In the same way that the first industrial revolution created a decades-long progress gap between Britain and even its closest rivals, and the second industrial revolution and third helped spawn a period in which the US was globally pre-eminent, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its convergence of digital technologies will have a marked influence on geopolitical relationships. There will likely be three primary channels for this. The first is through the economic gains for countries that emerge as technology leaders, particularly as a winner-takes-all dynamic characterizes key sectors. The second is the application of new technologies to new types of weapons, and new types of conflict. And the third is the way access to critical technologies, and the supply chains that produce them, create conditions for interdependence to be weaponized. A global scramble for technological leadership is driving geostrategic competition.
The transformative potential of emerging technologies underpinning the Fourth Industrial Revolution - and the economic and military power they can confer - are making technological innovation central to geopolitical competition. This is impacting the ways in which the international system works, as traditional centers of power shift and political ideologies and once-shared values fracture.
This raises questions about how we should think about and prepare for war. Cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, drone swarms, or new methods of disrupting an adversary’s domestic political system could alter the global balance of power in unexpected ways. There are already abundant examples of government-backed cyber armies carrying out attacks in pursuit of national interests.
A 2018 report from the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute found that China still trailed the US in every AI driver except for data, though this could change; the Chinese government issued a strategy document in 2017 resolving to position the country as the global leader in AI by 2030 by funneling significant public funding into the sector and helping startups attract more venture capital.
According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the scramble to secure the technological high ground has largely become a two-horse race - as the 20 largest technology companies in the world are now either American or Chinese. In terms of artificial intelligence, for example, these two countries are far ahead of peers on key indicators such as patents, funding, and talent.
European efforts to reduce reliance on Russian energy demonstrate that conflict can drive innovation as much as cooperation.
The decline and fall of some of the world’s most sophisticated civilizations has been linked to environmental factors - from the Mayans succumbing to deforestation and drought, to the food supply network disruptions that befell the Romans.
Human activity has already warmed the planet by more than 1°C since the industrial revolution, and global temperature rise has wrought increasingly destructive fires, floods, and storms. The intersection of environmental pressures with issues like migration and conflict illustrates just how vulnerable modern, globally-integrated societies can be to a shock to one of their component parts.
Humanity’s ecological impact is both increasingly visible and increasingly deadly; while ancient civilizations faced localized ecological crises, and had relatively few tools to soften the resulting economic and social impacts, contemporary societies are pushing against planetary boundaries even though we have the scientific and technical know-how required to understand and mitigate destructive behavior.
In some ways, the world appears more politically fragmented than ever. Coupled with worsening environmental threats, this is causing fragility on a grand scale.
The unpredictable and profound nature of these threats magnify vulnerabilities, as was the case in 2018 when changing rainfall patterns sparked an international dispute over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers - and forced Iraqi farmers to abandon their land. Rising sea levels may displace millions of people, while the loss of biodiversity could lead to the collapse of fragile states.
The economic transformation required to adapt to these threats and decarbonize the global economy in a matter of decades will disrupt countries dependent on fossil fuels. In this way, the geopolitics of environmental challenges will become increasingly existential - as they fuel conflict over whose interests are to be served. Hardening geopolitical divisions worsen these risks and inhibit collective solutions. At the same time, conflict can drive innovation; European efforts to reduce reliance on Russian energy accelerated following the invasion of Ukraine, for example.
In a world of divergent values, mitigating environmental damage will be shaped as much by competition as cooperation. The global cooperation required to develop necessary solutions remains aspirational. From food security to climate change, the spiraling environmental pressures that we increasingly face are not being met by system-level policy responses.
In an increasingly multipolar and multi-conceptual world, singular ideas about how best to look after global affairs have been replaced by a diffusion of power and political values. This calls into question alliances and multilateral institutions that have been cornerstones of the global order since World War II, and risks undermining responses to pressing global challenges like pandemics and climate change.
Geopolitics now weighs more heavily on us than at any time since the end of the Cold War. While the Russian invasion of Ukraine has revived trans-Atlantic cooperation and raised the specter of new competition between rival poles, the economic growth of countries in the Global South - and of China in particular - continues to challenge the dominance of the West.
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In many countries, the politics of national identity are creating potentially destabilizing feedback loops. Domestic politics can both fuel and feed off unresolved global issues.
Domestic identity politics is both cause and effect when it comes to tumultuous geopolitics; a growing number of political leaders who owe their domestic positions to nationalist or protectionist stances are now shaping interaction among states. This has eroded global institutions and alliances. For example, populist leaders undercut the response to COVID-19 both in their own countries and globally, and the rise of vaccine nationalism undermined the cooperation needed to effectively control the pandemic. Many politicians have secured power (or are seeking it) by promising to redress imbalances they attribute to globalization, and to prioritize local demands - particularly in relation to jobs and migration. In a growing number of places, populist platforms have been blended with the identity politics, aggravating grievances and exacerbating fears. Examples can be found in recent years in a number of states, including the world’s biggest economies. These efforts have been intensified by social media, which has become an important driver of political mobilization, and COVID-19 enabled some leaders to further scapegoat foreigners or claim new emergency powers.
The ability to affect the domestic politics of other, fragile states is especially problematic, as it tends to sustain and harden existing divisions. This can provoke political or even violent conflict, diminish the odds for reconciliation, and sometimes reverse a country’s transition to democracy.
Increasingly prevalent technologies and tools including social media platforms and big data analysis are an important part of this story - particularly with respect to cyberattacks and the spread of disinformation. For example, experts tracked a rise in disinformation dispersed via social media as COVID-19 spread, including from state-backed sources that have sought to cast doubt on other countries’ vaccines and sow division.
There has been a resurgence in the use of economic and financial sanctions. The dividing line between economics and national security has therefore blurred, sometimes as a matter of policy - as illustrated by the US Department of Commerce’s strategic plan for 2018-22, which states that “economic security is national security.” Meanwhile the increasingly domestic lens through which states assess their international economic policies and priorities has weakened support for the global economic governance framework that has been in place more than half a century.
The tightened integration of the global economy has rebalanced power and created complex new financial interconnections. In the two decades leading up to 2017, the share of global economic output accounted for by developing countries jumped to 59.3% from 42.8%; much of that increase is attributable to China, which progressed from contributing 6.6% of total global output on its own to 18.7% over the two-decade period (China’s dramatic integration into the global economy has been one of the most significant international developments since World War II). Increasingly, governments reach for economic and financial policy levers to advance national ambitions (or hinder others’), in both the economic and political realms.
Trade is not the only means used to advance national ambitions; there has been a resurgence in the use of economic and financial sanctions (most prominently targeting Russia after its invasion of Ukraine), and foreign direct investment has also been affected. China’s massive Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative is a controversial example of outward investment with geopolitical ramifications, while on the flipside a growing number of countries are creating barriers to inward investment perceived as threatening.
Economic ties are now seen as a tool for advancing geopolitical goals through “weaponized interdependence.” COVID-19 further underlined the fragility of supply chains, and global economic governance itself has long shown signs of systemic fragility; the US’s blocking of appointments to the World Trade Organization’s Appellate Body is one such sign (the body was crippled in late 2019 when it fell below the minimum number of members required to hear appeals). Some countries take relatively mercantilist approaches to trade, and see bilateral relations as a geopolitical zero-sum game - the tariffs levied by the US and China on one another during 2018 and 2019 provide an example.
In a multi-conceptual world vulnerable to pandemics and conflict, traditional global governance is under pressure. One consequence of the new, multipolar and multi-conceptual geopolitical era we find ourselves in is weakened support for core institutions like the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the World Health Organization.
The world’s geopolitical tectonic plates have shifted, it has caused many states to reconsider security strategies, to hedge against possible future abandonment by their traditional allies, and to explore the acquisition of new weapons capabilities.
One result of this fraying support for multilateralism is the emergence of a more ad-hoc approach to international cooperation. This has entailed a shift from rules to deals, and from global to regional and bilateral agreements.
Proponents of multilateralism tend to lament this erosion of faith in a framework designed to help the world collectively take on global challenges, and peacefully settle differences. Still, some critics argue that the world’s legacy institutions have been far too closely aligned with a small number of powerful states - or have descended into unhealthy gridlock and are therefore no longer able to accommodate diverging interests and values.
Another criticism (made notably during the Trump administration in the US) suggests that multilateralism runs counter to the interests of people even in those relatively privileged states that have long been at the heart of the global system.
Institutional competition has also increased, as countries attempt to create alternative centers of gravity like the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, or the Russia-centered Eurasian Economic Union. There are arguments to be made in support of more distributed global governance.
Greater responsiveness to discrete local conditions could potentially better foster resilience, for example. But as institutional fragmentation occurs alongside deepening geopolitical fissures, a narrowed space for global problem-solving is likely to be a source of fragility. This has been echoed in the security realm, amid a loss of faith in traditional collective security mechanisms and arms control treaties.
At the same time, increasing geopolitical friction is reinforcing some alliances - this is evident in the rejuvenation of NATO following Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, and in the deepening cooperation between Russia and China in challenging aspects of the US-led world order.
As global power has shifted, the differences in norms and values among geopolitical heavyweights have become more glaring. The period following World War II, first characterized by the bipolarity of the Cold War and then the unipolarity of US hegemony, has given way to a phase in which power is more diffused. New power centers with differing values and visions are remaking the world order.
The geopolitical landscape is undergoing a profound transformation, giving rise to a world order that is both multipolar and multi-conceptual. At the centre of this upheaval is an evolution of the respective roles played by the US and China, and a changing relationship between these two economic behemoths.
Patterns of influence, cooperation and competition are also changing among a broader group of countries that includes Russia, India, a number of states in Europe and the Middle East, and the Global South (which includes much of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia). Decades ago the political scientist Francis Fukuyama predicted that in the wake of the Cold War liberal democracy would prove to be “the” model for governance in these places.
Many of the institutions that have shaped global politics and economics since the middle of the 20th century must now be reimagined, to prepare for a multipolar and multi-conceptual 21st century.
Many of today’s emergent (or resurgent) centers of power have diverse political values, governance systems, historical legacies, and societal conventions (consider, for example, the contrasting historical narratives of China, India, Russia, and Saudi Arabia). Similar assumptions about a convergence on Western norms have underpinned many geopolitical and geo-economic developments. However, these assumptions only masked differences that have become increasingly prominent.
This constrains the extent to which some influential states are willing to sign up to a world order that appears to grant primacy to the legacy powers. It also informs how shared challenges are addressed - as illustrated by the global response to COVID-19, and the difficulties plaguing many multilateral institutions. This is not simply a story of the West against the rest; the multi-conceptual turn in world politics is also evident in Western disagreements about core political values, including hardening differences among European Union members.