LOS ANGELES:- Recent crises highlight the need for fresh thinking about geopolitics, especially in the West, and nowhere more so than in Europe. Above all, the war in Ukraine exposed a fundamental misunderstanding in the way Western democracies think about technology. Far from bringing about an end to state conflict, modern technological development raises the stakes of conflict and is likely to intensify it.
The European Union is so fundamentally modern that its political essence can be described as technological. We often call the EU technocratic, which tends to carry the same meaning. Read any legislative text coming out of Brussels and you will find ample references to the latest economic and scientific research on the matter at hand. At the heart of the European project is the belief that politics is about finding the most efficient means of reaching socially desirable goals.
Politics as technique should not be depressing or uninspiring. There is nothing wrong with elevating the promotion of knowledge and the exchange of ideas as the primary means and goals of political life, both domestically and globally.
But with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it became clear that the EU had ignored the geopolitical nature of technology. It was a mistake to assume that technology necessarily reduces inter-state conflict by creating mutual dependencies and bringing about material abundance through ever-greater efficiency.
More broadly, as technological power increasingly promises to replace our natural environment with new artificial worlds, the question of who will build and control these worlds will become more acute. In a technological world, geopolitics is the struggle not to control territory but to create it.
In an age of climate change and biodiversity loss, the artificial could take on a literal meaning, given the potential of terraforming. But it can also be understood more metaphorically. The pandemic revealed new possibilities for achieving radical emancipation from the natural world, both by moving to online, virtual experiences and by developing vaccines and other biotechnologies for conquering – or at least managing – disease.
It was not so long ago that the natural world remained outside our control, serving as an arbiter between geopolitical powers. The Cold War was a conflict rooted in humankind’s mastery over the atom; but even then, a transformed nature was still consistent with ground rules that kept the conflict contained within certain limits.
Faced with the realities of what nuclear war would mean, the United States and the Soviet Union both appealed to the impartial judgment of history. Both asked the same basic questions – “Do we have the right beliefs and institutions to grow stronger over time, extending our control over the material forces of historical development?” – and both shared the same basic conviction that a higher authority, whether divine or dialectic, would ultimately decide.
The situation is fundamentally different in a fully human-built world, because there is no recourse to an external authority. Computing, financial, and monetary power set the rules in advance and confer ever more political power on a select few. For everyone else, the new environment is inescapable and thus seemingly natural.
We are living “after nature,” and this changes the terms of geopolitical rivalry. What matters most in today’s world are the seemingly abstract networks of money, intellectual property, data, and technology. When your opponent is building a fully artificial or technological world that could eventually redefine your own reality, geopolitics becomes existential.
A NEW GAME
Listening to American officials over the past few years, one can detect a growing awareness of this threat. Public messaging still stresses the universal validity of liberal principles, with officials (Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is a good example) calling on everyone to play by the rules – meaning the liberal rules governing the international order. Yet accompanying these exhortations is a new anxiety that the rules are not as firmly established as the US wants them to be.
There is a great contest under way to determine which rules will govern the world and which superpower will be in a position to set them. “We make up 25% of the economy in the world,” US President Joe Biden said in November 2020, “We need to be aligned with the other democracies, another 25% or more, so that we can set the rules of the road instead of having China and others dictate outcomes because they are the only game in town.”
Faced with this reality, democracies would do well to drop the pablum about “playing by the rules.” Enforcing established rules is no longer what world politics is about. The rules are not given and the forces driving the ascendancy of states are not neutral. The game is considerably more complex than one in which the main players compete under a common set of rules.
The system is open to change. Choices made by different participants can influence and reshape the rules, potentially tilting the entire system in favor of some powers rather than others. This represents a sharp break from the universalism of the previous order, where common rules governing trade and other matters were said to create a neutral playing field.
With liberalism having lost its ability to impress the truth of its principles upon a recalcitrant world, we have moved dangerously close to a new world of “might makes right.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear that he will no longer accept the rules under which the world operates. He wants a new system in which Russia is recognized as a great power with its own expanded sphere of influence.
The Kremlin most likely has not thought through all the changes its preferred new system would entail; but it has made some of its positions known. Ukraine must disappear as a state, and preferably also as a nation; and Russia must be brought back into all important decisions about the European continent. As a former Russian intelligence official once put it to me, tiny Malta, with its seat on the European Council and the Council of Ministers, has a greater say in European affairs than Russia does. Such a world cannot be allowed to stand.
To be sure, Putin had mused that a new system could follow from a grand bargain with the US, echoing the 1945 Yalta Conference settlement by which the US, the Soviet Union, and Britain established the basic shape of the postwar European order. But this was no more than a suggestion, left purposefully vague by the Kremlin. Sensing an opening, Putin decided to try to impose a new system by force.
He did so because he had already convinced himself that Russia was a great power, and that the only thing left to do was to secure recognition of that fact. A swift, successful war in Ukraine would be tantamount to a revolutionary moment, when a downtrodden class suddenly emerges as the true holder of power.
Contrary to popular impressions, the most important asset for the revolutionaries in Moscow was not Russia’s nuclear arsenal but Russian energy. Putin and his advisers assumed that Russian oil and gas were so indispensable to the normal functioning of Europe’s economy that Russia had nothing to worry about if Putin decided to start a war. Russia, they had concluded, could dictate its own rules. By placing energy flows and trade firmly in the service of Russia’s war aims, the Kremlin has effectively abandoned the system of global economic liberalism. Its preferred alternative would deserve to be called “war economy.”
THE TECHNOLOGICAL ORDER
If one thinks of the international order as a kind of operating system, those who can change the rules are like system administrators. A state with “root access” – like the US – can execute any command or modify the system itself. By contrast, the Kremlin believed it had a back door to the system – a way to penetrate its defenses in ways that would be impossible for the administrators to counter. The goal? To reprogram the system, at least partially.
The great advantage of being a global system administrator is that you can crack down on offenders and pursue your other aims by toggling the system itself, rather than through more direct means. This approach characterizes the Western response to Putin’s aggression. Rather than going to war themselves, Western democracies have adopted a set of targeted economic tools designed to reduce the Russian threat to the existing system. In the cybernetic model adopted in this essay, they might be compared to antivirus software or perhaps even the villains in The Matrix – programs (“agents”) designed to terminate intruders. Weapons and technology transfers to Ukraine demonstrated the system’s ability to deploy its resources across the full line of defense.
The sanctions on Russia’s central bank were meant to be a coup de grace, because foreign-exchange reserves were the tool the Kremlin had planned to use to protect the ruble and shield itself from other Western measures. To take away that tool was tantamount to accessing “god mode” in a video game. The system administrator hoped that it could simply switch off Russia’s controls and leave it fully exposed to devastating bank runs, inflation, and capital flight.
But those scenarios did not materialize, and it is easy to surmise why: The world is still hungry for Russia’s hydrocarbons. At current prices, a year’s worth of energy exports would be enough to make up for its frozen reserves.
The West’s near-unprecedented sanctions also raise unsettling questions about its own future. Will countries continue to accumulate dollar-denominated reserves that can be frozen or seized with the tap of a button? As long as the Russian central bank’s reserves are held at foreign central banks, they are a form of “inside money”: liabilities accepted by a counterparty and registered as such in their computers. That means they can be unilaterally revoked. By contrast, gold or Bitcoin would be “outside money” that cannot be revoked, because a direct relationship between the asset and the asset holder removes the need for a corresponding liability.
It is unclear how this game will play out. Sanctioning central-bank reserves on such a scale is unprecedented; but to move away from the dollar, Russia would need a viable alternative. No matter how much the dollar is weaponized, an alternative to it cannot simply be created by fiat. Rather, it would have to emerge gradually as a result of changes in the structure of global trade and finance. Generally, to replace the original system administrator, one must replace the entire system.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is a revealing moment. The global system was supposed to be a neutral framework of rules, but it has suddenly been exposed as a tool of power. This revelation carries some danger, because any number of state actors in the developing world may now decide to stop playing by the existing rules, or even to start looking for alternative systems.
Whatever happens, we can already distill three main lessons from the crisis. First, we have entered a new period of geopolitical rivalry, where the stakes will be much higher than they were before. The competition between Western democracies and China will increasingly be seen as a decisive historical contest to determine who will build the artificial worlds of the future, who will craft the rules that govern them, and who will have root access to the operating system.
Second, the power to make the rules matters much more than what the rules are at any given moment. Such relativism may be unpalatable to liberal sensitivities, but recent crises have consistently demonstrated the truth of it.
Finally, it matters which powers have root access to the global system. Preventing intruders from gaining access to the deepest layer of the system must be a top priority. Europe’s dangerous dependence on Russian energy is both a vulnerability and a warning.
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