7 views on how technology will shape geopolitics

A QR code for the "LeaveHomeSafe" COVID-19 contact-tracing app is posted at a shopping mall, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Hong Kong, China February 16, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu - RC2NTL9XCG3V
What is the biggest impact technology will have on geopolitics in the coming year – and what should be done?
Image: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

This piece originally appeared on Forbes.

A year into a new digital normal caused by the pandemic – and well into the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a new picture of the relationship between technology and geopolitics is emerging. Artificial intelligence, blockchain and 5G capabilities are fast becoming the frontlines of either global competition or coordination. These developments are leading to a need for global norms and protocols to accelerate the benefits and mitigate the risks of these new technologies.

The value of frontier technologies is high. 5G alone is projected to generate $13 trillion in global economic value and 22 million jobs by 2035. And artificial intelligence is projected to add over $15 trillion to the global economy by 2030. That China and the United States have announced or are considering large investments in these fields sends a clear signal of the significant geostrategic role these technologies will play in the near future.

Importantly, technology does not need to be an ingredient for global rivalry. The forging of green technology partnerships in the Middle East between former adversaries is just one example of how innovation can serve as a fabric for strengthening cross-border coordination.

At a time when we are seeing both rapid innovation and an unsettled geopolitical landscape, the World Economic Forum asked members of the Global Future on Geopolitics to offer their views of the impact technology will have on geopolitics in the coming year.

'We need to agree on norms and rules'

How free is the internet experience?
How free is the internet?
Image: Freedom House/NPR

Mark Leonard, Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

The single biggest challenge around technology is the way it is being nationalized and weaponised. There is a new map of power in the modern world that is no longer defined by geography, by control of territory or oceans but rather by control over flows of people, goods, money and data and by exploiting the connections technology creates. In this way, every connection between nations – from energy flows to IT standards – becomes a tool of geopolitics.

We are seeing a fragmentation of globalisation as countries use state subsidies, regulations, export controls, entities lists and localization to get access to critical technologies themselves, while simultaneously controlling the access of others. As globalisation is balkanised, companies risk finding themselves caught in the middle, forced to plan in redundant capacities or choose between markets. Consumers face higher prices. And, states risk being bullied. Most worrying is the danger of this technological competition escalating out of control and threatening global security. If the connections that are essential to our wellbeing are also being turned into geopolitical tools, we need to agree on norms and rules to make them less dangerous.

'We may see a further erosion of interconnection'

Fyodor Lukyanov, Research Director, Valdai Discussion Club

The main effect of technology on the international geopolitical order will derive from a widening gap between the transnational nature of communication and growing resistance to this from nation states.

The world is increasingly fragmented – and made more so by the pandemic. As a result, communication remains the most significant brace of globalization. But tools for communication are primarily provided by private “big tech” companies, which on the one hand are scarcely accountable to the states they work in, and on the other hand, have national roots and can be seen as channels of the outside influence, be it American, Chinese or anybody else’s.

The age of tech giants
The battleground for geopolitical influence will be centred on who owns the tech companies and which companies they own.
Image: Statista/Financial Times/Yahoo!Finance

As more sophisticated means of communication are introduced, there will likely be higher suspicion among governments. The more vulnerable states feel, the tighter control they will try to impose and exercise. As a result, we may see a further erosion of interconnection – something we are already seeing in the economic and political field – and companies may struggle for market opportunities. Combined, this may heighten tensions and prove challenging for the integrity of a globalized world.

Tech companies: 'the battleground for geopolitical influence'

Susana Malcorra, Dean, IE School of Global and Public Affairs, IE University

The biggest impact that technology will have on geopolitics for 2021 (and beyond) will not primarily come from the technology itself, but rather from the system that surrounds it. How we see the world, how we create economic value and how we drive innovation – and thus how we hold power – has been concentrated among a few “big tech” companies in what has been called the attention economy or “surveillance capitalism”.

Therefore, the battleground for geopolitical influence will be centred on who owns the tech companies and which companies they own. And, equally important will be who governs them and how their supply chains will be integrated. Not only that, the content produced on the platforms of these companies is an ongoing area for rivalry, as “troll farms” try to impact search engine optimization and what audiences consume online.

Democracies need data sharing, 'common standards,' 'technological infrastructure'

Robin Niblett, Director and Chief Executive, Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs)

The speed at which countries emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic will have a critical impact on the future balance of global economic and political power. Those countries with access to rapid genomic sequencing can stay one step ahead of the pandemic. Those with the most advanced broadband will adapt fastest to new forms of online economic activity. And those that can integrate data about their citizens’ health with medical responses will be able to re-start their economic engines without relapsing.

China has developed the technological prowess as well as economic scale to accelerate its rise relative to its Western counterparts through the course of the pandemic. If democracies are to avoid further erosion of their relative geopolitical power, they need to break down barriers to sharing data about their citizens’ health, develop common standards on vaccine development and testing, and invest together in the technological infrastructure on which their future prosperity as well as security will depend.

A worker from a traffic controls unit uses a camera which works with an experimental 5G network placed in Santiago, Chile March 19, 2021. Picture taken March 19, 2021. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado - RC29GM9URU69
China and the United States have announced or are considering large investments in 5G.
Image: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

We must address challenges 'jointly and across borders'

Samir Saran, President, Observer Research Foundation (ORF)

This past year was a year of unprecedented global disruption. It was also a year in which technology emerged as the slayer of conventional geopolitics. The post-pandemic world will have to deal with known and unknown technology-related challenges. These range from implications of emerging domains such as AI and robotics, to increasing cyber-attacks and "Big Tech" challenging national sovereignty.

The imponderables will form the proverbial impossible triangle comprising quest for sustained economic growth, heightened national security concerns and rising demands for individual rights as the three sides. It is an impossible triangle precisely because no government, community or country can serve all three interests to the satisfaction of all.

At the median of this impossible triangle lies the intersection between technology and geopolitics. The concept of nations as sole interlocuters is passe. Governments, businesses and individuals will have to meet the political challenges posed by emergence of technology jointly and across borders. This, in turn, will have a profound effect on geopolitical trends and indeed on the arrangements and institutions that moderate global politics.

'We must work together to address both the vast benefits and the enormous risks of data'

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) contact tracing smartphone app of Britain's National Health Service (NHS) is displayed on a mobile phone in this illustration photograph taken September 24, 2020. REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff/Illustration - RC2W4J9Y4347
Data is an issue of community and the common good.
Image: REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff/Illustration

Vera Songwe, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA)

The current splintering of the internet, banning of Huawei and ZTE, and focus on privacy all revolve around data.

Today, data is one of the most valuable assets there is. The pervasive collection and use of data by public and private entities affects individual decision-making, human rights, group action and social cohesion. The generation, use and control of data will be a significant determinant of future economies.

Data is not just an issue of individual vs. big business vs. country sovereignty. It is an issue of community and the common good. Many types of valuable data are easily obtained, transported and used to influence large groups of the population. As a result, only global and regional institutions and agreements can ensure equity for all. Many institutions and mechanisms, including the WTO and AfCFTA, are challenged in keeping up with and addressing data issues. Yet as the international action to address the COVID pandemic has shown, we must work together to address both the vast benefits and the enormous risks of data. The global stakes are too high to do anything else.

'The basis of unnecessary and dangerous geostrategic conflict'

Danny Quah, Dean and Li Ka Shing Professor in Economics, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

The immediate impact will be amplified geostrategic conflict in reaction to differences in technology norms across political systems. Yes, the world might be more efficient with just one technological standard. But post-COVID, the world needs to be resilient, not just efficient. Competing standards bring robustness.

Will security and trust be an issue? Yes, different systems vary in privacy and control. So, it will be best to keep technological structures separate, and to let people in different geographies choose what they want. Otherwise, who would get to decide which single system works for all?

Technology and ideas, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, banish darkness: because they are nonrival, they light your way without darkening mine. The geopolitical conversation, however, has instead settled on a zero-sum confrontational approach to technological competition.

So, the biggest impact? Because we have fetishized technology into the stuff of difference, we have made it the basis of unnecessary and dangerous geostrategic conflict.

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