WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
The internet means citizens can now become part of large, virtual collectives, or nations, and there are fears these nations, with their own rules, welfare and support systems, could threaten the power and influence of sovereign nations.
When is a nation not a nation? When it’s a virtual nation… The world is becoming increasingly digitised and it’s clear, almost for everyone, to see that there is a rising threat from online organisations that are able to mimic, and eventually rival, the power and capabilities of today’s traditional sovereign governments and nation states. These virtual nations as they are becoming known “are cyber communities, with no land or physical territory to command,” that have succeeded in gaining power, influence, and or capital that’s comparable to that of a traditional nation state. And, from the perspective of the US Army at least, whose TRADOC “mad dog scientists” team, who are now busy trying to figure out the threat these new virtual nations pose to the security of the US now and in 2050, and how they might deal with, them the question on how you deal with “a unique security threat that does not respond to traditional Army doctrines, methodologies or technologies” is wide open for debate.
At the moment there are two broad categories of virtual nations, and both of them are based on blockchain, the revolutionary distributed ledger technology that helps to securely decentralise and anonymise people, entities, organisations and “things.” The first type of virtual nation is when a traditional nation state digitises all of its information and government services, and perhaps even offers E-Residency, like the tiny country of Estonia, who were the first nation state to lead the charge, do today.
The second are virtual nations that are not supported by any government which exist only online such as Asgardia, the world’s first “sovereign space nation” that’s funded by Russian billionaire Dr. Igor Ashurbeyli and that at the time of writing has over 270,000 registered “citizens.” These organisations are called nations only by virtue of their sign up based “citizenship” policies, and a political or ideological allegiance.
In the Pentagons case the thinking is that it’s the latter category that poses the greater potential security threat to the US and its military. By 2050, as certain ideologically based online communities become more prolific and organised, citizens of these virtual nations may begin to feel a stronger attachment and sense of belonging to their online identity than to their nationality. And once virtual nations are large enough to have power and control over the beliefs and actions of their citizens they may one day begin to demand official recognition. These nations would already possess internal recognition, with everyone within the nation believing that it is a nation, but external recognition by an outside body such as the United Nations (UN), where over 75 percent of members would need to approve a motion to legitimise these nations is still a long way off.
Given current trends it is also highly unlikely that virtual nations will be officially recognised even by 2050, and if this remains so then the US Army will still likely be bound by its own doctrine and rules of engagement, as well as by international law and UN convention. At the moment this is the likely preferable scenario because it allows the Army to follow the combat and operation rules with which it is already familiar, but that said that still does little to limit the threat posed by virtual nations because there will still be no formal external accountability or regulation.
Over time is it highly likely that the idea of virtual nations will grow in popularity as some people become disenfranchised with their own state governments, or humanity as a whole, and search in larger numbers for online organisations comprised of other like minded people. Negotiation and diplomacy may not be an option with virtual nations which ultimately might allow traditional nation states to take sudden and unilateral action.
The modern nation state though won’t be quickly supplanted and virtual nations are still seen as a long game play. However, it’s also likely that the political power of the traditional nation state will start to decline as virtual nations begin to offer comparable services, such as healthcare and welfare, and security, and legitimate government actions may blend in with those of individuals and non-state actors in a haze of anonymity.
Given that virtual nations are not yet prolific enough to have a significant impact on global society it turns out that the US Army thinks there are several key questions they should start examining now, ranging from the legal to the moral, such as how can the US best defend its interests, what happens when individuals relate more to virtual nations than their own nation state, and in the event of “war” are the people behind the screens classified as legitimate targets or combatants? Considering this plethora of unknowns the US Army, it seems, has some actions they can take to prepare themselves for these unknowns.
Firstly there is a need to update Army doctrine addressing how the Army would engage in cyber war against a virtual nation, or similar, with any action likely involving consistent and coordinated efforts from participants in multiple countries without any formal state affiliation.
Secondly, virtual nations will also likely be able to amass support and launch or counter actions much quicker than the US Army is used to, and the lack of “adversary proximity” presents a logistical and operational challenge for the Army. Doctrinal changes made in 2013 continued to emphasise human capabilities after a decade of intensive COIN (Counter-Insurgency) operations. However, there is still a gap in understanding how CEMA (Cyber-Electromagnetic Activities) and IO (Information Operations) should work together in synchronicity to fight these new virtual threats. Closing this gap would bring the Army one step closer to optimally operating in the digital domain and effectively using all of the tools at its disposal. And thirdly the Army should also continue expanding its cyber force and making improvements on technologies that can decrypt and trace online accounts to their owners and origin. The Army will also need an updated database of potentially hostile virtual nations and their capabilities and closer links to the US intelligence community.
The future may bring a world where a person’s identity is not based on their geography but on their, political, entrepreneurial, or ideological subscriptions, and as a result, these virtual nations, it’s felt “pose a unique threat to the US because they are not deterred or combatted through traditional doctrine or tactics.”
However, all that said though, for now at least it seems that the only thing the majority of Asgardians are interested in is being part of the first space nation, but while it’s likely they will all remain benign the same likely can’t be said of ISIS or other terrorist organisations who one day may form their own virtual nations and have agendas benign motivations.