Shifting geopolitical sands: competition, cooperation or conflict?
The 50th anniversary of the World Economic Forum coincides with a period of profound global change. These events prompted the Forum to draw on its network of diverse experts – heads of leading global think tanks and research institutions – to develop a new report with 10 chapters that explore the emerging shape of geopolitics.
In the report’s opening chapter, “The Expansion of Geopolitics”, World Economic Forum President Børge Brende argues the number of actors exerting geopolitical influence is growing and domains for geopolitical competition or cooperation are also expanding.
Within this context, Brende calls for a cooperative order: “The more powers compete and pursue strategic advantage at the expense of addressing shared technological, environmental and economic challenges, the more likely it will be that a broader sense of friction will develop across the global system. A rivalrous global system will in turn make it more unlikely that shared priorities are fulfilled,” he writes.
Brende notes that global coordination in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks and the 2008 global financial crisis offer a paradigm for a more collaborative response to geopolitical challenges. Cooperation, he argues, will ultimately prove more beneficial to individual states – and to the world at large.
“As the world becomes even more interconnected in terms of flows of information, capital and people, states will be more reliant on one another to realize positive outcomes for themselves and the global community,” Brende writes. “At a time when power dynamics are in flux, there is an opportunity for stakeholders to make the decision to shape geopolitics in a cooperative, rather than competitive, manner.”
Brookings Institution President John R. Allen argues in his chapter, “Disrupting the International Order”, that a “combination of economic and technological shifts” is reshaping the post-World War II international order in which U.S. leadership played a dominant role.
“The technological advances and an economic rebalancing under way are causing the world to enter a new phase – one where the non-Western powers, as well as some non-state actors, see low-cost and relatively low-risk opportunities to weaken the United States and the Western alliance,” he writes.
China is at the centre of this geopolitical rebalancing, bolstered by technological developments and its unrivalled export economy, Allen says.
China has “now moved into a new phase of expansion, in a global network of ports, technology plays and infrastructure assets that in some theatres seems purposefully designed to challenge the West,” Allen adds.
These shifting geopolitical sands have created the space for a new age of “great power competition” that increases the risk of military conflict on the global stage. To counter this threat, Allen calls for the strengthening of democratic, multilateral institutions, as well as constructive dialogue between the United States and China.
“No part of this challenge will be ameliorated by American unilateralism, British isolationism or Chinese expansionism – to say nothing of Russian revanchism,” he writes. “As unfashionable as it is to argue the case, the reality remains that the best guarantor of stability in the coming period is Western unity and a deepening, not weakening, of the alliance structure.”
In “Multilateralism in an Ungoverned World”, Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Russia, sees the current geopolitical climate as one defined by the collapse of 20th-century ideologies, alliances, and interdependence, coupled with the rise of borders.
“The system developed in the wake of the Cold War that sought to advance a multilateral order under a global identity built on a common set of (Western) values is being challenged by the rise of divergent state-based interests and values,” he writes. “The renewed emphasis on the state as a structural unit of the international system means that competition will increase, global institutions will erode and diplomacy will be practised in new ways,” he adds.
Lukyanov argues that the erosion of 20th century norms and institutions will continue in the years to come, redefining the very concept of multilateralism.
“We can expect the crisis of traditional multilateral diplomacy to continue. It will manifest itself not only in a transition to a transactional bilateral model, but also in alterations to the concept of multilateralism itself,” he writes.
Overall, Lukyanov envisions an international system challenged by “more elements of anarchy” and one in which “each particular state and its leaders will have to bear much greater responsibility.”
Chatham House Director Robin Niblett writes in “Managing the Rising Influence of Nationalism” of the re-emergence of nationalism around the world.
The process of globalization in the post-War period – coupled with the emergence of supranational structures like the European Union – reflected a retreat in nationalist sentiments across the world.
“But the period since 2016 has brutally exposed the exceptional nature of this moment in human history,” Niblett writes. “And it has illustrated the continuing power of myths and of a distinct sense of national identity to mobilize groups of people towards shared goals,” he adds.
Niblett argues that one way to manage this new nationalism is by adapting international institutions to account for “the global reawakening of national identities,” including by “balancing more equitably the voting weights, exceptions and structures that favour the winners of the 20th century.” And at the same time, instead of diminishing national identities “in favour of a global, supranational identity, governments need to channel them within models of inclusive domestic governance,” he writes.
But Niblett cautions: “The risks of letting national mythologies rise again today without inclusive forms of national and international governance are severe.”
In “Culture, Identity and the Evolution of Geopolitics”, Qi Zhenhong, President of the China Institute of International Studies, tracks how the rise of identity politics is impacting geopolitics.
In a globalized world, some actors “have become more sensitive to and anxious about the independence, particularity, integrity and purity of their own culture and identity,” Qi writes. Moreover, he adds, the “re-emergence of worrisome xenophobia as an ideology and social movement is another manifestation of how culture and identity impact the contemporary politics of states and religions.”
Those tendencies could have negative implications for geopolitics, potentially provoking confrontations between the West and non-West and triggering fresh conflict between the world’s big powers, Qi argues.
Therefore, to “prevent global geopolitical turmoil, the international community should, first of all, be alert to the attempts of those countries and political forces to exaggerate the differences and competitions between cultures and identities, and prevent them from taking culture and identity as tools to manipulate international politics, to provoke and magnify conflicts and confrontations among nations and states, to undermine international peace and cooperation, and to push mankind into the abyss of a geopolitical catastrophe.”
At the same time, Qi calls on the international community to safeguard multilateral institutions. “Major powers should not act wilfully, or pursue unilateralism, but should play a positive and responsible role as models in promoting international law and order,” he writes.
“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,” writes Observer Research Foundation President Samir Saran in “Navigating the Digitization of Geopolitics”.
Saran argues that the technologies powering the Fourth Industrial Revolution are reshaping the geopolitical landscape and “a new world order will inevitably erupt”.
But he notes that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is distinct from past technological eras for four key reasons: digital technologies have reshaped all aspects of human life; geopolitics is no longer just being shaped by states, but also by large technology platforms, non-state actors and digitally mobilized communities and individuals; the scale and velocity of technological shifts is unprecedented; and we now live on a “platform planet” in which elements of society, like identity, markets and political participation, transcend hard borders.
“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,” Saran argues.
Moreover, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has emerged amid an increasingly multipolar global arena. As a result, Saran calls for “a new digital collective” in the image of the G20. “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,” he writes.
In “The Upcoming Technological Revolution on the Battlefield? Not So Fast”, Amos Yadlin, Executive Director at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, analyses the potential ways that digital technologies like Artificial Intelligence could transform warfare.
He highlights disruptive scenarios, including the deployment of autonomous weapons systems based on AI that are small cheap and deadly, a paralysing cyberattack on power stations or command and control stations – and the disruption of a nation’s social fabric and political system through a media campaign that employs technology like “deep fakes.”
But Yadlin cautions that “while these predictions are chilling on paper, there are several reasons they may not come to fruition in the near future.” Yadlin thinks that effective autonomous weaponry could be farther off in the future than acknowledged, given that even self-driving cars have yet to be perfected and building such vehicles for military uses will be significantly more complex. And when it comes to misinformation campaigns, he notes that cyberattacks require the investment of significant resources that are not available to most state- and non-state actors. Yadlin argues that democracies can fight this by improving “digital literacy” among citizenry.
Moreover, the “non-technological dimensions of warfare will remain extremely important into the foreseeable future,” he writes. “Whatever future weapons might arise, investing resources to maintain high-quality human capital, up-to-date doctrines and a strategy designed to advance core interests will remain essential to achieving victory.”
In “Building Climate Intelligence”, Jane Harman, Director, President and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, makes the case that climate change is a national security issue.
“Most stakeholders agree that global warming is exacerbating refugee crises, straining weak governments and giving rise to new geopolitical conflicts,” she writes. “The global community,” she adds, “has already seen how climate disasters like famine and drought can bolster the recruiting efforts of terrorist organizations.”
Harman identifies three major geopolitical consequences of climate change: Increased natural disasters that are displacing populations; regional conflicts that could arise from water scarcity; and the impact of flooding and rising temperatures on military installations and personnel.
But Harman also sees geopolitical opportunities amid the environmental changes being brought on by climate change. She calls for the United States to play a greater role in the Arctic – where ice caps are melting fast and new shipping routes are opening up – to ensure it “remains a centre of cooperation, not confrontation.”
Harman also sees a chance for the United States to benefit from the expanding solar and wind energy markets. “The winner of the green technology race will find tremendous economic and geopolitical rewards at the finish line,” she writes.
By 2050, China, India and the United States “will boast the largest national economies by gross domestic product, if measured in terms of purchasing power parity,” writes Yoichi Funabashi, Chairman of Japan’s Asia Pacific Initiative, in his chapter, “The Future Balance: The Geopolitical Impacts of GDP, Population and Climate Change”.
“The shifting economic picture means that different potential scenarios for the future international order will emerge that involve these three countries: the possibility of a system pitting China against a US and Indian partnership exists, as does the potential of an order in which the three separately compete against one another,” Funabashi writes.
But from a demographic perspective, China is set to face significant challenges. Its population is expected to peak in less than a decade and could fall by 2.2% between now and 2050. The US population, meanwhile, is expected to continue to grow through 2040. “Still, the United States, whose comparatively large population and skilled labour force were key to its establishment following World War II as a leading world power, will find itself behind India, China and Nigeria in terms of population in 2050,” Funabashi notes.
Funabashi argues that the wildcard for geopolitics is climate change. “Trends related to climate change and its effects, however, are unpredictable in a way that will add another significant layer of complexity to the development of the future geopolitical balance.”
Despite rising global trade tensions and a backlash against globalization, Latin America “should take a long-term perspective” and “focus on the fundamentals of strengthening regional integration and identifying avenues for growing intra-regional and global trade,” argues L. Enrique García R., President of the Council on Foreign Relations of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Latin America, he says, has stagnated economically since the 1970s, having been caught in a middle-income trap, while also suffering from fiscal and monetary imbalances, debt and inflation.
“For Latin America to thrive, it will need to accelerate the transition towards a higher value-added exports paradigm,” García argues. “This implies an effective process of productive transformation that would expand natural resource manufactures and other medium and high-technology exports not only to traditional markets but also to new destinations,” he writes.
To reach that point, García says the region needs to prioritize technology and digital platforms; infrastructure and logistics; trade facilitation and soft infrastructure components; education and skills; external financing foreign direct investment, and climate change and the environment.
“For Latin America to regain the relative economic and geopolitical relevance it enjoyed a few decades ago, countries in the region need to account for what may be a new multipolar global power structure, in which economic, social and political interactions are highly influenced by the competing and even confrontational behaviour of the United States and China and by the dynamics of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he writes.