are witnessing a definite shift in favour of new media, not only
with the emergence of Web-based forms of journalism, but more
importantly through the explosion of platforms like YouTube, Google
Facebook and Twitter as instruments of information and propaganda. Web
2.0 platforms are powerfully effective tools for mobilisation –or
The Gaza crisis in 2008 provides an
excellent example of shift towards new media. Shortly after Israel
launched its military operation, a Jewish American citizen called Joel
Leyden created a Facebook group called ‘I Support the Israel Defense
Forces in Preventing Terror Attacks from Gaza’. At the same time, an
Arab called Hamzeh Abu-Abed created a Facebook group called ‘Let’s
Collect 500,000 Signatures to Support the Palestinians in Gaza’.
Intrigued by the leveraging of Web 2.0 networks on both sides of the
crisis, Time magazine
published a story under the headline ‘Facebook users go to war over
Gaza’. Most of these Facebook initiatives were the work of individuals.
But states also joined the Web 2.0 propaganda campaign to get out their
message. The Israeli Army, for example, launched its own YouTube video
channel in an effort to win the global PR battle by uploading videos
showing carefully pinpointed strikes against terrorist targets.
to react to the impact of these three Geopolitics 2.0 shifts, states
are alternatively censoring or deploying Web platforms to achieve their
goals and assert their influence –and in some cases, they are doing
Authoritarian states routinely imprison so-called
‘cyber-dissidents’. In the Middle East, for example, Syria has jailed
bloggers and blocks websites (including Facebook and YouTube) deemed a
security threat. In Egypt, an Arab country that enjoys open diplomatic
relations with the West, the government has punished online criticism
of the state. Beyond the Middle East, the Chinese regime has imprisoned
cyber-dissidents and shut down websites including YouTube, particularly
over sensitive issues such as Tibet. Indonesia has banned both YouTube
and MySpace. Other states that have banned websites or imprisoned
cyber-dissidents include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Belarus, Burma,
North Korea, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
democracies, while undoubtedly developing their cyber war capabilities,
are particularly focused on the potential danger of Web 2.0 forms of
terrorism. It is believed that terrorists are using Web platforms like
Google Earth to locate potential targets, especially in countries like
Israel. This may explain why Google has pixilated sensitive zones in
Israel and elsewhere in the world that could come under a terrorist
attack. The findings of a ‘Dark Web’ research project at the University
of Arizona tracked Jihadist extremist groups using Web 2.0 media. The
study, published in 2008, came across an alarming number of Jihadist
blogs, including one posting news updates about so-called ‘occupied
Islamic countries’. Jihadist bloggers were also active on YouTube,
uploading videos featuring explosives, attacks, bombings and
hostage-taking. On Second Life, meanwhile, a ‘Terrorist of SL’
attracted 228 members and another group called ‘Liberation Front’
counted 65 followers. The ‘Dark Web’ study concluded: ‘Many of the Web
2.0 content providers may only act as Jihadist sympathisers or
information dissemination agents for radical extremist materials. Most
of them may not be the original content creators, i.e., the groups who
performed the violent acts. However, their role and importance as
online information dissemination agents or resource hubs cannot be
Some contend that Web 2.0 social networks can
be anti-democratic even in liberal democracies. They warn against an
ever-present danger that states will succumb to ‘Big Brother’
temptations and use Web 2.0 networks to spy on own their citizens. The
CIA admits openly that it uses Facebook for recruitment purposes, but
it would be naïve to believe that states and their intelligence
agencies around the world are not using Web 2.0 networks to collect
does not share personal information with third-party companies –but
adds that, in order to comply with the law, it may give personal
information to ‘government agencies’–.
has radically changed with Geopolitics 2.0 is that old-fashioned state
surveillance is now a two-way mirror. Individuals operating in
cyberspace can now spy on, and even threaten, their own governments and
other states. The shift from states to individuals, from hard to
virtual power, and from old to new media has changed the dynamics of
global politics forever.
Fellow at INSEAD and Adjunct Professor at the American University of Paris
and the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris
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