Dr Ian Anthony, Programme Director, European Security Programme, SIPRI
There are some important changes taking place in the strategic trade control system, which was developed after the Cold War. It is a time where we are facing something of a paradigm shift, which will have a significant impact going forward on the way that trade is managed in terms of its security dimensions.
The first was to move away from thinking about embargoes, which were the dominant way of thinking during the Cold War: Moving from embargoes to thinking about cooperation. And after the end of the Cold War, it suddenly became possible to integrate frameworks incorporating not just countries from one alliance system, but reaching out across what were previously very fixed boundaries. Europe, for example, had very immediate consequences with the opening of discussion between members of NATO and former members of Warsaw Pact.
A second very important change was moving from thinking about trade control as an element of economic warfare, which it was during the Cold War, to really a focus on non-proliferation as the central objective of trade control, which was partly connected to the end of the Cold War, the discovery of weapons programmes which had made greater progress than was previously thought - first and foremost in Iraq, and the fact that South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme was revealed, and concerns about progress in North Korea towards nuclear weapons capability. The strong focus on non-proliferation really replaced economic warfare as the primary objective of trade control.
A third important change was moving from a system based on control lists to so-called end-use or catch-all controls, which were much more dependent on detailed intelligent understanding of programmes in what were considered to be problem countries. And that was really a reflection of important technology changes. It simply became unmanageable to continuously update control lists in a timely way. So, the changing nature of technology was an important change.
The fourth important change; there were situations where significant a number of technologies of concern were owned and operated by the private sector. And we began to think less in terms of state development of critical technologies, which then led to commercial spin-offs. We began to see almost a reversal, where the technology lead was in the commercial sector, where states no longer had a monopoly.
And the fifth important change at the time - in the subsequent period at the end of the Cold War - was moving from policies based on essentially alliance solidarity to linking trade control to the multilateral agreement, which were being either created at the time, the Chemical Weapons Convention, for example or which were being revitalised, which was true, for example, for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So, the fifth important change is moving from policies based on alliance solidarity to policies driven by implementing multilateral agreements.
Those five tendencies really shape the trade control system that emerged at the end of the Cold War. Now, I would argue that virtually all of those underlying assumptions have now been at least seriously challenged if not overturned. And that is partly a result of the changed geopolitical landscape. An essential element of which is the rise of China as a global power, - a country with global ambition-, but one which is very different from, for example, the former Soviet Union. But China has a system of state-led capitalism which is not a command economy of the kind that we saw during the Cold War. China is thoroughly integrated into international supply chains, technology development and commercial activities. But it is a system which is also based on political illiberalism and the preeminence of the state.
Also an important change in Russia, where the policy has increasingly focused its security concerns on a very coherent set of objections around essentially restoring to the full extent possible influence if not control over the territory of the former Soviet Union. We have seen that reflected in Georgia, in Ukraine, Belarus but basically around the territory of the former Soviet Union. And increasingly using a range of instruments to implement this policy that are not limited to the military. It is the so-called agenda around hybrid instruments. But all with the same ultimate objective of recovering influence.
And we see in the United States essentially a policy of pushing back both against Russia, but perhaps even more importantly in the medium term, against China with a strategy of competition in multiple fields - both regional and global levels. This was, of course, most sharply expressed in the administration that has just left office, where essentially China was challenged in the field of energy, in the field of digital communications, in transportation - global transportation networks. Essentially, a strategy to confront China in every dimension and try to push back Chinese influence.
And in Europe, I would say, a kind of awakening in a sense. A feeling that Europe has to really do more to be a player rather than just being the playing field in this geopolitical landscape. Reflected now in the so-called Geopolitical Commission and the efforts to be more coherent in external relations and in security policy.
So, we see very important changes in the geopolitical landscape, but we also also see important changes in the perspectives of how to define security and how to measure risk. So, if we ask: Well, what are the parameters of national security? Nowadays we would certainly say that they go beyond military security and defending national borders and take account of so-called hybrid scenarios where you have confrontations that cannot be classified as peaceful, which are not conflict in the traditional meaning of the word. And they incorporate also now the influence of thinking about non-state actors, so-called mass impact terrorism.
We also have a different way of thinking about what it is a weapon. Thinking about security now incorporates many things that can cause harm to the state or to its citizens or to society. But these are not weapons as we would have traditionally thought about them. They can be control of critical infrastructure or control of the information space. Or they can be the use of cyber and digital tools. So, thinking about what the elements of security are has really changed very significantly in the last couple of decades.
As has thinking about how much risk is acceptable - both to national authorities and to societies. And that is something which is approached very differently in different parts of the world. But many western societies - certainly European societies - are highly risk averse.
Challenges in this new environment also extend into the question of technology ownership and development. One of the assumptions underpinning the previous approach to strategic trade control was that a small group of countries - essentially western countries - had control of critical technologies and they were able to use this control as a kind of gateway so that the gate could be closed to developments that were adverse to security interests. But now, technology ownership is much more democratic in the sense that it’s spread to a significant number of different countries and technology transfer is multi-directional.
So, critical technologies are not only developed in new places, but they are also subject to trade controls. I guess the clearest symbol of that was the new law passed by China towards the end of last year placing export controls on certain critical technologies that also have certain characteristics that we would associate, for example, with the United States. For example, the application of extra territorial controls is a feature now of Chinese export control. Technology is not only democratic. Technology transport control is also multi-directional.
And technology is also ubiquitous in the sense that you have fast developing sectors such as artificial intelligence, fast computing, cryptography, new materials and all of which are now wrapped up in thinking about security aspects of international trade.
All of these things that I’ve talked about are beginning to influence thinking about strategic trade control. The current system built on licensing is not going to be able to handle the complexity of the environment I’ve described. A system based on control lists is going to be impossible to manage - impossible to number - and the complexity of the technologies that are going to have to be listed. And the fact that we don’t really have a full understanding of the security information on all the technologies. And if you did try to create a system like that, it would simply be too complicated and too big a burden for industry to manage. It would have a kind of paralyzing effect on the private sector which now owns and operates a large part of this sector of technologies.
The concept of end-use is becoming increasingly difficult to apply in a future where the kind of network society based around something like the so-called internet of things will make identifying the user of the end product more or less impossible. In the environment of democratic technology ownership, embargoes and various types of sanctions could become pointless and self-defeating exercises because you simply won’t be able to block transfers of technology.
We have a trust gap, if you like, and a verification challenge that are making the 20th century agreements on arms control, for example, fragile and vulnerable. We’re seeing that illustrated at the moment, for example, in the discussion within the community of the states party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, where how to manage the difficulties created by the use of chemical weapons in Syria is divisive and undermining the consensus which was the basis for multilateralism. So, the existing trade control system is unable to cope, essentially, with the security challenges that are facing it.
As we look forward, I’m not sure that we do see the full extent of the structural change that will be needed to reintroduce, in an effective way, a control system for strategic trade. There are certainly still overlaps with 20th century multilateralism. The treaties have certainly not become redundant. And now I think there are more people paying attention to how to preserve and strengthen multilateral agreements, but they’re certainly under challenge.
There is, I think, still going to be a tendency to block that which can be blocked. You see that, for example, on US restrictions on exports on microchips in an effort to exclude Huawei products from digital networks. So, whenever trump technology is identified, you probably will have an attempt to block. But this can only be a short term and temporary measure. The thing which is being blocked will certainly be reproduced in another centre of production.
We see a new focus on deterrents. Making malicious actors more aware of risk and imposing risk on certain types of behaviour. We see that, for example, in the efforts to introduce elements of law enforcement into international security. For example, by making leaders in Syria directly accountable for developing chemical weapons and using them
We don’t, I think, at the moment see much of an appetite for diplomacy. We’re still, in a sense, blocking the communication between parties that don’t agree. We still have very efficient mechanisms for dialogue in the community of like minded countries, but discussions with those that we don’t agree with don’t seem to have much momentum.
And instead we see more of a focus on so-called resilience. Being ready to recover whenever a system failure occurs. And as part of resilience, trying to connect the different centres of knowledge within like minded communities to build our understanding of this contemporary security environment.
So when we put all of that together, what we find is we have a situation where a system that was built after the end of the Cold War is increasingly less likely to be able to manage the security challenges of today. But we don’t yet have a convincing alternative paradigm. We don’t yet have a convincing alternative model that we can apply in conditions where strategic trade is going to be an important part of the economic recovery from the pandemic and an important part of building economic progress going forward.
So, I think this is a challenge for a community of scholars and practitioners to try to come together in some way to think through these problems. And, of course, within this basket of issues, Asian countries loom large - particularly China, but certainly not exclusively China. And so, this conversation which has been initiated certainly in a Transatlantic way has to be expanded to incorporate new geographical centres and new types of expertise.