Kissinger has recently published some reflections on the course of world politics in recent decades, with references to the return of the 20th century conflicts brought to light by the development of new weaponry and strategic scenarios mediated by Artificial Intelligence. Kissinger has also referred to the situation in Ukraine and the equilibria between the United States, Russia and China.
Kissinger has stated that instant communication and the technological revolution have combined to provide new meaning and urgency to two crucial issues that leaders must address:
1) what is essential for national security?
2) what is necessary for peaceful international coexistence?
Although a plethora of empires existed, aspirations for world order were confined by geography and technology to specific regions. This was also true for the Roman and Chinese empires, which encompassed a wide range of societies and cultures. These were regional orders that co-evolved as world orders.
From the 16th century onwards, the development of technology, medicine and economic and political organisation expanded Europe’s ability to project its power and government systems around the world. From the mid-17th century, the Westphalian system was based on respect for sovereignty and international law. Later that system took root throughout the world and, after the end of traditional colonialism, it led to the emergence of States which – largely formally abandoned by the former motherlands – insisted on defining, and even defying, the rules of the established world order – at least the countries that really got rid of imperialistic domination, such as the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, etc.
Since the end of World War II, mankind has lived in a delicate balance between relative security and legitimacy. In no previous period of history would the consequences of an error in this balance have been more severe or catastrophic. The contemporary age has introduced a level of destructiveness that potentially enables mankind to self-destruct. Advanced systems of mutual destruction were aimed at pursuing not ultimate victory but rather at preventing others’ attack.
This is the reason why shortly after the Japanese nuclear tragedy of 1945, the deployment of nuclear weapons began to become incalculable, unconstrained by consequences and based on the certainty of security systems.
For seventy-six years (1946-2022) while advanced weapons grew in power, complexity and accuracy, no country was convinced to actually use them, even in conflict with non-nuclear countries. Both the United States of America and the Soviet Union that accepted defeat at the hands of non-nuclear countries without resorting to their own most lethal weapons: as in the case of the Korean War, Vietnam, Afghanistan (both the Soviets and the Americans in that case).
To this day, such nuclear dilemmas have not disappeared, but have instead changed as more States have developed more refined weapons than the “nuclear bomb” and the essentially bipolar distribution of destructive capabilities of the former Cold War has been replaced by very high-tech options – a topic addressed in my various articles.
Cyber weapons and artificial intelligence applications (such as autonomous weapon systems) greatly complicate the current dangerous war prospects. Unlike nuclear weapons, cyber weapons and artificial intelligence are ubiquitous, relatively inexpensive to develop and easy to use.
Cyber weapons combine the capacity for massive impact with the ability to obscure the attribution of attacks, which is crucial when the attacker is no longer a precise reference but becomes a “quiz”.
As we have often pointed out, artificial intelligence can also overcome the need for human operators, and enable weapons to launch themselves based on their own calculations and their ability to choose targets with almost absolute precision and accuracy.
Because the threshold for their use is so low and their destructive ability so great, the use of such weapons – or even their mere threat – can turn a crisis into a war or turn a limited war into a nuclear war through unintentional or uncontrollable escalation. To put it in simple terms, there will no longer be the need to drop the “bomb” first, as it would be downgraded to a weapon of retaliation against possible and not certain enemies. On the contrary, with the help of artificial intelligence, third parties could make sure that the first cyber-attack is attributed to those who have never attacked.
The impact of this technology makes its application a cataclysm, thus making its use so limited that it becomes unmanageable.
No diplomacy has yet been invented to explicitly threaten its use without the risk of an anticipated response. So much so that arms control Summits seem to have been played down by these uncontrollable novelties, ranging from unmarked drone attacks to cyberattacks from the depths of the Net.
Technological developments are currently accompanied by a political transformation. Today we are witnessing the resurgence of rivalry between the great powers, amplified by the spread and advancement of surprising technologies. When in the early 1970s the People’s Republic of China embarked on its re-entry into the international diplomatic system at the initiative of Zhou Enlai and, at the end of that decade, on its full re-entry into the international arena thanks to Deng Xiaoping, its human and economic potential was vast, but its technology and actual power were relatively limited.
Meanwhile, China’s growing economic and strategic capabilities have forced the United States of America to confront –
for the first time in its history – a geopolitical competitor whose resources are potentially comparable to its own.
Each side sees itself as a unicum, but in a different way. The United States of America acts on the assumption that its values are universally applicable and will eventually be adopted everywhere. The People’s Republic of China, instead, expects that the uniqueness of its ultra-millennial civilisation and the impressive economic leap forward will inspire other countries to emulate it to break free from imperialist domination and show respect for Chinese priorities.
Both the US “manifest destiny” missionary impulse and the Chinese sense of grandeur and cultural eminence – of China as such, including Taiwan – imply a kind of subordination-fear of each other. Due to the nature of their economies and high technology, each country is affecting what the other has so far considered its core interests.
In the 21st century China seems to have embarked on playing an international role to which it considers itself entitled by its achievements over the millennia. The United States of America, on the other hand, is taking action to project power, purpose, and diplomacy around the world to maintain a global equilibrium established in its post-war experience, responding to tangible and imagined challenges to this world order.
For the leadership on both sides, these security requirements seem self-evident. They are supported by their respective citizens. Yet security is only part of the wide picture. The fundamental issue for the planet’s existence is whether the two giants can learn to combine the inevitable strategic rivalry with a concept and practice of coexistence.
Russia – unlike the United States of America and China – lacks the market power, demographic clout and diversified industrial base.
Spanning eleven time zones and enjoying few natural defensive demarcations, Russia has acted according to its own geographical and historical imperatives. Russia’s foreign policy represents a mystical patriotism in a Third Rome-style imperial law, with a lingering perception of insecurity essentially stemming from the country’s long-standing vulnerability to invasion across the plains of Eastern Europe.
For centuries, its leaders from Peter the Great to Stalin – who, by the way, was not even Russian, but felt he was so in the internationalist spirit that led to the creation of the USSR on 30 December 1922 – have sought to isolate Russia’s vast territory with a safety belt imposed around its diffuse border. Today Kissinger tells us that the same priority is manifested once again in the attack on Ukraine – and we add that few people understand and many others pretend not to understand this.
The mutual impact of these societies has been shaped by their strategic assessments, which stem from their history. The Ukrainian conflict is a case in point. After the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and the turning of its Member States (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, German Democratic Republic, Poland, Romania, Hungary) into “Western” countries, the whole territory – from the security line established in central Europe up to Russia’s national border – has opened up to a new strategic design. Stability depended on the fact that the Warsaw Pact in itself – especially after the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe held in Helsinki in 1975 – allayed Europe’s traditional fears of Russian domination (indeed, Soviet domination, at the time), and assuaged Russia’s traditional concerns about Western offensives – from the Swedes to Napoleon until Hitler. Hence, the strategic geography of Ukraine embodies these concerns emerging again in Russia. If Ukraine were to join NATO, the security line between Russia and the West would be placed within just over 500 kilometres of Moscow, actually eliminating the traditional buffer that saved Russia when Sweden, France and Germany tried to occupy it in previous centuries.
If the security border were to be established on the Western side of Ukraine, Russian forces would be within easy reach of Budapest and Warsaw. The February 2022 invasion of Ukraine is a flagrant violation of the international law mentioned above, and is thus largely a consequence of a failed or otherwise inadequately undertaken strategic dialogue. The experience of two nuclear entities confronting each other militarily – although not resorting to their destructive weapons – underlines the urgency of the fundamental problem, as Ukraine is only a tool of the West. Dario Fo once said that China was an invention of Albania to scare the Soviet Union. We can say that Ukraine is currently an invention of the West to scare Russia – and this is not a joke. An invention for which Ukrainians and Russians are paying with their blood.
Hence the triangular relationship between the United States of America, the People’s Republic of China, and the Russian Federation will eventually resume, even if Russia will be weakened by the demonstration of its intended military limitations in Ukraine, the widespread rejection of its conduct, and the scope and impact of sanctions against it. But it will retain nuclear and cyber capabilities for doomsday scenarios.
In the US-Chinese relationship, instead, the conundrum is whether two different concepts of national greatness can learn to peacefully coexist side by side and how. In the case of Russia, the challenge is whether the country can reconcile its vision of itself with the self-determination and security of the countries in what it has long called its “near abroad” (mainly Central Asia and Eastern Europe), and do so as part of an international system rather than through domination.
It now seems possible that an order based on universal rules, however worthy in its conception, will be replaced in practice, for an indefinite period of time, by an at least partially decoupled world. Such a division encourages a search at its margins for spheres of influence. In such a case, how will countries that do not agree on global rules of conduct be able to operate within an agreed equilibrium design? Will the quest for domination overwhelm the analysis of coexistence?
In a world of increasingly formidable technology that can either elevate or dismantle human civilisation, there is no definitive solution to the competition between great powers, let alone a military one. An unbridled technological race, justified by the foreign policy ideology in which each side is convinced of the other’s malicious intent, risks creating a catastrophic cycle of mutual suspicion like the one that triggered World War I, but with incomparably greater consequences.
All sides are therefore now obliged to re-examine their first principles of international behaviour and relate them to the possibilities of coexistence. For the leaders of high-tech companies, there is a moral and strategic imperative to pursue – both within their own countries and with potential adversary countries – an ongoing discussion on the implications of technology and how its military applications could be limited.
The topic is too important to be neglected until crises arise. The arms control dialogues that helped toning down and showing restraint during the nuclear age, as well as the high-level research on the consequences of emerging technologies, could prompt reflection and promote habits of mutual strategic self-restraint.
An irony of the current world is that one of its glories – the revolutionary explosion of technology – has emerged so quickly, and with such optimism, that it has outgrown its dangers, and inadequate systematic efforts have been made to understand its capabilities.
Technologists develop amazing devices, but have had few opportunities to explore and evaluate their comparative implications within a historical framework. As I pointed out in a previous article, political leaders too often lack adequate understanding of the strategic and philosophical implications of the machines and algorithms available to them. At the same time, the technological revolution is eroding human consciousness and perceptions of the nature of reality. The last great transformation – the Enlightenment – replaced the age of faith with repeatable experiments and logical deductions. Now it is supplanted by dependence on algorithms, which work in the opposite direction, offering results in search of an explanation. Exploring these new frontiers will require considerable efforts on the part of national leaders to reduce, and ideally bridge, the gaps between the worlds of technology, politics, history and philosophy.
The leaders of current great powers need not immediately develop a detailed vision of how to solve the dilemmas described here. Kissinger warns that, however, they must be clear about what is to be avoided and what cannot be tolerated. The wise must anticipate challenges before they manifest themselves as crises. Lacking a moral and strategic vision, the current era is unbridled. The extent of our future still defies understanding not so much of what will happen but of what has already happened.