John Gardner, a former lob­byist and political appointee, once wrote that “history never looks like history when you are living through it.” But it’s hard to escape the feeling that we are living through a his­toric year. While it’s too early to trace the ways that the events of this year will shape history, we can examine some of the macro trends in the geopo­litical envi­ronment, in hopes of iden­ti­fying potential pit­falls in our post-pan­demic future.

COVID-19 appears to have accel­erated a series of geopo­litical trends that have been years or decades in the making. Two of these trends include the return of geopo­litical com­pe­tition and the begin­nings of the so-called fourth indus­trial rev­o­lution.  

First, the pan­demic has deepened great power rivalry, espe­cially between the United States and China. American leaders have repeatedly con­demned the Chinese Com­munist Party’s failure to contain the initial coro­n­avirus out­break in Wuhan. In addition, U.S. policy makers have rolled out a number of mea­sures meant to cripple Chinese state-con­trolled tech com­panies, exac­er­bating what some experts have called the “geo-tech wars.”

China has also pursued a much more aggressive foreign policy since the initial viral out­break. The regime’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy cam­paign has seen Chinese diplomats adopt a threat­ening and bel­ligerent tone, alien­ating coun­tries like Aus­tralia and India. Mean­while, ongoing border skir­mishes in the Himalayas between Chinese and Indian troops have left dozens of casu­alties.

Second, COVID-19 has shifted up the time­frame for the coming period of trans­for­mative tech­no­logical change known as the “fourth indus­trial rev­o­lution.”

From telemed­icine and Zoom classes to burger-flipping robots at McDonald’s, tech­nology has offered new ways to overcome the incon­ve­niences brought on by COVID-19. What most Amer­icans don’t realize, though, is that these advance­ments may be has­tening a rapid period of societal change. The fourth indus­trial rev­o­lution will transform how we travel, how goods are pro­duced, how we consume media, and how we com­mu­nicate. No industry will be left unscathed.

Arti­ficial intel­li­gence, big data, 5G, and advanced biotech­nology are a few of the driving forces behind the coming fourth indus­trial rev­o­lution. COVID-19 has served as the perfect proving ground for many of these tech­nologies. Pow­erful AI models, aug­mented by big data and machine learning, are now com­mon­place tools in the public policy toolbox. Mean­while, biotech­nology com­panies and AI startups have ben­e­fited from gen­erous research grants and soaring stock prices.

These trends have huge geopo­litical impli­ca­tions. To put it simply, the global “oper­ating envi­ronment” is much more tur­bulent than it was even a few years ago.

As Henry Kissinger has implied, today’s geopo­litical sit­u­ation is some­thing of a cross between that of pre-World War I Europe and the Cold War period. Like the pre-World War I era, the inter­na­tional envi­ronment fea­tures geopo­litical rivalries between an array of pow­erful nation-states — an arrangement political sci­en­tists refer to as ‘mul­ti­po­larity. ’ At the same time, the two most pow­erful coun­tries have entered a Cold War-like power struggle with ide­o­logical under­tones.

In the leadup to the first world war, the second indus­trial rev­o­lution trans­formed European soci­eties, cre­ating social turmoil and political insta­bility. Likewise, today’s complex geopo­litical sit­u­ation will be further com­pli­cated by the onset of the fourth indus­trial rev­o­lution.  In the coming decades, more actors — armed with increas­ingly pow­erful tools — will shape the geopo­litical envi­ronment. This, coupled with the social effects of rapid tech­no­logical change, is a recipe for dis­aster. 

With this in mind, our leaders must tread care­fully moving forward. To counter China, American policy makers must con­tinue standing up to Chinese Com­munist Party aggression. Respon­sible, long-term com­pe­tition will require both pru­dence and purpose. 

The fourth indus­trial rev­o­lution must also be approached with clarity of purpose. A faith in tech­no­logical progress has always been a part of American cul­tural DNA, but the immense power of today’s emerging tech­nologies could make them dan­gerous tools for social control. 

Today’s world is more dan­gerous than at any time in the last three decades. To shape the inter­na­tional envi­ronment, rather than be shaped by it, policy makers must approach geopo­litical trends with pru­dence and strategic vision. Let’s hope the next gen­er­ation of American statesmen is up to the chal­lenge. 


Brady Helwig is a senior studying pol­itics and is the pres­ident of the Alexander Hamilton Society.