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.