Global Perspectives - Antonia Colibasanu

This is an excerpt of an essay on the topic, published here.

Digital power embraces and enhances the three dimensions that traditionally define national power — political, economic, and military. In order to establish how nation-states build digital power, it is essential to understand the developing factors for the digital environment and the way states facilitate, use, or impede evolution in the sector.

While the internet remains an important component of cyberspace, networked technologies that allow industrial machines to communicate with each other and with their operators are the defining features of the fourth industrial revolution that cyberspace now encompasses. It is these technologies that bring competitive advantages to nation states. Their goal is to increase efficiency, reduce downtime, and monitor quality. The way countries support innovation and promote technological advances, forging dependencies among themselves, will help shape geopolitical trends. Digitalization starts by affecting the economics of a country, forcing it to adapt its policies.

In early July, German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Sigmar Gabriel called for a European company or consortium to step up and buy robotics manufacturer KUKA AG after China’s Midea put up a $5 billion bid for the German company on May 18. Gabriel’s main concern is that sensitive data could get into the hands of the Chinese government, as Midea is expected to receive funds under the “Made in China 2025” program, which emphasizes digitalized production, and thus to collaborate closely with the government. Midea’s acquisition of KUKA is also being seen as a move by a Chinese company to tap into Germany’s significant expertise in industrial and high-end manufacturing. Should China be able to replicate German success in heavy and high-end industrial manufacturing, it would represent a significant step in China’s manufacturing evolution and would undermine German export competitiveness. Gabriel’s comments were echoed by those of European Commissioner for Digital Economy Gunther Oettinger. But China is one of Germany’s main trading partners, so there is a limit to what Germany can say about the potential transaction.

Current dependencies stand at the basis of future ones, and the German call for keeping the robotics manufacturer at home relates to a structural change in what are considered essential resources for securing development and growth. Human intellectual capital was understood to be essential for economic progress in the early 2000s. Now that idea is being enforced, and to it is added the technological element. The factors defining national competitive advantage emphasize the importance of access to digitalized data, and ultimately, to digitalized knowledge. Thus, the state’s economic power is defined by various international dependencies and its own digital innovation efficiency rate.

Beyond trying to keep innovation at home so that it can advance the national economy, states have ways to politically influence the way cyberspace develops, increasing a state’s political power through digitization. Cyberspace is not only a constantly new environment but also a completely free, in part lawless space. In this sense, countries — and other global actors such as corporations or civil society — have discovered a newfound independence in cyberspace, interpreting it as an area where they can build and use tools that are either not functional in the physical space or not suited to it.

Political power is the capacity to influence, condition, and control human behavior with the aim of accomplishing political objectives. With humans being the most important component of cyberspace, it is clear why, even though full control is impossible, seeking ways to influence and eventually control the new environment has become an imperative for nation-states. States have found ways to filter the information available to citizens, and they can propose policy and legislation regulating the telecommunication and trade sectors, which are intrinsically linked to the digital world. Copyright enforcement regulation is another tool the government can use. The policies states develop to support innovation contain control elements — state funding for new technologies implies that the state has direct access to the production of such technologies. Direct communication and coordination with innovators gives governments more knowledge on potential technological advances.

States Embedded in the Digital System

In essence, the state needs to develop its ability to understand the industrial digital (r)evolution, so that it is able to govern accordingly. The accessibility of cyberspace, which gives more power to the individual in democracies, could also empower central administrations. The binary language universally used for programming works across many varied operating systems. It is therefore the system developers that give meaning to the IT language — and it is those developers who set the cyberspace culture. The nation-state’s culture is often embedded in the operating system. For example, Russia is seeking to increase its independence from American technology by 2025, hoping that non-Russian mobile operating systems will account for just 50 percent of total usage by then. Russia’s minister of communications has made explicit Moscow’s support for local mobile operating system developers since 2015. Such a move is not unique, nor is it casual. National interest and culture go together, and as the digital age shifts cultures, states need to adapt, understanding and building on digital governance to serve national interests.

 

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