This is not enough, however. As recent events show, the world is entering a new era of geopolitics, where science and technology play an increasingly important role.
For GESDA to be successful, it will also have to anticipate where geopolitics as a science is heading. This requires understanding the flow of thoughts within the discipline and an ability to formulate the right questions, from a geopolitical perspective, about the future of the human, of society and of the planet. Such “geopolitical lens” will equip GESDA with frameworks and tools to navigate this moving landscape.
The geopolitical lens of the 2022 GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar is a discussion with key scholars of geopolitics across three areas:
1. Moving landscapes in geopolitics: What are the field's various approaches and lines of thought?
2. Questions and considerations formulated by geopolitics in this moving landscape: What is the future of peace and warfare?
3. Tools to navigate uncertain times: What might the new geopolitical frameworks for science and diplomacy look like?
This section provides a selection of responses collected via interviews conducted in July 2022, laying a foundation for more in-depth analysis in the 2023 edition of the Radar.
1. Moving landscapes in geopolitics: What are the field's various approaches and lines of thought?
We see a very complex world emerging. There are still elements of classical multilateralism and states continue to co-operate within the framework of the UN on very important and uncertain issues. But we see a growing polarisation on issues that have to deal with global leadership and international security. Some people would say that we are moving back towards a Cold War era. I don't think that's the right depiction of the world we are moving to. [...]. For me it is rather an apolar system: this is a system where you no longer have actors with the ability to prevail across all dimensions of power. And the reason I argue this is that we need also to zoom out from a very state-centred perspective to one that includes non-state actors. Take multinational companies, for instance. If Apple were a country, it would be the eighth richest country in the world. Microsoft would be the twelfth. And they don't just have more access to data and the latest technologies; they also provide critical infrastructure for nations: in this respect they actually have much more power than a country.
My problem is that traditional theories of International Relations are based on states. If you wanted to understand the international system, you had to understand the dynamics between the most powerful states, whether it's two states in a bi-polar world or 5, 10 or 25 of them in a multipolar world. But now, with emerging technologies — and especially digital technologies — once something has been translated into lines of code, it's impossible to prevent proliferation. This gives any group of people on the planet access to means of power at a level that has never been seen in the history of humanity. So when thinking about approaches in international relations and geopolitics, one needs to change the way we look at power, politics and state dynamics. They need to include outliers that can hijack those kinds of capabilities for their own agenda and project power onto the real world. [...] No wonder it is much more difficult to predict the future of geopolitics: the dimensions of power and the number of actors have expanded dramatically.
Let me also mention technological decoupling. The West realised during the COVID-19 pandemic that the model of globalisation that had been pushed since the end of the Cold War was no longer working. Just-in-time production, for instance, is only optimal — from an economic point of view — if the global system is stable. This highlighted the West's hyper-dependence on selected countries and regions, and the danger this brings in times of crisis. What's more, the trade war initiated in 2018 between the United States and China means that the Chinese are trying to reduce their dependency on the West as much as possible. They are catching up on key technologies such as microchips — and at the same time they are trying to make the West's access to certain raw materials and resources much more complicated. The West retaliates in a similar manner with China, if you think about the smear campaign against Huawei. This technological decoupling is a driving factor in international relations, and it needs to be taken into account. [...] Take the setting of norms and standards for emerging technologies, for example: it is becoming more and more like a battlefield, where two visions of the world clash. If we consider the future of the internet, the West has traditionally pushed for values around free access to information for all and has seen the internet as a technology for emancipation. With actors such as China, it is all about bending the future of communication networks to national regulations and values, as well as tight control by national governments.
The big question for our time is the geopolitical competition between the US and China. In my view, that is the framing that we have to use because it will have consequences and determine a number of secondary dimensions. As an example, consider the question of how we will be able to deal with the global commons or manage our interdependencies. To answer that, we need to understand what is motivating this geopolitical contest. Is it an imperialist desire for pre-eminence? Or is it the consequence of China wanting to improve the standards of living of its population? Current schools of thoughts do not agree about the primary factor driving this competition.
From a geopolitical point of view, the biggest risk is the danger of fragmentation across economic, social, environmental and political dimensions. This could lead to a world where we do not have a common system that can ensure financial stability, international trade or governance frameworks for things like Artificial Intelligence. How then do you ensure that there are enough commonalities to engender international co-operation?
The third important dimension in the geopolitical competition is the evolving definition of power. Power — in a geopolitical sense — used to be about territories, military capacities and national narratives of conquest. In the 21st century, however, power is becoming much more about the capacity to manage interdependencies at many levels, and to ensure resilience. Exploring the evolving notion of power, its layers and interdependencies as well the variety of actors involved will be critical for thinking about future mechanisms of governance.
Traditional International Relations theory presupposes the rationality of the state in the pursuit of national interests. However, there is ample evidence in contemporary and historical records that, some of the time, some states will act in ways that are not rational. This will lead to misunderstandings and potential conflict, thereby sabotaging the very national interest they aim to serve and preserve — and creating serious geopolitical stress points.
I have theorised that humans can best be described as “emotional amoral egoists”. This is the default position for most people, most of the time, accentuated by stress, alienation and fear. It is not a reductionist or deterministic account but a pragmatic one. It is also neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but neutral. As I have also previously said, states can have the same characteristics: the primary goal of the state is self-preservation and accumulation of power through intrinsic capacities and alliances, and it does this in emotional, amoral and egoistic ways. This is to be expected given the absence of an overarching authority in a self-help global system.
It is partly governed by strategic cultural practices, applied history and the skewed and cumulative historical narratives about a state's own history, values and triumphs and those of other states. This allows states and their policy makes and citizens to propagate narrow national historical narratives and current unilateral national interests which may include exploitation, subversion, dominance, alienation, xenophobia, dehumanisation, cultural stratifications and conflict.
The war in Ukraine is providing a kind of magnifying glass for a number of geopolitical questions today. It is often said that traditional geopolitics are back — the classic realism of international relations. This is a superficial analysis that ignores the interaction between international politics and domestic politics; the Ukraine conflict is less a confrontation of political systems — autocracies versus democracies — than a test of the resilience of societies. For us in the West, the big question (beyond the battles on the ground) is how much our societies will hold up and for how long? In Russia, the situation is different. President Putin's power is based on depoliticising the country, but the longer the conflict lasts, the more he will have to politicise and to mobilise.
We live in a deeply networked world, composed of fragmented societies that have a fragile internal coherence. If societal resilience becomes a key driver of international relations, the future of geopolitics will be much more about the capacity of human beings to live together and to recognise each other as a group than about a “clash of civilisations” or a “clash of nations”. This links to the second fundamental GESDA question: how can we all live together?
In this case, the distinction between relations between states — between international and domestic affairs — becomes less and less relevant. This is what makes geopolitics so complicated today, and this is where the classical analyses in international relations no longer work. A good geopolitical reflection today must manage to connect international relations with intranational and transnational dynamics. Those transnational dynamics can be cultural, financial or economic, and will become increasingly important. Transnational communities built around shared values, norms and language are becoming stronger, and they compete with territorial-based communities on which national identities are based. The increasing power and diffusion of communication technologies play a key role here.
Right now there is a sense of de-globalisation occurring. A sense that we are moving away from a world which was becoming more interconnected and more unified in its worldview, towards a decoupling of countries and societies from a universal global order. This fracturing exists on multiple levels: in the area of technology for instance, it could lead to competing or even incompatible standards, with different economic groups and ecosystems of companies competing for their own norms and visions to be the global standard.
There is also a decoupling around culture. In Southeast Asia it has become evident over the last generation that cultural products, norms, aspirations and worldviews are moving away from a primary focus on trends from the West, with more attention paid to cultural signals from East Asia. Malaysia, for instance, is shifting from its historically western-focused worldview towards the South Korea, Japan and China nexus. Younger people now often look to Korea, Japan and China for music, fashion, entertainment and other cultural trends. This cultural decoupling is a very important issue to recognise in international relations and geo-politics, because it ultimately impacts which viewpoints and perspectives are seen as having legitimacy across many sectors including geopolitics and international relations.
A Western perspective tends to frame this decoupling as a struggle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. This is not entirely untrue but it is insufficiently nuanced. From the perspectives of China but also from many other countries in South East Asia and Africa, it is sometimes seen as choosing between a socio-political system that provides stability, order, dependable delivery of services and economic growth, and one that promises individual freedom but might also lead to chaos, a lack of direction and therefore a lack of sustained growth and predictability.
It also important to recognise that there is quite a depth and sophistication in the intellectual, cultural and philosophical frameworks that are being created to underpin a more state centric, quasi-authoritarian view of the world — even if they seem to stand against traditional liberal values. At the level of individual choice, for example, many of the more authoritarian worldviews see unconstrained individual choice as suboptimal at a societal level. Recognising that for many in this part of the world these are different perspectives, rather than just a “right” or “wrong” perspective, is key.
Techno-globalism refers to “a world process of internationalisation, invention and development, industrial and commercial usage, transfer and diffusion of technologies”. Techno-globalists regard technological innovation the venue for international cooperation and emphasise “the role of market principles over state control”. In contrast, techno-nationalism can be defined as “the idea that technological strength is an effective determinant of national power in a harshly competitive world”. The techno-nationalists suggest that technological autonomy is central to national security, which is “dependent on a country's overall technological capacity”. Beneath the U.S.-China trade war, there is actually a more deep-seated structural rivalry between the two powers for global economic supremacy, which is underpinned by technological leadership, that is we have a “U.S.-China techno-geopolitical containment and counter-containment”.
The long-term strategic competition between China and USA therefore involves a marathon struggle not just for political influence in the international system but also for defining the present and the future of technology, which enables the economic superpower to set the standards and therefore can show the world the best future directions for global development. During the Trump administration, the focus of the US was still very much on China. Under the Biden administration, and with the war in Ukraine, the US have entered a dual containment strategy, against Russia and China, with a growing entente between China and Russia as a consequence.
The smaller and mid-size countries will need to devise a new strategy trying to cope with this new reality. In the emerging — if not already formed — techno-digital interdependency between China and other parts of the world, many countries try to get the best from “both sides”, like the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. For example, they have not outlawed outright the Huawei 5G technology, but still remaining close to the US. Even the president of the Solomon Islands, while signing a security pact with China, said that he would not exclude a future security cooperation with Australia. As Europe, Asia and Africa will no longer be completely contained by the US, the future communication technologies will become the parallel great-game space for great power competition and containment. This not only will mitigate geopolitical pressures but also could open up unlimited co-developmental space.
2. Questions and considerations formulated by geopolitics in this moving landscape — what is the future of peace and warfare?
If we look at what happened from 2013 to 2017 with the Islamic State in Syria, you have an example of a non-state actor that conquered territory the size of the UK in just six months. The Islamic State was the first organisation to understand how to weaponise social media, and the first group ever in the history of warfare to win tactical air supremacy over traditional state actors for a limited time by weaponising commercial drones available in any discount shop. They were also the first non-state actor to develop an active chemical weapon programme with experimental human guinea pigs and produce their means of delivery. The power, and low barriers to entry, of emerging technologies — especially in synthetic biology, or linked to the emerging developments of neurotechnologies — and sometimes the low barrier to entry for certain techniques, such as CRISPR in synthetic biology or deepfakes in artificial intelligence, could be easily misused by similar groups in the future.
In my 2019 book Surrogate Warfare I argued that, in the 21st century, warfare will extend the use of human surrogates to technological ones, a consequence of progress in artificial intelligence and autonomous agents. This makes technology itself increasingly an actor in future conflicts. These technological surrogates can be used as force multipliers by both state and non-state actors. This makes the reading of the international situation much more complicated. We will still have great powers calling the shots, especially when we consider technological decoupling between power blocks. But this is only a partial view: depending where you look or how you consider a conflict, the set of actors to include in any analysis is completely different. This makes the reading of international relations — and geopolitics — much more complicated that it used to be.
Outer space security, a serious upcoming geopolitical challenge for the global community, is intimately linked to terrestrial security. It is therefore a perfect geopolitical domain to apply new governance paradigms — what I call Multi-Sum Security and Symbiotic Realism. Outer space is a new domain of potential geopolitical conflict due to the nature of its existence as a global commons: there are gaps in space law and unresolved issues over space debris, militarisation, celestial resources and so on. This is further complicated by the exponential and irreversible over-dependence of humanity on outer space for our daily needs in peace and war. I have previously advocated that if outer space becomes critically unsafe, it will not be selectively unsafe, but unsafe for everyone.
From what we see today, the future of war and peace can go in two completely opposite directions, driven by emerging technologies.
First, artificial intelligence and data management, if they are harnessed by strong states, can manipulate minds in a much more powerful way than traditional propaganda. This could create collective perceptions much more effectively than anything in the past. This could lead to a shock of nationalisms which would be even more brutal and massive than what we saw at the outbreak of World War One.
I think the second direction is more likely, however: our societies will move towards more fragmentation. Even a strong state finds it difficult to exert total control over the information space in a connected world. It is less difficult to weaken the social coherence and resilience of adversaries than to increase one's own. Using the conflict in Ukraine as an example again, we can see how Russia tries to fragment and polarise Western societies but may have difficulties mobilising its own.
That means that there are several possible futures: at one extreme, one of mass confrontation of manipulated masses; at the other, fragmented violence, where societies dissolve in internal conflict and the most resilient country prevails.
Warfare is not something that is defined by geographical borders any more. It has become much more about contesting the integrity and cohesiveness of societies. Rather than attacking your opponent at the border, adversaries now have the capacity to reach into the systems and structures and sinews of the opposite society and undermine them. You undermine trust, you undermine social infrastructures. In the worst case, you use biological tools to undermine physical well-being and health. That becomes the reality of warfare increasingly as we move forward. And I think we're seeing elements of this in many places already. [...]
We may need to accept a world where peace is no longer something that's guaranteed by strong international institutions. The actors of the international community need to be able to manage peace by anticipating where and how tensions can erupt, and by accepting that there will be cases where these tensions unavoidably erupt into active warfare, be it actual fighting or economic, cultural, or misinformation-based conflict.
Here, the notion that peace could be imposed by coalitions of actors, or by external great powers, vanishes. The opportunity and the ability to undertake warfare now exists at so many levels, and with such low barriers to entry, that almost any actor can engage in quite sophisticated attacks against countries and societies. Therefore, peace can't be imposed, neither by use of force nor by structured multilateral global accords, because the ability to disrupt peace and to wage war is no longer managed by the state through the use of conventional military force.
From my point of view, when we are thinking about future generations, we need to find a new geopolitics beyond the Earth, driven by the increasing competition for resources, markets and economic development. Therefore, I would see the future of geopolitics tightly connected with science and technology, under the larger framework of interstellar studies. But different cultures have different understanding about how to approach space. China, for example, has much more of an economic point of view on space, very much tied up with seeking for and exploiting new resources and rare minerals — because China faces an acute problem of environmental degradation and of resource depletion. The US and European approach to space is more cautious and inclined to scientific questions and explorations that advance knowledge and leadership. Another peculiar difference is that the Chinese are sending signals to the outer space and they are receiving signals back; they are not afraid of attracting potential newcomers to the earth. The U.S. has a very different approach: although they listen for signals, the U.S. has warned China to stop sending signals because of the risk that it might provoke a war with unknown entities. Interstellar geopolitics, or geopolitics beyond the Earth, is certainly an area that will define war, peace and conflict in the future.
3. Tools to navigate uncertain times: What might the new geopolitical frameworks for science and diplomacy look like?
What we have now in international relations is a situation where one country, the United States, is a hegemonic power that emerged from the Cold War but is perceived as being in decline. [...] With the world in this state of transformation, revisionist actors such as Russia and China are challenging the status quo by using all the different levers of power available to contest this hegemony.
In the 21st century, science and technology are becoming key levers of power. One could even say that they are the most important ones, because these emerging technologies are so transformative that they provide huge amounts of power to those who are actually able to master them and control them. And so there is a race to dominate in these fields. Take microchip technology, for example. This is a key area: when you are no longer able to have access to the most efficient microchips, you have a strategic disadvantage. Another example is advanced AI: the first actor able to master Artificial General Intelligence will have a significant competitive advantage — not only in the technology, but also in terms of defining norms and how the technology can be deployed — and so the race to get there intensifies. Not only science and technology create new means of power: the norms and standards that regulate these technologies are also becoming the key enablers to disseminate strategic national values and therefore worldviews, intensifying further more international competition and rivalry.
Science and technology are built around a common belief in rationality. This common belief can also help the conversations that we are not fostering at the global level. It could be a unifying force that creates spaces for collaboration and provide safe havens for collaboration on important global issues. Imagine, for example, a huge global programme to fight cancer. In a world that is very power-driven, with rising geopolitical contests and the risk of fragmenting, keeping channels of collaboration open through science and technology will be critical.
Current and future statecraft and diplomacy will require a broader geopolitical lens that employs transdisciplinary approaches and subscribes to collective security and prosperity approaches here on earth and in outer space. This needs to include Multi-Sum Security — a security framework that takes into account interdependency of all state actors, replacing zero-sum paradigms — and Symbiotic Realism, a neurobiologically based framework that attempts to explain and predict the behavior of states and advocates. Going forward, humanity will either triumph together or fail together. This prospect is too consequential for our species to allow narrow geopolitical lenses of states to dictate relations and operate dangerous power politics, with the rest of humanity on the receiving end. It is time for decision-makers and concerned citizens throughout the world to realise that the only way forward for humanity is to head towards collective, equitable and sustainable security, peace and prosperity for all, at all times and under all circumstances, both here on earth and in outer space.
Classic international organisations such as the United Nations have difficulties adapting to this world because they are institutions that are based on geography. The United Nations, as its name indicates, is an organisation composed of nation states. It suffers from the same fragility of the states that make it up. These states are in competition with private companies, with virtual communities and all sorts of structures that bring human beings together. The states are no longer the only actors that shape geopolitics, as they may have thought they were in the past. Therefore, when we speak about peace and war, we need to take this multidimensional world into account. This is what Pascal Lamy would call polylateralism. This articulation of power between groups of a different nature raises difficult questions about legitimacy. Territorial legitimacy is evident, but what legitimacy do self-proclaimed communities have? This is a political issue that will be increasingly present in our mind and in our societies. We can see this already in today's debates; in the reactions of people to (for example) the legitimacy of science; in the mistrust towards entrepreneurs and private companies, and in the mistrust of political institutions. The self-evident territorial communities of the past are under stress, and there is no clarity on their articulation with the virtual communities of the future.
Scientists have been trained on the idea that there is a purity to science, and therefore all you need to do is chase the question down to find the answer. But we now live in a world where scientists have to be much more acutely conscious of the political implications and ramifications of the questions they ask, the answers they find, and how those answers are shared and disseminated. We need to go back a little bit to the kind of world we had where science was very enmeshed with questions of philosophy: questions of use and value and purpose and risk and implications.
Meanwhile, diplomacy needs to recalibrate, becoming more focused on the active management of risks and the avoidance of conflict (as well as the pursuit of national interests), rather than creating structures and institutions through which interests and risks can be mediated. This will lead to a much more organic diplomacy, which is perhaps more tactical rather than institutional. It is a diplomacy that has to be able to understand and weigh the multi-layered and often competing or conflicting interests of a country in terms of where and how it engages with other conflicts. There is a need to build a diplomatic corps able to recognise and engage with all the complexity of the world.
Anticipation and foresight are critical tools to navigate this uncertainty, in order to develop the frameworks that will inform how decisions are made and how you build the necessary tools and skill sets. Scientists, technologists and diplomats all have to recognise that we must navigate today by looking to the future, not the present or the past.
Pak Nung Wong, Techno-Geopolitics: US-China Tech War and the Practice of Digital Statecraft (Routledge 2021), https://www.routledge.com/Techno-Geopolitics-US-China-Tech-War-and-the-Practice-of-Digital-Statecraft/Wong/p/book/9780367497149.
Arancha Gonzalez Laya, 'Global insecurity is no reason to divest from the WTO', Financial Times, May 19 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/bb1fab70-02e0-4392-8fa5-e88c03398d44.