Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Engineering Perception and Consent in 21st Century Conflict

Iulian Chifu, Greg Simons

Why are the interactions and effects of information, communication and politics in the various types of conflict in the 21st century so important and yet difficult to understand? Do we, not only as the political elite, but to include a much broader cross section of contemporary society, need to rethink our approach to warfare and other forms of conflict in these current times?

Historically, warfare and conflict have been focused upon, popularly perceived and conceived in the physical and tangible sense, rather than the intangible informational and cognitive sense. However, since the beginning of organised and coordinated warfare, intangible elements to warfare have played a key role on and off the battlefield. As noted by military philosophers through the ages, war is politics by another means. Hence the centrality and significance of politics and its impact in establishment, prosecution and conclusion of conflict.

Conflicts, including armed conflicts, are carefully cultivated and engineered events that require a sense of perceived legitimacy and urgency by the political leadership. Without these elements both being present there is a decreased likelihood of social and political unity among the rulers and ruled of the polity that seeks to manufacture the pretext for conflict. This is where the importance of information and communication comes to the fore, especially in terms of cognitive effects. It is not always a simple and straightforward task to prime and mobilise audiences to (likely) go against their self-interest and agree with the rather risky and unpredictable policy of creating and engaging in conflict and warfare.

The emerging conflict can be understood in the terms as an event that constitutes a crisis, which necessitates a threat to values, the element of uncertainty and furthermore a sense of urgency through time constraint. Surrounding every physical (tangible) crisis are the intangible elements, most notably those information flows that interpret and represent the crisis event. The actor that is best able to manipulate and control those information flows is better positioned to dominate the information space and consequently enable their operational choices whilst simultaneously denying their target/opponent freedom of operational choice. It is a form of non-kinetic ‘shock and awe’ or a ‘psychological Blitzkrieg’ on the various stakeholders involved in contesting the event or process.

To get an audience’s consent to an ‘inevitable’ or ‘imminent’ conflict requires cognitive manipulation through creating a sense of fear among a group. This fear may be of a virus, a country or a terrorist organisation for example. The audience needs to believe that something bad can happen – an act of terrorism for example. And this threat or hazard can or will affect them personally. It is not enough, to simply create an object of fear that the audience perceives as not being a threat to them personally, hence the threat of the fictional weapons of mass destruction and links to terrorism in Iraq were perceived as extremely fearful to the United States public in the recent wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US mainland. The fear is instrumentalised by erasing the critical and reasoned thinking of numerous individuals and creating an emotionally driven group think – the so-called herd mentality. At this stage, publics cease being subjects of the event and become objects.

Putting these political, informational and communicational elements into the current context in terms of this current political and geopolitical moment in time creates a lot of potential risk and hazard. Increasingly, there is academic and political consensus on the geopolitical transformation that is in the process, where the Western-centric US unipolar hegemony is under pressure and relative decline, resulting in a relative state of global dominance, but not an absolute one. On the other hand, the rising non-Western-centric multipolar order is seemingly growing in influence and power.

There is a great deal of risk involved in any scenario that pits one nuclear armed power with another nuclear armed power in a direct conflict. Hence the use of vicarious warfare that makes use of hybrid warfare, political warfare and psychological warfare. Indirect and covert forms of warfare are seen as less costly in terms of finance and the loss of their own soldiers, in an attempt to create a short-term fix to a geopolitical problem. This trend has become more pronounced after the debacle of the Global War On Terrorism and the Arab Spring by the United States and its Allies, which lead to what has been termed as Endless Wars and increasing public hostility towards war policy as a foreign policy approach. Direct engagement (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria) and indirect conflicts through proxy wars have merely increased risks and hazards, not having solved any, with great expenditure of human life, treasure and reputation.

The result is the apparent corrosive effect on the tangible (military power, political power, economic power) and intangible (belief of the public in political and military leadership, the brand and reputation damage) of the US and its international system of power and influence. In spite of the problems encountered and significant costs incurred, at this stage, there does not seem to be any sign of a significant rethinking of the approach to conflict and warfare, and a lack of a realistic and coherent geostrategic approach. This has given encouragement and a great deal of incentive to non-Western players to rethink their positioning, identity and purpose in the global geopolitical marketplace. This current vector would logically lead to an accelerated continuation of the West’s relative decline and the rise of the non-Western world. The various internal crises of the West (economic, social, the liberal democratic system) add to the woes. We are likely to live in a radically different world in a relatively short space of time, both politically and geopolitically. As its stands currently, Rome is burning, does the West have the political will and competence to effectively rethink this process?

Rethinking Warfare in the 21st Century by Iulian Chifu and Greg Simons

About The Authors

Iulian Chifu

Iulian Chifu is the State Counsellor of the Romanian Prime Minister for Foreign Relations, Security and Strategic Affairs. He was the Founder and President of the Conflict Preventi...

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Greg Simons

Greg Simons is a Researcher at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies (IRES) at Uppsala University in Sweden and a Lecturer at the Department of Communication Sciences at T...

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