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The Warring 20s: Reflecting on how cyberspace has impacted foreign policy and where it is headed

Lilly Gibson-Dougall | Cyber Security Fellow

In the lead up to a new year, our social media feeds are filled with reflections on the year and decade that was. While we can easily grow bored of sentiment, it’s important to take stock of how the fields of international relations and foreign policy have changed over the past year, decade, and since the turn of the millennium. One of the biggest disruptors has been the rapid expansion of technology (particularly the internet), causing major changes to the scope of foreign policy, as well as to the way in which it is being conducted and communicated. Taking the time to discuss some of these changes can assist us in determining what the next year and decade will hold.

As the new millennium approached in 1999, the world panicked about the looming chaos of the Y2K bug. As business computers had gradually been introduced into industry in the latter half of the 20th century, dates had been abbreviated to the month and year only; the century was omitted. A number of issues emerged affecting a range of industries, with panic mounting the closer the world got to the year 2000. While significant investment and attention from both IT specialists and politicians across the globe meant that catastrophe was avoided, this is unlikely to be the last cyber-related issue the world will face that will require coordinated global action by governments; in fact cyber-related issues are likely to only increase in complexity throughout the next decade.

The year 2020 also signals the 10th anniversary of the discovery of Stuxnet, one of the most destructive and widespread computer viruses. The virus was created with the aim of sabotaging centrifuges at the Iranian Natanz enrichment plant, but rather than taking over targeted computers or stealing information from them, it could also wreak physical destruction on equipment the computers controlled. Since Stuxnet, we’ve seen a significant increase in cyber-warfare being conducted, with nations such as China and Russia leading the charge. Earlier this year, Chatham House reported that both China and Russia had prioritised electronic warfare, cyber-attacks and superiority within the electromagnetic battle-space, and may have sought to disrupt the military satellite network of the US to hamper its communicative abilities. The next decade is likely to show further advancement in the capacity of cyber-warfare and its uses as part of a nation’s foreign policy toolkit.

Added to that, the explosion of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have had a significant impact on how foreign policy is being conducted and communicated. Barely a day goes past without a tweet from US President Trump in which he shares not only his personal views, but also the position of the United States on various foreign policy issues. The impact of this cannot be denied, with governments left scrambling to respond to developments occurring in real time. A recent example of this involved the communications between the US and Iran following the death of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. In times past, these discussions would have occurred behind closed doors, through diplomatic channels. Today, it appears these channels are becoming more public. Over the next decade, we are likely to see an overall increase in foreign policy and diplomacy being conducted via social media, as other political leaders seek to capitalise on its wide audience and speed of communication in this context.

Although each of these points address different cyber-related issues, we can clearly see the significant impact technology has had on the scope of foreign policy, and on the way in which foreign policy is being conducted and communicated. As we move into the next decade, we shouldn’t forget how these early events shaped the future of the relationship between the internet and the practice of foreign policy.

Lilly Gibson-Dougall is the Cyber Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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