Sunday, November 6, 2011

The "Fifth Dimension" of Power?

Al Jazeera had an awesome documentary on cybersecurity this week. I think I like the title even more: "Fighting in the Fifth Dimension". This might end up being yet another post from the "Joe Nye series", so please bear with me.

I certainly recommend watching the entire video, and although it's mostly focused on countries salient to Al Jazeera's "topical interest", it does provide a very interesting, and quite informative, discussion on the subject.

This is indeed a pressing issue. Especially so with the ever more rapid decrease in the cost of acquiring and using information and communication technology (or, to use Nye's formulation: now that the "barriers to entry" are much lower). I am not claiming that the digital divide is gone; but the gap is certainly getting narrower by the day. This is all the more the case with governments, organizations, or even individuals in the less developed world who can actually afford the technology to "pose a threat" to more traditional power centers.

In terms of Nye's 3-D taxonomy of power, elaborated further in his Future of Power, it seems that "Cyberpower" would belong to the 3rd dimension: that of transnational issues, actors, and... chaos. And although he does discuss a very rapid diffusion of power in the cyberdomain, he also stresses that the Internet is not an international public good because it is limited (in its technical capacity) and because some of it still lies under sovereign government control.

Or, to use his quote from Richard Falkenrath: "The stakes are simply too high for governments to cede the field to private interests alone." I think the Al Jazeera documentary leaves that beyond doubt.

Yet, I am also amused by the conceptualization of the cyberdomain as the "fifth" aspect of warfare, presumably after land, sea, air, and, of course, the "human terrain" (i.e. hearts and minds of the targets). Such a separation implies a strict differentiation of the latter two from the first three.

Cartoon from Sketchblog.

But as everyday examples show (and as Nye correctly points out), this separation in "domains" cannot really be made, as activities in one will most probably have consequences in the other. For example, a cyber attack on Navy's communication infrastructure will certainly affect its operations on the ground [in the sea?], just as a shooting rampage by a marine or an inappropriate comment by a prominent politician can have devastating effects for the effort of winning "hearts and minds".

Might sound too complex, but these considerations need to be taken into account when strategies and policy actions are drawn up, so that they don't backfire in the process. But I'm sure that part is taken care of. What is more urgent at the moment is the education of the public - which still seems largely ignorant about the complexity of the situation (the reasons are many) - and the awareness about the risks and threats of the cyberdomain; but also opportunities, especially in terms of public diplomacy and the "human terrain".

Yet, it would be tragic to see the cyberdomain, too, oversecuritized. Sounds like we might be there already, though...

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