So You Want To Arm A Proxy Group?

Say you're a government that employs a variety group of rebels, insurgents, terrorists, or freedom fighters to advance your national goals. Like any crafty strategist, you want to inflict maximal damage on your enemies while minimizing the potential blowback to yourself – while ideally avoiding excess costs and casualties among the people on your payroll.


What a time to be alive, because new technologies are vastly expanding the ability of so-called "non-state actors" (nerd term, but that's who we are) to bloody the noses of their enemies, in particular leveling the playing field between militants and nation states. What the Kalashnikov rifle did for militants of the 20th century (hat tip to Moises Naim on this), new technologies are doing for non-state actors of the 21st.

Consider, first of all, drones, which were in the news again after Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed (now disputedly) to have used them to hit Saudi Arabia's oil facilities over the weekend. Drones are many desirable things at once: They are cheap – experts estimate some early models used in Yemen's civil war cost as little as $10,000 a pop to put together from basic parts. They're lethal. And, thanks to big improvements in range in 2018, the Houthis' drones are now capable of striking targets nearly a thousand miles away.

Drones aren't your thing? Let us show you into the cyberattacks aisle, because those also fit the mold: bad actors in cyberspace today have access to more powerful malware and a wider array of targets than ever before. The biggest cyberattacks have typically been state-sponsored – think Russia's NotPetya or the WannaCry ransomware attack launched by North Korea, which caused billions of dollars of damage around the world in 2017. But non-state actors are increasingly stepping up their game: criminal gangs have already paralyzed the computer systems of entire cities, like Atlanta and Baltimore, to try to extract ransom. Russia routinely uses proxies in its disinformation campaigns and other cyber campaigns. Meanwhile, critical infrastructure may only grow more vulnerable as 5G networks wire together everything from water plants to refrigerators to self-driving cars to pacemakers.

Into more of a SciFi look, you say? If you can hire a good rogue scientist, consider that some influential voices in the US intelligence community are already warning that new precision gene-editing techniques could become widespread enough to be weaponized, creating new pathogens or pests that wreak havoc on populations and ecosystems. Examples: modifying anthrax's genetic code to make it much more potent, or perhaps even altering a virus to make it disproportionally target carriers of a certain gene.

All of these technologies are complicating the ability of nation states to defend themselves. And unlike the Kalashnikov or other low-tech methods typically favored by non-state actors, they don't usually require putting people directly in harm's way. We've only just begun to understand how that's going to change the global balance of power between individuals, groups, and nation states.

So, what was it that you wanted to buy again?

Are the US and China headed for a new Cold War over technology? Judging by what we heard a few days ago at the Munich Security Conference, a major trans-Atlantic gathering for world leaders and wonks, you'd certainly think so. US, European, and Chinese officials at the event all weighed in with strong words on the US campaign against Chinese 5G giant Huawei and much more. Here are the main insights we gleaned from the proceedings:

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A few weeks ago we first took a look at how a bat (possible origin of the coronavirus) could have a butterfly effect on the world economy.

China accounts for about a fifth of global economic output, a third of global oil imports, and the largest share of global exports. That means that any time the Chinese economy shudders or stumbles, the shockwaves circle the globe. And China is most certainly shuddering.

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Bloomberg takes the stage – Tomorrow's Democratic debate will be the first to feature media tycoon Mike Bloomberg, who in recent weeks has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars behind an ad campaign designed to position himself as a viable, moderate candidate who can beat Trump. As his support in national polls has climbed to nearly 20 percent, Bloomberg – who largely sat out the earlier rounds of Democratic campaigning – has come under attack for sexist comments in the past as well as his support, as NYC mayor, for "stop and frisk" policing tactics that disproportionately targeted people of color. Bloomberg will immediately be at war not only with the moderates whom he wants to displace – Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Joe Biden – but especially with the front running left-progressive Bernie Sanders. It will likely be quite ugly and we're certainly tuning in.

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150: As the Chinese government continues to expand travel restrictions, hoping that reducing human contact will stop the virus from spreading further, at least 150 million people are now facing government restrictions dictating how often they can leave their homes. That's more than 10 percent of the country's total population who are currently on lockdown. Some 760 million are under partial, locally enforced restrictions.

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