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war in Iraq came at a strange moment in technological history. The 21st century
saw mass proliferation of affordable cellular telephony, altering not simply
the way people kept in touch, but did business and waged war. For the U.S.
military, cell phones posed a potentially dangerous problem. In addition to
enabling a new generation of remotely-controlled IEDs, they helped insurgents
coordinate larger and more complex groups, extending mobile C3 to any group
with a tower in range and minutes bought.
Yet, as Jacob Shapiro and Nils Weidman argue in a fascinating study, booming cellphone use cut against insurgencies. Rather than enabling more IED attacks, they made it easier for civilians to inform on insurgents. Cellphones could even fill gaps in counterinsurgent communication networks while exposing insurgent communications to U.S. superiority in electronic warfare. Looking at a systemic level rather than narrowly at one actor’s applications of a technology, mobile telephony’s expansion more likely helped than hindered counterinsurgents.
The dynamic between new technology, conflict, and social systems frequently lends itself to oversimplification. Cell phones neither made nor broke U.S. operations in Iraq, and although the Taliban appears to recognize their threat, they do not determine the course of the war there either. Despite the rapidly proliferating quantity and falling price of many new technologies, technical military dominance remains and incredibly expensive affair.
While it is not incredibly difficult to probe the DoD’s cybersecurity or even penetrate its networks, launching computer network attacks sophisticated enough to significantly degrade the U.S.’s overwhelming strength requires not just a built-up IT infrastructure for computer network attack, but a wide spectrum of electronic warfare capabilities and enough conventional punch to exploit the gap. Even in these scenarios, states such as China, Russia, the U.S. and Israel continue to enjoy massive advantages over non-state groups and poor or weak states when it comes to information warfare. The costs in human and technological capital significantly mitigates the disruptive effects of the technology.
Similarly, with remotely-operated and robotic weapons, rudimentary capabilities vastly proliferated but constraints remain on their ability to substitute for or supplement inadequate conventional capability. Basic, cost-intensive issues of physics and logistics, such as size, payload, and the availability of military-grade air-launched munitions limit the lethality of “personal” aerial drones, while even state actors without adequate C4ISR infrastructure or the conventional means to enable drone operations will find it difficult to radically change their means.
It should be unsurprising that until the mid-20th century, a major narrative in Western thought was not technology getting the barbarians closer to crashing the gate, but fueling the rise of an ever vaster and more terrible Leviathan. Increasing technical complexity and costs to waging war indeed promoted the ascent of the modern state. As the trend continued, bureaucracies and state power grew even in the most liberal states, while the Soviet Union and fascist Europe pointed towards state power, economic advancement, and military-technical strength going hand in hand. Even before totalitarianism, fin de siècle Britons such as Halford Mackinder, Leo Amery, and H.G. Wells saw new technology militating towards stronger and larger states. This was a trend the experience of the World Wars and Cold War only seemed to reinforce, until the fall of the USSR and heightened concern with disruptive technologies, anarchic failed states, and the power of individuals.
Despite the obvious oversights of those who took the writings of Orwell and Burnham a bit too far to heart, it’s important to remember that many of the technologies thought to be rolling back state power came about through state action and operate most powerfully with the state’s resources behind them. The glut of small arms and light weapons in conflict zones are frequently legacy of state-backed mass production and proxy war supplies, or states toppled with the aid of conventional power.
Keil Lieber ably demonstrated the errors of confounding technical systems with undue political attributes in his dissection of offense-defense balance in IR theory. For issues of state-building and insurgency, a similar look at how disruptive technologies require enabling and support from a wider variety of social and political factors makes it much easier to explain why some technology erodes the power of one state while vastly bolstering another. At a broader, systemic level, though, asking whether this or that technology bolsters or erodes state authority is likely asking the wrong question.
To note the increasing sophistication of non-state groups is not to imply the erosion of the state or even an adverserial relationship between state authority and other forms. Instead, given that assemblages of state power remain the dominant territorial and political forms (even if they deviate from our expectations), investigating the parasitic, commensalist, and symbiotic relationships between them will likely be the best way both to assess the political impacts of proliferating technology and the emergent shape of world order.