The on-going proliferation of the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is captivating the minds of policymakers, businessmen, investors, soldiers, scholars, financiers and ordinary observers from all over the world. The far-reaching impacts of its unprecedented transformative potential represent the power to redefine how activities from all walks of life are done, and it also has to be noted that the speed of this wave of innovation has extremely disruptive ramifications.
Not unlike what happened in previous industrial revolutions, sectors like renewable energies, aerospace, FinTech, ICT, biotechnology, and nanotechnology are already deepening the complexity of dynamics in the political, economic, commercial, financial, environmental, social and military spheres.
Some analysts believe that the introduction of said innovations literally embodies the promise of enduring progress, development, and prosperity for all mankind. For example, desalination technologies can tackle problems related to the scarcity of water (which is chronic in regions like the Middle East), renewable energies can foster sustainable development, and biotechnology can be instrumental in reducing hunger via increasing the availability and quality of nutritional food. It’s even possible that, at some point over the next few decades, advances in biotechnology could cure untreatable diseases and perhaps even reverse the process of ageing itself.
The usefulness of these combined technologies can play a meaningful role when it comes to preventing the Malthusian catastrophes and other ominous scenarios envisaged in studies like the National Security Study Memorandum 200, commissioned in the early 70s – by none other than the legendary Henry Kissinger back when he was National Security Advisor – and prepared as a warning about the imminence of increasingly intense conflict under conditions of growing populations and an accelerating depletion of natural resources.
In other words, recent technological innovations can truly improve the living standards of millions of people. Nevertheless, there have never been benefits without costs. For instance, advanced robotics and automation are displacing countless human operators, a process that can trigger massive unemployment amongst low-qualified workers, rising crime levels, and even violent expressions of socio-political discontent.
On the other hand, it is pertinent to bear in mind that strategic, military, and geopolitical interests have always been powerful drivers of technological development. After all, as thinkers like Aristotle and Carl Schmitt have argued, man is a political animal (“zoon politikon”) and, as such, the struggle for power and domination over his peers is an inherent and permanent component of human nature. In other words, the propensity for conflict is a feature, not a bug.
Accordingly, technology has always been a source of national power and a tool to wage war in more efficient ways. For example, the birth of the Royal Society was closely related to the interest of the British Crown in developing naval technologies conceived to enhance sea power projection capabilities in military and commercial terms. Partly thanks to that, Britain transitioned from being a society of farmers and shepherds to one of industrialists, merchants, seamen, and financiers.
Of course, there are also more recent examples. ARPANET – one of the earliest precursors of the internet itself – was created during the Cold War as a network of communication that would preserve military chains of command and control in case of nuclear war. In turn, the space race was motivated by the strategic anxieties of both the United States and the Soviet Union over the prospect of a nuclear exchange and, in fact, the technological capability to manufacture spacecraft is essentially the same as the one employed to produce ICBMs. Likewise, the technologically innovative orientation of many Israeli start-up companies has been heavily influenced by the expertise and mind-set derived from the practice of military intelligence.
In this sense, the analytical contents presented bellow will discuss the main political and strategic implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s most important sectors.
Since energy can be seen as the life-blood of modern economies, reliable, affordable and secure access to it is recognized as a priority in terms of national security. Moreover, the control of energy sources that are needed by others is something that confers profound geostrategic advantages in times of both war and peace. That has been fairly evident in the history of fossil fuels, especially considering that their supplies are – by definition – limited.
However, even though it will diminish the influence of prominent oil and gas exporters in terms of international politics, the arrival of more sustainable energies will not abolish the geopolitical importance of energy security. It will simply readjust the corresponding parameters of strategic competition. For example, the availability of arable land and fresh water – which are needed in order to grow the crops from which ethanol is produced – will be increasingly important.
Likewise, solar energy offers an incommensurable potential, but not every region of the planet is equally suitable for technically harnessing it in the most efficient way. Hence, the areas that receive a higher and more direct insolation would be better positioned than those that are closer to the Earth’s poles. Interestingly, the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region is ideal for placing solar panels thanks to its geographical location, which is ironic taking into account the dramatic events it has experienced for more than a century regarding the geopolitics of oil.
Moreover, the importance of lithium as a raw material employed in the manufacture of technologies related to renewable energies will fuel a growing competition for the control of such a strategic mineral, considering its relevance for ensuring a transition toward greener sources of energy.
Air travel bridged the distance that separates different continents, allowing people to visit remote locations in a relatively simple way. Furthermore, aircraft manufacturing has become a key strategic industrial sector due to its relevance for technological development, the integration of sophisticated contents in its productive processes, and its significant contribution to a generation of high-paying jobs demanding advanced technical expertise.
On the other hand, air power has changed how wars are fought. Since the First World War, the active presence of military aircraft – including fighters, bombers, and spy planes – has been a constant in virtually every major conflict. More recently, the arrival of both cruise and ballistic missiles have changed conventional battlefields once again, enabling the easier delivery of weapons of mass destruction.
Right now, even though the ultimate military usefulness of costly air power projection platforms like the F-35 has been questioned, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – commonly known as drones – has flourished because of the tactical advantages they offer in terms of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and engagement tasks in contemporary battlefields. For instance, in addition to being used by national governments to neutralize high-value targets, they are also being employed by non-state actors (including insurgencies and organized crime groups) to carry out unconventional attacks against their enemies’ personnel and infrastructure.
On the other hand, it is undeniable that outer space is humankind’s ultimate frontier. Thus, a stronger military presence of the great powers and the proliferation of commercial activities there is a matter a time. In fact, there are signs that things are already moving in that direction, including the birth of private companies involved in space exploration (like SpaceX), the development of satellites with offensive capabilities, the establishment of military space commands and forces (like the one being championed by US President Donald Trump) and the recent Chinese mission to the dark side of the moon.
New developments in the not-so-distant future might enable mining operations, the creation of permanent military outposts, the introduction of space-based warfare (including innovations like directed energy weapons, kamikaze satellites, and anti-satellite weaponry) and the eventual arrival of human astronauts to Mars. Hence, space is rapidly becoming an arena of intense strategic competition.
The term refers to the instrumental use of technological platforms in order to improve the availability and quality of financial services. For instance, it has allowed businesses and individuals to manage their bank accounts, make payments for goods and services, wire funds from one country to another and invest in assets exchanged in markets where access was notoriously difficult for the previously uninitiated.
However, both the rising dynamic reach of the virtual info-sphere and the financialization of the global economy are opening windows of opportunity that could be harnessed for malicious purposes. For instance, automated systems are amongst the top buyers and sellers of currencies, stock and bonds. Yet, their programming can be manipulated so that the high-speed algorithmic transactions they perform respond to geostrategic – rather than economic– imperatives, something that can unleash disturbances and widespread contagions of financial turmoil in order to undermine an enemy’s financial nerve centers and circuits – attacks that can destabilize an entire economy. In other words, automation can change how financial warfare is carried out in the 21st century.
Furthermore, the introduction of cryptocurrencies as a stateless medium of exchange challenged one of the essential attributes associated with national sovereignty: coinage. Nevertheless, Bitcoin and similar currencies lack the critical mass to reach an internationally dominant position mainly because they are not backed by the national power of a prominent state.
However, blockchain is not necessarily going to be a ‘libertarian’ technology forever. In fact, several national states are already undertaking ambitious research and development projects in order to launch digital versions of their national currencies. Such innovation would certainly facilitate the formulation of monetary policy, the simplification of taxation and transactions between private economic agents, but it could also offer the chance to remake the global monetary order, especially if a strong and attractive alternative to the US dollar and its financial circuits can be created by one of Washington’s geopolitical rivals. Hence, blockchain will increase the complexity of geo-financial struggles.
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
The omnipresence of cyberspace has made it a crucial domain of strategic competition. Cyberattacks – motivated by political, economic, and sometimes even criminal interests – threaten the national security of states, the availability of services offered by countless institutions, the legitimate secrets of business organizations, and the privacy of individuals.
Accordingly, the control of physical infrastructure related to internet connectivity is becoming an issue of geopolitical importance. For instance, in order to secure their own internet access without the risk of hostile disruption or interference from foreign intelligence agencies, the BRICS decided to build a submarine fibre optic cable.
Concerning contents, cyberspace – including not just its superficial layers, but also the deep corners of the so-called ‘dark web’ – are channels to collect intelligence, push propagandistic narratives, reach audiences whose members are prone to ideological radicalization or even join terrorist groups, influence political outcomes, increase the projection of ‘soft power,’ and disseminate misleading information meant to sow chaos and confusion.
Furthermore, innovations in this field are being driven by companies that, far from being independent entities merely interested in market competition, are also seemingly aligned with geopolitical agendas. For instance, Silicon Valley – the core of the American big tech sector – has always been close to the Pentagon, the US intelligence community, and Washington’s policymaking elite. However, the US is not the only country that is using hi-tech firms as a vector of geopolitical influence. The organic ties between Huawei and the military-industrial complex of the Chinese state raise similar concerns. Even the popular video-sharing platform TikTok has been criticized for allegedly acting as a Chinese covert conduit to gather intelligence from unsuspecting users.
On the other hand, the ability to process big data in real time is strengthening the reach of pervasive surveillance systems – including all sorts of scanners, electronic espionage tools and facial recognition software – which are rapidly extinguishing personal privacy, allegedly for the sake of national security and public safety. Ironically, even remarkably different societies like China the United States are becoming increasingly Orwellian.
Last but not least, the rise of artificial intelligence might optimize risk management, the proactive assessment of threats for national security, logistical capabilities, the effectiveness of smart weapons, the identification of an enemy’s centers of gravity and their critical vulnerabilities, the recognition of complex behavioral patterns, the quality and comprehensiveness of analytical inputs for decision-making processes (regardless of whether they are strategic or tactical), as well as the organization of war games based on hypothetical scenarios that might be encountered in a foreseeable future. Hence, it is becoming a force multiplier when it comes to high politics, strategic intelligence, military action, and matters of statecraft. Considering the advantages it offers, it’s no wonder that there’s currently a fierce global competition to come up with the most capable AI system.
Even though several countries have developed their own biological weapons programs, there has been a more-or-less general reluctance to use them because, once released, an infectious vector cannot distinguish between friend or foe, so that makes them difficult to control in operational terms. However, biotechnology might change that by increasing the accuracy of bio-weapons specially engineered through genetic modification in order to target only specific demographic groups, according to the identification of shared denominators in their genomes. Furthermore, precise bio-weapons can also be designed in order to wipe out crops and livestock in an entire area.
Moreover, there are even more ominous possibilities. As the Israeli thinker Yuval Noah Harari has argued, only very few people – the wealthiest members of societies – will be able to afford a bio-technological ‘upgrade’ that enhances the physical and mental abilities of both themselves and their offspring. That means that current levels of inequality will become even deeper, since it would not only comprise socio-economic components anymore, but also noticeable actual biological differences. In other words, it might even lead to the eventual bifurcation of humankind as a single species. Needless to say, such reality would abolish concepts like democracy and freedom. Instead, the situation depicted in this scenario resembles a dystopian totalitarian nightmare.
The introduction of new materials – which will be much more resistant, versatile, and stronger than anything that is currently available – made thanks to nanotechnology is going to represent a major game-changer regarding the manufacture of advanced weaponry and military hardware, increasing their quantitative and qualitative performance. Some prominent examples of weaponized nanotechnology include invisibility cloaks as the ultimate form of stealth, the production of ultra-compact nuclear weapons and even the involvement of nano-bots in activities related to espionage.
In contrast, if the widespread use of self-replicating nanotechnological machines is not properly managed, said phenomenon might endanger the survival of the whole terrestrial biosphere. Thus, the prospect of unintended outcomes must be taken into account.
Technology is a powerful and transformative impersonal force, but its evolution has always been heavily shaped by political phenomena. Therefore, while technological development is an element that fosters progress in many fields, it is a mistake to believe that it represents a silver bullet that will solve all of mankind’s problems and usher in a techno-utopian world where harmony prevails over conflict. In fact, technology can be more accurately understood as a double-edge sword whose innovations can also redefine how strategic competition unfolds and sometimes even intensify its expressions.