Navigating the Digitisation of Geopolitics

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From the steam engine to penicillin to the atom bomb, the development and deployment of frontier technologies have always been intimately tied to geopolitical disruptions. Those disruptions often manifest as a race towards the acquisition of new technologies – or diplomatic elbowing to consolidate gains from scientific breakthroughs and keep these out of reach of challengers. Tensions fuelled by digital technologies are the most recent manifestation of this historical trend. Yet, today’s technologies, due to the breadth of their reach and the democratization of their ownership, are having a unique influence on the geopolitical landscape.

The differences of digital

Across the three previous industrial revolutions, innovations upended existing balance‑of‑power arrangements. The steam engine and gunpowder facilitated Europe’s colonial ambitions. Using technology, Europe was able to marginalize the cultural relevance of Asia and Africa and contain them within the amorphous formulation of the “Third World”. And the atom bomb helped end World War II, leading to the rise of the United States and creating space and demand for the international liberal order.

Whether it is the emerging contest over trade and technology between the United States and China, disputes between platforms and labour over the terms of employment or disagreement over the regimes managing international data flows that are carriers of intelligence, value and wealth, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is similarly leading to a new period of contest and churn. And, as in the past, a new world order will inevitably result. Nevertheless, four crucial differences set apart digital technologies and the disruption they herald.

The development and deployment of frontier technologies have always been intimately tied to geopolitical disruptions

First, few other technologies have diffused so pervasively across all aspects of human life in the same manner as digitization. Most importantly, none created an external, mediated – or “virtual” – reality, in the way that digital technologies have. As digital spaces mature, the “distance” between the real and the virtual is rapidly collapsing. The virtual world has real world consequences. The “#MeToo” mobilizations on social media catalysed agitations on the street. Digital campaigns across Europe, America and Asia influenced political outcomes of the realm. The 2019 events in Hong Kong SAR offer another example. While protesters deftly leveraged communications technologies to grow their (physical) protests, Beijing responded with heavy‑handed influence operations on Western social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, meant to advance its own message at home and abroad.

The distinction between biological, digital and virtual will blur further with advances in technologies like brain‑machine interfaces and virtual reality. This will create new surface areas for the application of statecraft. Neat distinctions between the liberal international order, and its presumably illiberal counterpart, will be difficult to draw. After all, the virtual world – as the earlier examples show – has no rules of the road that separate the good from the bad.

Second, geopolitics in the 20th century (and earlier) was almost always concerned with the state. The state was the only unit capable of exercising influence and enforcing outcomes in international politics. Take the example of the Global Positioning System (GPS), which became the fulcrum of American power – thanks to its surveillance and intelligence‑gathering capabilities – especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The US government denied India access to GPS data that its military sought during the Kargil conflict in 1999. Digital technologies of a more recent vintage, however, have undermined the state’s monopoly over the affairs of citizens and resources. Geopolitics in the digital era will increasingly be shaped by a plethora of actors, including large technology platforms, sub‑state actors, non‑state actors, digitally mobilized communities and even influential or vocal individuals.

Consider the following developments: content on social media has fuelled violence across Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Chinese companies are selling surveillance tools to governments across the developing word. Online propaganda created by the Islamic State fuelled bombings in Brussels in 2016. The #MeToo community created a global political movement, organically picking up allies without need for negotiations, backroom deals or diplomatic roundtables. These may appear disconnected events. However, they all point to the increasing relevance of non‑state actors in influencing key events – events that may support or undermine state interests or international regimes.

Third, the scale and velocity of technology‑driven events are unprecedented. A decade ago, the conversation about social media and communication technologies centred on their emancipatory potential, as in Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution and the 2010‑2012 Arab Spring. However, this narrative has shifted dramatically: digital technologies are seen as national security vulnerabilities, or even as tools for authoritarian governments to control and subdue large populations. Put differently, the multiple technologies and political processes that are converging have created an environment of unknown variables. It is nearly impossible to predict which technology, or combinations thereof, will produce what type of political consequence or security risk.

Finally, digital technologies have created a “platform planet”. The aggregation of individual identities, mobilization of political voices, determinants of economic growth and provision of national security were earlier processes conducted under national regimes. Today, many of these processes have migrated to the digital and virtual arenas. The Westphalian state will soon co‑exist and be implicated by the amorphous “cloud state”, which exists beyond its geography. In this territory, domestic debates are not limited to citizens, and economic opportunities are dependent on the
architecture of the cloud rather than trade regimes.

Geopolitics in the digital era will increasingly be shaped by a plethora of actors

As a result, the “platform‑ization” of statecraft is visible. In other words, states understand that geopolitical gain will come from the “globalization” of their own technological systems and attendant standards, products, rules, social norms and technical infrastructure. China’s digital governance propositions, for instance, will vastly differ from those of the United States. It should surprise no one that the standard‑setting Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers decided, in May 2019, to ban Huawei researchers from publishing in its journals. The move was in
response to the US government’s blacklisting of Huawei from its supply chains, and in deference to the European Union leveraging the General Data Protection Regulation to advance its own cyberspace rules. Other powers like Russia, India and Indonesia are exerting their own interests.

The consequence of these processes, however, has been the increased fragmentation of cyberspace. The platform states are likely to be less interoperable than ever before. The “decoupling” under way between the American and Chinese technological systems is only a precursor of what is likely to come. Other jurisdictions and geographies will be implicated in messy, complex ways that will not resemble a conventional struggle between “superpowers”.

Managing the digital landscape

Collectively, these four trends will help shape the geopolitics of our era even as communities and countries struggle to negotiate a new relationship within national boundaries among the state, enterprises and citizens. Creating and managing global regimes for this new world will require states to anticipate risks to domestic institutions and processes, maintain economic interdependence, identify strategic vulnerabilities and national security challenges, and develop international norms and institutions.

Because the Fourth Industrial Revolution is unfolding as the global landscape becomes increasingly multipolar, no single state will possess the political capital to enforce its own interests. Just like the G20 was incubated to manage the global economy in a multipolar world, there is need for a new digital collective, perhaps a “D20” comprised of the largest digital economies and technology companies. It should function as a steering mechanism of sorts, managing the implications of digital technologies while more formal institutions mature.

The international community must also create mechanisms to facilitate “platform interoperability”. Global stability has always been a function of interdependence – the economic and political matrix of relationships that states enter into. If the fragmentation of our global technological system continues, competition, even confrontation, and instability are inevitable. Arriving at a functional mechanism to allow national technological systems to talk to one another, despite technical, political or social differences, will be crucial.

Informal and normative international rule‑making processes must support both these imperatives. The treaty system functioned effectively in the bipolar and unipolar world of the 20th century. It is no template for the future. In the short term, it is also unlikely that states will be able to achieve a convergence of interests on digital issues. Instead, the international community must work towards standardization in core economic and security operations, while allowing states the flexibility to manage the social and political consequences of emerging technologies domestically. This  may be a suboptimal arrangement, but it is likely to be a more effective one.

There is need for a new digital collective, perhaps a “D20” comprised of the largest digital economies and technology companies

The “emerging technologies” discussed today are mostly those that have matured from internet‑related breakthroughs in the late 20th century. The international community is only beginning to respond to the set of challenges they have raised. What lies ahead? The next few decades will see even more rapid advance in technologies, with some that place the human body at the frontier of innovation, and even a new arena of geopolitical contest. The intervening period will test the world’s ability to learn the right lessons from the tensions that require resolution today – and apply them to build 21st‑century arrangements.


This essay originally appeared in The Shaping a Multiconceptual World

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