war on the rocks

Debating a World Reorder

January 2, 2019

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a special series published in collaboration with the Raisina Dialogue, which kicks off on Jan. 8 in New Delhi.

Every year, the Raisina Dialogue convenes experts from a diverse cross-section of disciplines and professions to address the most challenging issues facing the global community. It is fair to say that for the past few years, the common sentiment is that we live in an age of “disruption,” given the upheavals that have characterized global politics over the last decade. As the dialogue prepares to convene once again in 2019, the world is evolving in response to these disruptions. Older systems of management are straining or already broken, but the new regimes, rules, and concepts that could replace them are still forming. This year, Raisina will take stock of the immediate consequences of these disruptions, and explore how these consequences inform our visions of the emerging world order.

The redrawing of our mental maps of the world is perhaps the most consequential development. The tensions and instability emanating from North America and Europe have reinforced the fragility of the Atlantic system: that it won’t be able to sustain its role as the lynchpin of the international order. To be sure, the world’s wealth and military power is still concentrated in the Western hemisphere, but the trans-Atlantic system, as it emerges from an extended period of soul-searching, is more likely to look inward than outward. Events in 2018 have confirmed that the future will be scripted by the seminal changes underway in the Indo-Pacific, Eurasia, and the Arctic. Yet it is also true that these expressions have not been normalized in our geopolitical lexicon, despite the fact that new flows of trade, energy, and information are changing our understanding of these regions.

Some countries, especially China, sense opportunity in this political churn and have taken the lead in crafting new economic and strategic propositions. Meanwhile India, Japan, Russia, Turkey, the United States, Australia, and some European states are attempting to cobble together their own responses to the shifting landscape. As this transition unfolds, it is certain that the near-simultaneous rise in the wealth and importance of the Indo-Pacific, Eurasia, and the Arctic will fuel competition among these and other geopolitical actors to try to mold the world in ways that sustain or advance their national interests. The norms they draft, the partnerships they choose, and the institutions they support will define the potential and limits of connectivity and collaboration — and set the stage for competition and conflict.

Even as this unfolds, the United States and China are engaged in an escalating dispute over the future of global security, innovation, industrial development, and trade. Each country’s domestic politics help to shape the contours of this competition. The clash between “America First” and the “China Dream” may significantly reshape global trade and security, and will reinvigorate a debate once considered long resolved, over the “right” political model. History has witnessed contests between an incumbent power and an aspirational challenger before — and the results have often been devastating. If past is prologue, what prediction should we make about the future?

Yet, the Sino-American contest is also distinct from great power rivalries of the past. Tensions in cyberspace and the digital realm have received the same, if not more, attention than traditional clashes over territory. Indeed, cyberspace is no longer insulated from sovereign interests. From the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation to China’s cyber sovereignty ambitions, the fault lines in the digital world are mimicking developments in the physical realm. Can 20th century institutions like the World Trade Organization create rules for the digital economy that balance the imperative of the open internet with national interests? What role will private technology platforms play in the governance and security of digital spaces? More importantly, can the internet ever realize its democratic promise? With digital platforms morphing from tools of empowerment to instruments of propaganda and polarization, the future of cyberspace, contrary to its original promise, looks less global and less democratic than ever before.

It is not surprising that cyberspace and emerging technologies more broadly are a flashpoint between global powers, given their potential to simultaneously create new asymmetric warfare capabilities and entrench existing power structures. Indeed, the fourth industrial revolution will continue to transform geopolitics. Over the past two years, more than a dozen countries have released national Artificial Intelligence (AI) strategies, reflecting their intuitive understanding that pulling ahead of the innovation curve will translate into economic and political power. And although national strategies are proliferating, global institutions appear gridlocked, with conversations on cyberspace norms in the United Nations stuck in the past. Increasingly it appears “AI nationalism” is the defining global mood.

An era of technological transformation has also caused states to seek new avenues for providing paychecks, social protection, and a larger purpose to local communities. Globally, inequality has pushed politics to a point of inflection and encouraged the economics of populism. The velocity of proliferation and growth of robotics and AI will continue to exacerbate economic divisions. Countries with mature political, economic, and social institutions, invariably the first deployers of future technologies and sometimes the hardest hit when robots replace humans at work, are already struggling to craft a response. The prognosis for emerging nations, who must discover development pathways beyond the export-led model that was once their ladder to prosperity, is even grimmer. Is talk of a “universal basic income” a short-term fix, a long-term inevitability — or is an exhausted world simply running out of ideas?

This transformation is also forcing countries to search for a new equilibrium between individual, enterprise, and state. When today’s technology giants were born at the turn of the 21st century, they were driven by the utopian desire to connect communities and democratize knowledge. Today, these platforms find themselves at the frontiers of national security; their algorithms have transformed the public sphere; and they have created new business models that have altered the relationship between labor and capital. Increasingly, the digital infrastructure that forms the substrata of daily life is owned by private actors. Their commercial choices are dictating not just the relationship of individuals with each other, but also the individual’s relationship with the state — even with a foreign state.

In an age of swift technological and political change, social and personal ethics and values are critical to a writing of the future. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently published the results of one of the largest-ever studies of moral preferences, using responses to a variation of the classic “trolley problem.” Unsurprisingly, they found that moral preferences diverge widely based on identity, both personal and national. Such experiments allow us to gauge just how challenging it will be to arrive at a consensus on the ethical design of emerging technologies; and how contentious their deployment may prove. “Code” may not be just “law” anymore; indeed, “code is life” may be the new dictum. Whether the line is drawn between the East and the West, the Left and the Right, or even between communities and technology platforms, questions of whose ethics and which ethics are unlikely to get any easier to answer.

Each of these developments underscore the fact that we are now witnessing the creation of a new world. It is no coincidence that global experts should gather in New Delhi to discuss, debate and analyze today’s transformations. After all, as a country that will be critical to the emergence of a new order, India best epitomizes the transitions that are underway globally. India is a “boundary nation” straddling the line between the old and the new. As an emerging power, it has long expressed frustration with the international system; yet it is also the most natural steward of the liberal order during its period of transition. Located at the intersection of emerging geographies, it will connect the politics of the Indo-Pacific with the dynamics of Eurasia. And it must deliver stability and progress to over a billion individuals as they transition from the industrial realities of the 20th century to seek opportunity in a 21st century knowledge-based economy.

These are the boundaries at which conversations on global politics will take place. And as yesterday’s disruptions lead us to a new normal for tomorrow, participants at the 2019 Raisina Dialogue will try and paint a picture for a world order that is to come. The questions and debates are complex. Which state, or states, will claim leadership in the 21st century? Can democracies prove resilient in the face of polarization and populism? And can societies summon the wisdom and courage to navigate the technological disruptions of the fourth industrial revolution? In an attempt to provide some answers, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and War on the Rocks will publish a series of essays in the days leading up to the Raisina Dialogue. These essays will inform and shape the debates in New Delhi and beyond, and we hope that they will help us tease out a consensus as participants in the Raisina Dialogue attempt to navigate today’s complexities.


Samir Saran (President, ORF) provides strategic leadership to the Foundation, guiding and overseeing its research agenda, business development and outreach initiatives. He curates the Raisina Dialogue, India’s flagship conference on geopolitics and geoeconomics. His latest publication is “In Pursuit of Autonomy: AI and National Strategies” (ORF, 2018). Harsh V. Pant (Director of Studies, ORF) leads ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme, focusing on international security and India’s foreign policy. He is also a Professor of International Relations at the King’s College London. His latest publication is “New Directions in India’s Foreign Policy: Theory and Praxis” (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

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