SMA hosted a panel discussion as a part of its SMA UK MoD Speaker Series, entitled “Alternative Futures of Geopolitical Competition in a Post-COVID-19 World (Part II of II).” The panelists included Lt Col Jake Sotiriadis, PhD (US Air Force AF/AFAC), Ms. Vera Zakem (Technology for Global Security), and Mr. Shannon McGurk (Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability, Strategic Foresight and Futures Branch).
Lt Col Sotiriadis began the discussion by explaining his research team’s strategy when addressing their research question, “What are the strategic implications of COVID-19?” He stressed the importance of understanding and anticipating change in society in order to make better decisions, particularly in the realms of diplomacy, intelligence, and the military. The team focused on the use of strategic foresight, which aims to identify emerging signals and trends, map the trajectory of change, and develop scenarios for aspirational futures. Lt Col Sotiriadis also emphasized the inherent need to build an inclusive culture of national security futurists, which is something he believes the US currently lacks. He then outlined the “Four Futures Framework,” a research methodology that demonstrates four different potential future pathways that typically recur throughout history, public debates, and popular culture. He and his team believe that this framework is particularly useful when addressing a disruptive shift in society, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. He then identified the four futures that his team identified as a response to the current pandemic. “Global Future #1 – Transformation” highlights the transition from bio-hegemony to bio-supremacy and suggests that states which possess bio-resiliency, along with the capability to make information ubiquitous across their security apparatuses, will dominate the new competition. “Global Future #2 – Systemic Collapse” predicts that the 2030s will be a “warring states period” and that the most dramatic factor contributing to new global instability is the legitimacy crisis wrought by COVID-19. “Global Future #3 – Discipline” focuses on authoritarian regionalism and suggests a future where severe strains of social order drive liberal and authoritarian regimes towards highly centralized and restrictive measures. Additionally, national militaries will augment commercial supply chains in order to prevent riots and hoarding. “Global Futures #4 – Continued Growth” shows us how different the world could be if fundamental principles do not change. In this scenario, there may be aggressive actions in the policy realm, which may enable instability and territorial incursions.
Lt Col Sotiriadis concluded his presentation by highlighting several key points from the study. He stated that geopolitical competition and disinformation are not necessarily limited to a singular actor, making it necessary to prepare for a congruence of actors. Additionally, there are new emerging fault lines in both the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean that the US cannot lose sight of. He pointed out how the global pandemic has accelerated the export of China’s worst characteristics and delayed the Belt and Road Initiative as well. Finally, he stressed the significance of the pandemic in the US homeland, highlighting the opportunity for shifts in accepting more surveillance and automation in the name of public health.
Ms. Zakem continued the discussion with an analysis on the extent of malign influence and disinformation campaigns both now and in the near future. She made a distinction between the two, describing disinformation as the intentional spread of misinformation by an actor with malicious intent, while misinformation itself usually lacks malicious intent. Additionally, she stated that malign influence campaigns are not only disinformation but a broad system of intentional influence by an actor to achieve desired objectives that are in line with their broader strategies. Ms. Zakem then discussed various scenarios in which adversaries have utilized these tactics, including how different actors have created disinformation and fake content surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. The amplification of COVID-19 adversarial disinformation has become increasingly more prominent in the US recently, suggesting its effectiveness. Ms. Zakem went on to speak about media censorship and media monopolization, particularly in China and Russia, and how this can become problematic in the pursuit to combat disinformation campaigns and malign influences. She connected this challenge with the congruence of actors waging these campaigns in the wave of the development of a successful vaccine or, even further, the next pandemic. Ms. Zakem believes there will be significant competition in these arenas and suggested that there may be global tension regarding who will acquire success first, both in developing a vaccine and in managing the next public health crisis. She concluded her discussion by encouraging more analysis on how the US may counter and defend against adversaries with malicious intent through their disinformation campaigns and malign influences.
Mr. McGurk began his portion of the panel by discussing the potential outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic. He started by comparing US values to Chinese values and identifying how the US can use their similarities and differences to better predict potential future pathways for the US-China relationship. He then surveyed various experimental futures for China, including an array of responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the repercussions of China’s rejection of the Republic of China’s (Taiwan) existence. He finished with some concluding thoughts, highlighting that the global “winner” COVID-19 will be dependent on whosever values prevail.
Note: We are aware that many government IT providers have blocked access to YouTube from government machines during the pandemic in response to bandwidth limitations. We recommend viewing the recording on YouTube from a non-government computer or listening to the audio file (below), if you are in this position.
The report upon which this panel discussion is based can be found at https://www.afwic.af.mil/Portals/72/Documents/AFWIC%20Global%20Futures%20Report_FINAL.pdf?ver=2020-06-18-124149-070.