Bitcoin may have profound affects on war, but it certainly won't end it.
This has turned formerly theoretical debates into live, practical questions on how Bitcoin will affect geopolitical relations. The current balance of global power is defined by complex arrangements of military alliances, trade flows, ethnic and religious affinity, cultural influence, linguistic agreement, and, of course, national borders. In this author’s view, it is hubris to expect, as some passionate bitcoin fans, have, that Bitcoin is set to singularly override or sweep away the accumulated weight and historical inertia of this tightly-bound matrix of interlinked forces. Of course, it is tempting to smooth over this irreducible complexity and hypothesize a “saved” world, where bitcoin is that “one weird trick” to fix all that’s wrong with human civilization. This temptation to “immanentize the eschaton” is common among totalizing belief systems and becomes an emotionally attractive picture of the future, especially in an era where formerly trusted verities of common belief are losing their stabilizing force. And yet, we can still, and increasingly must, analyze the question of violence – especially state violence – in a future world order where Bitcoin is a major economic and political force.
By shifting a large portion of national wealth from easily seized and vulnerable tangible assets into digital form, the incentives to violent conflict – as a means of confiscating this wealth – are substantially reduced. This moves the locus of inter-state conflict from the battlefield to the global, competitive mining market. Real wars become hash wars, and the negative externalities of the former (death and destruction) are replaced by the positive externalities of the latter (energy efficient computation and power generation). While this is well-reasoned and accords with the likely directional influence of Bitcoin on state competition, it is overly simplistic and incomplete. For human conflict exists on a spectrum: from soft power influence and psychological operations (psyops), gray zone subversion, and deniable covert action or sabotage to more overt forms of military violence via stand-off strikes, large-scale invasion, and (in the escalatory limit) all-out nuclear war.
It is possible it will, but there are contrary forces at play that must not be overlooked. Considering the full set of relevant factors, a more reasonable thesis to hold is one in which Bitcoin may constrain certain forms of large-scale, expensive conventional war, but may not (on net) materially reduce human conflict or substantially constrain state violence.
One can argue that all property claims are ultimately enforced via violence or the threat thereof. (Bracket off for now the strong anthropological evidence, especially in human prehistory, that it is possible for communal social arrangements to endure with group-rights to “property,” though it remains an open question how durable these arrangements are as populations scale and cultural heterogeneity erodes the informal norms and coherence of group identity which mitigates violent dispute.) If Bitcoin succeeds in transposing most property claims from a vulnerable physical form to a more easily protected digital bearer asset, then one may argue that bitcoin removes one potent locus of physical violence from the world: physical property. However, even if one holds that all physical property claims are inherent or latent sources of violence, this doesn’t imply that all sources of human violence (namely, war) result from conflict over physical property. So even if Bitcoin succeeds in reducing one driver of war, one may not feel confident in the claim that Bitcoin fixes all, or even the dominant, drivers of war.
There are however, three key trends worth noting
One important, and little remarked-upon, factor is a corollary of Jeff Booth’s thesis (well-articulated in his book, ”The Price Of Tomorrow”) on the deflationary impact of technology. Much recent technological progress – especially in computational hardware, machine learning/artificial intelligence, resilient network communications, quantum computation, robotics/unmanned systems, 3D manufacturing, biological synthesis, propulsion systems, novel energetics, space launch and surveillance , among others – is being driven by and for military applications. The implication of Jeff Booth’s thesis (which has been borne out to date) is that just as technology drives exponential progress in consumer goods and services getting better and cheaper, so will the warfighter get “more for less.” More problematic, however, is that this will likely result in a proliferation of advanced technology that “democratizes” violence and distributes powerful capabilities to a broad range of human actors, with their use increasingly unconstrained by rules of engagement, Geneva Conventions, or deterrence considerations.
One can imagine a world that has fully adopted a Bitcoin standard, but in which zero-day exploits in critical enterprise software and industrial control systems are found and deployed by teenage Minecraft players, autonomous drone-swarms are built and launched by hobbyists for a few hundred dollars, a disaffected postdoc cooks up synthetic viruses in his garage laboratory, and AI-bot armies execute continuous psyops campaigns against target populations. Further, as Jeff Booth has argued, Bitcoin’s natural alignment with these deflationary forces may accelerate technological progress, which while certainly positive for civilization at large, will likely have these kinds of spillover effects.
At a different scale, once bitcoin becomes a globally-adopted neutral reserve asset, protection of domestic mining operations tightly integrated into energy grids becomes a national security issue. While mining firms within each nation will likely be regulated into coopetitive arrangements that dissuade disorderly sabotage, no such constraints will exist between states. In the zero-sum battle for the next nonce (and assuming the combination block reward and fee reflect the state of global adoption), the incentive to undercut one’s global competition will be large.
This will manifest first in sophisticated corporate espionage and sabotage operations, likely involving the same sorts of firms which now hire armies of ex-intelligence and military professionals to conduct all sorts of unsavory activities around the world. As is the case with strategically important industries today, these types of activities tend to fuse with state intelligence services. Bitcoin mining may become a strategically important industry, if not the most important such industry in the most geopolitically powerful and relevant nations.
Thus, it should not be surprising if we come to see state intelligence agencies brought into service to protect domestic mining operations and develop offensive capabilities to threaten their global competitors. Given the interconnection of these mining operations with regional energy production and grid networks, this will compound the existing risks states face in protecting against cyberattacks and disruption to critical infrastructure.
States (and/or their deniable proxies) will find and exploit vulnerabilities in each other’s mining and national Bitcoin operations, which may range from executing sophisticated supply chain attacks that compromise competitor ASICs, to outright physical or cyber-enabled sabotage. This will set off an increasingly expensive game to relocate and protect one’s domestic mining infrastructure. However, the lessons from the current spate of cyber-incidents is that the offense is inherently advantaged over defense in these types of digital environments. It could be the case that the direct, substantial incentive that Bitcoin provides energy owners to protect their networks will finally focus attention on basic cyber-hygiene, insider-threat mitigation, and effective business continuity activities, but this is more a hope than a rational expectation.
While beyond the scope of this essay to fully analyze, it is plausible that bitcoin, if adopted as the primary global neutral reserve asset, will constrain (but not eliminate) most forms of national debt finance. Note that it is likely that before it reaches equilibrium adoption as a unit of account (which could be a very long ways away), bitcoin will spend a substantial period of time as a reserve asset (taking increasingly dominant share of similar assets) in its store of value function and somewhat as a medium of exchange vehicle to settle large balances between institutions and governments and in jurisdictions which have adopted it as legal tender.
In such a period, there are reasons to believe that large states will still find willing creditors for their national debt (denominated in local currency or, more likely, USD), subject to collateral conditions relating to that nation’s (provable) bitcoin reserve. Such creditors will assess the default risk of such sovereigns in a similar manner as today (and as throughout history), and will take the nation’s bitcoin reserve, its taxing ability, fiat currency acceptability, and extant geopolitical position as factors to consider when lending out their own bitcoin to help these governments’ finance expenditures beyond their existing fiscal balance.
Note that this will likely be a much more constrained form of debt finance than we currently see, though it is hard to estimate this precisely. It most likely would not be sufficient to enable states to debt-finance large-scale, conventional wars involving mass mobilization, extensive heavy armaments, and protracted deployments, let alone decades-long occupations or “nation-building” imperial misadventures.
Even if one doubts the above argument and believes that Bitcoin will absolutely bind governments to self-fund entirely via tax arrangements subject to revised social contracts delimiting the scope of such spending, war likely won’t disappear. This is because war (especially in the form near-future technology will enable) may not be that expensive to prosecute. As we saw above, the exponential effect of technological deflation (partly enabled by bitcoin shifting investor time preference and raising the hurdle rate for productive capital investment) will accelerate the trend already underway to radically cheap, but asymmetrically effective weapons.
National defense strategies (among the most geopolitically significant states) will plausibly evolve towards a barbell strategy that combines irregular warfare capabilities with nuclear deterrence. The most expensive parts of national defense budgets derive from having to pay, train, equip, supply, transport, and provide medical benefits to human soldiers, and to construct manned platforms (e.g., aircraft carrier battlegroups) to project violent force. The next few decades will see a shift towards autonomous and unmanned weapons systems and cyber-enabled electronic warfare to deny, disrupt, and destroy similar adversary systems. Humans will be reserved for the special operations and irregular warfare activities in the broadening “gray zone” of state conflict that sits just below the threshold of overt peer-on-peer war. One perverse effect of the very power of nuclear weapons is the creation of deterrence voids for non-nuke threshold conflict, especially in deniable or gray-zone domains.
As the capabilities to cheaply execute effective operations in these domains increases, the incentive to do so, while knowing the nuclear threshold sits high above, will be strong for many states. One can imagine revanchist regimes or those disposed to take special advantage of newly affordable weapons systems to prosecute long-awaited grievances or secure what they may see as marginal, and increasingly perishable, military superiority. For example, the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war saw Azerbaijan combine drone technology and long-range sensors to direct precision fires that dominated the battlefield and decisively tipped the scales in a decades-long conflict. These capabilities would have been out of reach just a few years ago, but were made affordable to such a small state by the deflationary impact of technological progress.
It’s possible that even the relatively minimal costs of sustaining these forms of asymmetric capabilities will outweigh their benefit (priced in bitcoin, even). But this seems unlikely, especially if the technology deflation continues to make them ever cheaper, and while the world remains a contested, finite geography riven by historically embedded lines of division and political heterogeneity.
The one military technology where states are likely to be less cost sensitive are nuclear weapons. Despite the hopes of disarmament activists decades running, this particular genie isn’t going back in the bottle. The existential consequences of nuclear weapons will continue to hang like a sword of Damocles over humanity until we reach some (as yet unenvisioned) plane of enlightenment that ushers in enduring global accord. Until that time, we will require that states invest whatever is necessary in order to maintain extremely secure and reliable nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) systems.
It isn’t too much of a stretch to call the U.S. government (to take one example) as a form of nuclear monarchy. While our constitution vests the Commander in Chief (CiC) executive powers over the armed forces, it formally remands the authority to declare war with the Congress. While presidents have found various ways around this particular constraint, they still feel compelled to come to Congress to receive the political dispensation offered by “authorizations to use military force.”
The time-scales of nuclear war, however, render all of that moot. Given the precious few minutes between launch detection and detonation, the CiC is given sole and unchallenged authority to issue counter-strike orders, able to select from a menu of pre-selected target packages (defined in the Single Integrated Operational Plan). This nuclear SIOP is designed explicitly to convince our nuclear adversaries that a devastating retaliatory strike is guaranteed, a deterrence logic captured by the dictum of mutually assured destruction.
The fraught stability of this system courted catastrophe several times during the Cold War, and that era was comparatively simple from a game-theoretic perspective. As more (and less stable) states continue to nuclearize, the dynamics of multi-party deterrence becomes dangerously unpredictable. Further, technology is pushing the capability envelope, from dial-a-yield “tactical” weapons (e.g., the U.S. B61 bomb) to mega-weapons (e.g., Russia's Status-6 unmanned nuclear torpedo with a potentially 100MT payload), as well as novel delivery platforms like hypersonic glide vehicles and fractional orbital bombardment systems (like that recently demonstrated by China).
Now, you may be asking why this excursion on nuclear weapons. Well, if the question at issue is the degree to which Bitcoin may constrain state violence, and war in particular, it seems to me absolutely imperative to recognize the deeply embedded present system of nuclear deterrence. Such a structure – which places the power of world-ending violence in the hands of individual political leaders – isn’t likely to change anytime soon (no matter what happens with Bitcoin). Humble Bitcoiners must reconcile themselves to this unfortunate reality, and hope that the enlightened Bitcoiner leaders of the future will dedicate themselves to reinvigorate the failed non-proliferation, denuclearization, and arms-reduction efforts of our current politicians.
More fundamentally, human conflict isn't always (or even mostly) motivated to directly seize monetary wealth. We fight each other for many reasons, including over scarce assets (e.g., water rights, agricultural land, minerals, rare earth metals, oil, and natural geographic features like ports, navigable waterways, straits, etc.), ethnic, tribal, or religious enmity, national pride or honor, domestic political wagging-of-the-dog, or just because of some individual leader’s mania or even group collective insanity.
While humans are capable of some wondrous things, our capacity for violence and destruction (especially against our own self-considered and “rational” interest) is legion. In the "long-run," one can, possibly, envision a utopia of abundance where all conceivable axes of human conflict have been eliminated or mitigated. But this seems so far off as to distract from the more likely practical scenarios we must navigate in the decades ahead.
Bitcoin as a bearer asset presents immense benefits as well as security challenges for individual holders. These will scale with the scale of adoption. It will be hard to steal a nation's or a large corporation’s bitcoin, but not impossible, and the incentives to try will be large. Right now, national governments substantially invest in securing domestic critical infrastructure – especially the financial system and its centralized, interconnected digital ledgers – from cyberattack, insider exploitation, theft, sabotage, and natural hazard disruption. Bitcoin’s ledger needs no such protection thanks to the geographic distribution, scale-free self-healing network structure, and endogenous incentives of miners (bracket off the 51% attack arguments here), but our keys do.
If you don't believe the combined intelligence and defense capabilities of the world's (remaining, likely most powerful) states will not invest in forms of violence, compellence, theft, sabotage, and manipulation to undercut their rival's economic stability, I encourage more "adversarial thinking."
The precise outlines of the future state of geopolitical competition in a Bitcoin standard are hard to foresee. Exactly how the incentives of Bitcoin mining and national reserve adoption may affect the calculus of inter-state violence is unknowable. Still, we can reason and explore the parameter space of possibilities given present conditions and projected trends. There are good reasons to believe that Bitcoin may reduce the incentive for large-scale, conventional war and imperial-style occupations. At the same time, such forms of state violence may become outmoded regardless of Bitcoin due to the dramatic improvement in weapons technology to asymptotically project power with relatively little cost. Further, the posture of nuclear forces – and the taught logic of deterrence we rely on to prevent their use – will likely be entirely unchanged by Bitcoin (at least for the foreseeable future).
Where does this leave us on the question of Bitcoin and war? Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic that it will fundamentally alter the strategic balance of geopolitical forces in such a way as to substantially reduce the likelihood of destructive state conflict. This is no fault of Bitcoin, which promises a great reformation and improvement in many critical aspects of our civilization. Rather, this is merely a statement that, for all its power, Bitcoin is unlikely to change (in our lifetimes, at least) inherent aspects of the human condition, existing as we are on a finite planet, burdened by the frailties of nature and our fraught history.