New Leaders Forum

Adapting to a Porous World

The past 12 months have underscored how technology is creating a new, and very real, political and social space.

The second Singapore Global Dialogue, held late last month, saw much public debate over the new world order and global governance. The meeting took place at a time when events over the past 12 months have highlighted how cyberspace has become a defining factor in international politics. 

The release of US State Department diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks was only the most notable example of the potential influence of cyberspace on global politics. Likewise, the announcement in July by the US Defence Department that it will be developing strategies for operating in cyberspace highlighted the extent to which cyberspace now constitutes an operational domain in matters of national security.
But while governments and businesses have invested much in trying to shore up their cyber defences, it appears that these institutions are less savvy in coming to grips with the new socio-political environment they exist in.

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According to Matthew Armstrong, executive director of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, the changing information and human environment has shaped the way communities relate with each other. Older forms of thinking, which assume territorial boundaries and bureaucratic control as fundamental to political governance, are being replaced by alternative social and political configurations. As Armstrong put it: ‘Today’s world of communication has increasingly porous boundaries (resulting in) the formation of new forms of non-national diasporas.’
For years, debates over the role of the nation state on the Internet have been distorted by wrong assumptions. On the one hand, some saw cyberspace as inherently anarchical and resistant to governance and authority. Yet the idea that the Internet should be an unregulated free-for-all is misguided – it would be like a game of football with no referee and no rules.
What could be termed ‘realists,‘ on the other hand, place too much emphasis on the power and dominance of states, and typically assess cyberspace only on the merits of its functional use (such as engaging in cyber warfare against another nation, or generating support for a political party).
Tied to this, in the Asia-Pacific there’s a tendency to view security in terms of  ‘hard power’ (military might, economic indicators) and to neglect the ‘soft power’ potential of ideas and values.
With this in mind, more could be done in the region to encourage greater cooperation and interaction not just along military lines, but also along ideational ones. Scholars have noted, for instance, that post-World War II core military alliances – in particular between the United States and its allies – have been based around ideas as much as material benefits. Shared values such as rule of law, open markets and civil liberties provide the ideological underpinnings for trust and strong relationships. The rise of China as a global power suggests that at least some of these ideas may be superseded by those espoused by Beijing, such as the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. If tensions are to be avoided, greater sensitivity needs to be paid to the content of these ideas and how best to negotiate the differences that exist between Western and Asian thought.

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Second, as events in the Middle East have shown, the Internet has facilitated the formation of groups that have in turn leveraged cyberspace to promote their own revolutionary ideas. Formal civic associations appear to be on the decline, and are being replaced by more informal organizations characterized by loose coalitions and ad hoc movements. This doesn’t mean state institutions don’t matter anymore – the absence of formal institutional structures would give birth to other surrogate authorities. But governments may want to think about cost-effective, non-military strategies for pursuing their core interests.
Third, it’s clear that more attention needs to be paid to domestic politics in the Asia-Pacific, and how this affects foreign policy. The rise of social media as a political instrument has contributed to significant political change, as seen in the outcome of elections in countries including Malaysia in 2008 and Singapore this year, where the ruling party saw its traditionally iron grip weakened. Future elections may see the further erosion of support for incumbents, pressure that could help reshape foreign policy.
The proliferation of new communication technologies has created an actual social space in which political matters are conducted, a reality that governments and policy makers will increasingly have to learn to live with. While the nature of political life is unlikely to be radically altered (states will, after all, continue to pursue their own interests), the structures are shifting dramatically. Governments should take heed and adapt.
Benjamin Ho is an Associate Research Fellow with the Multilateralism Studies Centre at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore