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Strategic Instability in the Era of Information and Communication Technologies: Crisis or the New Norm?

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Strategic stability is once again becoming a primary concern in international relations. The topic has received a great deal of attention of late, mainly because of the steady erosion of the reduction and limitation regime: the United States has now withdrawn from both the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), the New START treaty is set to expire soon, and no further talks on reduction and limitation of nuclear arms are being held. Another reason is the rapid development of information and communication technologies (ICTs), which are playing a growing role in the global military and political arena in the 21st century. With a new technological revolution under way, can we ensure a level of strategic security that is both necessary and sufficient? Or will instability become a new trend in global strategic security as well? It would be hard to argue that this is not a crisis.

Today there are two approaches — or rather a rift between the old understanding of “strategic stability,” which took shape during the bipolar era (when the term itself was coined), and a radically new understanding of the ways of ensuring strategic stability in the modern world and the challenges that this presents.

As is often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. It would be a mistake to discard the experience of maintaining strategic stability that was accumulated throughout the Cold War period and which helped prevent a deep-seated confrontation from boiling over into a large-scale war — even though the political and technological changes that have taken place since then cannot be ignored.

As an example, during the bipolar era, “strategic stability” was defined as a state of relations that would remove incentives for a nuclear first strike.

Since nuclear arms still exist and their destructive capabilities are constantly improving, this understanding of strategic stability is as relevant today as it was during the Cold War, when it was only taking shape. But the situation has grown considerably more complicated over the last three decades, and the methods and mechanisms of preventing nuclear war that were envisaged during the bipolar era are no longer in line with the current geopolitical reality and the level of technological development. With these massive changes in international military and political relations, we need to consider other parameters in addition to the nuclear component, while at the same time preserving the essence of the idea. Furthermore, the bipolar era, when the world was split between two global opposing powers, has given way to a situation where strategic stability is determined by a greater number of players. This is why we need to assess the characteristics and capabilities of the military and political system as a whole.

Strategic stability of the military and political system is a state of the world (the lack of a large-scale war) within which the framework of this system is maintained even under continuous disturbance (destabilizing factors) for a certain (defined) period of time.

Therefore, on a professional level, not only should we be talking about “maintaining” and “strengthening” strategic stability, but we should also acknowledge the need to ensure strategic stability and devise new approaches to assessing its level based on our experience — which means we must develop common qualitative and especially quantitative assessments of this level. For that to be possible, we need to agree on common assessment criteria.

The bilateral discussion of such criteria between the United States and Russia came to a halt in the 1990s, as the U.S. no longer considered it necessary. This has given rise to a global problem, because the reduction of strategic stability to a level that is below what is needed and what is sufficient is dangerous for all states without exception. It is thus in the best interests of all countries to ensure this level, but the extent of their responsibility varies. The nuclear powers are still the most responsible.

What new features of this system, in which ensuring a necessary and sufficient level of stability is so crucial, have emerged over the past few decades?

An increase in the number of local wars and armed conflicts which break out and progress increasingly under the influence of ICTs.

The restructuring of international relations after a period of bipolarity followed by multipolarity dominated by the United States. This new transformation is, first of all, caused by changes in military and strategic relations between Russia and the United States, as well as by the appearance of a new global centre of power, namely China, which is not involved in the nuclear disarmament process.

The gradual erosion of the strategic arms limitation and reduction regime: the United States has now withdrawn both from the ABM Treaty and the INF Treaty, the New START treaty is set to expire soon, and no further talks on reduction and limitation of nuclear arms are being held.

Nuclear missile multipolarity, which consists in a growing number of states possessing nuclear weapons and the increasing probability of their proliferation.

The trend towards doctrinal changes among nuclear powers that are formally aimed at strengthening the deterrence regime but in fact lead to a reduction of the threshold for the use of nuclear arms; in particular, there is a growing possibility of a limited nuclear war.

Creation of a large-scale U.S. missile defence system, which brings about serious changes in the strategic balance of power and increased uncertainty in strategic planning.

The growing role and power of non-nuclear (highly precise and highly intelligent) weapons in strategic planning. These new armaments create the hypothetical threat of a disarming strike against strategic nuclear forces. Developing these kinds of weapons complicates the global strategic landscape and makes crisis decision-making all the more difficult.

Deployment of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons on the same platforms, which may lead to the launch of ballistic or cruise missiles with conventional warheads being perceived as nuclear weapons use.

The appearance of low-yield nuclear weapons, which lowers the threshold for nuclear weapons use and, as a result, increases the probability of an armed conflict escalating to a nuclear war.

Development of ICT-based state-of-the-art anti-satellite weapons that allow countries to interfere with enemy satellites, including parts of the ballistic missile early warning system, and destroy them using ground-based anti-satellite systems. Such weapons can also disrupt the operation of satellites used for network-centric warfare, which is an approach being actively developed by militarily developed states. This is one of the most serious threats to strategic stability at this stage.

The militarization of space. In February 2019, President of the United States Donald Trump signed a Memorandum on the Establishment of the United States Space Force, which lists such purposes as protecting U.S. interests in space, “deterring aggression and defending the Nation,” as well as “projecting military power in, from and to space.”

In addition to technological developments, experts from various countries increasingly point to the role that psychology plays in influencing strategic stability in the modern world. Western society and its political elites no longer fear nuclear war, which may lead to a considerable reduction of the threshold for weapons use, including with regard to nuclear arms. And most alarming of all is not this confidence in the impossibility of nuclear war, but rather the belief that a “small,” local nuclear war can be fought and won. Such views have started to grow and spread partly due to progress in ICTs, which makes it possible to project informational and psychological influence on a huge audience in a relatively short amount of time and at minimal cost.

We can thus distinguish several key factors of the global influence of ICTs on strategic stability. First, ICTs can be used for destructive military and political purposes. Second, the exponential growth of technologies that force countries to acquire strategic advantages can make it tempting to try and win a large-scale war. Third, the boundaries between peace and war, defence and offence in military planning (including in the nuclear sphere) tend to become blurred. Furthermore, the logic of global confrontation is changing: the combined use of non-military tactics and harmful ICTs enables countries to achieve their war goals even without armed conflict. And one last notable factor of influence is the reduced path to the escalation of conflict, caused by the probability of ICT attacks on nuclear missile infrastructure.

When elaborating criteria for assessing the level of strategic stability and developing plans to ensure it, it is wise both to consider those factors that can be found in any historical period and those specific to the current age. The accelerated progress of ICTs falls into the latter category. Analysis shows that all the destabilizing factors in the modern strategic stability system are due to the development of ICTs. According to expert estimates, over 30 states possess so-called offensive cyber weapons; this is why this threat should really be singled out as a destabilizing factor of its own. Moreover, each of the other factors is enhanced by the destructive use of ICTs, the militarization of peaceful information technologies, and the ease of use, unexpectedness and speed of both IT and psychological weapons.

Additional risks are posed by so-called cyber electromagnetic activities, which are being actively developed by the United States. These include cyber operations, electronic warfare, electronic peacetime attacks, electromagnetic spectrum management operations, the suppression of targets by active and passive interference, as well as electromagnetic disinformation.

The potential use of ICTs to undermine the security of military facilities as part of a nation’s critical infrastructure is clearly a global threat. At the same time, estimating the possible damage from such threats and developing countermeasures is significantly complicated by the intangible nature of ICTs, as well as by the wide range of sources of possible malicious technologies: state and non-state actors, and even single hackers. All of this increases the level of uncertainty and instability. ICT threats may be attributed to various elements of military organization and infrastructure. But in the context of strategic stability, special attention should be paid to the security of nuclear missile weapons. All nuclear powers are modernizing their nuclear systems to keep up with the progress in computer technologies. The integration of network operations in military planning programmes began more than 30 years ago, and today we can already speak of an ICT revolution in military affairs. More and more components of the military nuclear infrastructure — from warheads and their delivery vehicles to control and guidance systems and command and control systems of strategic nuclear forces — depend on sophisticated software, which makes them potential targets for ICT attacks.

Special attention needs to be paid to the protection of strategic weapons, the early warning system, air and missile defence systems, and the command and control system for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, in addition to, or instead of, the principle of deterrence by inevitable retaliation, there is now growing interest in deterrence by blocking the use of offensive means (a “left of launch” strategy) through the use of ICTs.

Decreased strategic stability is due to the fact that the development of malicious ICTs increases the probability of a number of adverse events, such as the erroneous authorized launch of ballistic missiles; the decision to use nuclear weapons; the receipt of a false alarm from the early warning system about the launch of ballistic missiles, which is possible on account of the growing sophistication of ICT attacks or the damage or destruction of communication channels; interference in the control system of the armed forces (including nuclear forces); and the decreased confidence of military decisionmakers in the performance of control and command systems. In addition, a critical issue is the impact that the increased probability of nuclear weapons being disabled or destroyed by means of ICTs will have on future nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation processes.

The possibility that decisions about the use of nuclear weapons will be influenced by information and communication technologies is therefore the most serious threat that exists today — not in theory but in fact. There is now a greater probability of an erroneous authorized launch of a ballistic missile as a result of false information or due to a lack of confidence in the proper operation of military systems and some actions being perceived as the first step to mutually assured destruction. This leads to a considerable reduction in strategic stability.

All of the above threats are further exacerbated by the growing use of remote-controlled robotic strike weapons, the development of artificial intelligence technologies for military purposes, machine learning, the autonomous operation capabilities of various systems and subsystems, automated decision-making systems and other elements that may be subject to ICT attacks.

What global steps can be taken today in response to these global threats to strategic stability, based on the experience gained in the bipolar era? First, all the parties involved (Russia, the United States and China) will have to find common ground in terms of what in their opinion constitutes strategic stability; develop and formalize a common understanding of the danger of ICT threats; and, of course, develop common approaches to assessing the probability of intentional and unintentional ICT attacks. Moreover, they will need to have a clear agreement on the probable response in the event that an ICT attack on strategic nuclear forces is detected. These steps may provide building blocks for an ICT deterrence policy, similar to what was done with regard to nuclear weapons in the bipolar era.

At the same time, it would be reasonable to start work on an ICT arms control regime (statements, commitments, agreements and treaties) that could include: a ban on ICT attacks against certain targets, primarily military facilities; the limitation and/or renouncement of offensive ICT capabilities; the introduction of ICT arms control measures; the establishment of international norms regulating the ways and means of preventing and stopping cyber conflicts; and the development of a convention on the prohibition of the harmful use of ICTs in the nuclear weapons sphere.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in Political Science, Head of the Informational Security Problems Department of the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor, Corresponding Member of the Academy of Military Science of the Russian Federation

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Test of Agni Prime Missile and India’s Counterforce Temptations

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South Asia is widely regarded as one of the most hostile regions of the world primarily because of the troubled relations between the two nuclear arch-rivals India and Pakistan. The complex security dynamics have compelled both the countries to maintain nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis each other. India is pursuing an extensive and all-encompassing military modernization at the strategic and operational level. In this regard, India has been involved in the development of advanced missiles as delivery systems and improvement in the existing delivery systems as well. Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent and delivery systems are solely aimed at India; however, India aspires to fight a ‘two-front war’ against Pakistan and China. Therefore, the size and capability of its nuclear deterrent and delivery systems are aimed at countering both threats. However, most of the recent missile delivery systems made by India appear to be more Pakistan-centric. One recent example in this regard is the recently tested nuclear-capable cannisterized ballistic missile Agni Prime, which is insinuated as Pakistan-centric. These developments would likely further provoke an action-reaction spiral and would increase the pace of conflict in South Asia, which ultimately could result in the intensification of the missile arms race.

Just quite recently, on 28th June 2021, India has successfully tested an advanced variant of its Agni missile series, namely Agni Prime or Agni (P). The missile has a range between 1000-2000 kilometers. Agni Prime is a new missile in the Agni missiles series, with improved accuracy and less weight than Agni 1, 2, and 3 missiles. It has been said that the Agni-P weighs 50 % less than the Agni-3 missile. As per the various media reports, this missile would take the place of Agni 1 and 2 and Prithvi missiles, however officially no such information is available. This new missile and whole Agni series is developed as part of the missile modernization program under the Defence Research and Development Organization’s (DRDO) integrated guided missile development program. 

Agni-P is a short missile with less weight and ballistic trajectory, the missile has a rocket-propelled, self-guided strategic weapons system capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads. Moreover, the missile is cannisterized with the ability to be launched from road and rail. The DRDO claimed that the test flight of the missile was monitored by the telemetry radar stations and its trajectory met all the objectives of the mission successfully with high level of accuracy. Agni-P missile because of its range of 1000 to 2000 km is considered a weapon against Pakistan because within this range it cannot target China. Although, India already has different missiles in its inventory with the same range as the newly developed and tested Agni-P missile, so the question arises what this missile would achieve. 

Since the last few years, it has been deliberated within the international security discourse that India’s force posture is actually more geared towards counterforce options rather than counter-value options. Although, India’s nuclear doctrine after its operationalization in 2003, claims  “massive retaliation” and “nfu” but in reality with developing cannisterized weapons like Agni-P, Agni 5, and testing of hypersonic demonstrative vehicles, India actually is building its capability of “counterforce targeting” or “splendid first strike”. This reflects that India’s nuclear doctrine is just a façade and has no real implication on India’s force modernization.

These developments by India where it is rapidly developing offensive technologies put the regional deterrence equation under stress by increasing ambiguity. In a region like South Asia, where both nuclear rivals are neighbors and distance between both capitals are few thousand kilometers and missile launch from one side would take only a few minutes in reaching its target, ambiguity would increase the fog of war and put other actors, in this case, Pakistan in “use it or lose it” situation, as its nuclear deterrent would be under threat.

In such a situation, where Pakistan maintains that nuclear weapons are its weapons of last resort and to counter threats emerging from India, its nuclear deterrence has to hold the burden of covering all spectrums of threat. It might be left with no choice but to go for the development of a new kind of missile delivery system, probably the cannisterized missile systems as an appropriate response option. However, as Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence is based on principle of “CMD” which allow Pakistan to seek deterrence in a cost-effective manner and also by not indulging in an arms race. Therefore, other than the threat of action-reaction dynamic developments like Agni P by India, would make weapons more accurate and lethal, subsequently conflict would be faster, ambiguous, and with less time to think. In such a scenario, as chances of miscalculation increase, the escalation dynamics would become more complex; thus, further undermining the deterrence stability in South Asia.

India’s counter-force temptations and development of offensive weapons are affecting the deterrence equilibrium in South Asia. The deterrence equation is not getting affected just because India is going ahead with the development of offensive technologies but because of its continuous attempts of negating the presence of mutual vulnerability between both countries. Acknowledgement of existence of mutual vulnerability would strengthen the deterrence equation in the region and help both countries to move forward from the action-reaction spiral and arms race. The notions such as the development of offensive or counterforce technology or exploiting the levels below the nuclear threshold to fight a war would not be fruitful in presence of nuclear weapons. As nuclear weapons are weapons to avert the war and not to fight the war.

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Unmanned Aircraft Systems & The Annihilistic Future

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The unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones were introduced as a useful means to military, commercial, civilian and humanitarian activities but yet it ends up in news for none of its original purposes. Drones have rather resulted as a means of mass destruction.

The recent attacks on the technical area of the Jammu Air Force Station highlights the same. This was a first-of-its-kind terror attack on IAF station rather the Indian defence forces that shook the National Investigation Agency to National Security Guard. The initial probe into the attacks directs to involvement of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group based out of Pakistan, in the drone attacks as the aerial distance from the point of attack was just 14 kilometers. The attacks took place via an Electric multi-rotor type drone between 11:30 P.M to 1:30 A.M on 27th June, 2021.

The above incident clearly points out the security issues that lie ahead of India in face to the asymmetrical warfare as a result of drones. The Indian Government after looking at the misuse of drones during the first wave of the pandemic realised that its drone regulations were nowhere sufficient and accountable and hence passed the Unmmaned Aircraft Rules, 2021. These rules imposed stricter requirement for obtaining license and authorisations by remote pilots, operators, manufacturers or importers, training organisations and R&D organisations, thereby placing a significantly high burden on the applicants but at the same time they also permit UAS operations beyond visual sight of line and allowing student remote pilots to operate UAS.

But these rules still don’t have any control on the deadly use of drones because multi-rotor drones are very cheap and readily available and what makes them lethal is their ability to be easily detected, additionally the night time makes it even worse. Their small size grants them weak radar, thermal, and aural signatures, albeit varying based on the materials used in their construction.

The pertinent issue to be understood here is that these rules can never ensure safety and security as they cannot control the purpose for which these drones maybe used. There are certain factors that are to be accounted to actually be receptive to such imminent and dangerous threats. Firstly, significantly increasing urban encroachments  in areas around defence establishments, particularly air bases, has proved to be fatal. If frontline bases like Jammu or be it any other base when surrounded by unbuffered civilization poses two pronged problems, first it acts as high chances of being a vantage point for possible attackers and second, it also hampering the defence mechanism to come to an action. It is not limited to drone concerns but there have been cases of increased bird activity that has once resulted in engine failure of an IAF Jaguar and has caused similar problems all along.

Another important factor is that of intelligence. The Anti-drone systems will take their time to be in place and it is still a distant call to ascertain how effective will these systems be, so in the time being it is pertinent to focus on intelligence which may include sales and transfers of commercial drone, or the hardware that is required to build a basic multi-rotor drone. These are not something extraordinary because it is even in news when Pakistani drones were being used to supply weapons and ammunition to terror networks on Indian soil. Also, the past experience in handling ISIS have shown the weightage of intelligence over defensive nets.

Intelligence is no doubt a crucial factor in anticipation of drone attacks but what cannot be done away with is the defense mechanism. Efficient counter-drone technology is the need of the hour. DRDO has developed such technology that could provide the armed forces with the capability to swiftly detect, intercept and destroy small drones that pose a security threat. It is claimed that solution consists of a radar system that offers 360-degree coverage with detection of micro drones when they are 4km away, electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors for detection of micro drones up to 2 km and a radio frequency (RF) detector to detect RF communication up to 3 km and is equipped for both soft kills as well as hard kills.

Hence, the above analysis brings out the need of the application of an international instrument because the technology used in such drone attacks is at an evolving stage and the natural barriers still have an upper hand over be it either flying a pre-programmed path aided by satellite navigation and inertial measurement units (IMUs), or hand controlled to the point of release or impact, both methods have significant limitations as satellite and IMU navigation is prone to errors even when it comes to moderate flight ranges while manual control is subject to the human limitations such as line of sight, visibility as well as technical limitations such as distance estimation of the target, and weak radio links. An example of this could be the Turkish-made Kargu-2 model of killer drone can allegedly autonomously track and kill specific targets on the basis of facial recognition and Artificial Intelligence (AI). As the AI becomes better and better, these drone attacks become more and more terminal.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic is an eye opener for India as well as the world as none of the countries considered the possibility of bio-defenses or made a heavy investment in it even when there was awareness about lethal effects of genetic engineering. Hence, it should be the priority of the government to invest heavily in research and make the development of defensive technologies a national priority else the result of artificially intelligent killer drones would be much more catastrophic.

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Russia’s National Security Strategy: A Manifesto for a New Era

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The central feature of the new strategy is its focus on Russia itself. The Russian leadership has every reason right now to turn homeward to address the glaring weaknesses, imbalances, and inequalities of the country’s internal situation.

Russia’s new, forty-four-page National Security Strategy signed by President Vladimir Putin on July 2 is a remarkable document. It is much more than an update of the previous paper, adopted in 2015. Back then, relations with the West had already sharply deteriorated as a result of the Ukraine crisis, but were still considered salvageable; much of the liberal phraseology inherited from the 1990s was still in use; and the world still looked more or less unified. The current version of arguably the most important Kremlin strategy statement—covering not only national security issues, but a whole range of others, from the economy to the environment, and values to defense—is a manifesto for a different era: one defined by the increasingly intense confrontation with the United States and its allies; a return to traditional Russian values; and the critical importance for Russia’s future of such issues as technology and climate.

The strategy lays out a view of a world undergoing transformation and turmoil. The hegemony of the West, it concludes, is on the way out, but that is leading to more conflicts, and more serious ones at that. This combination of historical optimism (the imminent end of Western hegemony) and deep concern (as it is losing, the West will fight back with even more ferocity) is vaguely reminiscent of Stalin’s famous dictum of the sharpening of the class struggle along the road to socialism. Economically, Russia faces unfair competition in the form of various restrictions designed to damage it and hold it back; in terms of security, the use of force is a growing threat; in the realm of ethics, Russia’s traditional values and historical legacy are under attack; in domestic politics, Russia has to deal with foreign machinations aimed at provoking long-term instability in the country. This external environment fraught with mounting threats and insecurities is regarded as an epoch, rather than an episode.

Against this sobering background, the central feature of the strategy is its focus on Russia itself: its demographics, its political stability and sovereignty, national accord and harmony, economic development on the basis of new technologies, protection of the environment and adaptation to climate change, and—last but not least—the nation’s spiritual and moral climate. This inward focus is informed by history. Exactly thirty years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed just as its military power was at its peak, and not as a result of a foreign invasion. Having recently regained the country’s great power status and successfully reformed and rearmed its military, the Russian leadership has every reason now to turn homeward to address the glaring weaknesses, imbalances, and inequalities of the country’s internal situation.

The paper outlines a lengthy series of measures for dealing with a host of domestic issues, from rising poverty and continued critical dependence on imported technology to the advent of green energy and the loss of the Soviet-era technological and educational edge. This certainly makes sense. Indeed, the recent Kremlin discovery of climate change as a top-tier issue is a hopeful sign that Russia is overcoming its former denial of the problem, along with inordinately exuberant expectations of the promise of global warming for a predominantly cold country. After all, the Kremlin’s earlier embrace of digitalization has given a major push to the spread of digital services across Russia.

The strategy does not ignore the moral and ethical aspects of national security. It provides a list of traditional Russian values and discusses them at length. It sees these values as being under attack through Westernization, which threatens to rob the Russians of their cultural sovereignty, and through attempts to vilify Russia by rewriting history. In sum, the paper marks an important milestone in Russia’s official abandonment of the liberal phraseology of the 1990s and its replacement with a moral code rooted in the country’s own traditions. Yet here, the strategy misses a key point at the root of Russia’s many economic and social problems: the widespread absence of any values, other than purely materialistic ones, among much of the country’s ruling elite. The paper mentions in passing the need to root out corruption, but the real issue is bigger by an order of magnitude. As each of President Putin’s annual phone-in sessions with the Russian people demonstrates—including the most recent one on June 30—Russia is governed by a class of people who are, for the most part, self-serving, and do not care at all for ordinary people or the country, instead focusing single-mindedly on making themselves rich on the job. Money—or rather Big Money—has become that group’s top value, and the most corrosive element in today’s Russia. Therein lies perhaps the biggest vulnerability of modern Russia.

On foreign policy, the strategy is fairly elliptic, but it gives a hint of what the upcoming Foreign Policy Concept might include. The United States and some of its NATO allies are now officially branded unfriendly states. Relations with the West are de-prioritized and those countries ranked last in terms of closeness, behind former Soviet countries; the strategic partners China and India; non-Western institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS, and the Russia-India-China trio; and other Asian, Latin American, and African countries. In addition to U.S. military deployments and its system of alliances, U.S.-based internet giants with their virtual monopoly in the information sphere, and the U.S. dollar that dominates global finances are also seen as instruments of containing Russia.

Overall, the 2021 Russian National Security Strategy seeks to adapt the country to a still interconnected world of fragmentation and sharpening divisions, in which the main battle lines are drawn not only—and not even mostly—between countries, but within them. Victories will be won and defeats suffered largely on domestic turf. Accordingly, it is the Home Front that presents the greatest challenges, and it is there that the main thrust of government policies must be directed.

From our partner RIAC

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