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In September last year I was appointed the Swedish Foreign Ministry’s first ambassador and special envoy for countering hybrid threats. This is a natural development considering the worsening security policy situation in Europe and the widened scope of the antagonistic state threats that we are facing.
My mission is threefold: to coordinate the activities of the foreign ministry relating to hybrid aggression, and analyse the consequences of the hybrid threat environment for our foreign and security policy; to represent Sweden in the growing international cooperation and discussion on countering hybrid threats; and, lastly, to be part of the intragovernmental coordination effort to understand and counter hybrid threats. Much of this focuses on connecting international cooperation and discourse on countering hybrid threats with our national efforts, thus contributing to a common strategic culture, both nationally and internationally.
Keeping up with work in relevant EU institutions and councils, developing our partnership with NATO in this field as well and cooperating with the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki are important parts of my portfolio. The number of international and national conferences and seminars on hybrid threats is growing rapidly, and I try to participate where I can, learning from lessons learned and best practices of others but also actively participating in the exchange.
Sometimes, the question is put whether all the talk (and action) about hybrid threats is just hype, a mere repackaging of something that has always been around. Of course, the methods and a broad toolbox of aggressive instruments to impose one’s political will on other states and societies have always existed. Nevertheless, the renewed focus on these issues since the Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014, and elsewhere, is justified.
A threat can be understood as the combination of capability, intent and opportunity. The capability of certain states to apply a broad range of antagonistic instruments in a coordinated way has certainly increased. So has the intent: we can observe hostile state activities to an extent not seen in a long time. Over the last decade or so, certain governments have clearly lowered their inhibitions to the use of malign and malicious actions. At the same time, the opportunity presented by our own vulnerabilities has increased, thanks to increased digitalisation and dependencies but also under-investment in internal and external security. So yes, hybrid threats exist here and now, and they are not going to go away. Hybrid threats do not constitute a potential risk – something that might happen. They are an actual reality, which we need to deal with.
Managing hybrid threats is a rapidly growing subject of discourse nationally and internationally and is, as it were, at the front line of contemporary security policy. It requires countries to understand the threat, build resilience and acquire the capabilities to counter the menace.
Understanding the threat includes developing an awareness of one’s vulnerabilities; understanding the motives and modes of action of the antagonistic state; and detecting the threat, a task that requires full situational awareness.
Building resilience means reducing the potential gains of the antagonistic state, the so-called deterrence by denial. Neither understanding the threat nor building resilience is ‘rocket science’, although both require targeted efforts and a coordinated whole-of-government approach.
Countering hybrid threats, however, partially means entering unchartered, and challenging, territory. ‘Countering’ can be divided into applying countermeasures against ongoing antagonistic actions and building deterrence against potential attacks by changing the cost–benefit analysis of the antagonistic state, the so-called deterrence by punishment.
Hybrid threats are by nature designed to be difficult to detect and to attribute, to create confusion and deception. They consist of a large number of possible antagonistic means used in a coordinated way, some of which – such as disinformation – do not have to be illegal or contrary to international law. Tit-for-tat symmetric responses are seldom possible or desirable. International law must be upheld.
Typically, the antagonistic state is an authoritarian government or dictatorship that has little inhibition against aggressive behaviour and that possesses highly centralised, rapid and coordinated decision-making structures. Antagonistic, malicious action is seen – and used – as a political tool to achieve strategic goals.
Countering hybrid threats, moving beyond building resilience as it were, is a rapidly growing and deepening political and intellectual quest. It is a challenging, but also rewarding, part of rethinking and redesigning security policy. International cooperation and exchanges between government authorities, think tanks and academia play an important role in this endeavour. Programmes like RUSI’s Modern Deterrence project are a welcome effort.
One major challenge in countering hybrid threats is that, on one hand, we face a traditional security and foreign policy issue – an antagonistic state actor – yet on the other hand, threats often manifest themselves in the internal security sphere, where many of the possible countermeasures can also be found. The political culture and bureaucratic structures of Cold War or post-Cold War Western states are not necessarily conducive to bridging the gap between what traditionally has been construed as ‘internal’ and ‘external’ security challenges. The new hybrid threat environment means that the security policy concept must be widened and partially redefined.
Building resilience does not only imply strengthening infrastructure, be it physical or societal; it is also about strengthening cognitive and legal resilience. The recurring new buzz words are whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach. Clearly, private business and civil society play an important role in countering hybrid threats. That is a particular strength of our open, liberal democracies.
International cooperation and solidarity are important tools for enhancing deterrence, understanding the threat and building resilience. In that spirit, it is in our interest to strengthen the resilience of partner countries like EU candidates and countries in the Eastern Partnership.
No single actor, not even an ambassador for countering hybrid threats, can coordinate the efforts or solve the problem; this is a team effort. Nonetheless, foreign and security policy including diplomacy, are important parts of that effort. International cooperation needs to be developed, the tools in the diplomatic toolbox sharpened and foreign and security policy redesigned. And foreign ministries have a clear stake and role in this.
Fredrik Löjdquist is Sweden’s ambassador and special envoy for countering hybrid threats.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Ministry of Defence.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.