Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Oct 22, 2019
Technology, change, and the inevitability of conflict


Technology shifts play a crucial role in a number of negative trends that paint a bleak outlook for the future: a disastrous climate crisis,<1> horrifying physical<2> and cultural<3> genocidal campaigns, apocalyptic civil wars,<4> unchecked invasions of sovereign states,<5> and a resurgence of nationalist and authoritarian revanchism, all of which are compounded by - as Sean Kanuck insightfully writes in his piece in this volume - increasing global insecurity, disinformation, anti-globalization, and “un-enlightenment” trends.<6> There are, however, numerous significant positive trends worth noting at the same time: decreasing infant mortality rates,<7> declining global poverty rates,<8> and an expanding global middle class.<9> While the “great power peace” may be fading,<10> great power war continues in abeyance for the longest period in modern history.<11> Like Kanuck’s trends, technology also helps drive these developments.

While the breadth of societal change borne of technological innovation is vast, when considering the face of conflict in the 21st century and its symbiotic relationship with technology, what can and must be asserted is that states have always and will continue to compete. This harsh, but undeniable reality, dates back to well before the modern nation state system was established via the Treaty of Westphalia (the “Peace of Westphalia”) in the 17th century; “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” is a frequently-cited quote from the 5th century B.C. Athenian historian and general Thucydides<12>. The current historical moment is no different: global powers are vying for primacy, regionally and on the international stage. Within this context, technology simply continues to serve as part of that competition, as a means to an end. While these may serve to accelerate or accentuate varying levels of conflict - enhancing various forms of violence or creating distance from others - these are not what will drive or characterize conflict in the 21st century alone.

Current technological trends are creating novel tactical options; these can be bewildering at times. On this subject, Mr. Kanuck’s analysis is insightful and accurate: the character of conflict is taking on new dimensions – it is faster, elusive, and at times, disruptive and even lethal. However, these are not game changing trends, at least not just from the specific categories that Mr. Kanuck chooses to focus. It is unlikely that, even if the recursive cycle he lays out is perpetrated for some time to come, three of his four categories will change the real character of conflict, or lead to, much less characterise, large scale combat: insecurity has and always will persist; the ‘disinfo’-infused gray zone conflict he begins to describe is actually vastly more complicated<13> and not entirely tied to technological change; and Enlightenment principles are arguably not pre-requisites for a more peaceful world. Of the four, the geopolitical anti-globalist trends he notes are the most ripe for bringing about a broader impact.

This paper will provide more detailed reasoning below for all these statements. First, however, it must be noted quite simply that evil is real and cannot be vanquished. History continues. The dimensions of conflict will have new faces, but at its core, conflict and competition will remain, and it will be brutal, violent, and occur on scales much larger than simply disinformation and disequilibrium. Just ask the citizens of Raqqa, Mosul, or Pervomaisk, in Luhansk Oblast, Ukraine, or even those short of an open, large-scale great power conflict.

There are technological innovations that will fundamentally alter the character of, and perhaps serve as the direct cause of, significant levels of conflict in the coming years. The hyper-speed of information access and processing on the battlefield, the contest for the electromagnetic spectrum that accompanies that trend, the ability to accurately anticipate adversary moves through automated means, and the introduction of “intelligentized” decision support systems, all point to a near-term future in which select nations with the necessary resources - the United States, China, Russia, and a small handful of others - will increasingly maintain step-order level advantages in capability. They will have the ability to put soldiers and droves of killing machines where they need to be, when they need to be, with the right resources securely in place to facilitate kinetic operations. As U.S. Lieutenant General Eric Wesley argues, “This isn’t about adopting AI and commercial practices - suitably modified for the military - for the sake of mere efficiency…it’s about new ways of winning wars”<14> that may not be a “Skynet” style solution, or even where humans are removed from “the loop.”

Taking matters further, technological change is converging in other unintended ways that will increasingly undermine the assumptions that underwrite both the conventional and nuclear deterrence that global leaders have relied on for years, dramatically increasing both strategic and crisis instability.<15> Nuclear-conventional entanglement,<16> domination of the electromagnetic spectrum<17>, the “accuracy revolution”,<18> and initiatives like “mosaic warfare”,<19> will continue to undermine common conceptions of the character of conflict. Finally, the ever-increasingly lethal cyber element of warfare will continue to force nations to recalibrate their approaches to global conflict. In this final regard, this author is in violent agreement with Mr. Kanuck. The conflict in Ukraine offers a window into the confluence of these elements, along with those alluded to in part by Mr. Kanuck. Openly violent, characterized by cyber combat as well as the shelling of cities, many have lost their lives not only via the bullet, but by first having been identified through social engineering, targeted by digital methods, then eliminated through conventional means.<20> These are the elements of conflict that, as they change and evolve to incorporate emerging technologies, will most surely contribute to regional and global instability.


Returning to the four elements of Mr. Kanuck’s “indisantiun” conceptualization: first, insecurity always has and always will persist, in vary degrees of flux - history continues to prove that states ignore this fact at their peril. Global insecurity is a constant. Mr. Kanuck is accurate in that technology is lending towards increased insecurity in particular domains; this is not, however, historically unique, and in this author’s opinion, has not led to a greater global sense of insecurity: that sense has remained palpable well before these current technological trends. More important to recall is that states continue to vie for advantages out of a recognition that other nations simply cannot be entirely trusted. Technology is not the reason behind that reality. This example is illustrative: In January 2019, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar -- now India’s Minister of External Affairs -- responded to a question from General David Petraeus as to whether India would “pick sides” by stating that India “should take a stand, and we should choose a side, and that’s our side.”<21>

Mr. Kanuck notes that the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth due to technological innovation can be potentially destabilizing - this was one of the causes that gave rise to Marxism and arguably, the wars of the 20th century. Are current national levels of insecurity being driven predominantly by technologically driven economic changes? This is up for debate, and much remains to be seen regarding the broader impact of AI and workforce displacement. These factors could end up pointing toward internally destabilizing trends and thus an increased risk of state on state conflict; however, this is too early to conclude. The tide could still shift, and there are an interesting set of issues for debate at CyFy 2019. The idea that populations are at greater risk today than in years past is also debatable; threats to civilians have persisted, but civilian casualties in combat have generally declined over the years. As Mr. Kanuck notes, cyber threats to infrastructure, banking, etc., present new challenges that governments must address. Herb Lin notes that “what is known from history and experience – that is, the metaphors, analogies and precedents with which policymakers are familiar – may break down when applied to the cyber domain.”<22> Populations, however, have been and remain insecure.


“Hybrid warfare” is not new. Irregular warfare has been a part of military tool kits since time immemorial. Disinformation is a long-standing tool deployed by a variety of actors to achieve their aims. Its resurgence may be on the rise due to new technologies and the spread of social media, but purposeful delusion has always been a character of conflict.<23> It does appear that America, and Europe to a lesser degree, were late to grasp those realities following the end of the Cold War: “the optimism of U.S. policy has outpaced the reality of other countries’ own ambitions to create their own realities.”<24> The United States and the Soviet Union engaged in broad, large scale disinformation campaigns that would shock today’s publics if they were implemented today. Herb Lin has also said that “infowarfare takes advantage of vulnerabilities in cognition.”<25> This isn’t new. The “truth” has, to an extent, always been manufactured for public consumption. Today’s trends are simply the result of nation states finding new levers to pull for their own gain: As Bradbury et al argue, “These are the conventional tools of demagogues throughout history, but this agitprop is now packaged in ways perfectly suited to the new environment.”<26> Information warfare has always been part of conflict, shaping public opinion of the adversary’s populace a key objective. The full breadth of what technology-driven disinformation means for conflict in the 21st century is yet to be seen. Disinformation indeed has the potential to breed violence, as does social media even when it is simply serving its intended role: connecting people who otherwise would never know each other.


Again, insecurity is perpetual, as is xenophobia, nationalism, and radicalization. One could argue that increased populism and anti-globalization trends in the European context are not driven by internal economic trends (which were already well underway), but in large part due to the climate crisis: droughts and devastatingly low crop yields led in part to the revolts that characterized the Arab Spring, and the Syrian civil war in particular.<27> Those in turn led to massive emigration and resettlement waves that caused European citizens to push back on their governments policies. The same could be said in the context of developments in Central American countries. Globalization was also bound to face backlash due to the cyclical nature of markets as well as powerful countries overplaying their hand. This is also in keeping with states preserving or increasing their distinct power. Global economic de-coupling, as Mr. Kanuck describes and as this author concurs, may create space/allow for greater levels of conflict in coming years. The European experiment may unravel due to Brexit, but I disagree that future conflicts will become more societal than military in nature. “War is the continuation of politics by other means”<28> remains an apt adage even in the digital information age. Finally, there is no indication that current anti-globalization trends will continue. Technological innovation in its current form inherently relies on global supply chains -- a fact that will continue to sway political decision making towards globalization, not away from it (for an example, see waivers provided to Apple in the Huawei instance).


As Henry Kissinger argues, “the age of Enlightenment gave us reason and reality as the foundations of political discourse, but information warfare in cyberspace could replace reason and reality with rage and fantasy.<29> This is an arrogant and hyperbolic view of history, as well as a mischaracterization of the challenges posed by both AI and cyber. Herb Lin has a logical argument to make, but if, for example, armed conflict occurs between the U.S. and China, it will not be a result of a global disavowment of Western “reason” and “rationality.” National leaders have warped, flaunted, and obliterated these values repeatedly since the Age of the Enlightenment, to catastrophic effect. Additionally, the characteristics and goals of Enlightenment thought are entirely Western constructs, to which large portions of the global populace do not, and have never ascribed. Thus, there is little evidence that a lack of Western rational thought lends one more towards conflict and away from cooperation. In addition, modern democracy itself is still working through its own inherent challenges to be accurately considered the organizing, victorious force it was deemed at the end of the Cold War.<30>


The nature of war itself can be called into question in the face of “disruptive” technology,<31> as can specific temporal causes of conflict, war’s actual conduct and termination. The fact of the matter remains: conflict is an intrinsic element of international relations. A powerful consideration, however, is not how technology changes the predilection of states to desire and/or to hoard power, but rather the possibility that there is no historical moment where the rise of a new global power did not result in great power conflict and large scale violence. All of the current talk of “gray zone conflict” and “under the threshold of actual conflict” aside, historically speaking, great power competition inevitably leads to great power war, particularly when a hegemon feels its grip on power loosening. How could our current epoch end any differently? Will technology accelerate oncoming great power competition, as Mr. Kanuck’s paper implicitly asserts, or does technological change hold promise a more peaceful potential outcome? The undeniable hegemon, the United States, has provided significant global public goods both since the end of World War II in 1945 and the end of the Cold War in 1989. However, that hegemonic status also, naturally, has drawn significant ire, and competition, on the international stage. What Mr. Kanuck argues is partially accurate: the trends he identifies help characterize some of the impacts of 21st century technologies and can perhaps help anticipate elements of future conflict. His analysis, however, also misses the forest for the trees, not to mention the broader catalyst for continuing global insecurity.

The former two-time U.S. National Security Advisor Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft came from a particular school of thought, honed through decades of international crisis management experience. This viewpoint saw the world for what it is: respecting raw power as well as what was required in order to manage relationships necessary to maintain a common path forward. He understood, and respected - even earnestly sought after - the power and influence of multilateralism, but he also understood the need for raw power to maintain the ability for a nation state to meet its national security requirements. India’s Minister of External Affairs, Subramanyam Jaishankar’s view on this is shown via this statement: “more multipolarity…less multilateralism…you keep relationships well-oiled with all major power centers. The country that does that best has a political position in the world which may be superior to its structural strengths.” However, this is wishful thinking: Chinese military capacity will not be awed by said political connectivity.

General Scowcroft accepted that not all nations will see eye to eye, and this will remain a perennial truth. Technological advantage was part o f the calculus, but only as means to the desired ends. Conflict will occur, but potentially stabilizing influences from technology will occur as well. The lack of understanding of an adversary’s capabilities in the cyber domain, for example, or the implications of the “accuracy revolution” for nuclear deterrence, may demand greater levels of prudence in military decision making, to include with nuclear weapons. What Scowcroft would emphasize, however, is that technology will be deployed through the means necessary for states to ensure their own objectives are met. It is therefore not surprising that the internet is used for purposes other than originally intentioned; what is more difficult to grapple with is how nefarious technological applications are outpacing social policies.

The opportunity remains to think about how technological evolutions may present opportunities for nations to create constructive transparency, facilitate new norms of behavior, and balance access to resources that keeps those nations endowed with significant resources from punishing those without. History says this will be difficult. The better we understand the risks and threats, the better positioned we will be to chart a different course.

This essay originally appeared in Digital Debates — CyFy Journal 2019.


<1> Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate”. Accessed on September 25, 2019

<2> United Nations Human Rights Council, “Myanmar’s Rohingya Persecuted, Living under Threat of Genocide, UN Experts Say”, report available on the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar website. Accessed on September 25, 2019.

<3> Cronin-Furman, Kate. “China Has Chosen Cultural Genocide in Xinjiang—For Now”. Foreign Policy, September 19, 2019. Accessed on September 28, 2019.

<4> Civil War in Syria. Council on Foreign Relations, Global Conflict Tracker. Accessed on September 25, 2019.

<5> Conflict in Ukraine. Council on Foreign Relations, Global Conflict Tracker. Accessed on September 25, 2019.

<6> Kanuk, Sean. “Future Conflict: The Nays Have It!”. Copyright 2019 by Sean Kanuck, all rights reserved.

<7> United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. “Levels and Trends in Child Mortality Report 2018”. Accessed on September 25, 2019.

<8> The World Bank. “Decline of Global Extreme Poverty Continues but Has Slowed: World Bank”. September 19, 2018. Accessed on September 25, 2019.

<9> Kharas, Homi and Hamel, Kristofer. “A global tipping point: Half the world is now middle class or wealthier”. Brookings Institution, Future Development series. Accessed on September 25, 2019.

<10> Brands, Hal and Edel, Charles. “The End of Great Power Peace”, The National Interest, March 6, 2019. Accessed on September 25, 2019.

<11> Backer, David A., Bhavnani, Ravi, and Huth, Paul K., eds. Peace and Conflict 2016. Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland. Accessed on September 25, 2019.

<12> Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Strassler, Robert B., ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. Print.

<13> Dalton, Melissa, Hicks, Kathleen, et al. “Gray Zone Project”, Center for Strategic and International Studies. Accessed on September 25, 2019. “From fake news and online troll farms to terrorist financing and paramilitary provocations, these approaches often lie in the contested arena somewhere between routine statecraft and open warfare—the “gray zone.”

<14> Freedberg, Sydney. “Forget The Terminator For Future Army AI: LTG Wesley”, Breaking Defense, Networks & Cyber. Accessed on September 26, 2019. “The ability to decide — (to) synthesize the volume of information that will be available to us (to) make decisions — is the biggest problem we have.”

<15> See Long, Austin and Green, Brendan Rittenhouse, “Stalking the Secure Second Strike: Intelligence, Counterforce, and Nuclear Strategy”, Journal of Strategic Studies Vol. 38, Nos 1-2 (December 2014), pp. 38-73; Lieber, Keir A. and Press, Daryl G., “The End of MAD? The Nuclear Dimension of U.S. Primacy,” International Security Vol. 30, No. 4 (Spring 2006); Kristensen, Hans M., McKinzie, Matthew, and Postol, Theodore, “How U.S. nuclear force modernization is undermining strategic stability: The burst-height compensating super-fuze,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March 1, 2017.

<16> Acton, James. “Escalation through Entanglement: How the Vulnerability of Command-and-Control Systems Raises the Risks of an Inadvertent Nuclear War” International Security. Volume 43 | Issue 1 | Summer 2018 p. 56-99. Accessed on September 25, 2019.

<17> Clark, Brian, et al. “Winning in the Gray Zone: Using Electromagnetic Warfare to Regain Escalation Dominance”. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, October 5, 2017. Accessed on September 28, 2019.

<18> Lieber, Keir A. and Press, Daryl G., “The New Era of Counterforce: Technological Change and the Future of Nuclear Deterrence,” International Security Vol. 41, No. 4 (Spring 2017). Also, Press, Daryl G. “NC3 and Crisis Instability: Growing Dangers in the 21st Century.” Forthcoming publication via Technology for Global Security at, October 2019.

<19> Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). “DARPA Tiles Together a Vision of Mosaic Warfare: Banking on cost-effective complexity to overwhelm adversaries” Accessed on September 28, 2019. More information found here:

<20> Brantly, Aaron, and Collins, Liam (Colonel). "A Bear of a Problem: Russian Special Forces Perfecting Their Cyber Capabilities”. Association of the United States Army, November 28, 2018. Accessed on September 28, 2019; Collins, Liam (Colonel). “Russia Gives Lessons in Electronic Warfare”. Association of the United States Army. Accessed on September 28, 2019. Also, Brown, Daniel. “Russian-backed separatists are using terrifying text messages to shock adversaries — and it’s changing the face of warfare”. Business Insider, August 14, 2018. Accessed on September 28, 2019.

<21> S. Jaishankar quote taken directly from 2019 Raisina Dialogue panel conversation with General Petraeaus. Paraphrased summary found in “A World Reorder,” ORF Raisina Dialogue Conference Report 2019, accessed on September 29, 2019 at:

<22> Lin, Herb and Kerr, Jackie. “Cyber-Enabled Information Warfare and the End of the Enlightenment”. Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation Seminar. Accessible on September 25,_2019.  Their older paper on the topic was accessible on September 25, 2019.

<23> Rid, Thomas. Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Forthcoming, April 21, 2020).

<24> Hamre, John. Foreword, “Zone Defense: Countering Competition in the Space between War and Peace”. Center for Strategic and International Studies. Accessed on September 28, 2019.

<25> Heffernan, Virginia. Live tweeting the 2019 Doomsday Clock unveiling. Accessed on September 25, 2019.

<26> Bradbury, Roger et al. “How information warfare in cyberspace threatens our freedom”. The Conversation, May 14, 2018. Accessible on September 25, 2019.

<27> Kelley, Colin P., et al. “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. March 17, 2015, 112 (11) 3241-3246; first published March 2, 2015, accessed on September 25, 2019; Fountain, Henry. “Researchers Link Syrian Conflict to a Drought Made Worse by Climate Change”. New York Times, March 2, 2015. Accessed on September 25, 2019; Rowling, Megan. “Climate stress drove wave of Arab Spring refugees - researchers”. Reuters, January 23, 2019. Accessed on September 25, 2019.

<28> Clausewitz, Carl Von. On War. Indexed Edition, Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (June 1, 1989).

<29> Kissinger, Henry. “How the Enlightenment Ends”. The Atlantic, June 2018 Issue.

<30> Rosenberg, Shawn. “Democracy Devouring Itself The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Populism”. Psychology of Political and Everyday Extremisms, 2019. Accessed on September 29, 2019.

<31> Hoffman, F.G. “Will War’s Nature Change in the Seventh Military Revolution?” in Exploring War’s Character & Nature, Parameters 47(4) Winter 2017-18, p. 19-31.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Philip Reiner

Philip Reiner

Philip J. Reiner is the Executive Director of Technology for Global Security a non-profit network based in the Bay Area focused on solving international security ...

Read More +