Technology and Geopolitics

As a primer, the term ‘geopolitics’ is generally understood as the interaction between political power and a geographical setting with global or regional relations as context. Technology within this text will not just be observed as the application of science for industrial, political, or commercial objectives but, ‘technology’ will refer to the digital systems, products, and widgets as a group that is crucial to the foundations of so-called modern society. Information Communication Technology, for instance is, in many ways viewed as structural to modern expressions of geopolitical interests, at the same time, geography, and sociopolitical power, and technology itself are seen as highly independent variables within international relations.

On the global stage, the primary way modern states project political interests or demands effectively, includes the consumption of resources and the expenditure of energy in pursuit of said demands or interests; an exercise whose effectiveness is centrally determined by the state of technology[1]. Conversely, vibrant research literature into the impact of technology (-on international relations, geography and national power) is lacking, and the implications of this influence are mostly complex and multifaceted[2].

In keeping with the times, geopolitical power is not explicitly defined by geography, and dominance of ocean or land territory, but it is now defined mostly by controlling or dictating the flow of people, money, goods and data. This is done by exploiting the interactions that modern technology creates. Conversely, the connection between countries which ranges from energy flows to information technology standards practically becomes a geopolitical tool. In this context, it can be observed how countries use subsidies, regulations, localization, and export controls among others, to secure access to critical technology. On the other hand, these measures may restrict consumer access to these technologies and influence how people view critical technologies such as the internet. Research by the Freedom House showed that 35% of surveyed participants answered that their internet experience is ‘not free’, while approximately 24% of respondents said their internet experience was ‘free’[3].

Communication has been transnational for decades and has been a critical facet of the long held international geopolitical order which sees the European and North American power blocs influencing global policies. On the other hand, there is the growing gap between such powers and other countries that resist that control through implementation of localized alternatives and third-rail collaboration. Examples of this are; the outcome of the trade conflict between the United States and China, where the US government bars China from ICT collaboration vis-à-vis Huawei partnering with US companies in 5g technology, a move that caused China to rely more on its own networking technology and hardware. Weibo and WeChat now serve as alternates for the Chinese people to chat and make digital payments as opposed to WhatsApp and other English based applications. The Russian government is looking to replace the US$-based SWIFT payment system in favor of its MIR payment platform for currency resolution because of the myriad sanctions placed on Moscow by the US government and its European geopolitical allies. Recent reports by business news platform Interfax states that Russian tourists can now withdraw their cash in Cuban pesos courtesy of the MIR payment in Cuba, and while ATM cards currently are the only means due to the novelty, technical issues are being resolved to streamline transactions across all digital channels similar to the other 11 countries currently accepting the MIR payment platform as opposed to the US-led SWIFT system[4].

Communication platforms in the 21st century is still the most impactful aspect of global relations, and the tools and infrastructure are made available by powerful and private technology corporations colloquially referred to as ‘big tech’. The paradox in a geopolitical context is that while such large companies are hardly accountable to the states they primarily operate from, there is the suspicion by others that such entities have national roots and therefore can serve as conduits for external influence. While the means of communication become more complex and sophisticated, this will raise suspicion by other governments without comparable technology, and as these companies struggle for market dominance in regions outside their origin states, governments will seek to tighten and impose stronger controls to prevent detrimental outcomes. Analysts suggest that recent expressions of geopolitics are impacted by not just ICT, but from the systems that support these technologies, because the economic power and innovative value is concentrated by a handful of ‘big tech’ companies in what is referred to as the ‘attention economy’ or ‘surveillance capitalism’[5].

It is in this context that geopolitical influence is sought after, meaning power centering around those that own technology companies and the related supply chains. Additionally, there is also the effort by various interest groups to impact the content and what audiences consume on internet media platforms, with the aim of swaying public opinion. Reporting by Forbes showed that as China has become the world leader in technology – owing mostly to investing 2.4% GDP in research and development, more countries now have their value chains dependent on China. China is also touted as having the most advanced distribution system globally[6] while its electronic currency grants it more freedom in promoting its monetary policy. This perceived technological advantage is what informs the trade conflict between the US government and Beijing, the consequent shortage of semiconductor components after Chinese factories reduced production in the early stages of the global health crisis event[7].

Considering the fact that roughly 4.5 billion people use the internet, a technology of mostly North American origin, it is safe to suggest that the United States is the principal supporter of this technology and the global influence that it brings as well[8].

 

Footnotes

[1] Harold and Margaret Sprout. Geography and International Politics in an Era of Revolutionary Change,” The Journal of Conflict Resolutions (Vol. IV, No.1), 1960.

[2] C. E. Zoppo et al. (eds.), On Geopolitics: Classical and Nuclear. D.Ball (Ch.6) Modern Technology and Geopolitics. P.171.

[3] Ariel Kaster. 7 Views On How Technology Will Shape Geopolitics. World Economic Forum. (2021). https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/04/seven-business-leaders-on-how-technology-will-shape-geopolitics/

[4] Interfax. ATMs in Cuba begin to accept Mir payment system cards. (2022). https://interfax.com/newsroom/top-stories/81639/

[5] S.Malcorra. Tech Companies: ‘the battleground for geopolitical influence’. WEforum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/04/seven-business-leaders-on-how-technology-will-shape-geopolitics/

[6] The Economist. Why retailers everywhere should look to China. (2021). https://www.economist.com/leaders/2021/01/02/why-retailers-everywhere-should-look-to-china

[7] E.Dans. Why Technology will always be the key to geopolitics. (2021). Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/enriquedans/2021/03/04/why-technology-will-always-be-the-key-to-geopolitics/?sh=62378005286b

[8] R.J.Cochetti. Geopolitics and the Internet. (2022). The Hill. https://thehill.com/opinion/technology/598882-geopolitics-and-the-internet/

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