WHILE CYBERSPACE and social media have grabbed global headlines in recent years, other major technology clusters will have an even more seismic impact on geopolitics in coming decades. They include biotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence. Indeed, these technologies are coming of age and experiencing exponential innovation as well as growth—and not just in the United States. New contenders, including Asian state-run laboratories, corporate investors, DIY/maker groups, terrorists and organized criminals are all competing to harness and leverage technology in pursuit of their interests. In this rapidly changing environment, America risks having its international dominance undermined by these emerging technologies and players, much as Arab despots have been overthrown by protesters empowered in part by social media.
To understand and frame the ever-shifting nature of international relations, analysts have traditionally relied upon both geopolitics and geoeconomics. The discipline of geopolitics dates to nineteenth-century European scholars and diplomats whose primary concerns were territorial control and the capability to project dominance overseas. Examining the fundamental elements of geopolitical advantage (demographics, natural resources, forces under arms, warships, conventional and nuclear weapons, etc.) remained the dominant approach to analyzing comparative power through much of the twentieth century.
After the Cold War, geoeconomics became a counterweight to geopolitics. In 1990, strategist Edward Luttwak said geoeconomics applied the “logic of conflict” to the “grammar of commerce.” In this view, GDP size and growth, trade balances, currency reserves and foreign investment are critical in assessing the global balance of power. Although China is not yet a military rival to the United States, it is the largest holder of American debt and represents almost 15 percent of world GDP, making it a geoeconomic superpower. Similarly, the combination of petroleum resources and large currency reserves has put the small Arab monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council on the geoeconomic map.
Geopolitics and geoeconomics complement each other, but even together they do not give a full picture of the catalysts for change in world affairs. A third area of inquiry is necessary to complete the triangle: geotechnology. The geotechnology lens offers an understanding of the potent innovations that can tilt geoeconomic advantage through rapid commercialization and can have a major geopolitical impact through strategic deployment and potential militarization. Whether we’re talking about the stirrup and crossbow; steamships and railways; or nuclear fusion and the Internet, every era is a time of geotechnological change. What is different today is the rate of change, which is ever accelerating.
The perspective afforded by geotechnology informs our understanding of global dynamics our understanding of global dynamics in two important ways. First, it positions technology alongside economic power, military alliances and diplomatic statesmanship as a driver of history. It was the ability of Europe’s royal families to harness weaponry and the printing press that gave the state the upper hand over other political forces in the seventeenth century and created the modern Westphalian system. Second, whereas geopolitics largely ignores nonstate actors and geoeconomics acknowledges them only as marginal players, geotechnology fully recognizes current systemic changes that are driving us into a post-Westphalian world. It recognizes that actors leveraging and controlling new technologies, even with limited capital and crowdsourced manpower, can amass formidable influence as well as a capacity to challenge nation-states. While WikiLeaks and Anonymous; Al Qaeda and Hezbollah; and Google and Facebook may be rooted in certain territories more than others, they are increasingly autonomous in their transterritorial reach and capabilities.
Gordon Moore, the former chairman of Intel, famously predicted in 1965 that the number of transistors per square inch on an integrated circuit would double every year into the future. This principle, later revised to a doubling every two years and commonly referred to as “Moore’s Law,” now applies more broadly to the power and capabilities of all circuit-based technologies. Thus everything from biotechnology to robotics is driven by Moore’s Law, and this has implications for both geopolitics and geoeconomics. These technologies are exponential in their growth curves—not linear. Taking thirty steps linearly, one might walk across the living room. But taking thirty steps exponentially—doubling the distance with each successive step—would be the equivalent of traveling the distance to the moon. The iPhone that hundreds of millions of users carry in their pocket has more processing power than what was available to NASA during the Apollo 11 moon landing a mere forty years ago. Such is the world we now live in.