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.
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