Resilience, Peace and Security

5 lessons for international security from Davos 2016

International security was top of the agenda in Davos last month. Image: REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

Anja Kaspersen
Former Head of Geopolitics and International Security, World Economic Forum
Isabel De Sola
Practice Lead, International Security, World Economic Forum Geneva
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International Security

The geopolitical and international security landscape continues to evolve rapidly, with new crises cropping up and protracted conflicts spilling over. When thousands of the world’s leaders met in Davos last month, the following priorities emerged, which should be top of the agenda in 2016:

1. We are not prepared to manage the security risks coming from technological change

Technology is amplifying transformations, including in the international security space, where we now have security risks that never existed before: holes in software code and designer viruses (both virtual and biological), fully autonomous weapons, and the displacement of human labour by artificial intelligence, to name just a few.

The threat of a cyber arms race has become a reality, as states move their overt and covert conflicts into cyberspace. With 9 billion devices connected to the internet, the potential that these vulnerabilities in the cyber architecture will affect individuals and companies is growing at an exponential rate. Yet rather than making an effort to fix vulnerabilities, governments are either hoarding them in anticipation of a time when they may be used as part of an offensive capability, or brandishing them as instruments of deterrence.

This highlights the issue of hybrid threats in today’s context. In a highly interconnected world, the options available for hybrid warfare are numerous, particularly through cyberspace, but also in partnership with organized crime and terrorist groups. In addition to the threat of “little green men” fighting on the ground, leaders must grapple with “dark black bits” on the internet and the undeclared conflict waging through code.

Fundamentally, all of these technologies are evolving at a rate that challenges our capacity to comprehend and respond. National policy-makers may be disconnected from the centres of industry and research where much innovation is happening. The multilateral systems which should address these questions move at a glacial pace and rely in turn on national capacities to understand technological change. Even more importantly, some states are simply not ready to subject their new offensive technologies and cyber capabilities to international law.


2. Fragility is coming to a place near you

The issue of armed non-state actors has for many years been of concern to those working in the field of international security. But the Fourth Industrial Revolution is really bringing this to the forefront. Small groups or individuals increasingly have the power to be destructive, enhanced by new technologies, social media and a more connected world: “In the past, what happened there did not have much impact here,” Jean-Marie Guéhenno, CEO of the International Crisis Group, told participants. “Today, something that happens in one part of the world immediately has worldwide reverberations.”

Social media offers smaller actors both the ability and the incentives to mobilize violent action against their more powerful opponents’ weak points, such as civilian populations and value chain systems.

And recent attacks have demonstrated how fragility can travel to a place near you: if the sectarian divide in the Middle East widens, it will bring more security problems to the streets of Europe, America and Asia. In a world where borders are becoming increasingly meaningless, the isolationist response of some policy-makers will do little other than exacerbate problems. Instead, we need a systemic response involving collective statesmanship.

3. Security risks are cutting across industries

From infrastructure to ICT, and financial services to the energy sector, international security is being influenced and is influencing more sectors than ever before. We’ve seen this in the realm of geo-economics – often referred to as the continuation of geopolitics through economic means – where sanctions are being torn down for Cuba and Iran, but raised again between Russia and the EU, and Russia and the US. We’ve also seen it in the ways new infrastructure and development banks are investing their billions. And, perhaps most critically, we’re seeing it with the changing nature of Chinese growth, which may alter the country’s geopolitical priorities.

From a business perspective, international security is mostly a matter of tactical risk management, rather than a matter for strategic collaboration. But all businesses share an interest in a stable operating environment.

Lower oil and gas prices are rattling energy markets: they’re also having repercussions on the geo-economic balance of power, and vice versa. Oil powers with geopolitical ambitions have less income to influence matters abroad (not that it’s stopping them), and also less resources to ensure social investment and stability at home. Meanwhile, security risks facing the industry – from sanctions to terrorist or cyberattacks – highlight the imperative of decentralizing energy delivery and further investment in renewables.

From a global mobility and travel security perspective, the risk of a cyberattack (hacking into aircraft controls, support systems or the passenger screening process) is a big worry, with long-term implications for the industry. The world has seen aircrafts employed both as weapons (9/11) and targets of terrorism (the Sinai bombing of a Russian airliner). A study from PwC found that supply chain related attacks have grown over the past decade to a peak of 3,299 attacks in 2010.

4. Putting security and privacy on the same balance sheet

Operational norms and oversight mechanisms governing the intelligence services have been slow to adapt to the fact that the object of espionage has moved from other states to privately-operated ICT networks that play host to an increasing proportion of ordinary citizens’ social and economic activity. But intelligence services still need the right tools to address the new threats while addressing citizens’ concerns over privacy. Societies will have to decide whether a monopoly on control of encryption to keep society safe is worth enforcing (or even possible) at practically any cost, or whether it is more pragmatic instead to accept the fact that strong encryption capability is within easy reach of anyone who wants it, and just adapt to that reality.

The cross-border flow of data is today a key currency in the global economy. And while intelligence services have shifted their attention from the “needle” (the malicious actor), to looking at the “haystack” (the wider pattern of connections and behaviour that reveals bad actors), it has become apparent to some that the economic value of the haystack may be bigger than the security value of the whole exercise. Furthermore, technology is advancing so fast that an infrastructure for mass surveillance is being rolled out very rapidly. Re-programming it, for example to conduct pattern analysis for criminal activity, poses no problems, but does raise questions. New agreements and rules are required to frame how companies and governments both collect and share information on their clients or citizens.

5. Transformations in 2016

The convergence of these issues presents a gloomy picture – but also some opportunities for positive change in the international security landscape.

First, the agreed-upon rules of the past may be giving way to new rules and frameworks which must be negotiated between major and smaller players. For example, some Asian states are strengthening their militaries while they also deepen their economic integration with China. Russia’s military intervention in Syria upped the stakes and may spur the players towards a diplomatic settlement.

What the new arrangements will look like is not yet clear. New regional orders may emerge, and this could actually be good news. The ongoing wars in the Middle East may amount to a “Yugoslavia” opportunity which yields a new regional momentum and checks the sectarian divide. The humanitarian crisis in Europe, with the rise of populist nationalism and the European project under threat, could ultimately lead to a renewed commitment to make European integration work.

The return of skilful diplomacy and statesmanship may shine a few glimmers of hope onto the panorama. Diplomats may bring about a Colombian peace agreement, a resolution to a divided Cyprus, a ceasefire in Syria, and – with businesses engaged – a forward-looking outcome for the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016.

As discussions move on to the Munich Security Conference, we urge leaders across sectors to focus their attention on preparing for threats in the future, and on shaping those opportunities which can support a more peaceful and stable security landscape for 2016 and beyond.

Authors: Anja Kaspersen, Senior Director, Head of International Security, World Economic Forum and Isabel de Sola, Practice Lead, International Security, World Economic Forum

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