The Future of War

Foreign Policy, 12.09.2018 
Jonathan Tepperman, editor en jefe

After years of refinement, a new weapon started cutting a swath through the battlefields of Europe. It was relatively cheap, accurate, easy to use—and so powerful it could punch through the best defenses. With the touch of a trigger, anyone carrying the weapon could render expensive, state-of-the-art combat systems obsolete. The result was widespread carnage and chaos. Leaders panicked and started calling for some kinds of limits on the terrible new device. So in 1139 one of the world’s most powerful international institutions—the Vatican—declared the crossbow anathema and “hateful to God.”

You get the point of the story: Anxious discussions about the future of war and the destabilizing impact of novel weapons are hardly new. So why would Foreign Policy wade into the debate again now? The reason is that this is one of those moments when technology is moving so fast that the old, settled ways of fighting wars are rapidly being overturned. And nobody knows what, exactly, will follow.

But we can start by asking the right questions. That’s what Tarah Wheeler of Splunk and New America does in “In Cyberwar, There Are No Rules.” Her sweeping overview of the rising threat of cyber conflicts shows where the real dangers lie: not in cutting-edge technology but in badly maintained infrastructure that’s so outdated it can’t be hardened against even primitive cyberattacks.

Of course, cutting-edge technologies also pose new dangers. In “A Million Mistakes a Second,” Paul Scharre—a former U.S. Army Ranger who now works at the Center for a New American Security—looks at the race to build autonomous weapons systems and warns that as we cede authority to machines that can act and react far faster than we can, we increase the risks that accidental conflicts could spin out of control.

But artificial intelligence is just one reason emerging technologies are hard to constrain (as Pope Innocent II learned back in the 12th century). Wheeler points out that countries today can’t even agree on what, exactly, constitutes an act of cyberwar. Hard as it is to get governments to behave, private actors are even harder to wrangle. Yet as the Israeli journalist Neri Zilber (“The Rise of the Cyber Mercenaries”) and the University of Pennsylvania’s Michael C. Horowitz (“The Algorithms of August”) bring up, that’s just the problem we now face with cybersecurity and AI, since both involve general purpose technologies largely developed by corporations—with their own private agendas.

The changes, and problems, aren’t just limited to high-tech. In “Food Fight,” Kate Higgins-Bloom of the U.S. Coast Guard argues that the explosive growth of the global middle class is creating an insatiable demand for middle-class food—namely protein—which is why the next great-power war is likely to be waged not for territory or treasure but for fish. And FP’s Robbie Gramer travels north to the Arctic, where disappearing sea ice has opened up a vast new territory primed for accidents and conflict.

None of this is reason for despair. Despite how nervous they made medieval princes, crossbows never actually destroyed the world—and neither has gunpowder or even nuclear weapons, for that matter. History shows that we humans are pretty good at finding ways to avoid our collective self-destruction, even if the answer often comes at the very last minute and after a lot of bloodshed. We can hope for the same today—but only if we face the issues head on, as FP has tried to do with this special issue.

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