The term hybrid is all the rage in the strategic community: hybrid warfare combines hard equipment such as aircraft carriers and physical troops with cyber warfare and drones. But what are hybrid politics? How are politicians supposed to plan policies to deal with increased Russian aggression on its borders or Chinese overflights of Taiwan’s airspace while at the same time dealing with rising social movements, often violent such as the Proud Boys, within the country?
Hybrid politics, then, is the mixture of high politics of dealing with U.S./Russia tensions over eastern Ukraine or U.S/Chinese tension over Chinese activity in the South China Sea and low politics such as civil society movements Proud Boys, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, as well as the increasing power of tech giants Alphabet (Google), Apple, Meta (Facebook), Amazon and Microsoft and powerful non-elected individuals like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg.
In a world of complex interdependence, the transversal cannot be ignored. High and low politics cannot be separated. Both raise the difficult questions of legitimacy and implementation.
For example, humanitarian organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, have traditionally dealt with state authorities. Major treaties dealing with what can and cannot be done in respecting international norms have been ratified by state governments. Now, what are these organizations to do with armed non-state actors such as ISIS or Al Qaeda? How are U.S. authorities to deal with domestic acts of violence? Are the Proud Boys terrorists or just criminals?
The Taliban have not been recognized officially as the legitimate governing power in Afghanistan by the large international community, but humanitarian assistance to the millions in need within the country now must go through the Taliban. They are, de facto, governing Afghanistan. If humanitarian assistance is to flow to those in desperate need, the Taliban cannot be ignored. The same could be said of other non-state actor groups who control territory throughout the world.
So, just as governments and intergovernmental organizations are learning how to deal with non-state actors, national democracies are trying to deal with civil society movements that are outside political parties. BLM, #MeToo and Proud Boys are social movements outside party affiliations. They have no official legitimacy, but they have powerful authority. Just ask Andrew Cuomo why he was forced to resign as governor of New York. Politicians cannot ignore these movements, but they are radically different from negotiating in a state capital about pending legislation. Although social movements can influence political parties, they have no direct authority.
There is no obvious alignment between social movements and political parties. The protest movements in the United States during the 1960s and 70s did lead to civil rights legislation and the winding down of the Vietnam War. The groundswell had official consequences. But the movements themselves had no legitimacy.
The most obvious example of the hybrid nature of current politics is the growing role of tech giants. Governments as well as intergovernmental organizations such as the World Intellectual Property Organization and the International Telecommunication Union are trying to set digital standards. States, often with China in the lead, are looking to see how norms can be established in various standard-setting fora.
But, again, the hybrid nature of the problem is evident. Whereas non-state actors are not beholding to humanitarian or human rights treaties, high tech giants are often not beholding to statist treaties, perfect examples of public/private non-cooperation. Since it’s generally the public sector that asks for money from the private sector (What would the World Health Organization be without the Gates Foundation?), why should super-wealthy tech giants put themselves under the control of state or interstate treaties? Remember how U.S. state and local governments went begging to have Amazon set up in their areas? Legitimacy is closely tied to purse strings as governing legitimacy is often tied to force. By what right do the Taliban govern Afghanistan? Have they won a free and fair election? On what basis does Amazon choose where to set up new facilities? Have they used objective, equitable criteria?
After legitimacy, the second question within the hybrid nature of high and low politics is implementation. If standard setting is done by recognized authorities, why should those outside the formal system accept the norms? While governments often refuse to partake in establishing official treaties – see the United States’ current opposition to a pandemic treaty at the World Health Organization – those outside the system have myriad reasons to not conform. Armed non-state actors may want to do more than just take over the government structure. Che Guevara, for example, called for radical change in the entire system, not just a change of leaders. Radical Islamic groups may not want to be invited to Davos or the United Nations General Assembly.
High and low politics have always existed at the same time. At given moments – wars or pandemics – one or the other comes to the fore. Our current situation has both on the front pages. And behind both are always questions of legitimacy and implementation. Non-state actors like tech giants have gained more and more power and the legitimate authorities have more and more problems establishing their efficiency. (How successful have authorities dealt with the pandemic? Climate change?) The United Nations, the most inclusive interstate organization, has not shined in preserving peace and security. And the view from Geneva is that the diffusion of power risks further weakening the establishment of international norms and their eventual implementation.
While states consider themselves the ultimate legitimate authorities, new actors and movements challenge their supremacy in terms of legitimacy and efficiency. Max Weber defined the state as having the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force. That monopoly, like many others, may be breaking up.