The weaponization of everything: Globalization’s dark side
The element of surprise in international relations appears more frequent and more ferocious. Are these shocks to be expected from a dangerously fragile political and economic global architecture? Or is something else going on?
It is increasingly understood that we have entered a new phase of globalization – one defined more by divergence than convergence. Fragmentation, rather than a flattening of difference, is creating an archipelago-shaped world of fracturing capital, power and ideas.
What is less appreciated is that basic enablers of globalization — finance, technology, energy, law, education, science, trade and travel — have all been turned into weapons in a new form of warfare. Forces that should be binding together diverse parts of the globe are instead being transformed into divisive and even disruptive tools. What might be called the “weaponization of everything” is the new reality of globalization– one with profound implications for governments, companies and individuals alike.
Technology has been weaponized through cyber-warfare. One particularly egregious example is the hack into the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which exposed personal data of roughly 22.1 million government employees as well as their families and friends. Finance has been weaponized through banking sanctions and the balkanization of global payment systems, in the form of Western sanctions on Russia and Iran. Education and travel have been weaponized through toughened visa restrictions. Trade has been weaponized through agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership, aimed in part at containing China. Law has been weaponized through the extra-territorial reach of prosecutors, such as U.S. prosecutors’ indictment of senior FIFA officials world-wide on corruption charges. Energy has been weaponized through pipeline alliances and the use of oil production as strategic tools, including Saudi oil production deployed in a sectarian rivalry.
Not every aspect of this weaponization is, of course, new. During — and between — wars throughout history, states have sought to marshal every aspect of national power to their advantage. What is new is the velocity and impact of weaponizing today’s tools of global integration in an age of unprecedented interdependence. The means of modern competition and conflict are now as important as their ends — and are increasingly becoming ends in themselves.
Three implications stand out:
First, the asymmetry of power. The weaponization of everything has turned strengths into weaknesses and weaknesses into strengths. States or even non-state actors subject to economic and political sanctions are now able to deploy weaponized technology, travel and science to threaten great powers and unsettle global markets.
Nowhere is this challenge more acute than in the cyber world. The rapid proliferation of advanced technologies, the ubiquitous dependency on the Internet and the vexing problem of attribution in a cyberattack mean that institutions of immense reach, wealth and standing can be brought low by rogue groups or even individuals. Conventional concepts of conflict, deterrence and security are upended in a world in which the weak can leverage the tools of cyber, energy and finance to their advantage. This week’s fraught U.S.-China talks on this subject are only the latest manifestation of this challenge.
Second, the vulnerability of everyone, everywhere. States, non-state actors and individual citizens are both actors and targets in this new warfare. When oil production is deployed as a weapon — as in the Saudi-Iran rivalry — global markets and companies are in the cross-hairs. When travel, science and education are subject to restrictions based on national rivalry, a global talent pool is prevented from achieving its full potential.
When commodity markets and stock exchanges can be distorted by trading glitches and sudden unexplained activity spikes, investors can no longer have full confidence in the sources or uses of capital. When global communications systems can be carved into discrete spaces open only to select companies and individuals, a critical foundation of trade and commerce is rendered impotent.
Third, the absence of effective tools of diplomacy or risk management to respond to these new weapons of war. Neither conventional defense structures nor corporate barriers to entry were designed to withstand the range of threats and challenges emanating from the weaponization of everything.
Where is the Pentagon’s mighty power when the threat isn’t from a state or terrorist group, but from the use of technology to paralyze critical infrastructure or reveal vast surveillance programs? What constitutes prudent corporate risk management when competition is defined not by new products, but by the use of law, technology and trade to advance some companies and industries and hurt others?
What protection can international law provide in a fragmenting universe of Internet, intellectual property and scientific research? An edifice of national and global institutions built to take advantage of globalization’s vectors of integration has no defenses against these enemies from within.
Does the weaponization of everything inevitably lead to a world of rapidly escalating conflicts, both conventional and unconventional? Will it feed a process of de-globalization — a slow but certain rolling back of global integration and cooperation? Not necessarily. But it does signal a new form of globalization — more contested, more contingent, more prone to shocks and shifts from unimagined sources.
Globalization’s inherent vulnerabilities — from finance to energy to cyber — are becoming clearer day by every surprise-filled day. Tomorrow, arenas of climate, space, genomics and pharma may be weaponized, too.
If globalization is not to be remembered as a Trojan horse for the greatest enemies of peace, development and security, defenses as powerful and innovative as its newest threats must be built. A good place to start would be a new arms-control agreement between China and the United States designed to sustain a new phase of global integration from which both sides have still far more to gain.