Contribution of Teija Tiilikainen in “The Art of Diplomacy: 75 Views Behind the Scenes of World Politics”

A new book, conceived on the occasion of Wolfgang Ischinger’s 75th birthday and edited by Tobias Bunde and Benedikt Franke, brings together a prominent group of contributors who investigate the various aspects of the art of diplomacy.

The director of Hybrid CoE, Teija Tiilikainen, has written a contribution to the book on mitigating hybrid threats. The contribution offers a comprehensive overview on the landscape of hybrid threats and countering them from a diplomatic standpoint. Does traditional diplomacy have a role in preventing something that draws its efficiency from unconventional means?

This contribution is published on our website with the permission of the authors and the publisher. The following contribution is an excerpt of the book, which can be bought here.

Mitigating Hybrid Threats

Teija Tiilikainen

Hybridity refers to something that does not conform to established concepts, conventions, or forms of behavior. By representing something unconventional, hybridity usually requires new approaches, including rules and practices, to accommodate it as a part of social life.

Difficulties start when hybridity is purposefully used as an instrument against other people or states. This is the simple philosophy behind current hybrid threat activity—including phenomena called hybrid interference and hybrid warfare—which plays a key role in international politics. This activity is usually linked with the use of unconventional means such as critical infrastructure disturbances or manipulation of domestic information spaces as tools in power projection. But there are reasons to perceive this phenomenon of hybridity on a larger scale—targeting the very cornerstones of the current international order with its basic norms, conventions, and structures.

This contribution focuses on the phenomenon of hybrid threats and the question of how to mitigate them. Is there any room for international mediation or confidence-building measures to mitigate hybrid threats or does deterrence provide the only useful tool in the current international environment? Does traditional diplomacy play a role in preventing hybrid threats?

The Context of Hybrid Threats

We are living in an era of many simultaneous transitions taking place in the global system of power. The most visible of them deals with changes in the balance of power among states. The well-known argument about a gradual weakening of the role of Western powers, including the transatlantic unity, and a corresponding strengthening of China, Russia, and many regional hegemons, seems uncontroversial. For a longer time, another trend called diffusion of state power has made itself obvious. It refers to the strengthening of a variety of non-state actors—from intergovernmental organizations and multinational companies to terrorist groups and even powerful individuals—at the expense of state power. Both of these trends have led to a gradual dissolution of the post-war international order with its norms and institutions as both the value base and the question of subjects have turned controversial. An international order based on cooperation and mutual trust has been developing to a direction where a pure balance of power between the leading actors is replacing cooperation with mutual distrust and unpredictability.

Such an environment of transition and disorder provides a fertile ground for unconventional instruments of power. These “hybrid means” are partly linked with the conflict of values in the current international system and the efforts of non-democratic states to take advantage of vulnerabilities within the political and societal systems of their democratic counterparts. But they can equally be linked with a power asymmetry and the efforts of weaker actors to balance shortcomings in their power arsenal. This threat environment also nourishes an emergence of unconventional allies between states and non-state actors in promotion of shared interests. Unconventional power instruments such as disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, disturbance of critical infrastructure, election interference, instrumentalized migration, or even different forms of hybrid warfare are cost-efficient in comparison with more conventional forms of power politics. They are also much more difficult to attribute, which lowers the risks for effective countermeasures such as economic or political sanctions.

The Ideology and Strategy of Hybrid Threats

The hybridity of hybrid threats originates in its ideological approach. In general terms, this approach is that of the total state giving priority to the state above law or individual rights. The justification for the total state is anchored in cultural and political nationalism or, in some cases, religious extremism.

This total state ideology is veiled in different political doctrines for the various authoritarian states. For Russia it is the doctrine of political war according to which Russia is in a constant war with the West that threatens its political system and culture. Russia is thus claimed to need to use the whole range of instruments to protect itself. Also the enemy is presented in a comprehensive light consisting of the whole post-war international order in which the hegemony of the US power is seen to be embedded. The whole unique Russian civilization being threatened justifies a solid response and demands the unity of the population to support it.

Chinese thinking revolves around similar doctrines with the ideas of a united front and indirect warfare as its core. A nationalist understanding of cultural superiority characterizes Chinese political thinking, legitimizing its hostile approach to the West that is perceived to have humiliated it and is seen to constantly undermine and threaten it. China thus must use its superior skills to defeat the enemy and this implies the use of “indirect warfare” referring to creative non-military and preemptive means. This again requires a united front of actors—governmental as well as non-governmental—to protect Chinese political and cultural unity.

There are similarities between the total state idea and the approaches of actors such as Iran or Islamist movements, which base their attack on the West on religious doctrines. Also they find the justification for their use of tools from the understanding of a comprehensive cultural and religious war that is seen to take place with the Western world.

Covert Means and Manipulation as the Hybrid Threat Strategy

Hybrid threat activity is ultimately revisionist, even if the scale and time horizon of this revisionism tend to differ. The general goal of hybrid threat activity is to change international power structures to the benefit of the actor in question. This may take place by targeted means, such as by affecting another state’s decision-making or by affecting the physical or normative foundations for those power structures. The Russian long-term hybrid threat activity against Ukraine is an example of both of them (short-term and long term), while the massive Chinese investments in critical infrastructures globally include a strong potential for the latter.

To strengthen their position and minimize costs, covert activity, undetectability, as well as different forms of manipulation belong to the strategic approach of hybrid threat actors. By hiding their responsibility, the actors try, first of all, to avoid countermeasures both from the target state and its possible allies as well as from the larger international community. Therefore, acting below the threshold of armed conflict, using proxy actors, or manipulating the situational awareness of the target and deceiving it to take decisions in support of the adversary are typical forms of action. Countermeasures are thus complicated when hostile activities cannot be attributed or when their goals and logic remain highly unclear. There are plenty of recent examples where this tactic has been used, from interference in the 2016 US presidential elections where the final proof of Russian responsibility only came much later or the external political funding for European extremist parties, which also took time to be detected and thus delayed a change in the EU’s internal norms.

Another strategic approach of hybrid threat operations deals with the way target states’ vulnerabilities are used as an asset. By identifying different kinds of weaknesses from gaps in societal protection to political disunity and polarization or problems in economic and financial sustainability, hybrid threat actors mitigate a negative power asymmetry to their own benefit. Concerning their origin, vulnerabilities can be divided between technological, political, economic, or legal vulnerabilities with the measures to repair them differing.

Functional interdependencies built in a society’s networks of critical infrastructures provide good examples of technological vulnerabilities as they can be used to cause harm and political instability to modern technology-driven societies. Technological vulnerabilities cut across societies and affect equally the military sector with direct consequences to the conventional defense apparatus.

Economic vulnerabilities enhance a state’s dependence of external sources and might make it an alluring target for geoeconomic power projection. Foreign investments in critical infrastructures provide an optimal instrument for this purpose as well as foreign loans. Economic vulnerabilities and instability again form fertile ground for political dissatisfaction and instability, which can be amplified by various forms of foreign interference. Corruption and shortcomings in rule of law structures furthermore increase possibilities of hybrid influencing.

Finally, legal vulnerabilities have become a widely used tool for hybrid threat activities both at the national and the international level. Legal vulnerabilities in a broad sense refer both to gaps in existing normative frameworks and to the use of law for strategic purposes, that is, “lawfare.” The former can take the form of underregulated cyberspace or the inability to prevent weaponized migration due to the existing framework of international law. The latter might imply that a law is used against its original purpose to justify malicious activity.

Preventing Hybrid Threats: Diplomacy or Deterrence?

The starting points for any broader international mechanisms being established for the prevention of hybrid threats are not encouraging. With the overall interpretations of the main reasons for the international confrontation diverging vastly, there is not much common ground for international conflict resolution or prevention mechanisms. The revisionism of Russia and China implies that a large part of those international norms and structures that Western actors perceive as products of common international norms are considered unjust. Hybrid threat actors thus consider their activities as legitimate efforts to balance or—as they interestingly describe—‘democratize’ the international system. As long as maintenance of political instability in Ukraine forms a key tool for Russia in preventing the country from accessing the Western institutions, the EU, and NATO, the joint conflict resolution efforts remain highly symbolic.

A majority of the international community, however, considers existing rules and norms of international law to form a system of compulsory law whose letter and spirit shall be complied with even when conflicting with major national interests. The significance of majority opinion reflects itself in the efforts of hybrid threat actors to present their activities as lawful to the last. As pointed out earlier, with this strategy, the actors attempt to escape possible countermeasures. Russia and China, however, made a joint resolution on international law in 2016, which enshrines a narrow interpretation of international law delineating it basically to the UN and its Security Council.

On the other hand, an inability to create new international norms for emerging policy fields such as the cyberspace or space, may ultimately serve similar needs in relation to hybrid threat activity and a willingness to balance asymmetric power relations.

The strengthened use of hybrid threat operations together with their rationale lower the threshold for international conflicts. First, the cost efficiency of these tools encourages actors to use them more easily and with less political consideration than traditional instruments of power projection. But second, missing instruments and platforms for conflict-prevention and settlement may also drive the target countries to react with unexpected means in the absence of clear plans and forms of both national preparedness and credible international means for conflict resolution. The risk for accidents and unmanaged escalation thus characterizes the current environment of amplified hybrid threat activity.

Countering Hybrid Threats: Resilience and Deterrence as an Approach

With a broader international confrontation and lack of trust prevailing, instruments for the mitigation of hybrid threat activities are mainly sought in national frameworks or among democratic countries in the EU or NATO context. The policies on enhancing a broad societal resilience and creating a policy of credible deterrence against hybrid threats form the core of these instruments. Both toolboxes require new approaches, such as more long-term strategic planning to decrease vulnerabilities for external interference. Another instrument relates to affecting the cost calculus of actors exerting hybrid threat activity and involvement of broad societal actors to create tools for resilience. The resilience toolbox aims to enable a state to adapt to exceptional conditions and to absorb and recover from a shock. It does this by providing everything from political and legislative tools to instruments raising public awareness of risks related to hybrid threats and tackling the challenge of disinformation.

Along with their member states, both the EU and NATO have strengthened their policies and preparedness vis-à-vis hybrid threats during the past few years. As complex institutional entities, they share the same vulnerabilities as regards their functioning and integrity. Furthermore, their tasks and mandates require them to act in support of their member states in this field.

The EU and NATO have thus consolidated their efforts in responding to hybrid threats and enhancing the resilience of their member states through different policy instruments and new institutional structures and practices, including better coordination and sharing of good practices. The EU and NATO have both been active in cyber security and critical infrastructure protection. For the EU’s part, enhancing resilience takes the form of legislative projects and mapping vulnerabilities in major fields of critical infrastructure protection. NATO approaches this issue through its policies on civil preparedness, which has been gaining new momentum recently. Both organizations are focusing on the challenge posed by cyber security, recognizing the vulnerabilities of their own functions, and those of their member states. NATO thus declared cyber defense another field for collective defense and recognized cyberspace as a domain of operations in which NATO must defend itself as effectively as in any other domain. Apart from its strengthened legislative measures, the EU has established cyber defense projects within the framework of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and taken into use sanctions against cyberattacks constituting a threat to the union or its member states.

Countering hybrid threats became one of the topics for the new strategic partnership between the EU and NATO, on which the organizations agreed in 2016. In their joint declaration, the two actors decided to boost their activity to counter hybrid threats by working together on analysis, prevention, and early detection, through timely information sharing and cooperating on strategic communication and response. As a part of the implementation of the joint declaration, EU and NATO encouraged the member states of both organizations to participate in the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (CoE), established in 2017. In 2021 Hybrid CoE has enlarged to cover a membership of thirty participating states with its capacity-building efforts being enhanced through joint projects and exercises both with a growing number of practitioners and external experts.

Democracies Have to Stand United

Hybrid threats form an integral part of the current transition in the post-Cold War international order. As an instrument of authoritarian powers, they are deeply rooted in the inability of these powers to guarantee regime legitimacy through a democratic process. These states make a comprehensive effort to change the rules and practices of the international order to their own benefit. Hybrid threats consist of measures that function on a short to a very long perspective. As they build on ambiguity, surprise, and covert activity, applying international conflict prevention mechanisms to them is in contradiction with their rationale, if seen from the perpetrators’ perspective. The potential for hybrid threat activity therefore seems rather to be growing than decreasing.

Hybrid threats require new thinking and measures from the democratic societies that they are mainly targeted against. Measures have to be diverse and involve a broad range of actors, from international organizations and bodies to private actors and NGOs. Democracies have to stand united behind their values and communicate their willingness to do so both domestically and internationally. When rules and agreements are violated—or proxy actors are used to cover the tracks of state actors—responsibilities must be made visible to the whole international community. The long-term goal must be to bring respect and trust back to international law and conventional practices of the international community.

Teija Tiilikainen is the Director of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. Previously, she was the Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (2010–2019) and the Director of the Network of European Studies at the University of Helsinki (2003–2009). She has also served as Secretary of State at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland (2007–2008).

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