A while ago – I lose track of when – I wrote about something on KoW which I’d clumsily called hypercompetition. I don’t claim anything particularly original about the notion, but I heard it blaring out of my radio last week under the guise of something now called hybrid war.
The problem of the conspiracy theory accusations or difficulties with hypercompetition seem to have been politically overcome with the perception of threat provided by Russia in Ukraine. Prior to this a notion that Russian funding of things of influence might be problematic was bracketed under the heading of ‘conspiracy theory’. Money likes to travel.. and in this globalised world money is colour blind.. let it come from wherever it comes. That sort of thing. And it’s not to pick on the Russian money, certainly not in the way I think about this hybridity or hypercompetition. It strikes me that there is rather a large number of states and significant networks of influence leveraging influence.
There are several underpinning follow-on questions:
1) Is this is a paranoid view of the world? Does it too close to conspiracy theory? Two responses: 1) a wise friend of mine noted that all IR theories are merely a myopia or conspiracy built upon the exponent’s preferences. So, this is merely a dissenting voice. As those mainstream conceptions were when they were mooted.
2) Is Western Europe just really bad at this form of warfare or influence? Following media reportage, it would appear that we’re under siege from many external sources. That we’re the timid supplicant… flotsam bounced around by nasty ‘forren’ types. I’m not convinced we’re bad at the prosecution of this kind of activity – afterall, if 500 years of imperialism hasn’t taught us something we should give up and cower at home. However, we seem very bad at countering it at home. Part of this might be the Bronwen Jones line of the coloniser being eventually colonised, but I think our weakness and vulnerability actually stems from the near universal acceptance of a narrative that, for instance, says that third country investment in our core infrastructure is ‘just the market’ rather than representing something political. Afterall, the restrictive rules on FDI in other countries means that we’re not aligned to a brand of universal thought on this. The underfunding of European universities – for example – means that the sector arguably has taken to servicing global elites and seeking out international (non-EU) money (from all sorts of places) that helps to tailor intellectual agendas and allows for foreign-domestic political debates/fights to be had on EU soil, away from the more problematic political environments of those students. This is the sort of political activity that gave European governments the creeps in the 1920s, and whilst the positive externalities of internationalisation are clear to those who work in universities – as anyone engaged in Horizon2020 funding, or in finding research partners in the US will tell you – there is a potential darker side that administrators seem unkeen to think about. Whether these networks pose a risk or not would require the right question, the right data and fine judgments. And of course it might be that we are fine exponents of exporting our own norms…
So, should we be worried about this hybridity as it pertains to Russia. Well, Russian money has traveled, and London’s housing market is partly inflated and propped up by it. Money has traveled into think-tanks and research efforts, and into infrastructure. Leveraging influence is not solely a case of invest and nice things will follow. But it helps. The Economist – which has become increasingly shrill on this issue – plotted Russian connections to European political parties to more than suggest that hybrid war threatened the fabric of the continent and the European project in particular. But most of the scaryness seems to be because of the word Russia, rather than the pattern of behaviour, which is a logic of neoliberal economics and PR/influence. Can we unpick or understand the complex influences on our politics (both organisational and ideological)? No. Should we pay attention to the fine documentary by Adam Curtis, Bitter Lake...? Yes, well worth a watch.
So, I would say this, wouldn’t I… but there is much in the concept of hybrid war. But we are only at the start of really understanding what is meant by it, and a country mile off understanding how to counter it. Particularly when countering it will rely upon a challenge to neoliberal orthodoxies.