Cold War in Cyberspace: Implications for Social Policy

by Terrance Hunsley

Joe Biden has in essence, labelled China as an enemy of America.  An interesting article by Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution highlights Biden’s concern about China’s rapid economic growth and more aggressive international presence on several fronts.  With a similar US concern about Russia or a Russia-China alliance, Wright speculates on a new form of cold war, probably based on economic power, cyber-espionage and cyber-crime.  A new building up of military strength will accompany it.   

Biden seems to be calling for a global face-off between democratic and autocratic/communist national regimes. Looking for a rationale for mounting a united opposition among liberal democracies, the US is citing cyber espionage, human rights abuses, lack of respect for international treaties, and cyber attacks on businesses and public institutions. Despite military preferences for big weapons,  cyber attacks are likely to be the most-chosen instrument as they are cheap, effective, and hidden from view. And you don’t have to be a superpower to engage, so the list of enemies could grow.

Although the political rhetoric used to recruit allies makes almost no reference to them, I believe the social policies of democratic nations will eventually play a critical role in the outcomes of this struggle for global power. I’ll come back to this but first there are some other factors which Biden should be taking into consideration that define this era as distinct from the first Cold War. 

One is the integration of the global economy, with global corporate giants pulling government strings and managing global supply chains in all countries. (We should not assume Chinese government policy is in complete control.) This really muddies the water for economic sanctions and trade barriers. It has been a long time since two separate economies, with national corporations, could really face off. Most trade barriers nowadays are really inefficiencies which affect everyone, depending on how corporations manage their supply chains. It is entirely likely that the ruling elite in all countries, democratic or autocratic, own shares in the same corporations, and properties in many other countries. And corporate elites are able in all countries to buy access to government decision-makers.

Another factor is the increasing private ownership of knowledge, and the right to exclude others from using it, through patents, patent thickets, patent fences, and control of supporting technological platforms. In case you haven’t run across those terms, they refer to common corporate practices of protecting their monopolies on products such as pharmaceuticals or technical advances by patenting not only the process used to produce them, but anything else in the neighbourhood, like alternate production methods, alternate components, and any other related processes or products. Even though government funding and supervision of testing comprises a major component of most technological advances, (including for example, the COVID vaccines) global corporations take over near the end of the inventive phase,  and at least in democratic countries, capture the intellectual property. During modern trade negotiations, government negotiators engage businesses present in both or several of the negotiating countries, encouraging them to convince their counterpart governments. An indication of the limits of national power.

A related issue is the increasing economic and social integration of global society. Following the multinational presence of corporations, comes the multinational presence of workers. And following the large waves of human migration for humanitarian, security and economic reasons, comes the multinational presence of families. There is not a country in the world which does not have, and benefit from, a huge diaspora of people in other countries. In some cases, that diaspora might not like the current ruling elite in their home country. But they have family there, and probably also spread around many other parts of the world. The international flow of informal information and cooperation is a growing factor in world relationships. 

Finally, there is the future of work, education and even health care, that COVID has catapulted us into. The office is becoming wherever you put your laptop. You will soon have access to universities around the world for online studies. Doctor visits, diagnostics and consultations with a range of health and wellness professionals can be done remotely. And much as corporations have easily established a presence in many countries, so now can individual worker-businesses. For example, Canada for many years has been selling an inside track to residency status to people who can invest a few hundred thousand. (Could be part of the reason house prices have been rising so much – pre-covid – in major cities.) Not only will we work from anywhere, but we have increasing choice in where we might want to live – or pay taxes.

With links around the world and work and study from anywhere, people in all countries are going to look at citizenship with a more comparative eye. Taxes, benefits, rights, regulations, bureaucratic requirements and quality of daily living environments will be more closely assessed. For the foreseeable future, nation-states will continue to define the social contract. But democracy amid increasing diversity, will be played out in the cities, towns and villages. “Glocalization,” a term that got battered around a couple of decades ago, will gain meaning as economies and lifestyles start to become more locally, rather than nationally, defined.  

Autocratic governments have a power advantage over democracies, with weak or no opposition and fewer countervailing influences. So democratic governments are going to have to become more efficient and open with their taxes and benefits. They will be subject to comparison shopping. They are going to have to provide more individually-tailored programs while maintaining public trust. They will need to prove that diversity is indeed a strength that brings visible benefits to all, or they will fall victim to identity politics and factionalism. They will need to fight disinformation from both internal and external sources. Quality of life, health and education supports, opportunity and security over longer life courses will be critical factors in the battle for the minds and hearts of people. 

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