Four New Realities Facing the Future

New assessments of a world in dramatic transition were delivered this week like lava erupting from an angry volcano. At the center were four key issues - China, Russia, technology, and governance.

The EU, the UK, and the U.S. all presented new analyses of how the world has, and is, changing and what steps need to be taken to effectively shape the future in favor of freedom, openness, security, and prosperity.

The newly minted U.S. National Security Strategy opens with a clear statement from the president that, “We are in the midst of a strategic competition to shape the future of the international order.”

The strategy recognizes that Russia will continue its role as a disrupter of regional security and global stability. But while Russia will be a continuing and serious challenge that needs to be contained, it is not America’s preoccupation.

The major target of the strategy is China – “This strategy recognizes that the PRC presents America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge.”

The core of the struggle with China is over technological superiority. The strategy notes, “Technology is central to today’s geopolitical competition and the future of our national security, economy and democracy.”

At the heart of the technology competition are semiconductors that power today’s high-tech economy. According to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Secretary, one goal is to out-compete the PRC by preserving technological advantages and re-shoring chip manufacturing. At the moment the U.S. is 100% dependent on chips made by Taiwan and South Korea.

But another action this week hints at a harder line approach then just beating China with brain power. The U.S. administration announced new controls on the export of artificial intelligence and semiconductor technologies to China.

This is part of a new U.S. “Modern Industrial and Innovation Strategy,” one that recognizes that “markets alone cannot respond to the raid pace of technological change…[and]…abuses by the PRC.”

But it also is an effort to strangle “with an intent to kill” China’s technological strength and by extension the military, commercial and surveillance applications of its high-tech advances.

This export control action is controversial, and China called it “sci-tech hegemony” by the U.S. that will disadvantage developing economy nations.

However, the U.S. is not alone in its assessment of changing global circumstances and responses. The reclusive head of Britain’s shadowy Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intelligence agency gave a high-profile speech in Australia that identified the current state of the world as in, “a period of generational upheaval.”

A key driver of current and future geopolitical competition, according to his presentation, is the fact that “technology leadership is moving East” and that this has an impact on values, prosperity, and security.

The GCHQ director noted that this technology competition is creating a “moment of reckoning” for democratic nations because along with the battle for technological superiority is the need to control the “standards that govern it.” This is a values fight that must be won by the West, he noted.

These themes were further echoed in a speech this week by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign and Security Policy, but they were made specific to the challenges of Europe.

“[I]t is a world of radical uncertainty,” he noted, where the “black swan will be the majority” and Europe will have to come to grips with the fact that “we have decoupled the sources of our prosperity from the sources of our security.”

He stated that, “Our prosperity has been based on cheap energy coming from Russia…And the access to the big China market.” Both dependencies are now significantly and negatively impacted by the hostile actions of Russia and China.

The High Representative had plenty of criticism for the U.S. including the security uncertainty created by its political divisions and upheavals and the impact that rising interest rates are having on developed and developing economies.

But, at the center of the global transition, he noted, is the “US-China competition…that will restructure the world.” This will coexist besides the “democracies vs. authoritarians” divide.

The restructuring already is being evidenced in the fight to re-write the international rules.

A major theme of the U.S. security strategy is the belief that, “the post-Cold War era is definitely over.” That was a period that sought to integrate post-communist Russia and the emerging economic power of China into an international order created and largely managed by western nations and institutions. That approach has not aged well.

The second big challenge is the need to address cross-border concerns, including climate change, energy security, and nuclear nonproliferation. Solving these issues requires international cooperation but that approach will be tempered by the hard and hostile new realities being presented by China and Russia.

The U.S., EU, and UK analyses underscore four new realities. The world has dramatically changed. The international order is being reshaped. Technology and its governance structures will determine who leads the shaping. It can’t be led by China or Russia.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security