Emerging Domains of Conflict in the 21st Century
[Written for the 2022 Raisina Dialogue hosted by the Observer Research Foundation. Originally published in the Raisina Files.]
The first quarter of the 21st century has seen tremendous change thanks to the internet reaching critical mass, and accelerated technological advancements across several key fields of science, namely computer science, artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, batteries, biology, and physics. The convergence of these technologies has exponentially furthered our knowledge, capability, and understanding of our DNA, microbiome, solar system, renewable energy capture, social sentiment, industrial design, and much more.
With technological change comes social change and a shift in the organising systems that oversee how our communities are governed. Today, we can feel the tectonic plates shift under the grounds of our socio-political and economic norms. As in the past, technological change came with an unsettling period of confusion and conflict until the new organising systems emerged. Today, we are in the middle of the eye of the storm of this shift and there is much confusion and conflict as the world comes to terms with new technology, social norms, evolving values, and competing new power structures.
This paper highlights five emerging domains of conflict that will characterise the remainder of the first half of the 21st century. They are:
- Nation-State Governance Tensions: Conflict derived from democracy’s need to modernise its value proposition and autocracy’s modern struggles with control;
- Environmental Constraints: Climactic changes are forcing migration, exacerbating conflict and resource scarcity, and fanning the flames of ‘environmental nationalism’;
- Continued friction with pervasive Supra-National Tech Governance structures: The friction between supra-national corporate governance and sovereign state governance will increase with Web 3.0 and the spatial web. Distributed Autonomous Organisations (DAOs) and cryptocurrencies will also challenge governance structures with parallel economies and organising systems;
- Non-State Interest-Based Arms: The marketplace for organised corporate mercenaries or crowdsourced voluntary conscripts offering financial means, technological offensive capabilities, or traditional kinetic violence which can be leveraged in the cause of an interest-best conflict is growing; and
- Contentious Space: As more entrepreneurs pursue and develop commercial interests in space, there will be tension between countries and companies to regulate and create standards. Separately, space weapons continue to threaten peace in space and debris pose threats to a congested environment of vital space assets.
A common thread that weaves through these emerging domains of conflict is that they all challenge the Westphalian model of state sovereignty that has been the core foundation of the modern international system. As technology, space, and climate challenge the limits of state sovereignty, there is more at play than just emerging domains of conflict but the prospect of a new power shift in the way states have organised themselves. How this prospect unfolds and what it will morph into remains unknown, however, the broader emerging domains of conflict discussed in this paper help us paint this new picture that is emerging.
Nation-State Governance Tensions
The 2008 economic crisis continues to have ripple effects in today’s tensions on inequality, challenges within middle and lower economic classes, loss of confidence in the future, and distrust in the government. Since 2008, the economic power of the middle class in western liberal democracies has shrunk or remained stagnant, while faith in democratic institutions has been challenged. This can be seen in divisive politics in the United States, particularly during the Trump Presidency; in the United Kingdom, with both the Scottish and Brexit referendums; and in Germany, with the far-right populist party Alternative für Deutschland. In authoritarian countries, technology has simultaneously proven to be a tool of oppression — with the rising use of surveillance technologies and AI — and one of hope and liberation — for those living under oppression — as gaming, digital currencies, the metaverse, digital anonymity tools, and access to education online has given them new ways to earn an income, participate in new digital economies, and gain knowledge and skill sets that they would otherwise not have access to.
Whether it is an authoritarian or a democratic form of governance, both systems — as they are practiced today — are being challenged. Many regulatory norms and laws still represent a bygone era, technology has created new power structures that policymakers are still grappling with and societies are rapidly upending and rewriting new norms.
Researchers of the impacts of disruptive technology, Tony Seba and James Arbib, deconstruct this in their book, Rethinking Humanity. They argue that as a civilisation advances and its population grows, its organising system must adapt to meet the new demands of the civilisation. If it does not — and the organising system is no longer fit for purpose — a dark age ensues where there is conflict and reduced or stalled productivity, until a new and more compatible organising system emerges. Seba and Arbib have observed that “Throughout history every civilization has been built on the same five foundational sectors: information, energy, transport, food and materials. When technologies disrupt any of these change ripples and cascades challenging our rules, systems and mindsets.”
Today, in 2021, we are precisely in this moment of change. All five of these foundational sectors have seen rapid change in just the past decade alone. Liberal democracies, monarchies, or authoritarian governance structures are facing a reality of changing foundations across technological imperatives and the minds of their constituencies.
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To deny climate change a spot on the list of emerging domains of conflict is to be truly misinformed on the multiplying climate conflicts and challenges that we are already collectively experiencing. Today, the earth is 1.2 degree Celsius warmer than the pre-industrial levels and while we have not reached the 1.5 degree Celsius Paris Agreement limit, there are already several noticeable changes. The 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has warned that the changes to the environment are taking place faster than governments, institutions, and people are able to adapt.
Just in the first two years of the 2020s, Australia saw the worst bushfire season with over 46 million acres being burned, equating to the entire landmass of Syria. The following year, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and China experienced torrential rain and mass flooding that caused landslides, damage to infrastructure, and loss of life. At the beginning of 2022, at the time of writing this paper, both the Arctic and Antarctica are experiencing heatwaves with 30 degrees Celsius and 40 degrees Celsius, respectively, above normal. This is not withstanding the European heatwaves, since the deadly 2003 heatwave, which continue to claim hundreds of lives each year.
Changing planetary ecosystems are causing extreme environmental events that have implications for the environment, food supply chains, human life, and in return, implications for the economy and politics. Droughts and floods have destroyed arable land and caused farmers and communities in Bangladesh and Senegal to move to safer and more resource-abundant lands; while in the Middle East, conflict over scarce water resources between Iran and Iraq is becoming increasingly more contentious as “Iran is building dams to redivert… water, causing alarm and creating major water shortages for Iraq.”
The number of climate refugees leaving their country for more environmentally prosperous and resource-abundant countries is a trend that is growing. This migration has compounded existing immigration tensions in the countries they seek to find new homes. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Hazards resulting from the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as abnormally heavy rainfall, prolonged droughts, desertification, environmental degradation, or sea-level rise and cyclones are already causing an average of more than 20 million people to leave their homes and move to other areas in their countries each year.”
These 20 million climate refugees require homes, jobs, and resources in the new countries they have immigrated to, which at times places constraints on the existing resources. Within subsets of some communities, this is breeding a new form of nationalism — environmental nationalism — where protectionist nationalism encompasses protecting access to valuable environmental resources within the territorial sovereignty, and excluding foreigners who may threaten their access to these resources.[a]
Last, but certainly not the least — regardless of where one stands in the globe, whether it is a water-rich area or one with annual wildfires — “climate change is already damaging the physical and mental health of everyone on Earth, with half of humanity already vulnerable to water insecurity and billions more at risk of extreme heat events, vector-borne diseases and hunger linked to global heating.”
The changes in climate and the planet’s environment brings an emerging domain of conflict that traverses fundamental resource scarcity, exacerbates existing conflicts while creating new political tensions, contributes to more refugees, and impacts the health of all. It is a domain of conflict that individuals, politicians, and businesses must urgently work together on.
Continued Friction with Pervasive Supra-National Tech Governance Structures
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The friction between supra-national corporate governance and sovereign state governance will increase with the rise of Web 3.0, the spatial web, smart infrastructure, and AI. The Westphalian model is once again challenged with the evolution of technology. But in this emerging domain of conflict, it is not about an outdated organisation system of governance; instead, it is about the emergence of a non-state governance structure that crosses over international sovereign boundaries and mediates the lives of billions of people — supra-national big tech.
The big tech platforms — such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Apple, and others emerging in the metaverse space — are technological critical infrastructure that much of the world and global economy relies on. This challenges the sovereign state to contend with a pervasive supra-national tech governance structure that, in some circumstances, wields power that was once only privy to sovereign nations. The Ukraine-Russia war has countless multi-national companies as well as supra-national tech companies impose their own economic restriction measures and take sides in this political conflict with economic consequences for many people living in Russia. In doing so, supra-national companies have joined the international political arena in ways that were never before so swift and politically consequential.
In parallel to this, smart infrastructure, digital twins, and millions of new Internet of Things devices are getting connected to the internet. This digital infrastructure has a virtual overlay of the physical world. This is most illustrative with digital twins where factories, critical infrastructures, and entire cities have digital twin copies where services can be rendered, commerce can take place, and advertising can be placed on the digital layer of the physical geography. This is also a place for corporations to dictate terms, bringing wide-spread implications for governance, commerce incentivisation, protections of marginalised people, and socio-economic access.
Questions arise such as who owns and runs the digital twin of a city; is it collectively owned; are parts of it privately owned like parts of the physical space are; and who polices the digital twin of a city when there are many ‘worlds’ and service layers on top of it? Smart cities, algorithms, and digital twin economies will be contentious spaces for the state sovereign and the supra-national tech entities that govern these virtual spaces. If supra-national tech is able to pull out from a country or service at their own discretion, sovereign states will need guaranteed securities for their citizens in these virtual spaces for the stability of their economies.
Separately from corporate supra-national tech governance structures, there are non-corporate governance structures that are emerging, thanks to distributed ledger technologies. The blockchain is an example of a distributed ledger which has allowed for cryptocurrencies and DAOs. Both cryptocurrencies and DAOs do not need a third-party trust entity or a bureaucracy to deliver services; instead, it is the collective community that manages the ledger. These technologies are being leveraged to operate outside the international FIAT currency system and to create transparent supra-national governance structures through DAOs where people can opt in to the coded rules. Some are using them to create companies, unions, or social clubs, and others see it as the next form of government. This is an emerging area of technology governance conflict as DAOs do not need state registration to be created or approved. If sovereign states cannot manage to regulate and weave this technological infrastructure into the evolving contemporary society, it will continue to be a growing area of tension.
Non-State Interest-Based Arms
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An underappreciated area of contemporary conflict is the thriving and growing marketplace for a full spectrum of political interest-based support. Whether it is corporate mercenaries; or crowdsourced voluntary conscripts providing technological offensive capabilities or traditional kinetic capabilities; or those providing financial support through crowdfunding; the space of cause related interest-based conflict support is growing.
Author of The New Rules of War, Sean McFate, argues that we live in a state-centric world that is slowly eroding and while “states won’t go away, they will become less important because war is now divorcing from the state and technology is a huge enabler of this and that will change international relations in the next thirty years profoundly.” He points out that the private sector of armed mercenaries is growing and working collaboratively with private sector intelligence companies, which is also a market that is growing. When non-state special operations teams are hired, new dynamics are created in the international arena — separate from nationalism and state interests — that open a new political market where non-state interests can be defended through private intelligence and private warriors. However, the plot of mercenaries thickens as nation-states also utilise arms for hire, to supplement missions or to mask actions in ways that will not be directly linked to the government. The rise of private intelligence and mercenaries will further complicate international politics and decision-making.
However, there is another non-state warfare market and its currency is not money, but emotions. The Ukraine-Russia war has showcased what it looks like when citizens all around the world choose on their volition to participate in a conflict and take sides. Over US$100 million have been raised from around the world in support of Ukraine in cryptocurrency alone, and many have creatively used Airbnb to make their donations, raising over US$2 million. Foreign urban warfare experts have provided detail guidance on Twitter for Ukrainian fighters, and over 20,000 people have flown in to Ukraine to volunteer in the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine to defend a country that is not their own. Cyber hacking groups have rallied in defence of Ukraine, providing cyber defence and offensive support. These examples demonstrate how technology has created an asymmetry for participation in a conflict and how regardless of nationality, race, or religion, any individual around the world can rally resources and support in defence of interests they align with and support their side of the political conflict with money, resources, time, and expertise.
This will not be the last political conflict that sees non-state interest-based support and we will see an empowered individual who will use their means to support causes, regardless of their national borders.
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Outer space has seen a resurgence in interest from political, military, and economic fronts. Politically, there has been more interest in creating human settlements on Mars to make humans a multi-planetary species with Russia, the US, China, and the United Arab Emirates conducting human settlement research for Mars. Militarily, the development, testing, deployment, and proliferation of space weapons continues, which is in conflict with the Outer Space Treaty that “bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space, prohibits military activities on celestial bodies, and details legally binding rules governing the peaceful exploration and use of space.” Economically, there has been a boom for commercial interest in space with countless entrepreneurs pursuing space ventures. 
All this space activity is creating several areas of conflict as entrepreneurship and commercial interests in space will cause tensions between countries and companies to regulate and create standards that allow for space prosperity while respecting it as a ‘global common’. Notwithstanding the long running problem of space debris, which continues to pose threats in a congested environment of valuable and critical space assets. Countries and companies will need to work together to protect space assets that are critical to economies on earth. If not, Low Earth Orbit will soon become a dangerous object-polluted place to operate in and space related activity will need to move to higher orbits.
Separately, space weapons continue to threaten peace, prompting the United Nations to approve an “open-ended working group aimed at preventing an arms race in space” and avoiding ‘celestial conflict’. This domain of conflict is not exclusive to space as it has real implications on planet earth and foresight, collaboration, and diplomacy will be needed to prevent conflict.
These five emerging domains of conflict will grow in the coming decades and if they are not managed by the middle of the 21st century, they will become entrenched and compounded conflicts. Whether it is climate change affecting health, migration, food supply chains, or access to vital resources such as water, the impact of our environment on our politics, society, and economy will be felt pervasively by 2050. Outer space is not only an area where critical infrastructure resides for our many space-reliant technologies, but it is also a frontier for human exploration. It will be up to the collaboration of nation-states and space companies to make space an area full of opportunity, prosperity, and hope and not one of danger, conflict, and profiteering. As the Westphalian model sunsets, a new model will emerge — while it may be too soon to label it — we can already start to see some of its characteristics. Some notable ones are that the sovereignty of nation-states is morphing into a shared sovereignty with supra-national technology platforms and companies, that more and more decision-spaces of our lives will be algorithmically mediated, and the actors in any given conflict will be varied borderless interest-based actors rather than strictly nation-based actors.
To anticipate and interpret the emerging domains of conflict as they unfold in the coming decades, we will need to unlearn many of the ways we have understood the international area to operate, and open our mind to observe the new ways in which value is created and the emerging power structures that arbitrate them.
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[a] Note: Environmental Nationalism differs from Eco-Nationalism, in that eco-nationalism is a political movement to protect and preserve the environment of a nation. While Environmental Nationalism refers to the politics of denying foreigners immigration in efforts to preserve access of the environmental resources to people of a nation.
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