Theories on war and diplomacy (Part 3: Conflict in the information realm)

Theories on war and diplomacy (Part 3: Conflict in the information realm)

Phuah Eng Chye (2 July 2022)

The economics of war have changed since World War 2 (WW2). First, traditional wars were highly physical with mass mobilisation of troops and blockades to cut supply lines with the goal of occupying enemy territory. Today, such scenarios would generally be regarded as anachronistic with outcomes probably determined by nuclear missiles and defence systems. The risks of mutual mass destruction have grown so much that it has led superpowers to confine conflicts to “designated” theatres and to respect “guardrails” preventing direct confrontation.

Second, the colonial motive for wars was economic; to gain control over resources, markets and revenues. Today, the motive is largely geopolitical. In the modern post-independent era, invasions are mainly motivated by geopolitical concerns. As demonstrated in Indochina, Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa, the economics of war have deteriorated as fighting usually results in massive destruction with the invading forces unable to establish the control needed to extract economic benefits and were instead entangled in prolonged struggles that drained their resources and domestic credibility. Post-WW2 wars have generally been losing economic propositions; with the glaring exception of the defence and commodity industries.

Third, physical conflict doesn’t sit well in a globalised and informationalised world that is highly connected and interdependent. In a physical example, bombing raids or a blockade not only affects the adversary’s supply lines, it also affects the aggressor’s supply lines as well. On a similar note, modern weaponry is built on components manufactured by global firms from around the world and these global supply chains are vulnerable to actions taken by the superpowers.

These three differences – modern weaponry, the deteriorating economics of war and the globalised and informationalised world – has transformed superpower conflict. It has become extremely difficult to gain a decisive or meaningful military victory. In this context, the dominance of US and Western power over several decades have been built on information-based “soft power”. Its military force has been relegated to a secondary role to meet broad security needs; used sparingly as a backstop. However, the US and Western “soft power” dominance – in manufacturing, trade, finance, technology, information and law – is now threatened by the rise of China. In this instance, a military-led response is inappropriate and could quickly escalate into a nuclear confrontation. While there is a military stand-off, battles are breaking out in the information realm.

In my view, the US and West have sought to stem their declining global dominance by exploiting their asymmetric advantage in the information realm. Generally, in previous targeting smaller countries, the US and West have found it expedient to wage economic war as it was less costly in economic and political terms while having a crippling effect on adversaries. Consequently, economic war is now being extended to superpower rivals – decoupling policies aimed at neutralising China’s threat to Western economic and technology dominance; and a full-fledged economic war in retaliation for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Decoupling and the economic war signal a major shift of conflict from the physical to the information realm.

Conflict in the information realm is likely to be very different from a military war in terms of goals, strategies and consequences – but we are still uncertain as to how. Our understanding of conflict in the information realm is shallow because the information realm is new and undergoing constant and dramatic change. If the superpowers can’t get their bearings straight, the risks are that their tactics will backfire and result in unintended consequences. There are many areas that require clarification; not least in relation to concepts, goals and the relationship between economic and geopolitical objectives. The general practice of modifying the physical framework to cater for information conflict is inadequate. It should be the reverse. Military war should be viewed as an extension of the economic war. Thus, military strategies should be subsumed under a general framework for conflict strategies in the information realm. An interesting place to start is with the theory of weaponized interdependence.

Weaponized interdependence

Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman propounded weaponized interdependence as “the future of conflict in a world of global economic and information networks”. They note “in Rosa Brooks’[1] evocative description, globalization has created a world in which everything became war. Flows of finance, information, and physical goods across borders create both new risks for states and new tools to alternatively exploit or mitigate those risks. The result…is a world where unprecedented levels of interdependence are combined with continued jockeying for power, so that states that are unwilling to engage in direct conflict may still employ all measures short of war. Global economic networks have security consequences, because they increase interdependence between states that were previously relatively autonomous. Yet, existing theory provides few guideposts as to how states may leverage network structures as a coercive tool and under what circumstances”.

Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman explain “asymmetric network structures create the potential for weaponized interdependence, in which some states are able to leverage interdependent relations to coerce others. Specifically, states with political authority over the central nodes in the international networked structures through which money, goods, and information travel are uniquely positioned to impose costs on others. If they have appropriate domestic institutions, they can weaponize networks to gather information or choke off economic and information flows, discover and exploit vulnerabilities, compel policy change, and deter unwanted actions”. In other words, “focal points of cooperation have become sites of control…underscore how relatively new forms of economic interaction – financial and information flows – shape strategic opportunities, stressing in particular how the topography of global networks structures coercion…the deep empirical connections between economic networks – for example, financial messaging, dollar clearing, global supply chains, and internet communication – and a series of pressing real-world issues – including counterterrorism, cybersecurity, rogue states, and great power competition”.

They identified “the panopticon and chokepoint effects of networks” as the “two strategies through which states can gain powerful advantages from weaponizing interdependence”. The panopticon effect “weaponizes the ability to glean critical knowledge from information flows…Jeremy Bentham’s conception of the Panopticon was precisely an architectural arrangement in which one or a few central actors could readily observe the activities of others. States that have physical access to or jurisdiction over hub nodes can use this influence to obtain information passing through the hubs”. Historically, Britain’s global influence derived from being “the hub of trade, finance and insurance gave its military planners, and its political decision makers, a unique insight into how and where global flows of strategic goods went, and how those flows might be interrupted”. Today, “states with access to the panopticon effect have an informational advantage in understanding adversaries’ intentions and tactics. This information offers those states with access to the hub a strategic advantage in their effort to counter the specific moves of their targets, conduct negotiations, or create political frames”.

The chokepoint effect “involves privileged states’ capacity to limit or penalize use of hubs by third parties (e.g., other states or private actors). Because hubs offer extraordinary efficiency benefits, and because it is extremely difficult to circumvent them, states that can control hubs have considerable coercive power, and states or other actors that are denied access to hubs can suffer substantial consequences”. Historically, “the United Kingdom enjoyed a near monopoly over the communications infrastructure associated with international trade in the period before World War I, and developed extensive plans to use this monopoly to disrupt the economies of its adversaries, weaponizing the global trading system…Germany responded to the UK stranglehold on submarine communication cables by trying to develop new wireless technologies”.

Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman argue “networks are structures in the sociological sense of the term, which is to say that they shape what actors can or cannot do…In the longer term, such networks may change, but in the short to medium term, they are self-reinforcing and resistant to efforts to disrupt them…network structures can have important consequences for the distribution of power. In contradistinction to liberal claims, they do not produce a flat or fragmented world of diffuse power relations and ready cooperation, nor do they tend to become less asymmetric over time. Instead, they result in a specific, tangible, and enduring configuration of power imbalance. Key global economic networks – like many other complex phenomena – tend to generate ever more asymmetric topologies in which exchange becomes centralized, flowing through a few specific intermediaries…key global economic networks have converged toward hub and spoke systems, with important consequences for power relations”.

Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman think “the world has entered into a new stage of network politics, in which other states have begun to respond to such efforts. When interdependence is used by privileged states for strategic ends, other states are likely to start considering economic networks in strategic terms too. Targeted states – or states that fear they will be targeted – may attempt to isolate themselves from networks, look to turn network effects back on their more powerful adversaries, and even, under some circumstances, reshape networks so as to minimize their vulnerabilities or increase the vulnerabilities of others. Hence, the more that privileged states look to take advantage of their privilege, the more that other states and nonstate actors will take action that might potentially weaken or even undermine the interdependent features of the preexisting system. The ability of states to resist weaponized interdependence will reflect, in part, their degree of autonomy from those economic interests that hope to maintain the benefits of centralized exchanges even in the face of greater constraints on state authority. The United States and its allies find themselves in a new and uncertain world, where rival powers and adversaries are seeking to insulate themselves from global networks, and perhaps over the longer run to displace these networks. Our arguments do not provide precise predictions as to the strategies that rivals and adversaries will deploy, although they do suggest how these strategies will be shaped by rival states’ own national institutions and network positions. They highlight the importance of enduring, but not immutable network structures. States are locked into existing network structures only up to that point where the costs of remaining in them are lower than the benefits: should this change, one may see transitions to new arrangements”. In this regard, they caution the new networks of exchange “are difficult to unravel” due to the “multiple actors (rather than just states)”, “multiple issues that were not necessarily hierarchically ordered”, and the fact that “interdependence generated reciprocal rather than one-sided vulnerabilities”.

The important concept of weaponized interdependence should be explored in greater detail. First, there is a need to differentiate between the advantages of network gatekeepers (e.g. SWIFT) and those of physical mercantile hubs (e.g. London). The advantages of physical hubs are durable as the barriers to entry are high. In contrast, the advantages of network gatekeepers are transient. Technological advances are reducing the costs of establishing networks – as demonstrated by cryptocurrencies – while chokepoints – the ability to hurt adversaries by access denial – will get easier to bypass over time, particularly as global networks shift to peer-to-peer structures.

Second, in light of the economic war on Russia, there is a need to differentiate between weaponization and expulsion. Weaponization implies limited sanctions are imposed and adversaries are allowed to remain within the network. Limited sanctions allow gatekeepers to inflict damage on adversaries while minimising the adverse feedback to itself from interdependencies. Expulsion implies removal of access to a network; possibly accompanied by removal of property rights within the network. More broadly, there is a need to distinguish between control and ostracization. As a matter of comparison, traditional conquests aim to control foreign resources and markets. The economic war against Russia does not seek to control its economy but instead aims for ostracization – to isolate Russia in the belief it will weaken its economy to the point of collapse. Strategies of expulsion and ostracization carries the implicit assumption that it would hurt the adversary more than it hurts the network and its members. The problem is that networks thrive on scale. Expelling large players shrinks the network size and therefore its scale. This diminishes the value of the dominant network. Some members may experience more significant “interdependency” related losses than others. The gatekeeper loses Panopticon benefits – access to the adversary’s information – and the ability to ensure expelled members follow their rules. expulsion, containment and ostracization could thus end up being more costly to the network gatekeeper and remaining members. This is why it is an open-ended question as to whether the West or Russia fare better in an economic war.

Third, there is a need to differentiate between dependent and interdependent relationships. Smaller countries like Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and Afghanistan have dependent relationships with the West whereas large countries like Russia and China have interdependent relationships. Earlier weaponization initiatives were effective because it was used on the smaller countries with dependent relationships and the impact was one way. For large countries with interdependent relationships, the adverse effects are two-way.

The economic war against Russia is the first real test of an attempt to completely cut off an interdependent relationship with a large resource supplier and market. But Western ostracization of Russia cedes space and access; and is, in reality, a form of retreat. In attempting to contain Russia, the West also effectively contains itself and shrinks its own sphere of influence. The expelled large player is forced to either start or participate in alternative networks. Similar to commerce, start-ups are unencumbered by legacy and would likely offer incentives to pinch customers from the dominant network. Even if the alternative network is inferior, nonetheless the dominant network faces a genuine competitive threat for the first time.

In addition, there are heavy costs to the West’s containment strategies. For sanctions to work, the West needs to ensure other countries comply. For example, they would look foolish if their ban on Russian oil imports results in it being diverted to China and India. They could threaten China and India with secondary sanctions but if China and India refuse to comply, there could be escalation. There are other limits. The more countries are expelled from the Western sphere, the greater the loss for the dominant network and the greater the likelihood of a competing networks achieving scale and viability. On a cumulative basis, the need for secondary enforcement weakens the bargaining hand of the West as the Global South plays off the West against Russia. In the absence of military intervention, the prospects for containment strategies to succeed is low because the incentives to trade with and invest in Russia are high.

In addition, the calculations need to factor in the global spillover effect of an economic war between the West and Russia. The resulting supply and price shockwaves on energy and commodity products is already having severe contagion effects on global economic and social stability. In this lose-lose economic situation, it is the more globalised West and China as well as a large number of developing countries that will be badly affected. Is the West on the right track in waging a full-fledged economic war against Russia and is the aim of complete isolation realistic? Maybe a more calibrated approach could have been used to avoid potential long-term damage to the Western and global economy. To take another example, China initially thought its strategy of “hugging its adversary” through deepening interdependence would protect it from hostile actions by the US and West. But it has been surprised by the willingness of the US and West to accept the adverse consequences from decoupling and probably alarmed by the economic war against Russia. Geopolitical motivations can clearly over-ride economic calculations.

Overall, weaponizing interdependence is a core concept for understanding conflict in the information realm. However, its theories remain unexplored and, in particular, a robust analytical framework for weaponization of interdependencies among equals is badly needed. In its absence, superpowers are headed for conflict in the information realm (1) wholly guided by geopolitical ambitions; ((2) lacking in strategic goals and effective strategies and relying mainly on short-sighted tactical calculations; and (3) unable to gauge if they are winning or losing since they aren’t able to calculate gains and losses. While the politicians are displaying increasing willingness to stomach the economic pain from interdependency losses, it is unclear if the populations will go along for too long. Two clear gaps to address include a framework to balance geopolitical goals with economic ones and the identification of a path for diplomacy and de-escalation. There is also a need to take into account the complexities introduced by the concept of infinite games.

Infinite games and forever wars

Conflicts in the information realm differ from physical conflicts in that their features have more in common with an infinite game rather than a finite game. Su Jingxiang points out “U.S. strategists often cite the theologian James P. Carse’s book Finite and Infinite Games, arguing that the U.S. and China will play an infinite game with no rules, no timeframe and no spatial boundaries, leading to unpredictable outcomes. There is no way to know who will emerge as the ultimate winner or loser. Perhaps this will be the prevailing characteristic of China-U.S. relations going forward”.

James P. Carse explains “a finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. If a finite game is to be won by someone it must come to a definitive end…Just as it is essential for a finite game to have a definitive ending, it must also have a precise beginning. Therefore, we can speak of finite games as having temporal boundaries to which, of course, all players must agree. But players must agree to the establishment of spatial and numerical boundaries as well. That is, the game must be played within a marked area, and with specified players. Spatial boundaries are evident in every finite conflict, from the simplest board and court games to world wars…What is preserved by the constancy of numerical boundaries, of course, is the possibility that all contestants can agree on an eventual winner. Whenever persons may walk on or off the field of play as they wish, there is such a confusion of participants that none can emerge as a clear victor. Who, for example, won the French Revolution?…Only one person or team can win a finite game, but the other contestants may well be ranked at the conclusion of play”.

Generally, “infinite and finite play stand in the sharpest possible contrast. Infinite players cannot say when their game began, nor do they care. They do not care for the reason that their game is not bounded by time. Indeed, the only purpose of the game is to prevent it from coming to an end, to keep everyone in play. There are no spatial or numerical boundaries to an infinite game. No world is marked with the barriers of infinite play, and there is no question of eligibility since anyone who wishes may play an infinite game. While finite games are externally defined, infinite games are internally defined. The time of an infinite game is not world time, but time created within the play itself. Since each play of an infinite game eliminates boundaries, it opens to players a new horizon of time…Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game. Infinite players regard their wins and losses in whatever finite games they play as but moments in continuing play”.

James P. Carse points out “if the rules of a finite game are unique to that game it is evident that the rules may not change in the course of play else a different game is being played…the most critical distinction…The rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play. The rules are changed when the players of an infinite game agree that the play is imperiled by a finite outcome – that is, by the victory of some players and the defeat of others. The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game and to bring as many persons as possible into the play. If the rules of a finite game are the contractual terms by which the players can agree who has won, the rules of an infinite game are the contractual terms by which the players agree to continue playing…Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play withboundaries”.

James P. Carse notes “surprise is a crucial element in most finite games. If we are not prepared to meet each of the possible moves of an opponent, our chances of losing are most certainly increased. It is therefore by surprising our opponent that we are most likely to win. Surprise in finite play is the triumph of the past over the future. The Master Player who already knows what moves are to be made has a decisive advantage over the unprepared player who does not yet know what moves will be made. A finite player is trained not only to anticipate every future possibility, but to control the future, to prevent it from altering the past…Infinite players, on the other hand, continue their play in the expectation of being surprised. If surprise is no longer possible, all play ceases. Surprise causes finite play to end; it is the reason for infinite play to continue. Surprise in infinite play is the triumph of the future over the past. Since infinite players do not regard the past as having an outcome, they have no way of knowing what has been begun there. With each surprise, the past reveals a new beginning in itself. Inasmuch as the future is always surprising, the past is always changing. Because finite players are trained to prevent the future from altering the past, they must hide their future moves. The unprepared opponent must be kept unprepared…All the moves of a finite player must be deceptive: feints, distractions, falsifications, misdirections, mystifications. Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability. It is not a matter of exposing one’s unchanging identity, the true self that has always been, but a way of exposing one’s ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be”.

James P. Carse argues “infinite play is inherently paradoxical, just as finite play is inherently contradictory. Because it is the purpose of infinite players to continue the play, they do not play for themselves. The contradiction of finite play is that the players desire to bring play to an end for themselves. The paradox of infinite play is that the players desire to continue the play in others. The paradox is precisely that they play only when others go on with the game”.

James P. Carse states “power is a feature only of finite games…It is not dramatic but theatrical. How then do infinite players contend with power? Infinite play is always dramatic; its outcome is endlessly open. There is no way of looking back to make a definitive assessment of the power or weakness of earlier play. Infinite players look forward, not to a victory in which the past will achieve a timeless meaning, but toward ongoing play in which the past will require constant reinterpretation. Infinite players do not oppose the actions of others, but initiate actions of their own in such a way that others will respond by initiating their own…where the finite player plays to be powerful the infinite player plays with strength. A powerful person is one who brings the past to an outcome, settling all its unresolved issues. A strong person is one who carries the past into the future, showing that none of its issues is capable of resolution. Power is concerned with what has already happened; strength with what has yet to happen. Power is finite in amount. Strength cannot be measured, because it is an opening and not a closing act. Power refers to the freedom persons have within limits, strength to the freedom persons have with limits. Power will always be restricted to a relatively small number of selected persons. Anyone can be strong. Strength is paradoxical. I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them”.

There is a debate over whether the concept of infinite games can be applied to the current geopolitical conflicts. Michael J. Mazarr argues “rivalries in world politics can certainly persist for extended periods, and the United States should take seriously the need to succeed over the long term. But in its literal formulation, the claim is contradicted by history: All historical rivalries have been finite games. Each one has ended or faded gradually away, or waxed and waned, or taken a fundamentally new shape…Many rivalries that once seemed permanent, such as intra-European hatreds, have given way not only to stable peace but formalized international institutions linking the former enemies. Even rivalries that recur in some form for centuries, such as that between China and Japan, have shifted dramatically over time. To say international competition is an infinite game is much the same as saying that states seek power and influence: The claim is true in some fundamental manner, but the way in which it manifests itself in specific situations is so varied and complex that the general statement provides little meaningful guidance”.

In my view, the term infinite should not be interpreted literally. It is a useful theoretical construct to differentiate the nature of various conflicts. Finite games best describe physical wars that can be brought to a close by decisive victories which allows the victor to dictate terms. In contrast, infinite games are aptly applied to modern war, where conflicts largely take place in the information realm, where there is a constant contest to establish or change the rules and where there are vested parties interested in bringing in as many countries and firms to play and perpetuating the conflict without contemplating a final victory.

In this context, the US’s protracted and costly conflicts in Asia and the Middle East, is sometimes perceived as a version of the infinite game and described as the forever wars. In relation to this, there has been a debate[2] on whether the US needed to maintains more than 800 overseas military bases with 220,000 military and civilian personnel across 150 countries. Kim Hjelmgaard notes contentions that “the U.S. military has been operating under a national security strategy that is remarkably unchanged since World War II and thus is ill-suited to newer, more dynamic threats…In a deeply interconnected world, geography matters far less, and the security afforded by America’s far-flung military forces has been entirely irrelevant in this disastrous crisis”. Others argue that “by placing U.S. troops around the world…there is a tripwire effect that demonstrates American resolve to defend allies and, chiefly, itself…the large overseas military presence is about deterrence…the U.S. requires a strong military able to quickly react to crises in difficult-to-access places”. However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s assertiveness in the Pacific, the arguments have swung back in favour of strengthening physical military presence.

But Hal Brands reminds us that “wars between great powers rarely end after the opening salvo. The U.S. needs to be preparing for big, grinding conflicts that could drag on for months or years – and thinking as much about how those wars will end as how they might begin”. Hence, “the outcome of a great-power war may be determined by what happens after the first campaign – who can ramp up production of missiles and other munitions, who can quickly replace lost ships and aircraft, who has the stronger, more adaptive industrial base and can better withstand the economic damage a conflict will inflict…the U.S. will face the delicate task of both exploiting and limiting escalation. When wars go long, the combatants typically search for new sources of leverage…The U.S. could conceivably seek to end a protracted war with China through severe economic and technological sanctions, or through a maritime blockade that shuts off oil shipments and other key imports. But it may also need, through a mixture of firmness and restraint, to discourage an adversary from launching crippling cyberattacks or resorting to nuclear escalation. In America’s post-Cold War conflicts with weak enemies, the threat of escalation was mostly a one-way street. That won’t be the case in the future”. In this regard, “the U.S. needs to treat the dilemmas of war termination as seriously as it does the challenges of warfighting. A violent showdown with a well-armed, nuclear-equipped foe is unlikely to end in a total U.S. victory or a complete enemy capitulation. The better America fares in a conflict with an authoritarian adversary, the more dangerous and unpredictable that adversary’s behavior may become…The U.S. will need realistic thinking about what level of sustained coercion and destruction would be required to make a committed aggressor call it quits – and about what sorts of face-saving diplomacy might help bring an intense but limited fight to a close. It doesn’t take much skill or foresight to start a big war. It may take a lot of endurance and creativity to end a great-power conflict somewhere short of disaster”.

Conrad Crane notes replenishment challenges[3] “in a high-intensity war of attritions…Estimates are, with current production rates, it will take three to four years to replace the Javelin missiles sent to Ukraine. Delivery time for a new weapon is 32 months…This raises the question of how robust America’s defense industry would be in a major war today. How fast can the United States produce precision munitions or cruise and air-defense missiles? And how about the capacity of American industry to transition to building tanks and other weapon systems? In World War II, Westinghouse converted factories from producing household appliances to making items like aircraft parts and ammunition. Would Samsung and LG do the same? The American automobile industry produced one fifth of all the military equipment the nation required for World War II. The General Motors Corporation alone furnished one tenth of all American war production. The Ford company produced more army equipment than the whole nation of Italy – their aircraft factory at Willow Run rolled out a new bomber every 63 minutes. Could Toyota or Hyundai match that? Would they even try? Today’s high-technology platforms would likely take much longer to build. International supply chains will complicate this further. Even the Russians have run into difficulties because some of the key parts for their tanks have been cut off by Western sanctions”. In addition, it is questionable whether the population would be willing to bear the costs and casualties of costly and probably unwinnable military wars.

The infinite game hypothesis can be tested on the West’s economic war against Russia. If it is a finite game, the economic war ends if the Russian invasion is successful, if it is repelled or if both sides reach a peace agreement. My opinion is the economic war against Russia closely resembles an infinite game. From a big picture perspective, the invasion is a moment in the century-long conflict between US-Europe and the Soviet Union. It could also be a launching pad for a forthcoming US-China and global North-South conflict. Other compatible features include the likelihood that the economic war will be unbounded by geography or domain; that more countries and MNCs will get dragged into the conflict; that massive rule changes are pending with implications for global security and the world order; and the lack of clarity on a potential definitive victory. The biggest dangers will arise when there are attempts to transform an infinite game into a finite game.

Preparing for conflicts in the information realm

The information realm was stable when the US was the hegemonic power. The spread of knowledge and information has generated strategic instability. Globalisation had diffused economic power among countries while informationalisation had weakened military power. In particular, the rise of China as an economic power is perceived as a direct threat to the US’s hegemonic power, leading to prognosis of the recurrence of Thucydides’ trap. But Thucydides’ trap is too simplistic or one-dimensional to apply to conflicts in the information realm. Conflicts are erupting across the entire information realm – on technology, information infrastructure, intellectual property, standards, data, finance, currency, laws, jurisdictions, narratives, education, talent, research and culture. Fierce contests are developing for control of space, gateways and information assets. Conflict is becoming a complex multi-player game which explains why the US is busily repositioning NATO while China and Russia are expanding BRICs.

We are unprepared for the spread and intensification of conflicts in the information realm. No superpower today has the capability to win decisively in a military or economic conflict nor will they be able to assert their will on an independent world. The goals, rules and consequences of conflict are different in in a diffused, peer-to-peer network due to effects[4] such as transparency, polarisation, ambiguity, transience, complexity and convergence. Information disorder makes it difficult to achieve strategic stability or even develop effective deterrence capabilities.

The breakdown in global cooperation will transform every issue, no matter how minute, into a geopolitical conflict. Governments are threatening to unleash an avalanche of policies and are set to enforce these rules across borders. The uncontrolled and vindictive attack on interdependencies is a modern version of 1930s beggar-thy-neighbour deglobalisation. Deglobalisation – underpinned by the loss of trust and the breakup of long-term relationships – will cause the global economy to regress to a more physical and informal level scarred by information blackouts and legal chaos. Imagine the future of technology without IP protection in rival spheres or having to cope with overlapping and contradictory geopolitically-driven court judgements. To make matters worse, all policies will be tinged by the odour of national security – a goal that is never satisfied with anything less than the subjugation of adversaries. The fragmentation of the global economy into rival spheres is a given. This implies an intensification in geopolitical rivalries for resources, production chains and access.

The dangers of uncontrolled conflict in the information realm should be recognised. But the stark revelation since the invasion of Ukraine has been the lack of a visible path for diplomacy to resolve conflicts on either the military or information realms. The geopolitical environment has become so toxic that assurances are regarded as a trap, self-restraint as a weakness and concessions as appeasement. Instead, the conflict is hardening[5] with both sides, so far, displaying political resolve to stomach the pain. Instead of finding off-ramps for de-escalation to pre-empt mutual damage, diplomacy is instead being deployed to round up backsliding allies or to recruit new ones. In addition, there are practical difficulties in unwinding economic warfare. For example, how would you reverse the trend towards production self-sufficiency or exit from a country; or unfreeze assets (which may later be expropriated). Why would China make concessions for the US to remove trade tariffs hurting the US economy?

Going forward, it is unclear whether the superpowers would continue on the path of further escalation or they will opt to create the conditions necessary to revive negotiations for de-escalation. Certainly, this requires a reprioritisation of economic goals over geopolitical ones. The US is in the lead position to lead the search for solutions to amicable co-existence. In my view, the most critical aspect is the creation and expansion of safe space to allow adversaries to work together. The safe space could be territorial or information based (currencies, financial systems, ownership rights) where the superpowers agreed, implicitly or otherwise, that some interdependencies will be regarded as sacred and therefore secure from attacks by all sides.


Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui concludes that “global integration is comprehensive and profound. Through its ruthless enlightenment, those things which must inevitably be altered or even dispelled are the positions of authority and interest boundaries in which nations are the principal entities. The modern concept of nation states which emerged from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 is no longer the sole representative occupying the top position in social, political, economic and cultural organizations. The emergence of large numbers of meta-national, trans-national, and nonnational organizations, along with the inherent contradictions between one nation and another, are presenting an unprecedented challenge to national authority, national interests, and national will. At the time of the emergence of the early nation states, the births of most of them were assisted by blood-and-iron warfare. In the same way, during the transition of nation states to globalization, there is no way to avoid collisions between enormous interest blocs. What is different is that the means that we have today to untie the Gordian Knot are not merely swords, and because of this we no longer have to be like our ancestors who invariably saw resolution by armed force as the last court of appeals. Any of the political, economic, or diplomatic means now has sufficient strength to supplant military means. However, mankind has no reason at all to be gratified by this, because what we have done is nothing more than substitute bloodless warfare for bloody warfare as much as possible. As a result, while constricting the battlespace in the narrow sense, at the same time we have turned the entire world into a battlefield in the broad sense. On this battlefield, people still fight, plunder, and kill each other as before, but the weapons are more advanced and the means more sophisticated, so while it is somewhat less bloody, it is still just as brutal. Given this reality, mankind’s dream of peace is still as elusive as ever. Even speaking optimistically, war will not be wiped out rapidly within the foreseeable future, whether it is bloody or not. Since things which should happen will ultimately come to pass, what we can and must focus on at present is how to achieve victory. Faced with warfare in the broad sense that will unfold on a borderless battlefield, it is no longer possible to rely on military forces and weapons alone to achieve national security in the larger strategic sense, nor is it possible to protect these stratified national interests. Obviously, warfare is in the process of transcending the domains of soldiers, military units, and military affairs, and is increasingly becoming a matter for politicians, scientists, and even bankers. How to conduct war is obviously no longer a question for the consideration of military people alone. As early as the beginning of this century, Clemenceau stated that war is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to the military. However, the history of the past 100 years tells us that turning over warfare to the politicians is not the ideal way to resolve this important issue, either. People are turning to technical civilization, hoping to find in technological developments a valve which will control war. But what makes people despair is that the entire century is just about gone, and while technology has made great strides, war still remains an unbroken mustang. People still expect wonders from the revolution in military affairs, hoping that high-tech weapons and nonlethal weapons can reduce civilian and even military casualties in order to diminish the brutality of war. However, the occurrence of the revolution in military affairs, along with other revolutions, has altered the last decade of the 20th century. The world is no longer what it was originally, but war is still as brutal as it has always been. The only thing that is different is that this brutality has been expanded through differences in the modes in which two armies fight one other. Think about the Lockerbie air disaster. Think about the two bombs in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Then think about the financial crisis in East Asia. It should not be difficult to understand what is meant by this different kind of brutality. This, then, is globalization. This is warfare in the age of globalization. Although it is but one aspect, it is a startling one. When the soldiers standing at the crossroads of the centuries are faced with this aspect, perhaps each of them should ask himself, what can we still do? If those such as Morris, bin Laden, and Soros can be considered soldiers in the wars of tomorrow, then who isn’t a soldier? If the likes of Powell, Schwartzkopf, Dayan, and Sharon can be considered politicians in uniform, then who isn’t a politician? This is the conundrum that globalization and warfare in the age of globalization has left for the soldiers. Although the boundaries between soldiers and non-soldiers have now been broken down, and the chasm between warfare and non-warfare nearly filled up, globalization has made all the tough problems interconnected and interlocking, and we must find a key for that. The key should be able to open all the locks, if these locks are on the front door of war. And this key must be suited to all the levels and dimensions, from war policy, strategy, and operational techniques to tactics; and it must also fit the hands of individuals, from politicians and generals to the common soldiers. We can think of no other more appropriate key than unrestricted warfare.

Indeed, the ascendancy of geopolitics meant that instead of designing policies to promote global cooperation or facilitate private sector (market-friendly) initiatives to solve economic coordination problems, governments are designing policies to weaponize their economic advantages targeting their adversaries. The increasing use of sanctions is crossing the boundaries between conflict and competition and turning the global marketplace into a battlefield. There is a need to take a closer look at the history and analysis of sanctions.


Alex Vershinin (17 June 2022) “The return of industrial warfare”. Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Conrad Crane (9 May 2022) “Too fragile to fight: Could the U.S. military withstand a war of attrition?” War on the Rocks.

Hal Brands (14 June 2021) “Win or lose, U.S. war against China or Russia won’t be short”. Bloomberg.

Henry Farrell, Abraham L. Newman (2019) “Weaponized interdependence: How global economic networks shape state coercion.” International Security.

James P. Carse (1986) Finite and infinite games. The Free Press.

Kim Hjelmgaard (25 February 2021) “A reckoning is near: America has a vast overseas military empire. Does it still need it?” USA Today.

Michael J. Mazarr (March 2022) “Understanding competition: Great power rivalry in a changing international order – Concepts and theories”. Rand Corporation.

Phuah Eng Chye (2015) Policy paradigms for the anorexic and financialised economy: Managing the transition to an information society.

Phuah Eng Chye (12 February 2022) “Global reset – Economic decoupling (Part 5: Growing divergence between governments and MNCs)”.

Phuah Eng Chye (26 February 2022) “Global reset – Economic decoupling (Part 6: MNCs in a deglobalizing world)”.

Phuah Eng Chye (5 June 2021) “Global reset – Two whales in a pond”.

Phuah Eng Chye (4 June 2022) “Theories on war and diplomacy (Part 1: Conflict theories)”.

Phuah Eng Chye (18 June 2022) “Theories on war and diplomacy (Part 2: Integrated and ambiguous warfare)”.

Qiao Liang, Wang Xiangsui (February 1999) “Unrestricted Warfare”.  Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House.

Su Jingxiang (3 January 2022) “A sober-minded assessment”. China&US Focus.

[1] Rosa Brooks (2016) How everything became war and the military became everything: Tales from the Pentagon. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[2] See Kim Hjelmgaard.

[3] Alex Vershinin thinks the West does not have the industrial capacity to fight a large-scale war.

[4]  See Policy paradigms for the anorexic and financialised economy: Managing the transition to an information society.

[5] See “Theories on war and diplomacy (Part 2: Integrated and ambiguous warfare)”.