Rewiring the world

Throughout history, technological change has operated within established geopolitical patterns. Today’s tech revolution is tipped to transcend those boundaries and transform international relations – but the reality may turn out to be more nuanced.

RAF Fylingdales
RAF Fylingdales, a British Royal Air Force station high on Snod Hill in the North York Moors, England, was an early attack warning Cold War facility, consisted of three 40-metre-diameter 'golfballs' or geodesic domes (radomes) containing mechanically steered radar. Credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

It is often suggested that the technology revolution has transformed international politics. There is no doubt that technology has changed our daily lives at a speed inconceivable even two decades ago. Today, a toddler who can navigate a smartphone has access to more information than Ronald Reagan did as president of the United States. 

But has tech really, as some argue, transcended traditional geopolitics? Are the new battle lines no longer traditional ones between nation states, but those created by transnational competition between coalitions of ‘netizens’ across state boundaries? Is it the case, as Niall Ferguson eloquently argued in his The Square and the Tower, that these new networks are re-wiring international relations? To answer these questions we must first consider what the historical connection between technological change and geopolitical shifts has been.

Gunpowder, printing and ships

In 1430, Europe had not seen a major technical innovation since the Romans. The exception was gunpowder, developed in China for medicinal purposes before its use in warfare became widespread towards the end of the Middle Ages. It transformed the battlefield and social relations. Knights became redundant, although the feudal order underpinning them proved remarkably resilient at first. What gunpowder did not do was change the geopolitical dynamic itself. The Ottomans Turks had a distinct edge in siege artillery, for example, but this would merely accelerate their advance, which had begun long before. Gunpowder became simply another weapon in European conflicts of the time, such as the Anglo-French Hundred Years’ War, and the perennial struggle for supremacy in the Holy Roman Empire. 

Then Johannes Gutenberg wrought what Elizabeth Eisenstein famously christened ‘The printing revolution in Early Modern Europe’. To be sure, the invention of print facilitated literacy, and fuelled the Reformation. But the effects were more cultural than geopolitical. The largest single issue addressed in books printed in the first eighty years or so after Gutenberg typeset his first text was the Turkish threat and the related political fragmentation of Christendom, not its theological divisions. Printing did not fundamentally affect the key power struggles of the time, such as that between the Habsburg and Valois dynasties in Italy and Germany. 

Likewise, if we review the European state system at the start of the nineteenth century, the continuities are as evident as the changes. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw enormous strides in ship building and navigation, including the invention of copper-bottomed hulls which enabled ships to stay at sea for longer; and the discovery of longitude facilitated navigation. Taken together, maritime innovation and artillery gave Europeans the edge over Asian actors, at least so long as they stuck to the high seas and coastal areas, and a devastating advantage over African and Native American polities. 

That said, it was not any technological imbalance that led to the French defeat during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, but the disparity in resources. So little had changed in some of Europe’s fundamental geopolitical alignments that the great confrontation between France and what was to become Great Britain between 1689 and 1815 became known as the ‘Second Hundred Years’ War’. The Holy Roman Empire, soon to become the German Confederation, remained a site of furious contestation. Of course, some powers like Spain had receded in importance, while Russia and Prussia had emerged. In both of these cases, however, success was the product not of technological innovation but of size and organisation.

The travel revolution

As one observer has pointed out, Napoleon had crossed the Alps pretty much as Hannibal had, on the back of an animal. In the mid nineteenth century, however, travel was about to be revolutionised. Steam power liberated passengers and cargo from the trade winds. The advent of railways drove huge social and economic change in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Regions were integrated more closely, and economies were no longer bound by inland waterways. Labour mobility was greatly facilitated. 

This led to a new phase in the relationship between technology and geopolitics. For example, the weakness of the Tsarist rail network meant that in the mid-1850s the faraway British and French could reinforce their armies in the Crimea by sea, quicker than the much closer Russians could do by land. Prussia’s victory over Austria in 1866 also owed a lot to her superior rail system and weaponry. Later, people would speak of 1914 as a ‘war by (railway) timetable.

All the same, the connection between technological shifts and geopolitical ones was not straightforward. First, some developments – like railways and steamships – cancelled each other out, or were perceived to do so. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, for example, students of geopolitics were divided between followers of the American naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, who believed that seapower was the key to success, and those of the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder, who held that the advent of rail gave the ‘heartland’ powers of Eurasia the edge, because they could operate on interior lines.

Secondly, technological progress tended to be shared quite quickly, for example when Britain’s Dreadnought battleships were speedily copied by other powers in the early twentieth century, or aircraft, though invented in the United States, were adopted as weapons platforms by all the main belligerents. There were many encounters in Africa when better-armed Europeans mowed down their African or Arab enemies, such as the slaughter of the Mahdists by the British at Omdurman in 1898, but there were few major and sustained technological imbalances in the contests between European powers.   

Flying solo

Many thought the invention of flight, the most dramatic scientific leap of the early twentieth century, would fundamentally transform geopolitics. Observing the experimental flights of the Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont in November 1906, the press baron Lord Northcliffe remarked, ‘England is no longer an island. It means the aerial chariots of a foe descending on British soil if war comes.’ His organ, the Daily Mail, wrote of ‘the military problem caused by the virtual annihilation of frontiers and the acquisition of the power to pass readily through the air above the sea’. This meant, the newspaper predicted, that ‘[t]he isolation of the United Kingdom may disappear.’ Not long after, the British government began to support the development of military aviation, which soon became a major arm of industry. 

The effect of all this was not to render old strategic paradigms redundant, but to reinforce them. The principal bases for any aerial attack on England would likely be in the historical areas of concern: northern France and the Low Countries. Indeed, time was to show that the aeroplane, far from being only a danger to the country, could also serve for its defence, and as a sally port into continental Europe.

From radar to the nuclear age

Of course, during the first half of the last century scientific advances affected battlefield outcomes significantly. Two instances are radar and ASDIC, with respect to the war at sea and in the air. That said, technology did not cause or decide either conflict. The US-Japanese rivalry, which nearly resulted in war in 1905, emerged some time before aircraft were invented, and long before the invention of the aircraft carrier. Japan was defeated not because American planes and ships were better, though that was increasingly the case, but because the United States could build many more of them; it would have prevailed even without the atom bomb. Likewise, the key disparity between the German Reich and its antagonists in both world wars was not technological, but their vastly different demographic and industrial capacities. Quantity, not quality or innovation, was the decisive factor.

This subordinate relationship between technology and geopolitics holds true even for the Cold War, sometimes dubbed ‘The Nuclear Age’. Clearly, the advent of weapons of mass destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the nature of warfare. It is less obvious, though, that they affected the deeper geopolitical patterns. The antagonism between communist dictatorship and Western democracy predated nuclear power, and the brief American monopoly did not much constrain Stalin. He merely noted that the protagonists needed ‘strong nerves’ as a result. Nor did the move into space, a whole new dimension, change the fundamental dynamic. It simply became another area of contestation between the superpowers.

The information revolution

The two final decades of the Cold War saw the start of the ‘information revolution’ in the West with the invention of the microchip. The inability of Moscow to keep up with technology epitomised the failure of communism, but it did not bring down the wall or shatter the Soviet Union. That was primarily the work of other forces. Internally, the East proved unable to cope with the forces set free by Gorbachev’s policies, and externally, Moscow had been worn down by failure in Afghanistan and other theatres. The effects of the microchip-driven ‘revolution in military affairs’, which made the United States a peerless competitor on land, at sea and in the air throughout the 1990s, were not visible until the wars in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. It was only then that one saw a ‘unipolar moment’ when Western, and particularly US dominance, was underpinned by a ‘full spectrum dominance’ across all platforms.

This development coincided with the next stage of the information revolution, the growth of the internet – itself an outgrowth of the US defence complex – and then of social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. These transformations, and the accompanying surge in economic interdependence through globalisation, caused many to bid goodbye not merely to the nation state but to classic inter-state competition altogether. 

Some argue that social media, unlike other new technologies, is much more than a tool. The recent, and much-discussed, Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma suggests that the continuing tech revolution is not just the latest frontier, but a completely new (and sinister) phenomenon. Boundaries today, the argument runs, are more fluid, and run within, rather than between, societies. Data, not territory, is the key battleground. Although there is something in this argument, there is not yet enough evidence to suggest that the traditional model of geopolitics is now redundant, or that social media will not prove to be ultimately subordinate to pre-existing geopolitical structures.

What is true is that social media, unlike any other tool, moulds itself to the user. It is personalised and addictive. It encourages polarisation by feeding existing prejudices and creating echo chambers which are hard to escape. Four years ago, Facebook’s own analysts noted that its algorithms directed users towards extremist groups. ‘Our recommendation system’, they admitted, ‘grows the problem’. This is certainly part of the explanation for Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016 and (to a much lesser degree) the outcome of the EU referendum in the UK earlier that year. Recently, James Bridle has dubbed the resulting proliferation of ‘fake news’, conspiracy theories and fundamentalism as The New Dark Age. The events at the US Capitol earlier this year showed the power of such mobilisation, and the subsequent banning of a sitting US president from various social media platforms raised even more profound questions. 

The endurance of the old geopolitics

But regardless of its impact on the domestic political sphere, social media has not transcended great power rivalries.  Rather, it has been subsumed into them. The fundamental divide in the world today is not between various domestic tribes, or even transnational coalitions of such groups organising through social media, but between the West and its two main challengers, Russia and the People’s Republic of China. The theatres of contention have been traditional: Putin’s annexation of the Crimea, Sino-American jostling in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits, and Sino-Indian scuffles in Ladakh. The main battle over data has concerned the Chinese corporation Huawei. States matter more than ever, and bigger ones matter as much as before. So far, social media has proved to be simply another platform in a global struggle which would be taking place in any case. 

In short, technological change affects international politics in both war and peace, but does not transform the system itself. The exception is the relationship between the West and the rest before the mid-twentieth century. The whole structure of Western imperialism in America, Africa and Asia rested on a technological imbalance, from Cortes’s use of firearms against the Aztecs in the early sixteenth century to the deployment of poison gas by Mussolini against the Ethiopians in the 1930s.  The atom bomb ended the war much sooner than it would otherwise have done, but Japan’s defeat was still inevitable. Wars between the great powers have tended to be decided by skill (the German defeat of France in 1940) or, more often, by attrition (as in the First and Second World Wars). Whoever comes out on top between China and the West, the outcome will ultimately be decided not by their respective technological strengths, important though those will be, but by their relative military, economic, and societal resilience in times of severe stress.

There is a parallel here between the pattern of geopolitics and that of domestic transformation, at least in Britain. The sociologist W.G. Runciman entitled his celebrated investigation of British society over the past three hundred years Very Different, But Much The Same (2013). He did not mean to suggest little had changed between 1714 and the present day; clearly many things did, very profoundly. Rather, Runciman had in mind the continuity of institutions and societal traditions, for example inter-generational mobility, which made the Britain of the past recognisable to us today (and would have made us intelligible to them). In the same way, there is a fundamental geopolitical pattern over time, within which technological change operates, rather than the other way around. In this sense, the international systems traversed in this essay may be different, certainly with regard to their scientific make-up, but they are also geopolitically much the same.  

Compare for example, the alignments of today with those of the early Cold War. The Taiwan Straits crises in 1954-1955 and 1958 look very familiar. So does the spectre of Kremlin-sponsored aggression in Europe. In 1962, India and China fought a brief but bloody war in almost exactly the same area that the two powers tussled over last year. As for disinformation and paranoia, the historian Calder Walton has recently shown that these were standard features of the time, since forgotten about. Finally, the idea that an outside power might capture the US presidency (a standard feature of the collusion with Russia allegations against Donald Trump), was dramatized more than fifty years earlier in the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate. There is little new under the sun.

Of course, just because technology has not decisively shaped geopolitics in the past doesn’t mean it never will. Artificial intelligence, today a shorthand for machine-learning, may well prove to be the game-changer of cliché. AI could develop a mind of its own and bring about the war of computers so narrowly averted in the 1983 film WarGames. We cannot be sure that tech will not transform geopolitics in the ways that its boosters celebrate, and its detractors fear. We just haven’t seen much evidence of it yet.


Brendan Simms & Constance Simms