21st Century Statecraft and Contemporary Instruments of National Power

Strategic Insight 004/2022

Lydia Kostopoulos

03 November 2022


The global state of political, economic, technological and social affairs has been experiencing an accelerated period of dynamic change since the turn of the 21st Century. These changes are impacting the manner in which statecraft is conducted and influencing how and what is employable as an instrument of national power.

The World That No Longer Is: A Globe of One Power

The end of the 20th Century saw an end to the Cold War which placed the world in two camps (American or Soviet) in favour of democracy or communism, and one where the fear of nuclear weapons drove political decisions. Almost a quarter into the 21st Century, we find ourselves in a completely different world. One of a broader range of governance structures and a rise in multi-polarity.

Notable changes, which affect statecraft and the instruments of power, are the rise in multipolarity and global nation state power dynamics away from an exclusive state-centric perspective as well as the rise of big tech influence in the international arena once only privy to nation states. These changes have occurred alongside a decline of the rules-based international order and a rise of alternative non-state coalitions constituting the private sector, non-governmental organisations as well as super-empowered individuals. Countries pursue their national interests and exercise their sovereignty through various forms of partnerships based on geographic proximity (for example, ASEAN), trade interests (for example, BRICs) or interest-based communities (QUAD countries). There are increasing calls for reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) which currently represents a power structure of a different era and Century. In a recent meeting of the G4, they released a joint press statement noting that “The G4 Ministers assessed that today’s conflicts around the globe as well as increasingly complex and interconnected global challenges have brought to the forefront the urgency of reforming the United Nations and updating its main decision-making bodies.” They advocate for India, Germany, Brazil and Japan to be included in the UNSC.

The reform of key international institutions such as the UN so that nation states can more effectively work on global problem sets is needed to preserve the integrity of multilateralism. However, if it is to reflect contemporary power structures and entities that play a role in mitigating and solving some of the most pressing global issues such as cybersecurity, climate change and water scarcity – then these institutions should embrace the diversity of players needed to solve collective problems and understand that these players may reside within and outside of national boundaries.

The state-centric Westphalian model of nation states as the only actors in the international arena is part of a world that no longer is. As we are a few years shy of completing the first quarter of the 21st Century, it is important to recognise the international role that multinational companies play in the international economy – particularly big tech companies whose algorithms govern the information we are exposed to, much of our economy and whose digital territory we inhabit during most of our day through social media, cloud storage, operating systems and cloud services that is the contemporary silk roads in which our labour market, marketplace and economies engage in.  The rise of nation state diplomats whose role it is to interface with technology companies is an important step in recognizing that nation states need to have direct and official channels of communication with big tech companies.

The 4th Industrial Revolution and 21st Century Weapons

We have recently entered the era of the 4th Industrial Revolution which is one characterised by a convergence of multiple technologies, namely AI, big data, sensors, Internet of things, synthetic biology, robotics, and quantum computing, among others. In short, this is the convergence of cyberspace and our physical world – something that is already taking shape all around us.

In this new Century we are already witnessing a range of new types of weapons and with it a new set of emerging techniques, tactics and procedures for decisive actions. Similarly, there are new stakes that are different from a pre-Internet era. The 4th Industrial Revolution, and the context we live in today, is far from the battles of World War II and the mindset of the Cold War. Yet the strategic weapons of a bygone era are very much still with us. While still politically relevant, nuclear weapons were created in the past Century during a different technological era. Mutually Assured Destruction through the use of nuclear weapons was a tit-for-tat deterrent mechanism to assert power in the political arena. This Cold War era deterrent that prevented war between the United States and the Soviet Union seems antiquated in today’s world of Internet ubiquity and dependence on cyberspace.

Today, a cyber attack can cause much more political, social and economic harm than a nuclear weapon could – a new form of Mutually Assured Destruction in a league of its own. The reality of warfare today is the rise of algorithmically-enabled warfare; the use of drones and swarms exemplified for instance through the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh conflict to decisively gain territory and advantage; the use of influence campaigns; the employment of cyber offensive actions on strategic and tactical targets; anti-satellite weapons particularly those that only cause non-kinetic and temporary jamming to name a few of the main technologies at the leading edge of warfare and conflict today.

Despite the evolution of military strategies and tactics, many militaries continue to invest in hypersonic weapons as part of their military toolkit. These are essentially investments in a contemporary weapon system produced from an antiquated deterrent mindset. Russia is the first country to develop hypersonic glide vehicles, and since then other countries have followed Russia’s lead in the costly development of a weapon which evades radar systems. If it were not for Russia’s advancements in hypersonic glide vehicles – would the U.S., China, India, Australia, Japan, Germany, and North Korea care about pursuing hypersonics?

The value of these systems in today’s contemporary battlefields and in relation to their substantial development costs remains to be seen. Creating another Cold War era strategic weapon in an era of algorithmic warfare, swarms, cyber offensive activities, anti-satellite weapons and nuclear weapon modernisation seems like a new form of weapons one-upmanship that is too costly for the current global fiscal environment, unless the intention of the first country to create them is to deplete the military financial resources of other countries in a hypersonic arms race.

Hypersonic glide vehicles, just like nuclear weapons, are a Cold War era style kinetic weapon of political coercion and influence – it has no place in today’s world, especially where a concerted and targeted cyber attack can turn off an entire economy and its core critical infrastructures such as electricity and water.

Yet, military structures and doctrine have predominantly been created and designed for warfare in the 2nd Industrial Revolution. Just like every other industry affected by new technologies, the military must adapt.

Welcome to Statecraft in the 21st Century

It is time to recognise that the 20th Century has ended and let go of World War II era forms of organising militaries. There is a need to let go of costly weapons and military programs which do not have decisive impact in 21st Century conflict and pull precious resources away from weapons programs that cannot demonstrate decisive effects at the tactical, operational or strategic level.

It is time to embrace new ways of conducting warfare and reorient military formations and military technologies to be fit for purpose, update national narratives to embrace new technologies without ceding sovereign power to combat the security challenges of the 21st Century.

Dr. Lydia Kostopoulos is Senior Vice President of Emerging Tech Insights at KnowBe4. She is a multi-disciplinary professional whose expertise lies at the intersection of strategy, security and emerging technologies. Dr. Kostopoulos brings a systems thinking approach to her work, examining technology opportunities and risks in the context of global macro trends, geopolitics, international economics, climatic factors and demographic change. She continues to work with U.S. Special Operations, speaks at NATO events and has worked with the United Nations and the IEEE Standards Body. On 7 September 2022, Dr. Kostopoulos provided a briefing at the Azure Forum’s informal fireside briefing series on: ‘Hypersonic Weapons, Deterrence and Strategic Stability’.

The Azure Forum is a nonpartisan, independent research organisation. In all instances, the Azure Forum retains independence over its research and editorial discretion with respect to outputs, reports, and recommendations. The Azure Forum does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all author views should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).