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Weaponizing Globalization: Hybrid Warfare in the 21st Century


In his 1992 book, “The end of history and the last man”, Francis Fukuyama postulates that the global spread of liberal democracy, coupled with the fall of the Soviet Union, represents a turning point in history. This “end of history” envisions the attainment of an endpoint in the development of ideology and governance due to liberal democracies’ ability to effectively govern and deter potentially catastrophic conventional warfare. However, Fukuyama’s belief that the spread of liberal democracies would lead to a world where nations bound by networks of trade and culture would no longer engage in conflict has been contested by events in the 21st century. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlights that conventional warfare remains a possibility, but still represents a deviation from the norm when considering the rarity of large-scale armed conflict in recent history. Contrastingly, widespread trade wars, data theft, and attempts at election manipulation by foreign state actors highlight that conflict, manifested in new, unconventional types of warfare, still plays a predominant role in the modern climate of international relations.

To this effect, given the relative rarity of conventional conflict in the modern age, this article concerns itself with conflict of an unconventional nature, which has been associated with the term hybrid warfare. In the words of the US Joint Force Command, a hybrid threat can be represented by "any adversary that simultaneously and adaptively employs a tailored mix of conventional, irregular, terrorism and criminal means or activities in the operational battle space. Rather than a single entity, a hybrid threat or challenger may be a combination of state and nonstate actors”. In this definition, conventional means refer to the use of hard power, associated with military activities, while irregular entails exercising soft power in various ways, including economic warfare, election manipulation, mass propaganda dissemination, and psychological operations.

Hybrid warfare is a topic of vast historical and operational complexity, of which a complete picture would require an ample discussion unsuitable for the length of this article. As a result, this article will focus less on this topic and rather on how modern society is organized in such a way that invites opportunities for hybrid warfare. This type of warfare may in many cases be as detrimental from a human security standpoint as the easily publicized conventional wars of the world. For this purpose, the following paragraphs will represent a short synthesis of ideas from “The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Breeds Conflict” by Mark Leonard, who is the director and co-founder of the European Council on Foreign Relations. In this volume, Leonard condenses his experience working on foreign policy across multiple think tanks to formulate a view of the modern connected society as one that is conducive to conflict through irregular or unconventional means.

As such, he argues that the current organization of society creates multiple opportunities for conflict. The main element of this social organization is reflected in technological advancement, which has changed the fundamental tenets of society by bringing both people and nations closer to one another, be it through social media or international transport networks. This technological advancement is catalyzed through liberalization, where free market societies drive technological progress through their competitive nature. Moreover, the open nature of liberal democracies allows for international trade that creates relationships of dependency between nations, which may facilitate easier interference of foreign state-actors that wish to conduct hybrid warfare operations.

Outside of the opportunity for irregular operations, there are a number of grievances, which Leonard envisions at the individual level, that can be exploited in the conduction of unconventional warfare. Firstly, he emphasized that social networks and international marketing campaigns have given rise to an epidemic of envy. Compared to as recently as the 1980s, one’s economic level was not strongly correlated with their life satisfaction. This means that the average person in an underdeveloped nation was as happy as one in a developed one. Now, surveys indicate that economic health is tied to happiness as people all over the world perceive themselves as more deprived given that they compare themselves to people in other nations rather than in their own communities. This deprivation is not just perceived, but also numerically true as wealth inequality has taken on an increasingly severe nature. In the US, the top 1% earned 12% of total market income in 1979. In 2016, this number was 20%, and has only seen growth during the coronavirus pandemic, where already large international corporations experienced logistical advantages that allowed them to fare much better than smaller business entities. Contrastingly, the bottom 50% of earners in the US equated 20% of total market income in 1979. Since then, the number has gone down to 13% in 2016. While liberalization has led to an overall growth in wealth through the expansion of the middle-class, lower-class households have seen greater economic difficulties, while top earners have become increasingly richer.

Secondly, automatization of various processes through technology compromises human agency. The increasing utilization of artificial intelligence (AI) leads to segregation by employment of logical patterns. The Western doctrine of surveillance capitalism, where corporations are free to subject personal data to algorithms to maximize ad revenue and internet activity, is a main culprit in the segregation of people by ideology, commercial preferences, and race. Rivalries between search engine software companies have led to an intense refinement of their AI, further pushing browser results to reflect individuals’ algorithmically deducted ideologies and preferences. Leonard connects these AI algorithms to increased political polarization as groups of people are more easily connected to others of their ilk. These patterns of targeted connectivity breed differences at the societal level as they instill a tribal mentality that pushes people towards rapidly identifying others as part of the in-group, or the out-group. As people rely on dating apps, they subject themselves to the preferences these apps envision for them. In the US, 98% of white men marry white women, while 96% of black men marry black women. Marriages also tend to happen between people of similar income and educational levels. This shows that on the racial, educational, and economic levels, mating patterns are not leading to a homogenization of American society.

On the political level, in 1960, 5% of Americans would have been displeased if their child dated someone of a differing political ideology. In 2010, 30% of democrats and 50% of republicans would be displeased if their child dated outside their parents’ political ideology. As such, indicators of societal homogenization in the US are lacking, while indicators of political polarization are abundant. Structures of segregation which were sought to be dissolved for a more equal America have not encountered much change. Additionally, the internet allows like-minded people to mobilize and engage in violent action with relative ease. This has led to a new phenomenon, where majorities such as white Americans behave as what is called a “threatened majority”, acting in ways normally associated with repressed minorities, such as rioting and attempted coups. In Europe, the appearance of a connected, peaceful congregation of nations is not reflected in opinion surveys, where 28% of Europeans believed war between European nations was possible.

The above paragraphs have succinctly communicated the opportunity, as well as some of the grievances, visualized at the individual level, that Mark Leonard identifies as inviting conflict between nations through hybrid warfare. To this effect, how can hybrid warfare be waged? The below section will provide some short examples of recent operations of unconventional warfare.


  • After Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24M fighter jet that infiltrated Turkish airspace in 2015, Russia stopped all fruit and vegetable imports from Turkey, halted sales of vacation packages to Turkey, and abolished visa-free travel between the two nations. An expected 3 million prospective Russian travelers did not visit Turkey that year, and the bilateral trade of the two nations went down to 45% of its level in the previous year. The operation cost Turkey as much as $15 billion.

  • After concerns that Chinese companies were harvesting user data through the software installed on exported products, the US stopped chip exports to ZTE and Huawei in 2018. China attempted to resist the operation by facilitating ways through which Huawei could sidestep the sanction and continue procuring chips, which has led to even tighter US controls.


  • The One Belt, One Road initiative started by Xi Jinping in 2013 is a massive infrastructural project meant to connect China with faraway cities in an attempt to set up a monopoly on trade deals by means of logistical ease with nations in China and as far as Europe. Note here that this initiative may simply be perceived as a large foreign investment. However, it takes on the form of unconventional warfare when perceived as an attempt to cut economic opportunities from Western rivals.


  • China’s employment of hackers to compromise Western intellectual property. One such case concerns Zhu Hua, nicknamed the “God Killer”, who legally operates out of a Tianjin company believed to be a mere front for the Chinese Ministry of State Security. He is charged with intellectual property theft of 45 Western companies from the commercial and defense sectors, as well as the theft of 100.000 US Navy personnel’s personal data. Overall, the FBI estimates that 90% of cases of economic espionage, as well as 66% of those concerning theft of trade secrets, are connected to China.


  • In 2015, Turkey weaponized waves of immigration by threatening to release 3 million refugees towards Europe if it did not receive a number of concessions. Through this maneuver, Turkey earned 6 billion Euros, visa liberalization, and was permitted to take initiatory steps towards joining the EU.


  • The differences between Tik Tok within the West and in China (through its counterpart, Douyin) have raised several developmental concerns for children and teenagers. While Chinese Tik Tok occupies users’ feeds with messages of human achievement, art, and self-improvement, Western Tik Tok fills feeds with directionless humor, various trends and calls for consumerism through subtle advertising. This has raised concerns in the way that the Tik Tok algorithm in the West is being actively manipulated to deter users’ attention from self-realization and improving themselves, and more towards the instillment of addictive behavioral patterns through the rapid exposition of short, palatable humor and other entertainment. At the same time, China would be doing the exact opposite: promoting productivity among their population, while discouraging it for ours.

The above article has highlighted some ideas and examples extracted from Mark Leonard’s book, which represents an acclaimed volume from a highly respected political scientist. The important take-away is that although classical wars are no longer widely waged, suffering is still perpetuated worldwide through international clashes of interests, and through the economic and cultural races that nations participate in. It is important to consider the social costs of new types of warfare, be they economic, informational, or psychological to construct a new ethics of conducting warfare. The purpose of this article has been to provide a minimalist introduction to current societal trends that generate segregation and conflict, as well as some of the methods such grievances can be exploited by capitalizing on technology, or immigration waves, among other things. For further reading, I recommend Mark Leonard’s volume, or “The Weaponization of Everything: A Field Guide to the New Way of War”, by Mark Galeotti.

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