Connectivity and Innovation: The Strategic Value of Turbulent Subregional Systems in Network Security Governance

Subregional dynamics are crucial to transatlantic security, cooperation, and prosperity. EU Global Strategy and U.S. National Security Strategy have failed to fully capture the geopolitical value of subregions. The connectivity of subregional networks of innovation and cooperation is of paramount strategic importance to constructing a model of integrated network security meta-governance. This model has the potential to salvage the Liberal International Order and expand the scope and relevance of international organizations in an era of permacrisis.

Effie Charalampaki
July 04, 2023

Since antiquity, dynamic subregional systems have thrived on turbulence as a structural parameter in their socio-political equilibria. To an outsider, this may seem like a balance disorder that challenges the coordination, resilience, and sustainability of policy structures. Outsiders to this subregional turbulence are often the security governance architects of transatlantic partnerships that miss the relational complexity of subregional systems.  They operate according to myopic policy lenses that treat each region as      one strategic environment. Prominent examples of regions falling under this lens are the Mediterranean, the Arctic, the Baltics, the Black Sea, and the Middle East. These subregions’ immense geopolitical value for the security and prosperity of the transatlantic alliance is still not fully grasped. This is evident in the European Union’s Global Strategy (EUGS) and strategic compass and the U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS)

The strategic importance of dividing regions into subregional theaters of operations and management is indisputable. Subregions are pivotal to the EU’s strategic autonomy and global actorness in a world of contested leadership. They unite the crossroads of continents, maritime routes, and political constructs, igniting bottom-up approaches to military and conflict management theaters. They are critical to combating climate change, biodiversity degradation, and food insecurity. Many subregions are decisive in addressing energy security, green energy production, the semiconductor industry, and rare-earth elements extraction.

Bureaucrats and policymakers fail to realize that the EU’s footprint in a poly-nodal world passes from turbulent subregional systems needing complexity management at the micro-macro levels to act as innovation game-changers and creativity catalysts under persistent global uncertainty.

The EU’s strategic compass should focus on subregional spatial transformations, as they are geopolitical assets to the “wider Europe”. They act as diffusers of connectivity, cooperation, and conflict trends, enhancing the EU’s power projection and foreign policy scope as an inclusive international organization stabilizing the global arena. When comparing the EU to other regional partners, such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the only actor that can play a stabilizing role on behalf of the transatlantic partnership on a transregional level is the EU.

Strategic Autonomy Equals Strategic Responsibility

The defining characteristics of transatlantic security challenges are the progressive globalization of subregions and their transformation to transregional connectivity hubs; the wisdom or folly of U.S. retrenchment from regions, such as the Middle East; the changing nature of conflict; the increasing access to kinetic and non-kinetic warfare capabilities by revisionist states, violent non-state actors and challengers of the Liberal International Order (LIO). These challenges provide opportunities for the EU to enhance its diplomatic credibility, where the U.S. needs to reinstate it. The EU needs to develop a grand strategy of deep engagement based on political coherence and sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based connectivity by promoting democratic values instead of dependencies.

The EU has always been a norm-setter, implying that strategic autonomy coheres with strategic responsibility. It has always been a quiet, balancing force in the international system with the power to stimulate and support stable governance structures for peaceful coexistence and institutionalized cooperation despite its own internal economic and political problems. Of today’s great powers, the only one truly committed to multilateralism is the EU, “a defining feature of its internal constitution and external identity.” It is endowed with the complex task of reviving the role and scope of international organizations (IOs) as crucial elements of the liberal rules-based order. By undertaking this task, the EU will relieve the international system of the geopolitical race for spheres of influence.

The Usual Suspects in International Politics

The post-Cold War order is developing into a bipolar system—the global dominance of two superpowers—that searches for equilibriums between the Western order and the Chinese-Russian order that, paradoxically, favors the existing status quo of multilateral institutions, such as the UN. Unlike the Cold War era, when nuclear weapons maintained the balance of power, the new bipolar order lacks symmetry, with the possibility of nuclear war. The balance of power between the two orders is also determined by the shape of the information environments and forces that accrete around regional financial and cultural centers that ignite or disrupt innovation.                                                                                                

These are the subregional liminal spaces that, by disrupting continuity due to synergistic creativity or conflicts, can transregionally diffuse meaningful change, or accelerate a butterfly effect, fostering                  global chaotic dynamics. In other words, those spatial ontologies that make regions more than the sum of their parts can mitigate or augment the nodes of uncertainty in the global order with unpredictable consequences, as exemplified by COVID-19. Suppose, for example, the West wants to regulate China’s civil-military fusion: it must devise creative, non-Eurocentric, inclusive, equitable governance models for subregions' independent development and security to encourage transregional clusters of innovation. This fosters institutionalized cooperation regionally, even among parties at odds, to harness innovation networks for self-interest.

The Western and Chinese orders encourage a rules-based global system without a genuine commitment to democratic innovations and liberalism. The Chinese-Russian order is essentially illiberal, while the Western order is progressively engulfing EU and non-EU countries that have flawed or hybrid democracies. The fact that the U.S. is now considered a deteriorating, flawed democracy generates greater uncertainty about the fate of the LIO. This encourages an increase in state and non-state actors from non-Western countries           to seek security, development, and prosperity from authoritarian orders that expand behind the façade of economic liberalism.

The Need for Continuous Investment in Transnationalism in the Era of Permacrisis

In this geopolitical flux, the only remaining constants are economic interdependence and transnational issues on the uncertainty generated by climate change and environmental disasters, pandemics, energy, food and human insecurity, and protracted conflicts.

Transnationalism inevitably encourages international cooperation that, just like security, requires a new nexus to bridge nationalism and regionalism and the emergent state of meta-globalization. Within meta-globalization is the theory of slowbalization and newbalization. These three trends sit at the nexus of connectivity with innovation, which is more important than ever in international security. Transregional innovation networks are vital to international security governance. They should be managed in subregional corridors that are greater than their geographical borders and through which the EU’s resilience, threat analysis, and strategic foresight are filtered in the 21st century. The future of global governance depends on the EU’s capacity to change the paradigm: the tragic war in Ukraine should become the trailhead of transformative dynamics that prescribe a new meaning to security.

EU’s Strategic Autonomy Depends on Turbulent Regional Subsystems

The EU’s strategic compass should define not only the EU’s interests and strategies in an era of permacrisis but also a grand strategy for innovation and cooperation. This shift could transform the EU’s dependencies and economic and political structures in a world of inequality. The non-Western countries look East because “the split between the West and the Global South is widening.” These countries seek “to reform existing multilateral institutions or create new ones” by “developing parallel networks of diplomatic, economic, cultural and security partnerships, causing the West to lose influence and predominance.” The ultimate test for the EU’s ability as a security guarantor and risk manager is in its immediate periphery, in corridor areas such as the Eastern Mediterranean, the Eastern and Western Black Sea, that thrive on turbulence as an agent for change.

These corridor areas are crucial to the EU’s strategic interactions and connectivity initiatives in different sectors, especially the energy sector. Energy equals security and prosperity. Several parameters of European autonomy are constantly tempered by systemic uncertainties embedded in those areas’ time-space continuum due to historical, political, and cultural tensions.

Subregions will eventually seek to evolve into autonomous yet interconnected managers of the regions they connect. They can become hubs of connectivity and innovation due to the concentration of networks around key cities, financial centers, and “silicon valleys.” These complex networks bifurcate ubiquitously transregionally, fostering a self-regulated process of continuous horizontal and vertical integration and control of trade routes,  market and technology centers, resource and energy value chains, service units and the global civil society. This capacity of subregions to act as nodes of global innovation networks reveals structural interdependency and an agency beyond international institutions’ actorness that will shape future trends in society, economics, politics, technology and ecology, such as deep hybridity.  This places progressively regional constructs above the nation-state’s will because of the role of subregional connectivity networks. Their direct attachment to the international system's power poles and innovation nodes does not require a formal nation-state agency.

This process is becoming extremely complex because of the economics of digitization and the rise of Artificial Intelligence. It opens a window of opportunity for IOs as regulators of networked transactions with a form of meta-governance. Because of its collaborative governance parameters, meta-governance allows for designing clusters of wider, comprehensive and mature security communities determined by the scale of integration they achieve into IOs. The merging of network governance with collaborative governance, as an expression of meta-governance, is a complexity management mechanism that assists the  LIO in adapting to challenges coming from regional autocratic political elites and Europe’s defective democracies. From pluralistic security communities to “liminal security spaces,” security, like cooperation and multilateralism, must become extremely innovative      from now on.

A Strategy for Deep Engagement: Innovation Cooperation and Integrated Network Security

The post-pandemic recovery and the war in Ukraine demonstrate the need for coordinated governance structures that create greater resilience by design, not by disaster. Structures must address the multidimensional nature of security involving many interconnected layers. The integrated “people, planet and prosperity” recovery model, guided by research and innovation-led transformation, directs political and economic investment toward enhanced protection from the adverse impacts of social, economic, and environmental shocks. It prescribes better preparation to face emerging large-scale risks and deep transformation to reconcile sustainability with future resilience. Turbulent subregional systems can finetune these crucial parameters to foster strategic autonomy. The EU’s strategic compass needs tools to inform an integrated approach that expands beyond a threat analysis.

Instead of trying to micromanage regions of strategic importance to Russia by way of macroregional strategies, such as the Mediterranean, the Baltics, the Black Sea, the EUGS and the U.S.’s NSS should capitalize on the inherent tendency of subregional spaces to be turbulent. Transatlantic governance structures should treat subregions as strategic attractors for bottom-up approaches to conflict resolution, integrated cooperation, and innovation-led transformation. Regional state and non-state actors foster complex networks through their micro-macro interactions and interconnections that ceaselessly expand into larger, complicated, transregional systems. Their intra- and inter-regional sociopolitical dynamics are hard to control, affecting IOs’ and nation-states’ resilience capacity in pervasive ways.  

Many of the transatlantic alliance’s threats come from the uncontrollable bifurcations of complex networks generating unpredictable turbulent dynamics, ultimately causing uncertainty that no great power can mitigate alone.

These intra-, inter- and transregional entanglements of hybrid modes of social organization, fostered inevitably by those complex network interactions, demand from EU’s strategists and the transatlantic partners a transregional approach to emergent cross-boundary orders to overcome the segregation of realms of realities.  Inequality, poverty, climate change, conflict, unsustainability, and fragile or non-existent democratic institutions forge two or more different futures between the West and other parts of the world, establishing different realms of realities on the planet with immense politico-economic consequences.

The persistent  Western-non-Western divide is characteristic of the need for a more integrated global order to battle transnational crises. The challenges that the LIO faces because of this persistent fragmegration of the international system are prominent in the cross-regional disintegration of multilateralism. A characteristic phenomenon, for example, the West needs to confront is the hesitation of the Global South to embrace sanctions on revisionist states, as the case of sanctions against Russia has shown. Another example is the selective cooperation with China, Russia, and other revisionist autocrats that middle powers and small states, especially non-Western, welcome in their effort to protect their geo-economic interests from great power rivalry. 

Harnessing the Creativity of Meta-Governance

Mitigating the effects of global uncertainty, especially during and after the war in Ukraine, requires a careful model of network meta-governance. Its effectuation is possible through subregional self-organizing networks in turbulent subspaces, which regulate people, goods, services, and energy flows. Thus, protecting the EU’s and transatlantic partners’ connectivity networks with other continents and emerging orders. The existence of a Chinese-Russian order further emphasizes the criticality of international security governance. The EU has become key to global economic stability and integrated security because of the war in Ukraine.

From integrated governance to second-order to third-order meta-governance, a coordinated model of integrated security meta-governance in the EU’s strategic compass and the U.S.’s NSS could regulate the structures of interdependence and connectivity between subregional networks of innovation. This is one of the ways forward for salvaging the LIO and transforming it into a tool for inclusiveness and equity in a world of rational egoists that persist and thrive.

Effie Charalampaki is the Head of the Research Program on the Theory and Practice of International Relations at the Institute of International Economic Relations (IIER), Athens, Greece. She is the co-founder of the Women’s Network on Eastern Mediterranean Political Studies, and the co-editor of two forthcoming volumes: Complexity & Security: Theorizing Within and Beyond Borders and Innovation Cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean: The Importance of Partnerships and Networks.