Preventing Nuclear Conflict in Europe
In the Euro-Atlantic region today, the risks of a fateful error leading to nuclear conflict are compounded by heightened tensions between NATO and Russia – and little communication between military and political leaders. In the absence of some positive initiative, we will continue to drift toward danger.
MUNICH – When leaders from across the Euro-Atlantic region meet at the Munich Security Conference this week, the “win-lose” framework defining relations between Western countries and Russia will be entering its fifth year. The longer this continues, the tighter the resulting knot of distrust will become – and the greater the risk of the ultimate “lose-lose” scenario: a military conflict. We must work together to cut this knot, and now.
The four of us, and together with a group of former and current senior officials and experts from across the Euro-Atlantic region – the Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group (EASLG) – believe that, despite significant differences, the United States, Russia, and Europe can and must cooperate on areas of vital common interest. Together in Munich, we will be presenting and discussing our ideas to improve the security of all people living in the region, beginning with reducing nuclear and other military risks.
Reducing and eliminating nuclear risks is an existential interest that all countries share. We have entered a new era, in which a fateful error – triggered by an accident, miscalculation, or blunder – could trigger a nuclear catastrophe.
In the Euro-Atlantic region today, the risks of such an error are compounded by heightened tensions between NATO and Russia – and little communication between military and political leaders. In the absence of some positive initiative, we will continue to drift toward danger. In Munich, the EASLG will call on governments to work together to mitigate the risks of nuclear conflict.
First, leaders of the region’s nuclear weapons states should reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. Agreement on this principle would send an important message – that leaders recognize their responsibility to work together to prevent nuclear catastrophe – and could be a foundation for other practical steps to reduce the risks that such weapons pose.
Second, countries should work to preserve and extend existing agreements and treaties that are crucial to sustaining transparency and predictability. The demise of the arms control architecture will dramatically increase nuclear risks for all Europeans and indeed the world.
This year may be crucial. All countries in the Euro-Atlantic region have a shared interest in preserving the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and Russia, and should insist on full compliance by the parties to that agreement. Similarly, all countries in the Euro-Atlantic region have a stake in the full implementation of the 2010 US-Russia New START Treaty and its mutual extension through 2026.
Third, all countries should support full implementation of and strict compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. The JCPOA is a crucial bulwark against the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. We should be building on its success, not contemplating its termination. Actions by any country that precipitate the JCPOA’s demise or violate its terms will increase nuclear dangers in the region and weaken the international community’s ability to address nuclear dangers around the world.
Finally, we must recognize the hard truth that cyber capabilities transform nuclear risks by increasing the probability of accidents, miscalculations, or blunders. These risks are compounded by the potential for cyberattacks by state or non-state actors that lead to the theft of nuclear materials, sabotage to a nuclear facility, false warning of a missile attack, or intrusion into nuclear command-and-control systems.
In Munich, the EASLG will call on governments to work together to reach at least informal understandings about cyber dangers relating to nuclear facilities, strategic warning systems, and nuclear command and control. We must start by developing clear “rules of the road” to prevent the catastrophic consequences of a cyber attack on a nuclear facility or of a war launched by mistake.
The Euro-Atlantic region is confronting a range of significant issues today. But none should distract its governments from the urgent pursuit of practical steps to reduce real dangers. The steps we have identified here are the right place to begin; and we must begin now, before we can no longer prevent the final failure.
European Security in the Trump Era
In the first year of Donald Trump's presidency, the fear that he would abandon America's longstanding commitment to European security was not borne out. But that does not change the fact that Europe has entered a new world of hard-power conflicts in which it can no longer rely on others for its defense.
MUNICH – At last year’s Munich Security Conference, the mood of fear and apprehension among European security officials was palpable. Three years earlier, Russia had annexed Crimea and launched incursions into Eastern Ukraine. And in the previous year, a narrow majority of British voters had decided to take their country out of the European Union, and Americans had elected a president who was critical of NATO and openly admired Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Still, the West has so far survived the age of Donald Trump. And, despite the ongoing confusion over Brexit and German leaders’ difficulty in forming a new government, the EU seems to have bounced back. Most member states’ economies are doing well, and French President Emmanuel Macron’s administration is breathing new life into the European idea.
Although the Trump administration has continued to send mixed signals about its willingness to uphold American commitments, the US has nonetheless delivered on former President Barack Obama’s pledge to strengthen NATO’s military posture in the Baltics and Poland. And in the run-up to a NATO summit later this year, the US has indicated that it will do even more to ensure the territorial integrity of Baltic and Scandinavian member states.
Moreover, fears that Trump might try to forge a new Yalta-style agreement with the Kremlin – in which Eastern European countries would be abandoned to their fate – have all but disappeared. If anything, the greater concern now is that US-Russian relations are becoming increasingly acrimonious, even irrationally so.
Russia, meanwhile, seems eager to disengage its military from an intractable situation in Syria, where it has so far played its cards right. The same cannot be said for Ukraine, where the Kremlin has learned that invasions are not a good way to make friends. By alienating that country for generations to come, Russia has suffered a geopolitical setback of historic proportions.
Sooner or later, Russia will want to cut its losses and disengage from Eastern Ukraine, too. It has already floated the idea of a limited United Nations peacekeeping operation there. And while Russia has not yet expressed a willingness to cede control of the Ukraine-Russia border, nor made progress in talks with the US, Putin surely knows that the status quo is unsustainable.
Does all of this mean that the fears of a year ago have dissipated? Far from it. The strategic shocks of recent years have left deep and lasting wounds, and pushed Europe into new and uncharted waters. A decade ago, EU leaders talked confidently about projecting stability abroad. Today, their priority is to prevent instability from spilling over into Europe.
At the same time, there is a growing awareness that while the US is still the main guarantor of European security, it might not be forever. Even if some of the rhetoric accompanying proposals for an EU defense union has been vastly overblown, the bloc’s leaders are right to focus more on defense and security issues than they have in the past. Whether it is through “defense industrial policies” or something else, the EU needs to develop its capacity to marshal joint responses to future hard-power threats.
This is true even if the Kremlin has come to regret its actions in 2014, which led to Western military forces being deployed on its borders. After all, Russia is still holding on to Crimea, where it has long maintained key military bases. And, apart from Russia, Europe is surrounded by ongoing conflicts. Tensions are increasing from the Indus to the Nile and across North Africa, where any turmoil will have an immediate impact on European security. As Europeans well know, there is no way to build a wall in the Mediterranean.
Moreover, it is worrying that the Trump administration hardly ever talks about upholding the post-war liberal international order. Instead, it views the world as a zero-sum strategic competition in which the US should look out only for itself. Unfortunately, in a world without common institutions to restrain sovereign states from escalating conflicts with one another, the risks of all-out war will increase substantially.
To be sure, the US says that it is stepping up its commitment to European security. But, given China’s growing military might and the strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific region, the US will have no choice but to pivot to the East. In fact, despite all of Trump’s complaints about America’s oversized contribution to NATO, the US already directs the bulk of its military spending to the Asia-Pacific region.
So, while the immediate fears of 2017 have subsided, and some sense of normality has returned, Europeans can no longer avoid taking responsibility for their own defense. Even after Trump is long gone, soft power will not suffice in a world of hard-power conflicts.
The Social Media Threat to Society and Security
It takes significant effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called the freedom of mind. And there is a real chance that, once lost, those who grow up in the digital age – in which the power to command and shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies – will have difficulty regaining it.
MUNICH – The current moment in world history is a painful one. Open societies are in crisis, and various forms of dictatorships and mafia states, exemplified by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, are on the rise. In the United States, President Donald Trump would like to establish his own mafia-style state but cannot, because the Constitution, other institutions, and a vibrant civil society won’t allow it.
Not only is the survival of open society in question; the survival of our entire civilization is at stake. The rise of leaders such as Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Trump in the US have much to do with this. Both seem willing to risk a nuclear war in order to keep themselves in power. But the root cause goes even deeper. Mankind’s ability to harness the forces of nature, both for constructive and destructive purposes, continues to grow, while our ability to govern ourselves properly fluctuates, and is now at a low ebb.
The rise and monopolistic behavior of the giant American Internet platform companies is contributing mightily to the US government’s impotence. These companies have often played an innovative and liberating role. But as Facebook and Google have grown ever more powerful, they have become obstacles to innovation, and have caused a variety of problems of which we are only now beginning to become aware.
Companies earn their profits by exploiting their environment. Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment. This is particularly nefarious, because these companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it. This interferes with the functioning of democracy and the integrity of elections.
Because Internet platform companies are networks, they enjoy rising marginal returns, which accounts for their phenomenal growth. The network effect is truly unprecedented and transformative, but it is also unsustainable. It took Facebook eight and a half years to reach a billion users, and half that time to reach the second billion. At this rate, Facebook will run out of people to convert in less than three years.
Facebook and Google effectively control over half of all digital advertising revenue. To maintain their dominance, they need to expand their networks and increase their share of users’ attention. Currently they do this by providing users with a convenient platform. The more time users spend on the platform, the more valuable they become to the companies.
Moreover, because content providers cannot avoid using the platforms and must accept whatever terms they are offered, they, too, contribute to the profits of social media companies. Indeed, the exceptional profitability of these companies is largely a function of their avoiding responsibility – and payment – for the content on their platforms.
The companies claim that they are merely distributing information. But the fact that they are near-monopoly distributors makes them public utilities and should subject them to more stringent regulation, aimed at preserving competition, innovation, and fair and open access.
Social media companies’ true customers are their advertisers. But a new business model is gradually emerging, based not only on advertising but also on selling products and services directly to users. They exploit the data they control, bundle the services they offer, and use discriminatory pricing to keep more of the benefits that they would otherwise have to share with consumers. This enhances their profitability even further, but the bundling of services and discriminatory pricing undermine the efficiency of the market economy.
Social media companies deceive their users by manipulating their attention, directing it toward their own commercial purposes, and deliberately engineering addiction to the services they provide. This can be very harmful, particularly for adolescents.
There is a similarity between Internet platforms and gambling companies. Casinos have developed techniques to hook customers to the point that they gamble away all of their money, even money they don’t have.
Something similar – and potentially irreversible – is happening to human attention in our digital age. This is not a matter of mere distraction or addiction; social media companies are actually inducing people to surrender their autonomy. And this power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies.
It takes significant effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called the freedom of mind. Once lost, those who grow up in the digital age may have difficulty regaining it.
This would have far-reaching political consequences. People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated. This danger does not loom only in the future; it already played an important role in the 2016 US presidential election.
There is an even more alarming prospect on the horizon: an alliance between authoritarian states and large, data-rich IT monopolies, bringing together nascent systems of corporate surveillance with already-developed systems of state-sponsored surveillance. This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even George Orwell could have imagined.
The countries in which such unholy marriages are likely to occur first are Russia and China. Chinese IT companies in particular are fully equal to the US platforms. They also enjoy the full support and protection of President Xi Jinping’s regime. China’s government is strong enough to protect its national champions, at least within its borders.
US-based IT monopolies are already tempted to compromise themselves in order to gain entrance to these vast and fast-growing markets. These countries’ dictatorial leaders may be only too happy to collaborate with them, in the interest of improving their methods of control over their own populations and expanding their power and influence in the United States and the rest of the world.
There is also a growing recognition of a connection between the dominance of the platform monopolies and rising inequality. The concentration of share ownership in the hands of a few individuals plays some role, but the peculiar position occupied by the IT giants is even more important. They have achieved monopoly power while also competing against one another. Only they are big enough to swallow start-ups that could develop into competitors, and only they have the resources to invade one another’s territory.
The owners of the platform giants consider themselves the masters of the universe. In fact, they are slaves to preserving their dominant position. They are engaged in an existential struggle to dominate the new growth areas that artificial intelligence is opening up, like driverless cars.
The impact of such innovations on unemployment depends on government policies. The European Union, and particularly the Nordic countries, are much more farsighted than the United States in their social policies. They protect the workers, not the jobs. They are willing to pay for retraining or retiring displaced workers. This gives workers in Nordic countries a greater sense of security and makes them more supportive of technological innovations than workers in the US.
The Internet monopolies have neither the will nor the inclination to protect society against the consequences of their actions. That turns them into a public menace, and it is the regulatory authorities’ responsibility to protect society against them. In the US, regulators are not strong enough to stand up to the monopolies’ political influence. The EU is better positioned, because it doesn’t have any platform giants of its own.
The EU uses a different definition of monopoly power from the US. Whereas US law enforcement focuses primarily on monopolies created by acquisition, EU law prohibits the abuse of monopoly power regardless of how it is achieved. Europe has much stronger privacy and data protection laws than America.
Moreover, US law has adopted a strange doctrine that measures harm as an increase in the price paid by customers for services received. But that is almost impossible to prove, given that most giant Internet platforms provide a majority of their services for free. Moreover, the doctrine leaves out of consideration the valuable data that platform companies collect from their users.
The EU Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager is the champion of the European approach. It took the EU seven years to build a case against Google. But, as a result of its success, the process of instituting adequate regulation has been greatly accelerated. Moreover, thanks to Vestager’s efforts, the European approach has begun to affect attitudes in the US.
It is only a matter of time before the global dominance of the US Internet companies is broken. Regulation and taxation, spearheaded by Vestager, will be their undoing.