The Old New Cold War
Cloaked by COVID-19 support, something troubling is happening. Cold War style soft power politics are being played, with nations making ostentatious displays of aid, or seizing medical supplies meant for others. This is the world stage, everyone is watching, and they will remember.
Rapidly changing geopolitical power dynamics, combined with troubled federal response, has allowed for Cold War style soft power plays within Western countries. This is no longer the purview of just nationstates: it’s everyone from plutocrats, oligarchs, hackers, online influencers and Etsy makers. On the nationstate level, Russia and China are donating aid to Italy, American states are competing with each other and negotiating directly with China for basic critical medical supplies. State governors are openly praising1 Chinese diplomats and plutocrats while the
US government steals medical equipment from its own states, and the WHO first ignored2 Taiwan and then erased them (a deference to China that even the Washington Post3 has adopted). This sort of Cold War politicking used to happen in Lebanon or Somalia, now it’s happening in New York and Massachusetts.
How Did We Get Here?
Online influence operations, including disinformation campaigns, changed the way that nationstates interact with each other (see
Pablo Breuer’s work on the new instruments of national power, aka
DIME models. Weakened nationstates like America that rely on power projection and had old unfixed fault lines across its population are particularly vulnerable; now we’re seeing nationstates moving in on the back of those campaigns, using aid the same way nations did during the Cold War, collecting allegiances and footholds whilst the last century’s big player is
too distracted to play, mixing “hearts and minds” physical moves with influence to change the balance of the world.
There has to be a balance of power, or we’re all at the mercy of a handful of people halfway around the world. China plays the long game, Russia is opportunistic, and Europe is suffering another of a series of potentially Union busting crises.
Collectively, we can handle these issues by getting ahead of other ongoing and future emergencies around the world such as PPE, food availability, and economic instability. We need to push back against influence operations and see and manage these as part of a larger whole.
We must also do what we can to mitigate the potential massive loss of life in less-equipped countries (makers – I hope you weren’t just designing for the US?) because it’s the right thing to do, and because providing medical equipment and PPE to other countries keeps them from becoming infection hotspots for the rest of the world.
How You Can Help
In case you think that’s just words, hell no. Now’s your chance to step up.
Makers, hackers, disinfo experts, data scientists, friends running mutual aid networks: we’re all part of a massive grassroots effort to connect up and help protect each country as best we can. Countries are territory. Countries are people. Countries are image and power projections. Whatever is happening at the top of each country, it’s never greater than the people underneath it.
It’s time to see and be seen.
- Data scientists: you can help with the “see”: when you see stories about milk being poured away, start mapping dairies, trucks, processing plants and transport routes – rinse, repeat for everything you see that looks ‘wrong’.
- Disinformation experts – understand that your role isn’t just to find the campaigns, but also to understand where the ‘good’ information is, and amplify it through local and crisis teams.
- Makers – also think about whether your designs can be adapted for places with limited resources.
- Mutual aid people: think about your local information environments and whether you can improve them (there are still concerted efforts to damage local news environments with e.g. fake local news sites – you might be one of the few strong voices in your area).
- Hackers: carry on doing your thing.
Someone said earlier that we’ve all been sent to our room to think about what we’ve done. We’ve had a think, now let’s get shit done!