Abstract: Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine did not fundamentally transform the international environment. Yet, a fundamental transformation is taking place: the Metamorphosis of the world as conceptualized by Ulrich Beck. In this world, politics is about the management of risks – but digital information operations easily undermine the complex arguments required by it. Thus, Zeitenwende, as a political project, faces challenges because formulating security policy has become more difficult. The response should be a new approach to political communication.
Problem statement: How does a misguided understanding of today’s international environment and the impacts of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine prove detrimental to one of the most expensive political projects in recent German history?
So what?: Managing complex risks requires complex arguments. Politicians should foster an information environment in which complex arguments can flourish. In the convoluted information environment of the post-truth era, political communication must become a source of clarity.
A New Approach to Political Communication
Deeming the Soviet threat a thing of the past, NATO, in its 1991 New Strategic Concept, assessed that “the risks to Allied security that remain are multi-faceted in nature and multi-directional”. The assessment holds true today and is not challenged by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Rather, complex risks, similar in nature to those envisioned by NATO planners in 1991, now determine the environment in which security policy must be formulated. With the management of risks at the centre of politics, Zeitenwende must account for the dynamics of the post-truth era to succeed as a political project. This will require a new approach to political communication.
Complex risks, similar in nature to those envisioned by NATO planners in 1991, now determine the environment in which security policy must be formulated.
A New Era in World Politics?
The February 2022 invasion does not mark the beginning of a new era in world politics: Earth is still moving from its unipolar moment towards a multipolar global order. Bipolarity remains a possibility but would emerge from an already existing dynamic between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – Russia would not be one of the poles, and its invasion did not transform the international environment in a fundamental way. To be more precise: whereas the people of Ukraine suffer the direct consequences of this atrocious war, its second-order effects – regional instability as well as the disruption of food and energy supplies – fall exactly within the range of multi-faceted risks envisaged by NATO planners in 1991. In fact, the disruption of energy supplies is but the latest in a line of attempts to destabilize European societies. Along with disinformation campaigns and the deployment of ‘little green men’, it is an aspect of the non-linear warfare (NLW) that Putin’s Russia is waging.
Yet, the severity of Russia’s actions in Ukraine has alerted many to the notion that a new reality may be upon us. This is true, albeit on a much more fundamental level. “For we live in a world that is not just changing, it is metamorphosing. […] Metamorphosis implies a much more radical transformation in which the old certainties of modern society are falling away and something quite new is emerging”.
Managing Complex Risks
Today, policymaking is about the management of risks. Interestingly, sociologist Ulrich Beck – progenitor of the risk society theory – developed a definition of risks compatible with that found in NATO’s 1991 strategic concept. The key aspect explored by Beck, however, is the notion that risks are constituted through subjective perception. In this understanding, political behaviour, such as voting, is dependent on perceptions of risk. In our metamorphosing world, where daily life and societal structures increasingly reside in the conflation of the online and the offline, digital information operations can target perceptions of risk. These information operations seek to manipulate cognitive processes to elicit political action based on perceptions of risk – i.e., voting for Brexit or taking part in a protest.
A consequence of Metamorphosis is, thus, that we have entered the post-truth era within the information age. In the post-truth era, the management of complex risks such as climate change and energy dependencies is exacerbated: generating public support for managing complex risks requires complex arguments. Crucially, in our metamorphosing world, these complex arguments about risks are undermined because digital disinformation campaigns so easily manipulate perceptions of risk.
In the post-truth era, the management of complex risks such as climate change and energy dependencies is exacerbated: generating public support for managing complex risks requires complex arguments.
Historically, disinformation campaigns could be either tailored to individual targets or distributed to a high number of recipients. Tailoring messages to the recipients’ predispositions and circumstances required effort that limited the amount of recipients. Today, Metamorphosis has removed the necessity to choose between tailoring the messages and maximizing the number of recipients. As “digital metamorphosis is about the essential enmeshment of the online and the offline”, technology has transformed the structure of our societies. User data can be aggregated into psychological profiles, allowing attackers to identify the predispositions that inform risk perceptions. Rapid advancements in natural language processing (NLP) and other generative AI, currently exemplified by applications such as ChatGPT and Midjourney, enable the exploitation of psychological profiles at scale. Tailored disinformation can now be distributed to a high number of recipients, leading to the convergence of individual and systemic vulnerabilities in today’s information environment: “The radically transformational aspect of the two-fold vulnerability is not the coexistence of two dangerous, but separated trends: it is their synthesis”.
Additionally, complex arguments are likely to be regarded by politicians as ineffective in gaining voters’ support. We have known about the detrimental effects of climate change for decades; we know that ageing European societies need migration to maintain their social systems; we knew of the likelihood that Russia might one day use our energy dependencies against us. Yet, we struggle to garner public support for managing these complex risks.
Complex Arguments in Political Communication
Zeitenwende and Metamorphosis are fancy terms – one might even call them ‘complex arguments’ – but their implications are of a practical nature. Today, security policy must manage risks. Concurrently, making security policy is becoming harder because obtaining political support for it is becoming more difficult: Russia’s invasion requires us to manage complex risks. Explaining why European citizens should suffer the indirect consequences of their governments’ sanctions against Russia requires complex arguments.
Zeitenwende, as a political project, must aspire to become nothing less than a revolution of the mind. Its goal must be to bring about a new way of communication in which we respect others by recognizing their ability to understand complex arguments. In the convoluted information environment of the post-truth era, political communication must dare to become a source of clarity and forge a new foundation to manage the risks that remain.
Zeitenwende, as a political project, must aspire to become nothing less than a revolution of the mind.
The key point is that, while fuelled by rapidly advancing technology, disinformation is a societal problem, not a technological one. A societal response, then, should include fostering a healthy information environment. Politicians and political parties could commit to a code of ethics for political communication that goes beyond refraining from spreading disinformation: transparent, unambiguous messaging that abstains from polarizing language and supposedly simple solutions could help re-establish trust in the information environment. In an information environment where trustworthy communication is the norm, it would likely be easier for citizens to spot attempts at manipulation. This is pertinent because it applies not just to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine but to most, if not all, major challenges we face today. Success in transforming the information environment and restoring trust would certainly benefit all policy areas.
Arguably, the most daunting risks are not those associated with Putin’s Russia but those emanating from the rise of the PRC and, above all, climate change. Managing them, too, requires complex arguments and a new approach to political communication. Nonetheless, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided a moment of clarity in the post-truth world, which we can still harness to propel Zeitenwende as a political project and transform the information environment.
Hendrik A. Pasligh is a research analyst at London Politica and a Young Leader at the Pacific Forum. His research interests include the nexus of security and technology, the Asia-Pacific region, space, and NATO. His analysis was published in the East Asia Forum, the Security Distillery, and the Kiel Seapower Series. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of London Politica or the Pacific Forum.
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