Imagine an ideal and risk-free world in which everyone would be charitable and mutually supportive. Everyone would be compassionate and friendly towards each other and malice would be rare (if it existed at all). It would be a world without envy or competition for status and power wherein we could all co-exist in a state of equilibrium and shared contentment. Phillip Wood compares and contrasts this Utopian vision with the current state of play.
Undoubtedly, it’s a nice dream to have. However, as I’m writing for Risk UK – and as you’re reading my words – it’s fair to suggest that most of us probably believe an ideal and risk-free world isn’t going to be realised at any point in our short or even medium-term future.
In the real world that we have to put up with on a daily basis, matters are slightly different, with greed, envy, pride – and any number of other sins – in play at all levels of society. Of course, nowhere is this perhaps more evident than on the global political and economic stages where our natural national self-interest, pride and competitive nature bring us to confrontation and sometimes conflict with depressing frequency and regularity.
At the present time, there are some real uncertainties and change issues beginning to arise and they’re becoming more complicated and challenging. Is there a realistic chance that the US voters will elect Donald Trump as their President and thus leader of ‘The Free World’? What’s Russia planning for Syria, the Middle East and, indeed, more widely under its resurgent and rather ‘robust’ leadership?
Closer to home, the Brexit train continues to hurtle towards an unknown destination.
Altering risk landscape
Set against this shifting background, when it becomes difficult to understand, let alone depend upon any of our international counterparts, the whole risk landscape looks challenging and complicated to say the very least. Along with many other nations, the UK switched a significant element of its focus eastwards – towards China – some time ago in the search for partnership, investment, wealth and perhaps the low-hanging fruit of international development opportunities. It’s a mix that makes for interesting times.
In recent weeks, I’ve been reading with great interest Gideon Rachman’s excellent book entitled ‘Easternisation’, which examines the upsurge of Chinese power and influence and clearly considers the inevitable rise to global dominance that we should expect (as does China) in the near future.
Rachman is clear that, within a very few years from now, China will be the global superpower, particularly as the Obama-led drawback from US interventionism has offered exploitable and opportune gaps for an emerging power to fill. Witness how Russia is doing just that.
Of course, there’s no doubt – and little argument against the fact – that China offers a unique financial and economic opportunity for major investment and support. The penetration by Chinese products into just about every market in the world is pervasive as cheaply produced and effective solutions will always be attractive to consumers. On a much broader scale, we’ve courted that penetration into our own market in such a manner that we now have dependencies – rather than a customer-supplier relationship – underpinning some major national assets and activities.
By way of example, the much publicised discussions and hesitations by the current UK Government in relation to Chinese investment for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant have highlighted the extent of the commitment and, for some, the potential risks of all-encompassing direct foreign investment in our Critical National Infrastructure (CNI).
At this point, it’s also worth looking back and considering the UK Intelligence and Security Committee Report of 2013 which discussed a BT/Huawei telecommunications collaboration and provided clear indicators concerning a requirement for the effective procurement and operational management of all CNI assets and facilities. There was a clearly stated warning concerning the need to balance the requirement for investment and industrial growth against the potential for security failure.
Interestingly, BT and Huawei continue to co-operate successfully. The latter even has a Cyber Security Evaluation Centre here in the UK (although the UK Government has established an oversight board for that).
In an ideal world, this level of collaboration and investment both looks and feels good. It’s attractive financially and probably necessary, but it’s not risk-free. Will the costs and risks outweigh the benefits? In addition, to what extent will ownership, design and management offer accessible levers that can be pulled to influence and change our national political and economic directions?
There is perhaps a degree of arrogance – assuming that our Government isn’t naïve – in expecting the more sceptical among us to accept that investment and integration in our lifeblood systems by a foreign power isn’t a thoroughly robust foreign policy move. As is the case with any transaction, and certainly any major investment, a return will be expected at some point in the future that may well extend for a distance beyond the simple and straightforward expectation of being paid for a service that’s provided.
All of this is, in fact, something of a risk, and that risk will have been (one hopes) carefully considered and evaluated with the upside and downside and cost/risk benefits measured, projected and balanced.
They will have been, will they not? Our trust in those who have done the deals is implicit in the fact that successive Governments have been in positions where the offer made, with the associated benefits, is too good to be true.
Without direct foreign investment, the nuclear power station would not be built and the ever-present hunger for job creation would need to have been satisfied elsewhere.
Similarly, if surveillance systems are needed then we should invest in the best value, best networked and most readily available solutions – it makes good financial sense to do so.
No time for naïvety
What our current situation fails to recognise, and what Rachman reminds us of in his book, is that we’re not in a position to be either arrogant or naïve. The West is in decline, while the East is on an upward trajectory with clear, defined and project-managed clarity.
There are probably quite a few security and risk management professionals reading these words who have been involved in commercial or other intelligence-related activities and who will no doubt be familiar with the methods and techniques used in infiltration and social engineering. Engagement, trust and partnerships are built. Alliances and collaborative arrangements develop. Transactions take place, and the targeted organisation or individual will only realise too late, if at all, that they’ve been ‘had’.
In my library, I also have a copy of ‘Their Trade is Treachery’. Published by the UK Government in 1964, this tome illustrates the human frailties that allow us to be drawn into trusting and depending on others in a deceptively ideal world that adversaries have constructed. In this publication’s examples, the victims’ lack of self-awareness, understanding, simple greed or the pursuit of some other personal reward overcomes any number of alarm bells and warning signs.
The recurring themes and lessons are that the planned, well thought out and intricate approach – ie ‘the long game’ – with inducements will, in many cases, reap rewards for the instigator.
Back in the ideal world – with its shifting balance of power and wherein the future of dominance may not be in overt conflict, but economically through the manipulation of intelligence and information, networks and structures – things are going to change.
Hard power colonialism will be replaced by embedded and interwoven structures and controls that will be beyond our capability to manage, and it’s both arrogant and naïve to imagine that we’re either more inventive, smarter or stronger defensively than our adversaries when in soft, but offensive modes.
Like a dream where we witness something happening, but are relatively powerless to intervene in any number of unwanted or nasty scenarios, we stand by while the issues become more complicated and the short-term rewards and benefits outweigh our ability to respond. All the while, the weakening of our capability – at our very own invitation – builds more levers and traps for us to encounter.
‘May you live in interesting times’ is said to be an ancient Chinese curse. It isn’t, but ‘interesting times’ these most certainly are.
Phillip Wood MBE MSc is Head of the School for Management and Professional Studies and Head of Department for Security and Resilience at Buckinghamshire New University