What are the big threats to our way of life?
This question was a lurking preoccupation at the London Defence Conference this week, attended by the prime minister and the chief of defence staff along with academics and politicians from across the Western world.
The immediate crisis is Ukraine, of course.
There was general consensus that victory is essential not just for Ukraine but also for the continued security of its allies. In the margins of the conference George Robertson, former NATO secretary general and UK defence secretary, warned that the rules-based order will be over unless Russia’s illegal and violent invasion is repelled.
Autocrats, in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere will feel free to grab territory and rewrite national borders if Putin gets away with invading a sovereign neighbour.
The commander of the UK’s armed forces, CDS Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, insisted that NATO must do everything it can to support Ukraine’s forces, short of joining the fight. The UK is aiming to train over 20,000 Ukrainian troops this year. He argued that Western politicians should “not be afraid of escalation”.
Time is pressing. Many feared that backing for Ukraine would quickly fracture should Donald Trump, or another Trumpist Republican, be elected to the US presidency in November 2024. Although the retired US Army general Ben Hodges was confident that the bipartisan support by Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress would survive even that.
Ukraine is rewriting the global balance of power.
Most significantly NATO has been strengthened by formerly neutral Finland and Sweden seeking to join. Against that, Russia and China have drawn closer together, while rising “middle” powers in India, Africa, and Latin America have deliberately refused to take sides, effectively indulging Putin’s ambitions.
Beyond the much desired and essential liberation of Ukraine as a free nation state, what challenges lie ahead? I asked an all-female panel of experts to compile a “future risks” register of the threats they see to our security.
Their suggestions ranged far and wide: conflicts with Russia and/or China over Taiwan and the Arctic; Iran; nuclear weapons; Chinese expansionism, and conversely an economic slowdown in China; fragmentation or disruption of global supply chains and communications networks; climate change; competition for hydrocarbon energy sources and the rare earth metals essential for both digital communications and renewable energy generation; societal breakdown due to rising economic pressures.
In spite of the immense damage being wrought by Russia, there was a surprising consensus that Putin’s regime has miscalculated and that Russia is now effectively a dependency of China. Russia’s rebuff in Ukraine has removed any active threat of China invading Taiwan, for all of President Xi’s declared intention to resolve the matter this generation.
Russia’s power lies in its role as an oil and gas supplier. It has now joined Saudi Arabia in OPEC+ and China has brokered a cautious reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, another hydrocarbon producer. As Europe weans itself off Russian energy, these suppliers are finding new customers and building their influence in other parts of the world.
Helen Thompson, professor of political science at Cambridge University, raised the possibility that a new OPEC-style cartel could emerge of countries with rare earth metals which are vital for new technology. “Even if we succeed in decarbonising,” she said, the amount of foreign metal dependency we will have will be huge.”
At the same time, she pointed out that the best efforts of Saudi Arabia and its allies failed to stop the US becoming the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas. The world is becoming more competitive and multi-polar, but the US is likely to remain dominant thanks to its natural resources, its lead in technology and the strength of its economy.
As China’s population ages, its economy is growing more slowly. Western leaders need to be vigilant as China seeks to bend existing global institutions such as the UN to its own advantage but, unlike Russia, according to Professor Thomson, China does wish to smash the rules-based world order established after the Second World War.
Sam Altman, the chief executive of Open AI – which developed Chat GPT – was summoned to give evidence before the US Congress. This week he attended a meeting with Rishi Sunak, along with other tech bosses, to discuss how to moderate AI and prevent a catastrophe.
So far cooperation seems to be working, as tech innovators, including Elon Musk, voice their concerns to law makers.
Meanwhile, Nobel Peace winner Henry Kissinger has been focussing on the potential consequences of AI. Mr Kissinger, who was President Nixon’s secretary of state in the 1970s, is regarded by many as a foreign policy guru.
In a series of interviews to mark his 100th birthday this weekend, he has warned: “The speed with which artificial intelligence acts will make it problematical in crisis situations… I am now trying to do what I did with respect to nuclear weapons, to call attention to the importance of the impact of this evolution…It’s going to be different. Because in the previous arms races, you could develop plausible theories about how you might prevail. It’s a totally new problem intellectually…”
His comment helps to explain why AI was not discussed as a major risk by my panel. AI and quantum computers are likely to be extraordinarily powerful tools but they will ultimately be regulated and directed by human beings. They have no independent agency. It is up to us to get it right.
With a self-deprecating “I would say this wouldn’t I?”, Polly Scully argued that data processing was potentially an asset which would could make the lives of citizens better through better analysis and forewarning of threats.
Her background was as a British civil servant working on crisis amelioration. She now works for Palantir, the Big Data analytics company co-founded by Peter Thiel, a major Silicon Valley investor.
The panellists – also including China expert Francesca Ghiretti and Mafrid Brout Hammer of the University of Oslo, agreed that a greater threat was posed by the disruption of communication and electricity supplies, possibly by malign cutting of under-sea cables than by the application of technology.
The discussions of risks at the London Defence Conference left me more optimistic.
On the immediate crisis in Ukraine, Ukraine has not yet won and much sacrifice will be needed for years to come. But CDS Radakin said that Western forces have “nothing to learn from the way Russia is fighting”, but they are adapting and modernising rapidly themselves because of their experiences in the conflict.
He does not believe there is an incentive for Putin to deploy nuclear weapons because they would serve no military purpose and because they would provoke an overwhelming response from NATO.
Over the horizon there are certainly major challenges and threats. Globally we are not moving fast enough on climate change. Countries with different ideologies from the “Western” democratic nations are gaining strength. Western politically institutions have taken a kicking recently thanks to poor and self-indulgent leadership.
Much work is required to win back hearts and minds around the world. But, if we pull ourselves together, “We” in the Western democracies still have the material, technological and human resources to overcome those risks which we can see ahead.