The Future Edition: how mercenaries and AI are changing diplomacy
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We know that you are just as excited as us for the upcoming Oprah interview with Meghan and Harry. Meghan’s had a rough go out of lately, we’re led to believe. Sadly, judging by the promo screen grabs, it doesn’t seem like the interview went well either:
Things are looking up! A bird s***ing on you is supposed to be good luck! We think?
Anyway, this week we bring you a special 'Future Edition'. We've taken a look at two big trends in global affairs and asked how they might affect us in the future:
💣 Mercenaries and the privatisation of force: might companies and the ultra-rich wage private wars in the future?
🤖 AI & IR: five ways artificial intelligence will impact international relations.
Let’s get straight to it!
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💣 Mercenaries and the privatisation of force
💥 Mercenaries are private citizens who perform military tasks for money. This includes supplying military equipment, planning military campaigns, and fighting.
There are 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That's one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is... how do we arm the other 11?
-Yuri Orlov, a mercenary played by Nicholas Cage in the 2005 film Lord of War
Last week, the New York Times obtained a UN Security Council report alleging that infamous mercenary boss Erik Prince breached a UN arms embargo in Libya. The report details how foreign mercenaries provided aircraft, boats, soldiers, and hackers to Khalifa Hifter, a Libyan warlord, to help him overthrow the UN-backed government.
It's the stuff of bestselling novels, in this case likely made unreadable by diplomatic, bureaucratic jargon.
Mercenaries often find loopholes in international laws, and rationalise their work as 'just business'. In reality, mercenaries change the world while no one is looking - shortly after Mr. Hifter attacked Tripoli, President Trump phoned him and pledged cooperation, thus reversing established US policy in Libya.
[Mercenaries are] disunited, ambitious, without discipline, unfaithful; gallant among friends, vile among enemies; no fear of God, no faith with men.
-The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
Machiavelli bemoaned mercenaries. Not because he found them amoral, but because he was left humiliated when mercenaries helped defeat Florence in 1512. Historians suggest he wrote 'The Prince', now one of the most famous political treatises in history, just to get his old job back.
(We checked whether Erik Prince was named in honour of Machiavelli but the delicious irony is apparently a coincidence.)
'Force for hire' has been a feature of societies worldwide for at least 3000 years. Throughout history, emperors, popes, corporations, and the ultra-rich have all employed private armies as and when needed.
💥 Our moral conception that only nation states may wage war is a modern one. Hiring and maintaining private armies was common practice until sometime around the 18th century.
The large scale re-emergence of mercenaries
Contractors comprised over 50 percent of the U.S. force structure in Iraq and 70 percent in Afghanistan. By comparison, only 10 percent of the force was contracted in World War II.
-Dr. Sean McFate, Georgetown University
In 1854, Britain hired 16,500 mercenaries to fight the Crimean War. That was the last time a nation had hired a private army, until the US restarted this practice during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Private contractors are an attractive way for politicians to outsource bloody conflicts and avoid the cost of soldiers returning home in body bags. But unlike in Renaissance Italy where mercenaries might switch sides for better pay, 21st century mercenary firms are often allied to nations.
The US has many; Triple Canopy, G4S, and Dyncorp are just a few. Russia has the Wagner Group, notable for their involvement in the annexation of Crimea in 2017 and for the ongoing Syrian civil war.
Britain, like other ex-colonial powers, has used mercenaries to ‘keep an eye’ on former colonies. London is arguably the capital of private mercenary companies.
China, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have all publicly employed mercenaries in the past two years.
(Might we suggest they engage brand consultants to 'de-evil' their names. Honestly, Blackwater? Dyncorp? Executive Outcomes? What next, Discrete Solutions for Political Problems Abroad, Inc?)
As a result, the supply of mercenaries is well developed. There is a vast network of combat-ready fighters, often veterans of regional conflicts, willing to fight for money anywhere in the world.
💥 Once increased demand for private force has established supply, that supply doesn't disappear. Mercenaries are people with non-transferrable skills who need to make a living. If nations don't employ them, companies, warlords, and oligarchs will.
The future of a growing market for private force
This a complex topic, one which we might further explore in the future. Constrained as we are by the tyranny of word counts and attention spans, perhaps asking a few questions will get the ol' grey matter pulsing:
Q: What's to stop the next generation of enormous companies from developing their own private armies? Corporations have a long history of employing private military forces, and resource companies often employ ‘security guards’ to protect assets in conflict zones. Might we see Amazon Force Solutions, The Tencent East Africa Company, or Saudi Aramco Journalism Containment Solutions & Sons? 😬
Q: If nation states lose their 'monopoly over violence', is foreign policy and diplomacy credible? War torn countries often can't control military forces within their borders, but what happens if Turkey, Russia, or even the US no longer has full command and control of their military power? What does that mean for supply chains, trade, and international investment?
Q: How does this apply to cyberspace? The internet looks a lot like medieval Europe - hackers roam the cyber countryside pillaging their targets with impunity. Will organisations develop their own offensive and defensive cyber forces to deter attacks? Might they create corporate defence alliances like a sort of private, online NATO? Will enormous cyberwars be waged outside the control of national authority?
Ouch my brain. But what of Erik Prince?
He denies any involvement in the Libyan incident. Just as he did as CEO of private military contractor Blackwater when they were accused of murdering Iraqi civilians in the Nisour Square Massacre in 2007.
Of course, Mr. Prince wouldn't get away with any of this unless he was politically backed at the very highest levels (his sister Betsy DeVos was a cabinet member under Trump).
With Trump gone, will Biden also implicitly support Mr. Prince? It’s probably already too late, but holding Erik Prince accountable would send a powerful message to those looking to wage private wars in the future.
This is a huge topic, and we've had to skip over a lot of fascinating issues. If you're interested in reading more about the history of mercenaries, we recommend this excellent long read from which we drew much of our research.
🤖 AI & IR: five ways artificial intelligence impacts international relations
ICYMI, Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has been beating humans in all sorts of competitions. AI has defeated its human opponent in everything from reading comprehension and chess to Go, StarCraft II, and even an F-16 fighter plane simulation battle.
This is mostly thanks to AI’s sheer computational power. But AI also beats humans due to its endurance, lack of ‘emotional weakness’, and ability to self-iterate and improve.
Will AI also become dominant in the practice of international relations?
The answer is: probably not. But AI can enhance human operations on international issues, such as defence, diplomacy, intelligence, trade, and humanitarian missions.
(Our razor wit and incisive analysis at least makes International Intrigue irreplaceable… right?).
Artificial intelligence: a constellation of technologies
We’ll spare you a list of the 374,000 definitions of AI, and go with this one:
AI is not a single piece of hardware or software, but rather a constellation of technologies that give a computer system the ability to solve problems and perform human tasks that would otherwise require human intelligence.
- US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence
These technologies include algorithms, natural language processing, data analytics, and cloud computing. The most hyped is machine learning, which allows machines to sense, comprehend, act, and learn.
In the business world, here’s what AI is usually used for:
Here’s how AI impacts international relations
Militaries have been growing their AI capabilities by adding autonomous weapons systems and robotics. AI technologies can help militaries understand complex challenges, predict behaviour, and more efficiently perform tasks.
It might seem great that AI can potentially remove human irrationality and prevent miscalculation or escalation in conflicts, but there are huge unresolved legal and ethical questions around outsourcing to machines the decision to wage war.
AI technologies can help diplomats provide more accurate and helpful advice to home governments. Rather than defaulting to intel gathered from sources around cocktail circuits 🍸, diplomats can use AI’s data processing capabilities to predict long-term political, economic, and social trends.
In conflict resolution or dispute settlement, AI can build trust among parties. Instead of relying on mediators, AI can allow parties to use impartial procedures that are technically objective, transparent, and verifiable.
The UK’s spy agency announced it will use AI technologies to combat cyber-attacks, terrorism, disinformation, and criminal activity. Russia and China are already doing this, and we think the trend will accelerate (even though AI-007 is markedly less sexy).
AI will be an ‘intelligence multiplier’. It will allow humans to process increasing volumes and complexity of data, ranging from bank transactions to international conspiracy groups. That enables faster and better decision-making when time is of the essence.
AI technologies can help trade negotiators get better outcomes by equipping them with more information. AI will help negotiators better analyse economic trajectories of countries based on various assumptions and outcomes (e.g. growth pathways under different forms of trade liberalisation).
(Whether AI will ultimately do trade negotiators out of a job is an open question; in the meantime, at least they might stop looking like dishevelled zombies forever searching for ‘more coffee’. 😵)
Humanitarian operations will be able to use AI to help monitor elections, assist in peacekeeping operations, and prevent fraud in development aid delivery.
AI technologies can help developing countries improve citizens’ quality of life by adequately allocating healthcare resources (e.g. using pattern detection to triage those most at risk), increasing productivity of agricultural efficiency, and bolstering disaster preparedness.
Technologies that detect climate and soil patterns will also be increasingly important as climate change worsens.
The US, China, and Russia are already locked in an AI geopolitical arms race. But with diverging approaches to AI governance, there won’t be any agreement on those tricky legal and ethical questions on AI anytime soon.
All that said, we think foreign affairs will be one of the last professions to succumb to AI job loss, so we might all be stuck with diplomats for a while yet. 🤷🏽
➕ Extra intrigue
Paul Rusesabagina, the hero hotel manager of film Hotel Rwanda who sheltered more than 1,000 people during the 1994 genocide, has been arrested for terrorism. He’s accused of supporting the armed wing of Rwanda’s opposition party.
Papua New Guinea’s first prime minister Sir Michael Somare died at the age of 84. Also known as the ‘father of the nation’, Somare helped guide a smooth transition to independence from Australia, and led PNG for 17 years.
The Russian warship ‘Admiral Grigorovich’ entered Port Sudan for the first time in history, ahead of plans to build a naval base there. This marks the renewal of Moscow’s geopolitical clout in Africa. Slowly but surely…
Korean pop culture’s world domination continues. This week, consumption of South Korean content outstripped US-made content on streaming platforms in key Southeast Asian markets such as Singapore and Indonesia.
🔎 Intriguing recommendations
👩🦱 Helen: I was starstruck this week when I saw Vogue's youngest ever Editor-in-Chief, fashion multi-hyphenate and fellow Chinese-Australian Margaret Zhang at a Sydney pool 🏊🏼♀️. Unfortunately for her (and others in the change-room), I was starkers, so it wasn't the best time to say g'day. But check out her work - Margaret is seriously talented and has been hyped by Anna Wintour as the future of Vogue China.
👴 John: A friend of mine broke my brain last week trying to explain the new ‘NFT’ craze. A 10-second video that sold for $6.6 million? A pixelated frankly crap-looking ‘crypto-punk that sold for $761,889? Here’s the best explainer I’ve found but tbh I’ve still got no idea. After that go relax your brain in a cozy cabin in the mountains. (Soothing digital rooms have got me through lockdown).
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