New Technologies and Conflict Escalation

September 19, 2019

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Glenn S. Gerstell, the general counsel for the United States National Security Agency, explains why the United States cannot afford to lose the digital revolution. He lays out the ways in which technology will transform national security threats and predicts a bleak future of constant cyberwarfare and new weapons.

Gerstell rightly notes that the technology is outpacing regulation. United Nations discussions on regulating autonomous weapons and cybersecurity have not been encouraging. The talks have moved at a glacial pace and powerful countries are trying to ensure that regulation is either weak or non-existent.

Gerstell’s argument is compelling because, to a large extent, it accurately highlights developing global security challenges, including cyberwarfare and the transformational role of artificial intelligence. But this piece, and others like it, often mention policy responses only in passing, choosing to focus on technological solutions. To surmount “the transformational challenges posed by this Fourth Industrial Revolution,” Gerstell places his faith in the American “innovative and entrepreneurial society”—if the political will to engage those resources can be mustered.

But a very different future is possible, if we rely less on technological fixes and more on diplomacy to achieve security. Even though consensus on controlling new technologies seems unlikely in the very near term, the path that leads to it is worth taking. And, as more world leaders and experts take the same road, they can begin to develop frameworks that will, eventually, achieve that control.

But we need to start on that road now. As we have seen with the recent attacks on a petroleum processing facility in Saudi Arabia, with what experts suggest are some mix of cruise missiles and drones, diplomacy becomes difficult when the security environment is inflamed (quite literally, in this case). Instead, we get amped-up rhetoric calling for military responses, even without clear evidence of who is responsible for the attacks.

As this incident shows, there is a real danger that new technologies will further destabilize the global order and escalate pre-existing conflicts. Although reports of Houthi militant involvement in the attack might prove to be incorrect, the possibility still shows the role that non-state actors can play as new technologies become cheaper and readily available.

As Peter W. Singer notes, state-sponsors can and are already providing non-state armed actors with missiles and drones. This coupled with the growing number of countries with armed drones as well as cyber capabilities further destabilizes the global security order. As Singer rightly argues one solution is “the lower barrier to entry for the new technology of war demands a higher barrier to entry for joining one.” As such, countries must be thoughtful about their responses to these new types of attacks and ultimately work to de-escalate tense situations.

Regulation alone will not prevent all misuses of technology. But recognizing the destabilizing potential of these technologies is in the best interests of us all. Otherwise, the “locked and loaded” military responses will further exacerbate crisis and cause new conflicts.

The pressure for regulation will not go away. We are witnessing an awakening of tech workers, who are refusing to build military systems and global civil society that is concerned about the implications of new technologies on human rights and humanitarian norms. But at the end of the day, it is ultimately states that have to remember the old “to jaw- jaw always is better than to war-war.”

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