In 1993, AT&T released a series of advertisements heralding how new and emerging technologies would change everyday life over the next 25 years. Under the tagline, “You will,” Glen Kaiser, who ran the campaign, made the case, “More than you imagine, and sooner than you think.” This message, of breakthroughs in science and technology leading to a more prosperous and interconnected world, meshed with the geopolitical zeitgeist of the time. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union created an ethos, captured in Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay (and subsequent 1992 book) about the “End of History”—that the ideological questions and geopolitical struggles that had defined the modern era were giving way towards an emerging liberal world order. Under the political and technological leadership of the United States, the post-Cold War era would be characterized, in Political Commentator Charles Krauthammer’s formulation, by “open seas, open trade and open societies lightly defended.”
The September 11, 2001 attacks highlighted what Author Moises Naim labelled the “dark side of globalization”—that new technologies and arrangements meant to knit countries together could also be used for negative and nefarious purposes. Globalization also paved the way for the rise and resurgence of other powers, which were less prepared to assume the roles and responsibilities that the United States wanted them to play. In turn, technological change has contributed to the erosion of the so-called “unipolar” moment—as other states and actors have been able, over the past two decades, to raise costs for the United States to act in the international system—whether through improved anti-access/area-denial capabilities or the use of social media tools to influence domestic political discourse in other countries.
We have reached an important intersection in world affairs, in my opinion. The United States remains the dominant power in the international system, but global affairs are showing more signs of multipolarity, but also nonpolarity. Competition between major states—rather than coordination by a hyperpower—is becoming the defining feature of the mid-twenty-first century. At the same time, according to Captain Rajat Kumar of the Indian Navy, we are entering the “decentralization epoch,” defined not only by decoupling and disconnection between states (starting with the United States and China), but also within countries. This movement is aided and abetted by technological shifts that remove gatekeepers and central nodes and change the calculus for both compellence and deterrence. Thus, the rules of the international system are changing at the same time that the tools available to both state and non-state actors are evolving.
In this special issue of Orbis, we have focused on how the next wave of technological and environmental shifts are changing the ways that we communicate, strategize, manufacture, obtain energy, collect information, and make decisions, as well as introducing new ways to travel, transport, and deliver lethality. These next generation steps in technological development intersect with the re-emergence of great power competition. In January 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared in his annual address to the Federal Assembly, “The speed of technological changes in the world is increasing many times over, and we must create our own technologies and standards in the areas that determine the future. It primarily includes artificial intelligence, genetics, new materials, energy sources, digital technologies.”
Putin’s comments reflect the reality that the race to bring new technologies on-line cannot be separated from the changes now underway in the international system. Indeed, given U.S. predominance in the international system over the past two decades, competitors have adopted deliberate strategies to invest in new technologies to play “catch up” to the United States. The next issue of Orbis will address the second part of that equation: the likely and unexpected shifts that the 2020s may bring in the world—and the impacts on U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy.
Taken together, this fall 2020 special issue on “technology and national security” and the upcoming winter 2021 issue with its “look forward” are sketching out the case that policymakers and strategists in this coming decade must be prepared for sudden, major, discontinuous changes. Assessments that the immediate future will look a lot like the recent past will not prepare us for a variety of black and gray swan events. The COVID-19 pandemic and the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia—one a biological occurrence, the other a geo-economic decision (albeit accelerated by another unexpected technological development of this century, the fracking boom)—both have had dramatic impacts on world events this year, especially in terms of the global economic downturn.. However, neither event was on the horizon of planners and politicians even as of January 2020. Yet, we will be living with their impacts for the foreseeable future.
Robert Strausz-Hupé, the founder of Orbis in 1957, argued that both geopolitics and technology mattered in how world affairs would develop. He saw the trend lines, in the middle of the twentieth century, leading towards centralization and consolidation. Today, we may be witnessing a shift in the opposite direction. Yet, the motive forces remain the same. In this volume, and in subsequent ones, we hope to continue these conversations—and as the incoming editor of Orbis, it is my honor and privilege to uphold this intellectual legacy.