Watch your back at dinner

Geopolitics used to be simple and linear with a clear division between allies and enemies.

Nowadays these lines are blurred. You could have dinner with good friends who are simultaneously spying on you. This is a challenging new strategic imperative for Europe and the Netherlands when it comes to cyber security

Recently, Israel has been accused of deploying sophisticated devices near the White House to spy on cellular networks likely used by Donald Trump and his staff.[1] This was not only a painful incident for Israeli diplomats, but also a remarkable sign of how a new reality is emerging in geopolitics. In this new reality, states may work shoulder to shoulder in a trusted relationship on one strategic goal, while they may treat the same state as a foe in other areas.

The virtual nature of modern (hybrid) warfare has altered geopolitics in many ways. When allies penetrate each other’s infrastructure, there often are no ‘smoking guns’. Attackers can penetrate systems and infrastructures unnoticed, their addresses can be cloaked or falsified. The effect of this: states with cordial and friendly relations may in fact already be infiltrated or ‘at war’ under the hood. And if they notice an infiltration or attack, attribution of a friend may turn out to be very difficult.

Another perspective where the lines are blurring is the collaboration between state and non-state actors on cyber espionage. Especially in China and Russia, this is common practice. One important factor is that nearly all digital infrastructure is owned by commercial actors, giving these companies power and making governments dependent on them. Well-known big tech companies with a sizeable customer base attract state actors to their platforms. This gives them commercial power, but also unleashes new options to influence opinions or to infringe on (personal) data on a large scale, as we have seen in multiple cases where elections were influenced by fake news and trolling. Several states are trying to regain power over these lost territories, while others are thinking of regulating the responsibilities of these large corporates.

In the recent past, failure of diplomacy could end in open armed conflict. Nowadays, these take place largely below the legal threshold of an armed conflict, with the integrated use of means and actors, aimed at achieving certain strategic goals, including cyber weapons and/or fake news.

One of the effects is that stable long-term partnerships turn into multidimensional coalitions. States may work shoulder to shoulder in a trusted relationship on one strategic goal, while they may treat the same state as an enemy in other areas. It is like sharing good stories with your friend at a Christmas dinner whilst stealing the spouse’s wallet at the same time.

The struggle for power between the US and China is not just about traditional military power, but also about dominating new networks of power that are associated with the new digital reality – and the fourth industrial revolution that is part of this reality. The question is: how should the European Union position itself – given the fact that the lines are blurring? EU commissioner Ursula von der Leyen has named her new commission the ‘Geopolitical Commission’, clearly indicating the resolve to take a leading role in coordinating European policy in relation to the US and China. Still, it is as of yet unclear what this will mean in real political terms. How will she make good on her promise? And what will that do to Europe’s image as a ‘soft power union’?

For corporates in both Europe and the Netherlands, these blurring lines pose another great challenge. How to deal with the influence of companies or money from certain state actors in their supply chain or business? More to the point: what if one of your critical suppliers merges with a Russian company? What if Chinese corporates want to invest in your research & development department? What if an emerging competitor abroad has developed a product that looks a bit too familiar to yours? We recommend our clients to prepare for these and much more detailed scenarios in their strategic planning for the near future. They may become reality much sooner than expected

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