According to the Greek historian Polybius, Alexander the Great used to say that propaganda “serves to maintain and protect the victories after the cessation of hostilities”.
This quote is still an essential key to understand the mechanisms of contemporary propaganda and psyops.
The current psychological war, in fact, is aimed above all at radically changing and building from scratch the perceptions of the inhabitants of any target State.
Whoever wins this war, apparently painless, is spared the costs of the conflict and definitively weakens the opponents, regardless of their military strength-opponents who no longer have the ability to use their conventional or indirect weapons.
Or they use them against themselves.
Even in indirect strategies and psyops, however, it is always a matter of stopping and breaking a kill chain.
What counts in these operations is always hitting the enemies where they are weaker.
Hence, always keeping at a safe distance from opponents – also from the cultural viewpoint – to avoid any conventional fight, but using, however, mass psychology like Alexander the Great, so as to “ensure” a victory which is obtained with an economic, financial, cultural and symbolic struggle.
Or to replace the military victory with that of psyops. Without a fight.
Contemporary society, however, makes things much easier.
Today we are in the phase of “attention economy”, of the massive saving of thought – the phase in which all messages, even the “highest” ones, are developed and processed to be consumed very quickly, because of an attention span which is always very short, almost as hypnosis or sleepwalking.
With a view to making the desired content be selected, two mental and material channels need to be used: the “mirror neurons” in the F5 area of the premotor cortex and the maximum use of induced emotions.
It should be recalled that mirror neurons are particular neurons that fires both when an individual acts and when he/she observes the same action (or even an emotion) performed or experienced by another.
They are the material basis of empathy.
Hence disinformation uses negative emotions and correlates them with messages useful to the sender. A message that is barely abstract, or even completely sensitive and iconic, is related to a fixed emotion of nuisance, discomfort, pain.
This is the initial core of disinformation.
The excess of negative emotions, often related to dezinformatsja techniques, always triggers anxiety and stress in the individual subject. It also lowers the serotonin levels and operates on both subjective fears and those already embedded in people’s minds.
Given this induced state of mind, the information reaching the brain is no longer directed to the prefrontal cortex, which is accustomed to use logical categories, but emotional information is targeted and directly to the motor cortex.
In this phase the brain is blocked by stress or by those situations that the Palo Alto Psychological School considered to be at the origin of schizophrenia or of “double bind”, which occurs when an individual receives two conflicting messages, a positive and a negative one, sent out by an affective source, with one negating the other and thus being emotionally distressing.
Ultimately there is the almost total material deactivation of the frontal cortex, i.e. the transformation of homo sapiens into an angry robot.
This is the reason why it is useful for disinformation to always use violent or irregular content in messages – content that increases aggressiveness and hence weakens the cortex.
The brain area of empathy is then weakened, precisely with the violent content of communication, or even with the mix of noise, rhythm, repetition of sounds, lights and signs that Marshall McLuhan considered typical of our time (and rightly so), as he told us in his book, written with Quentin Fiore, entitled War and Peace in the Global Village.
Hence the geostrategic effect of these operations: when a whole country is gradually flooded with this type of communication, everybody – including the ruling class – will suffer a temporary weakening and inactivation of the frontal cortex.
Hence, when they take decisions, they will anyway operate with pseudo-concepts, automatic reactions, commonplaces, wrong perceptions and old stereotypes.
Therefore the political link of the future will be the meeting of big data technology with the new neurosciences.
Even without recalling H.G. Wells or George Orwell, the current possibility of manipulating very large sections of the public – in a stable, effective and complete way – is already at its peak.
Whoever succeeds in manipulating the opponent always stands to wins, while whoever proves to be porous or not to be able to oppose – with an equal and contrary operation – the psychopolitical dezinformacjia of an enemy State always stands to lose.
And possibly he/she doesnot even realize it.
We have already reached the time of the IT influence operations.
In this context, however, even in the age of cyberwarfare, the enemy operations use – above all – the old techniques of advertising manipulation typical of the era prior to the Internet.
Firstly, there is the traditional bandwagon effect, which exploits the natural tendency of human beings to conform to their target group.
The rate of uptake of beliefs, ideas, facts, trends and products. increases the more they have already been adopted by others. In other words, the bandwagon effect is characterized by the probability of individual adoption increasing with respect to the proportion of people who have already done so.
There is nothing better than the “spiral of silence” to reinforce the bandwagon effect. The other side of the coin. Individuals have a fear of isolation, which results from the idea that a social group or the society, in general, might isolate, neglect or exclude members due to their opinions. This fear of isolation consequently leads to remaining silent instead of voicing opinions..
Hence the isolation determined by heterodoxy is a further push to regimentation, a typical trait of the bandwagon effect.
Psychopolitics has also another mechanism available, Astroturfing – a term derived from Astro Turf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to resemble natural grass, as a play on the word “grassroots”.
It is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants. It is intended to give the statements or organizations credibility by withholding information. It entails creating an aura of success and universality that is reinforced by many “testimonials”, often paid, who guarantee the validity of the product or the political idea.
Nowadays, however, we have already reached the era that John Negroponte predicted as early as in the 1990s – the phase in which even the most advanced information technologies would become “customized”, i.e. they would quickly be adapted to every single consumer or voter.
Obviously the more customization increases, the more information and influence content can be selected for each consumer-voter, with evident effects of invisible manipulation and regimentation.
We also need to study the filter bubble mechanism, i.e. the effect generated by the algorithms of various social platforms that, with a view to customizing services, create an information trap based on users’ preferences. These algorithms dictate what we find online by creating a unique universe of information for each of us and fundamentally alter the way we encounter ideas and information.
This is matched by the echo chamber effect, which describes an increasingly common situation in which people are only shown content that reinforces their current political or social views, without ever challenging them to think differently. Beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system.
Therefore, echo chambers and filter bubbles select and divide the online audience, but also the audience outside the Web, thus often polarizing it artificially.
Hence we go back to Ivan Ivanovic Pavlov’s old theory of the bio-psychological reinforcement of previous beliefs – hence to the construction and confirmation of conditioned reflexes of individuals and groups.
In fact, nowadays every political message tends to create its own conditioned reflex.
As Pavlov discovered, in people and animals a given stimulus always triggers a response and, when the connection between a stimulus x and the response y is definitively established, the key stimulus always automatically triggers the same response in both animals and human beings.
And the stimulus may have nothing to do with the mechanism triggered by the response.
This reminds us of the linguist De Saussure when he said that the relationship existingbetween the signifier and the signified is purely arbitrary and analytical. There is no objective bond between the physical concept of “ox” and the word “ox”, but it is anyway stronger than any natural link.
In this context, we must also study symbolic actions. They are based on the premise that actions speak louder than words and they are designed to convey a symbolic and powerful value for any fact – an artificial message that is conveyed to a wide audience to prompt a response, in Pavlov’s sense.
A child shipwrecked in the Mediterranean Sea, a girl killed brutally, a bartender achieving success in London are allexamples of facts isolated from their context, to which an induced symbolic power is attached, which ultimately triggers a mass response to this complex Pavlovian “stimulus”.
Furthermore, each fact is valid only if it is incorporated into a narrative. The human brain is not made to analyse isolated facts at any time, but to organize them into a storytelling, which has a time dimension and, above all, an end.
And it always concerns people, even if it speaks about mere facts.
Personalization is also inherent in the human brain, and every person has a positive or negative value. As in the musical drama typical of Naples, the so-called sceneggiata napoletana, he/she can only be isso(“he”, the hero), essa (“she”, the heroine) and ‘omalamente (“the villain”).
Therefore our mind reacts only briefly to the stinging action that we call “thought”.
This was a beautiful idea of the founder of American pragmatism, Charles S. Peirce.
Hence symbolic actions exert their influence when they bring together material actions and symbolic operations.
All this creates powerful signals, effective on behaviours -including political ones -which are immediately and intuitively manifested in the audience.
The disinformation narratives are based, above all, on symbolic actions which penetrate, always deeply, into the target public that has been selected for the operation.
Hence disinformation always takes up the following forms: a) the fabrication from nothing of a piece of news and/or a narrative; b) manipulation, i.e. the construction of an “environment” suited to the news useful for disinformation, be it true or false; c) misappropriation, e.g. the use of others’ data to fabricate manipulated news which, however, seems to come from the source of the original news; d) the old propaganda, which is used to favour a party, a leader, a “cause”; e) satire, which – as we Italians know all too well – can influence the political discourse (suffice to recall Giorgio Forattini’ satirical cartoons of Bettino Craxi dressed as Mussolini or the comic destructuring of Silvio Berlusconi; f) parody, which relates a narrative to an emotional and amusing fact that has little to do with the narrative itself.
The divertissement, the myth of our society, is a very important axis of disinformation.
With a view to better understanding the manipulation of facts, we should also recall the woozle effect, also known as evidence by citation, which occurs when frequent quotation of previous publications that lack evidence misleads individuals, groups and the public into thinking or believing there is evidence and non-facts become urban myths and factoids.
There are also the new “Potiemkin villages”, i.e. the fake institutional networks of dezinformatsjia, managed by IT operators expert on strategic influence.
During the 1930, the Potiemkin villages were fake villages built from scratch by the Soviet secret police, in which important visitors, often pro-Soviet ones, were shown that everything went very well, indeed. Nowadays they are built online.
After the visit, in the old Soviet villages everything returned to the usual daily tragedy.
Moreover, for all these categories, there are BOTs on the Web, i.e. the “ro”-bots.
It should be recalled that in 2017 BOTs alone generated over 50% of the Internet total global traffic.
The bot is an automated software, which operates on the basis of some algorithms.
Currently 23% of the Internet traffic is attributable to “good” bots, while 29% is produced from grey or black sources.
A typical technique of bots and trolls, which are Internet subjects operating through provocative, irritating or out-of-theme and meaningless messages, is to reinforce the polarization induced by other media, both on the Internet and in classic channels.
We have seen, in fact, that a large part of the propaganda on the Web tends to isolate and polarize the content and the audience.
Here the practice that – in psychology – is called the Overton window comes to mind.
For the American psycho-sociologist, the degrees of acceptance of public ideas are roughly the following: 1) unthinkable; 2) radical; 3) acceptable; 4) sensible; 5) popular; 6) policy.
According to Overton, every idea, even the most unthinkable, has its own specific window of opportunity.
The more it is discussed, the more reasonable it appears. Overton maintains that all ideas, even the craziest ones, can shift from the stage of unthinkable to that of public democratic debate and their subsequent acceptance.
Hence the Overton window wants to ensure that ordinary citizens take possession of a crazy idea and make it their own, possibly working on the assumption that even cats and dogs – as we have recently read in an important Italian newspaper–can and hence must vote in political elections.
The process is at the origin of a large part of contemporary psychopolitics: initially the problem- such as the vote for cats and dogs – is unacceptable or ridiculous.
Then, at a later stage, the issue reiterated in all kinds of ways becomes “unacceptable, but with reservations”.
We must never have taboos, “medieval” residues, preconceived ideas. This is the standard justification.
In this phase, intellectuals – or what they think they are – advocate the vote for cats and dogs.
Here the entire sequence of psychopolitical techniques that we have analysed above begins.
And again, imperceptibly, the issue shifts from the stage of “forbidden, but with reservations” to that of “acceptable”.
Here the above mentioned techniques of conditioning and influence still operate, especially the improper transition from the specific and particular case to the general categorization.
Still today, any manipulation of information is based on the irregular syllogisms defined by Aristotle.
Do you remember Fido or Bogey? They were so smart and certainly they would have voted with full knowledge of the facts.
Then Overton’s window shifts from “acceptable” to “sensible” and here usually two major categories operate: the economic necessity of the minority group – in many cases – or the pseudo-Darwinian natural selection.
Then comes the testimonial phase, as is the case with advertising, particularly that of consumer goods: don’t you remember Rin Tin Tin? What about “Inspector” Rex?
How dare you exclude dogs from voting? You are not “progressive”, up to date.
As seen above, the risk is exclusion from the group.
Hence everyone talks about it and the issue is amplified by the show business and the media.
The final stage is policy. You can ultimately take Fido to the voting booth.
It should be noted that these artificial conditioned reflexes are also designed to temporarily forget the real situation of the people and the country.
With 1.8 million poor families, in Italy -equivalent to 5 million individuals – people take their minds off their problems by talking about the vote for cats and dogs, or about other nonsense like that, which they can believe thanks to the above mentioned “Overton window”.
We have no doubt that shortly the technologies available for mass psychopolitical manipulation will increase.
Covid 19 and Human Security in Anthropocene era
Since the end of second World the focus on international security has grown, not only state threats but also threats from non-state groups such as terrorism groups, cyber attacks, climate change and the environment and what we are living right now is the threat from Covid19 caused by the SARS virus -Cov2, up to the time this article was written has 136.609.182 cases, with the number of deaths 2948567, have killed more victims from the Vietnam War, the Gulf of Persia, the Afghanistan War. Although the optimistic hopes of finding vaccine for Covid19 provide room for movement and bright light of hope in the future, it has almost entered the two-year mark since its initial presence in Wuhan, China last December 2019, Covid19 is still major concern and scourge for human survival in currently, many people in the world are tired of waiting for when this epidemic will end. Covid19 has become an invisible but real enemy felt by humankind in the early 21st century, more cunning than previous security threats such as physical warfare, trade wars, terrorism and air pollution. There is no difference in price between the rich and the poor, developed or developing countries, women or men, good or bad people. Not only that, the effects of the Covid19 virus pandemic are also greater, such as inflation, scarcity of goods, uneventful mobility, a decline in the tourism sector, changes in human social behavior patterns, bilateral and multilateral relations between countries, as well as causing conflict and new attention to certain institutions. What is still a question in our minds right now is why Covid 19 still exists in the world, when will this pandemic be over and what will the conditions be after.
So far, the Covid19 outbreak is still seen as a global disease so that international security means providing efficient health care and the answer is how to prevent and find anti-viruses. But in essence, the presence of Covid19 explains more than that. Covid19 is also an impact of an environmental crisis that humans are rarely aware of, because basically Covid19 is a zoonotic disease (disease originating from animals) that can pass to humans through vectors (carriers) in the form of animals or humans, which humans are the last result of a series of cycles. viral life. Its presence identifies the irregular relationship between humans and their environment.
Concerns about the emergence of zoonotic diseases have existed for several years. In the 2016 UNEP Frontier Report, it was stated that one of the concerns that arose from international agencies dealing with the environment was zoonotic diseases. Since the 20th century, 75% there has been a drastic increase in infectious diseases which are zoonotic diseases of animal origin. On average, an animal-to-human infectious disease appears every four months. This is closely related to environmental changes or ecological disturbances such as defortation, climate change, decreased biodiversity, and the destruction of animal habitats.
In an interview with VoA Indonesia with one of the virologists at Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) Indonesia (Sugyono) stated that the “Covid19 virus that is currently endemic in the world is due to interactions with humans and animals such as poaching and environmental damage. Some of the infectious diseases that hit the world are caused by pathogens of disease-carrying microorganisms that originate or spread through animals. Bats, mice, monkeys and other animals often become carriers of viruses to humans without the animals experiencing illness, the process of interaction between animals and humans such as poaching causes disease transmission. mutates due to climate change and weather ”. Viruses are small infectious agents with a simple composition that can only reproduce in host cells. Its survival is influenced by temperature and environment, changes in temperature and the environment can accelerate its spread.
Humans are the only creatures that can manage the earth, their presence since ancient times has greatly influenced the state of the earth both on land and in the oceans. In one of their journals Paul Crutzen stated that we (humans) are no longer in the Holocene but have entered the Anthroposcene era. The term Anthroposcene itself implies a transition from the Holocene which is an interglacial condition, influenced by the magnitude of human activity, further this intention is explained by Steffen that the Anthroposcene shows where human activities have become so numerous and intensive that they (humans) rival the great power of nature. The Anthroposcene shows that a crisis originates from human accident and this crisis is not an easy thing to mitigate.
Covid 19 is not a disaster or natural selection that can be understood to occur naturally but identifies more deeply than that, the presence of Covid19 demands that international security policies and practices must evolve beyond what they have understood so far. Although the threat of a pandemic is not new, the current pandemic is popularly referred to as “unprecedented.” It is currently uncertain when Covi 19 will end or at least be brought under control. Almost all diseases and disasters caused by environmental damage such as nuclear, severe pollution in several countries such as America, in Tokyo, Beijing, Jakarta, and other big cities cannot return to the way it was before the damage occurred, can only reduce the impact. If revisit history further back, the earlier nations that had high civilization such as Central America, the people of the Easter islands, the Maya, the Anasazi, the Greek Mikene and many other civilizations also became extinct. What is modern society doing today is similar to what previous civilization nations did, accidental “ecological suicide” resulting in drastic reduction in the size of the human population and political, economic, social complexity in over large area. Nature actually did a selection at its time and it (nature) was also able to regenerate itself within a certain period of time, but if humans interfere in the process too deep will change and disrupt the normal working system of nature which will have a bad effect back on humans.
COVID-19 As an Agent of Change in World Order
The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has claimed millions of lives. It has severely damaged the economy of the world. The consequences of the pandemic are expected to go much further. The virus has threatened the functioning of national and international politics. It has disrupted the international system through which events are controlled in the world. In one way or the other, all the fundamental constituents of the World Order have been reshaped. Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, forewarned, “The coronavirus epidemic will forever alter the world order.”
COVID-19 could potentially vary the following aspects of the existing World Order.
COVID-19 easily crossed international borders. It has been observed that states cooperated with each other on the strategy of containing the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) played an important part in integrating the states on the issue of contemporary health emergency. The WHO remained an ineffectual organization when the United States, under the presidency of Donald Trump, withdrew from it. Bringing the US back in the WHO was among the first presidential orders given by President Joe Biden.
Some scholars, on the other hand, view this warm cooperation by the US in the international arena as a facade for uniting to oppose the rise of China. The ‘America first’ approach of Donald Trump meant American protectionism. Joe Biden is said to have used the opportunity created by the COVID-19 pandemic to walk in step with allies in Asia.
Power-practicing states have rarely downright inclined towards the standards of human security defined by the United Nations in its 1994 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development report. The report lays down the basic tenets of human security. Food, economic and health security are among important entities of human security. The pandemic has facilitated in proving the momentous nature of international institutions and cooperation. Security, therefore, has been redefined. The priorities have been shifted to health security.
Balance of Power
One may assume that in these trying times of the pandemic the states have come closer to fight the disease. However, this claim is not validated by hard-boiled political thinkers. Disruptions in the global economy tend to destabilize international politics, therefore, conflicts are likely to increase in the post-Covid world. For instance, the ongoing economic competition between the US and China is likely to continue to soar as the two states begin to engage in the ‘New Cold War’. The US has put blame on China for the spread of the coronavirus. Trump had repeatedly termed the coronavirus as the ‘China virus’. To neutralize the blame, China is active in the research and development of the COVID-19 vaccine. The crisis has facilitated China in showing the world its capability. In the long run, this could sway the balance of power.
However, neither China nor the United States is in a state in which it could emerge as a ‘winner’ in a way that would dramatically shift the balance of world power in favour of either state.
The production of mass-scale COVID-19 vaccine is no less than a race of the order of space race or arms race. Manufacturing COVID-19 vaccine is not only a matter of saving lives, but also a matter of saving face for some world leaders. Russia, US, UK, Germany, India and China are among the top competitors in the vaccine race. Vladimir Putin, Russian President, is eager to debut the vaccine to the world. It would be a sign of prestige in the international society and help Russia impose the new world order it vies for. Similarly, China has its own ambitions to lead the world, and inoculating the world is one way to do it.
The redistribution of power in post-Covid world will be dependent on states’ accomplishment in curbing the virus.
Financial World Order
The World Bank has estimated a 5.2% shrinkage in the global economy due to COVID-19 pandemic. Both the United States and China are eager to restore their Covid-hit economies in a way that one’s is greater than the other. In a substantial way, the United States is leading the world economy. It is one-fourth of the world economy. 80% of world trade is in USD. China aims to alter this mode of payment in international trade. It is giving competition to the US in terms of global trade exchange by building banks of its own. The pace of economic recovery adopted by the two competitors shall decide the post-Covid financial world order.
Both the United States and China need allies to compete in the ‘New Cold War’. The COVID-19 pandemic has given them the opportunity to make allies via health assistance. The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facilities plan to distribute a major share of the vaccination to low and middle income countries. In July, 2020, China promised a $1 billion loan to Latin American and Caribbean countries. The US is also keen on this practice as Joe Biden is a strong advocate of global institutionalism.
COVAX could be a novel form of a bailout package. If this is so, the dependence of the Third World on the First World is likely to be increased.
As an agent of latent function, Covid has helped boost innovation. The states who have better technology are odds-on to impose their World Order. During the COVID-19 crisis, there has been an exponential growth in technology adoption. This implies that the military will have better strategic equipment than pre-Covid era. In modern international relations, military strength is the core determinant of state power.
Health as element of national power
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the elements of state power were either military strength or economy. The pandemic has shown that health can also be an indirect element of national power. The states with better healthcare have better chances of containing the virus. Their economy has better prospects of getting restored. Resultantly, the ‘healthy’ states have advantage over others in carrying on with their power politics.
Due to closure of industrial sectors in the lockdown period, the global economy has collapsed. In the initial stage, it was expected that the lockdown will be a blessing in disguise for the cause of climate change. To restore the economy, however, governments of both developed and developing countries have no option but to reopen their industries. This means more emissions of carbon. The climate agreements are likely to be postponed until the economy is put back on track. The oil price decrease due to the pandemic will facilitate the poorer states in restoring their industries. This is another impediment in the way of a carbon-free global economy. Thus, the post-Covid world will have adverse effects on climate.
Threat to the political Right
The pandemic has proved to be unfortunate for the rising Right. Populism, nationalism and demagoguery do not seem to be working for the right wing leaders. The COVID-19 pandemic requires performance and output rather than speeches and slogans. This is so evident from the 2020 US Presidential elections. Donald Trump had been highly criticized for being a populist leader. His handling of the pandemic is one of the main factors that cost him the election. Similarly, in other parts of the world, people are demanding good governance rather than falling for rabble-rousers.
End of Globalization?
Globalization has severely been affected due to the pandemic. However, the process of globalization was slowing long before the pandemic, even before the election of anti-internationalist former US President Donald Trump. Some scholars are predicting the end of globalization due to the pandemic. Others argue that the pandemic shows how interconnected the world is. They see a potential growth in globalization and cooperation among the states, especially regarding the COVAX. Historical data show that crises tend to reinforce globalization. Globalization also helps to boost the fallen economy. Employment is an important part of globalization. There has been a significant surge in unemployment rate due to the lockdown imposed to cease the spread of the virus. To rectify the damages, people will tend to cross international borders. Therefore, immigration and, consequently, globalization is likely to increase in the post-Covid world.
COVID-19 pandemic alone may not change the World Order altogether. The transitions brought by the pandemic in the international system are likely to decide the leader of global political order. The post-Covid World Order depends on how and how fast the world emerges out of the pandemic. Vaccinating the world is the need of the hour. The contenders of the vaccine race need to be all-inclusive in the process of inoculation. If the United States or China succumbs to vaccine nationalism—the practice to limit the dosage of COVID-19 vaccine to domestic use— it will be difficult for them to ally other states in their vision of the new World Order.
On Friday March 12, 2021, the United Nations adopted the report of the UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security. The document was supported by consensus and, since all member states were able to take part in the OEWG, we can say that it reflects the views of most of the international community. The report marks the culmination of the OEWG’s two years of work on introducing a new format for negotiations on security in cyberspace launched in 2018 at the initiative of Russia. The successful completion of the group’s work suggests that demand for such a platform exists. This is particularly important, given that the OEWG will continue its activities in the new convocation for 2021–2025.
A Victory for Diplomacy
Andrey Krutskikh, Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation on Issues of International Cooperation in the Field of Information Security, called the adoption of the report “a triumphant success for the Russian diplomacy,” while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs lauded the significance of the moment in its official commentary.
To better understand why the adoption of the report has exactly seen such a success, we need to take a trip into the recent past. The issue of information security was included in the UN agenda in 1998, after Russia presented its draft resolution “Achievements in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security” to the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. Negotiations have been ongoing since 2004 in the form of closed discussions in Groups of Government Experts (GGEs) involving between 15 and 25 states (the seventh composition of the GGE is expected to conclude its work in May 2021).
The negotiations started to pick up steam in the early 2010s, as three GGE consensus reports have shown. For example, the 2010 GGE report’s recommendations included furthering the dialogue among states on cyber norms, introducing confidence-building measures, exchanging information on national legislation and policies as well as identifying measures to support capacity-building in less developed countries as a means to reduce the risks associated with the use of information and communication technologies (ICT). The 2013 report reflected the OEWG’s conclusion that international law “is applicable and is essential to maintaining peace and stability and promoting an open, secure, peaceful and accessible ICT environment” (while conceding that a common understanding on the application of these rules needs to be worked out), and that state sovereignty applies to the conduct of ICT-related activities by states. Among other things, the 2015 report sets out the norms, rules or principles of responsible behaviour of states in the context of the ICT use.
The UN negotiating process on cyber threats stalled after 2015. The fifth convocation of the GGE in 2016–2017 failed to accept a consensus report, as the participants disagreed on how international law should be applied to state activities in cyberspace. This led to the United States and Russia putting forward separate initiatives in 2018. The United States and its co-sponsors proposed that the next GGE be convened to continue the discussion in a narrower circle. Meanwhile, Russia called for the negotiating process to be “more democratic, inclusive and transparent.” To this end, Moscow tabled a proposal to create an open-ended working group for all member states interested and hold consultative meetings for all other interested parties, namely business, non-governmental organizations and academia. Two parallel formats were launched as a result – the OEWG and the UN GGE.
The OEWG report is the first tangible result of the UN negotiations on cyber threats since 2015, which was made possible by a number of factors. First, the overwhelming majority of UN member states were interested in such a format (119 nations voted in favour of the Russia-drafted resolution in 2018), as it would avail many of them the opportunity to participate in a GGE for the first time.
Second, those countries that refrained from supporting the OEWG were nevertheless active in its work, and they put no obstacles in the way of adopting the final document. Representatives of 91 states spoke at OEWG meetings during the two years of its work. That is almost half of all UN member states, while one third of them have never been part of the GGE.
Finally, Jürg Lauber, Chairman of the OEWG and Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN, was widely praised for the work he did to push the negotiations through. He continued to perform his duties as Chairman even after being transferred from New York to Geneva. It was through Lauber’s chairmanship that an additional link between the OEWG and the GGE was established (one of the criteria for choosing Switzerland was the country’s participation in the closed GGE), which helped avoid competition between the two formats. The coronavirus pandemic posed yet another challenge for the Chairman of the OEWG and its participants. While the original plan was to adopt the OEWG in the summer of 2020, the final session of the Working Group was postponed for several months.
Let the Talks Continue
Content-wise, the report reflects the coordinated assessments of the current situation in cyberspace and, in accordance with the OEWG’s mandate, contains the following topics:
- Existing and Potential Threats
- Rules, Norms and Principles for Responsible State Behaviour
- International Law
- Confidence-Building Measures
- Capacity-Building in ICT
- Regular Institutional Dialogue on ICT
The OEWG participants agree that there is a growing risk of ICT being used in inter-state conflicts and see an increase in the malicious use of ICT both by state and non-state actors as an alarming trend. The report notes the potentially devasting consequences of attacks on critical information infrastructure (CII). Specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of protecting the healthcare infrastructure. Inter-state interaction, as well as interaction between the state and the private sector, is important.
However, the OEWG report does not put forward any practical solutions to a number of information security problems, primarily in inter-state relations. The way international law should be applied in cyberspace largely remains a bone of contention. Despite the successful adoption of the OEWG report, negotiators have yet to find compromises on key issues.
In terms of the regulatory framework, the report essentially reiterates the agreements reached earlier within the framework of the GGE, such as those relating to the applicability of the rules, norms and principles for responsible state behaviour. The OEWG participants conclude the report by stating that additional legally binding obligations may be introduced in the future.
The proposals put forward in the report are, for the most part, of a general nature. States are urged to continue to inform the Secretary-General of their national views on the applicability of international law on the use of ICT in the context of international security, discuss these issues at the United Nations as well as envision confidence- and capacity-building measures.
More practical steps feature the recommendation that states nominate a national Point of Contact responsible for information security at the technical, policy and diplomatic levels who would then be included into a kind of international directory.
A group of over 40 countries led by France and Egypt managed to get an initiative of their own—proposed back in the fall of 2020 and urging to introduce a permanent forum on cybersecurity to replace the OEWG and GGE—included in the recommendations. The initiative, dubbed as the Programme of Action for Advancing Responsible State Behaviour in Cyberspace, appears in one of the paragraphs in the OEWG report, which lends weight to it and serves as the basis for discussions in the next convocation of the group.
One of the main reasons why we have not seen any breakthrough agreements in this regard is because of the sheer number of participants in the discussion on information security issues. On the one hand, this has brought new participants into the negotiations—those endorsing the previously agreed points—thus boosting their international clout. On the other hand, many participants demanded that a common denominator be identified, with all the difficult questions taken off the table. The last leg of the negotiations, in particular, saw a non-consensus draft part of the report published in a separate document, the Chair’s Summary.
The fact that the report was adopted by consensus does not mean that the participants in the negotiations have overcome the differences in their approaches to security in cyberspace. Rather, they have agreed to put fundamental issues on the back burner. Michele Markoff, U.S. cybersecurity negotiator, conceded in her Explanation of Position at the Conclusion of the UN Open-Ended Working Group that the report was “not perfect,” noting that the United States had reservations about the need for a new OEWG to convene. She also stated that the United States could not subscribe to calls for new legal obligations in cyberspace, citing non-compliance on the part of certain states with the existing regulations. That notwithstanding, the United States sees the report as a step forward.
Negotiations after Negotiations
Negotiations on cyber threats have now been going on for decades, broth at the United Nations and on other venues, and they are likely to drag on for many years to come. The OEWG report is an important milestone in the process and a reminder of the importance of multilateral efforts. According to Andrey Krutskikh, the successful completion of the group’s work “opens up huge opportunities for ensuring the success” of the current GGE, the Expert Group on Cybercrime—established during negotiations at the United Nations General Assembly Third Committee at the initiative of Russia—and the OEWG, whose mandate for 2021–2025 has been adopted.
Success or failure of future negotiations in the OEWG will depend on three main components. First, the relations between the key players will define how productive the talks actually are. While Russia and the United States may have managed to put their differences aside in order to reach a consensus on the report, the differences themselves have not gone anywhere. The sides still bang heads over such issues as attribution in cyberspace, the possibility of applying the norms of international humanitarian law to cyberattacks, etc. This is made all the worse by the new trend towards using the ICT for military and intelligence purpose as well as by numerous public accusations and threats emanating from both sides. One such example is the recent New York Times article on U.S. preparations for a retaliatory attack on Russian networks following the large-scale hack of U.S. government departments and corporations (known as the SolarWinds hack), which Russia is said to have carried out. Cybersecurity remains a sore point in U.S.–China relations as well. Tensions between major powers need to be reduced if we are to see any real progress in multilateral relations on this issue.
The second factor is related to the competition between the negotiating platforms. The OEWG has the advantage that is enjoys broad support among UN members, and its mandate has been written into the respective Resolution of the General Assembly. That said, the GGE format is also widely supported within the United Nations, and the “Russian” resolution received fewer votes in the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly last year than it had in 2018, while the “American” resolution actually received more. What is more, the United Nations does not have a monopoly when it comes to negotiating platforms on cybersecurity, as a number of non-governmental initiatives on cyberspace regulation have appeared in recent years. France is actively pushing the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, which has the support of almost 80 nations as well as of many civil society organizations and companies. Six working groups are to be launched under the initiative in order to advance international norms and develop practical cooperation in cybersecurity. The competitive environment will mean that the OEWG will need to produce more tangible results in areas that are important for the participants.
The third and final factor has to do with preserving the gap between the practical side of ensuring information security and the international discussion surrounding it. Tech companies face cyberthreats on a daily basis, but their expertise in dealing with these challenges is not in demand at these negotiating platforms. The OEWG report talks about the need for public-private partnerships in order to protect the CII. However, the OEWG could take this one step further by examining the lessons of the responses of the business world to large-scale cyberattacks and by speaking their minds when it comes to assessing the efforts of technology leaders to advance rules and norms in cyberspace. The OEWG has the potential to bridge this gap (the new group’s mandate allows it to work with business and other stakeholders), but it has not been exploited to the full thus far. The most active player in the first convocation from the business world was Microsoft, while Trend Micro, Huawei, Fujitsu and others have also taken part in informal consultations. Kaspersky Lab is the only Russian company involved in the discussions. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs believes it is necessary “to create conditions for attracting the business world to the negotiation process on international information security (IIS), thus giving the public-private partnership an institutional character.” Two problems will first need to be resolved for this to happen: 1) how to motivate Russian businesses to take part in the negotiations; and 2) how to organize the interaction of different stakeholders in the OEWG in the most effective manner. Otherwise, the efforts of all sides will continue to lack the much-needed link to practical experience in this area.
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