by Vittorio Compagno for the Carl Kruse Blog
Many observers associate the concept behind the so-called “Thucydides trap” with modern relations between the US and China. And after a speech President Xi Jinping gave in 2013 about the famous metaphor, everyone brushed off their history books to re-learn about the Greek historian.
While the Peloponnesian war broke out in 431 BC and ended in 404 BC after what can only be called the defeat of both parties, exhausted by famine, plague, and lack of men, tensions began well before that date. Thucydides surmised that between a well-established power and a rising one, there will always be conflict, because the latter will have the ambition to become the first. Which is to say the conflict between Sparta and Athens, the two “superpowers” at the time of Thucydides was inevitable, thus the trap.
Fears of a scenario like that emerged in the 1950s, but as the first Cold War ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a sigh of relief with the thought that the world escaped a Thucydides trap. Today, it is no surprise as tensions between the two most powerful countries on Earth have skyrocketed, to wonder if the Thucydides’ trap will haunt us again.
Things are certainly going that way. But while everyone hopes that these are only vague fears, we must ask ourselves a question: What would be different this time?
Under the Sign of Technology
What could characterize this century’s cold war is the rapid evolution in technology in the last 20-30 years.
It has evolved so much faster in the these decades that it seemed impossible in the ‘90s to have a computer that fitted in your pocket. But today we all have smartphones so advanced that they recognize our faces just to unlock notifications.
The Internet seemed something that would be invented far in the future, but in the 2020’s, our social and work lives are tied to it.
You might say: “well, technology always does that, it evolves”.
And you would be right. That’s what happened, for example, between WWI and WWII, that’s the reason why, for instance, aerial superiority was crucial in the latter. But the evolution of microchips, the Internet, computational intelligence represent too big of a leap to be considered within its own trend. All these inventions changed our lives for sure, but they also changed something that has always been the same for millennia: war.
One of the marvels of technology is that it made possible one of the biggest aspirations dreamed of by proponents of war: fighting without sacrificing men.
It has been common for emerging countries that couldn’t initially compete with American military might to invest in other, more innovative methods.
Powers like China and Russia were the first to understand that wars will be fought in new ways in the future, and they’ve built armies of informatic experts and hackers. But what’s the point of employing many people that always stay in a closed room and would seem to do nothing in a war scenario?
“Cyber army” is a relatively new term. Here’s what the US Army Cyber Command’s website says about what they do:
“U.S. Army Cyber Command integrates and conducts cyberspace, electronic warfare, and information operations, ensuring decision dominance and freedom of action for friendly forces in and through the cyber domain and the information environment, while denying the same to our adversaries”
So, it’s not an army made only of attackers, and that’s where one of the most important roles in a cyberwar pops out.
Just like in conventional war, good defense always works, but as everything is hackable, from your pc to your smart fridge, you just have to find the right vulnerability.
Hacking becomes a little more difficult if you protect your assets. On a more simplistic level I could present the example of your Instagram password:
It takes one second to guess the word “password”, but it takes 7977542961637923000 years to brute force (=trying to guess) a 20 letter-long random one.
Network security experts are not only people that help you set up Wi-Fi access, but they work with governments, or in big data centers (one of the many battlefields of this new type of war), or help to design the nodes that make up the internet.
You could make more damage and face fewer consequences if you use technology to your advantage, especially when others are underestimating its power. That’s what a cyber army is for. Today hackers attack airport’s servers, public records, bank accounts, and the list goes on. It is possible to steal data, to empty bank accounts, to blackmail businesses and common people, because few aspects of life are unhackable, and such attacks could possibly cause more damage than a physical attack.
Distributed Denial of Service, Brute Force attacks, etc… if any of these terms seem strange you are likely to hear more of them in the future.
These are the weapons of the future, used by armies who could invade a country without ever leaving their chairs.
The scenario is set for a completely new way of seeing tensions between two nations, or two spheres of influence.
A new cold war fought not only with threats of a nuclear holocaust (which we know a lot of nations are perfectly capable of) but with lines of code and disinformation.
Imagine that you woke up in the morning, sipping your coffee and tried to connect to the Internet to work from home for a meeting. But something is not right, it is not loading, and you can’t connect to your organization’s meeting site. You want to write to your colleagues that you are unable to join the meeting, but your favorite app is down. You finally give up. Later in the day you want to check if you received that refund from Amazon, but your banking app shows nothing.
Personal life, work-life, and everything around them is tied today more than ever to technology. What if you removed that from the equation? How much would your life change for the worse?
Informatics affects politics as well. For example, could a fake Facebook account influence your voting decisions or your personal beliefs, or the ones of someone related to you? A rhetorical question as the evidence as clearly shown it can.
Today it’s about something we feel so distant, but the effects of which are closest to us. Tech has been our strict ally for the last 20 years: who steals it, steals a part of us.
How Could Society React?
Remember the Huawei ban? The United States prohibited every company tied to American corporations from dealing with Huawei, one of the biggest Chinese tech companies, suspected of spying on its users and US government officials. Proof remains unclear, but is everyone going to pretend like this did not set a precedent?
What would happen if the United States decided to ban every Chinese company? This is an extreme scenario, but if that’s how political leaders are responding to alleged theft of data, imagine how the population would feel when they understand how much their information is at risk.
As Don DeLillo wrote in his book “Underworld” about the previous Cold War:
“[…] You don’t know that every privilege in your life and every thought in your mind depends on the ability of the two great powers to hang a threat over the planet?”
These words completely reflect what could potentially happen. Imagine, how society and the media handle a growing Cold War between the United States and China? We have already seen in recent years a wave of racism and xenophobia, followed by nationalism, followed by every other bad sentiment people had on opening to the world, fueled by bad politics. If a new ‘fear of the enemy’ slips through our common beliefs, the open world that people dreamed about just a few years ago will be set on a collision course.
The refusal of new ideas from the eastern world, new technologies, and all the good things globalization brought us would completely flatten our collective level of culture. Probably a revisit to the ’50s, during the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union.
One was either a “Communist”, therefore an enemy, or a “normal person”, with clear thoughts about your future, your sexual orientation, and values.
Your place in society was dictated by your beliefs if they were everyone else’s.
Furthermore, the fear of a Soviet invasion was spread both in Europe and the US. Analogies are too many and maybe too broad to talk about in just one article.
The century we are about to approach is certainly scary, and in the next years, we’re going to see how much the use of technology could turn in our favor or against. One could only hope that the world escapes again from a Thucydides trap, and that the dream of an open society keeps on living for centuries to come. But if that’s not the case, and we’re inevitably headed for dark times, it is probable that we are gonna see a war fought mostly with lines of code.
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Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Vittorio include the Tess Mission, the Psychology of Colors on Social Media, and NFT Fever.
You can also find Carl Kruse on Behance, the USGBC and Buzzfeed.