Article by Nicoletta Boldrini, Futures & Foresight Director and Editor in Chief of Tech4Future, and Laura Maffei, Head of Area "R&I System Development: R&I Ecosystems and Foresight for R&I" of HIT - Hub Innovazione Trentino

Nationalisms, multipolarism, poly-crisis, war conflicts open the door to a new geopolitical era and uncertainty and complexity characterise the dynamics shaping the global landscape on a daily basis. We discuss this with Abishur Prakash, international geopolitical expert and author of the book ‘The World Is Vertical: How Technology Is Remaking Globalization‘.

The unipolarism of the post-World War II era gives way to multipolarism: no one nation is any longer able to gain the upper hand and impose its own model, but global and regional nations coexist and interact with each other in complex ways through alliances, economic competition and forms of diplomacy.
Birth of the ‘Nation First’ concept whereby each country – whether a global or regional power – prioritising national interests, reinforcing its sovereignty and redefining strategic (political and economic) alliances, even where designed by historical ties (European third pole, independent of the US and China).
Presence of multiple and simultaneous crises: demographic, energy, climate, etc.
Exponential spread of technology in the wake of today’s geopolitical architecture, with compound and unpredictable impacts of complex identification and management.
It is possible for any nation – be it a global or regional power – to also decide not to take sides and engage in trade negotiations with certain countries while doing military business with their rivals, advancing in a balanced yet contradictory manner in the global chessboard.
Difficulties in defining moments of international comparison and cooperation.

T4F: In many of your interviews and videos, you talk about geopolitics as the new great driving and transforming force that, more than technological development and the Covid-19 crisis, today seems capable of redefining – in a radical and unprecedented way – global economic and political balances. Let us start from here to reflect together.    

Prakash: In recent days, several events have affected the global geopolitical news. The death of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran; the announcement by the International Criminal Court regarding arrest warrants for Israeli leader Netanyahu and the leader of Hamas; the decision by Ireland, Norway and Spain to formally recognise the State of Palestine. We grew up in an era, in which geopolitics functioned according to certain parameters, specific paradigms and defined directions. I am referring to the post-World War II era, when the United States led the world and …even more so, after the Cold War. The West commanded, everyone else followed. One system for all, characterised by much longer cycles of change than those of today. It used to be that only every ten years there was a major geopolitical shock: 20 years ago, the 9/11 terrorist attacks; 10 years ago, the annexation of Crimea to Russia and now, 10 years later, the war in Ukraine. Today, however, we are witnessing weekly, if not daily, geopolitical shocks one after the other. And these are not shocks that only affect specific geographical parts – for example, the Syrian civil war, a huge humanitarian disaster that, however, did not necessarily have consequences felt all over the world – but affect the whole world and completely influence its functioning. For this specific reason, I argue that geopolitics has become a more transformative, more disruptive force for change than the Coronavirus crisis and technology. Although today’s technological development is travelling at an impressive and unimaginable speed compared to a few years ago, the Metaverse, quantum computing, robotics, ChatGPT… cannot reproduce a global change comparable to the one implemented by modern-day geopolitics. I think a new era has begun, the real turning point of which was the war in Ukraine, which opened the door to global change. Personally, I identify this new era with the term ‘Metamorphosis’, i.e. a metamorphosis in the way geopolitics works, compared to traditional parameters. To understand this change, we are all called upon to go beyond our ideas, beyond our opinions and beyond our beliefs, striving to understand more and more areas of influence, variables to be constantly monitored and the specific potential that today’s geopolitics itself holds in redefining societies and nations.   

T4F: What are the characteristics of this new era? Many analysts say that we are once again in a ‘Cold War’; however, the context is profoundly changed and different, influenced by much closer connections and relations between states in both economic and politico-diplomatic terms. Does it still make sense to talk about opposing blocs, given the current multipolar geopolitical scenario?  

Prakash: Actually, I have heard the term “cold war” used many times to define what is happening; some analysts even use the term “new cold war”. Personally, I don’t agree with this expression, because today’s context is different and needs to be read through new lenses. I do not know which is the more correct expression, whether ‘vertical world’ or something else, but I know for sure that the term ‘cold war’ does not give the sense of either urgency or seriousness that the situation requires.

Just one example: at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet GDP was half that of the US, effectively ‘limiting’ the Soviet Union to a nuclear power only, but certainly not an economic one. Today, China’s GDP is on track to surpass that of the United States. We have been hearing for years that China will overtake the US (I remember reading that in 2024, 2027, 2028 China will be the largest economy in the world, to the detriment of the US). According to economists, China will overtake America in 2040, but will then slow down so much that it will fall behind. You also understand that we are in a completely different context. What exactly? What are the elements influencing this new order?

The first is that we are entering a world in which no nation can rule any longer. The US used to decide, now it no longer does. China is trying to take the lead but is slowing down and struggling to convince other nations to follow. One thinks of the different management of agreements with Western Europe and Eastern Europe: the Chinese President’s visit to Europe a fortnight ago led on the one hand to the signing of strategic agreements with Hungary and Serbia, but no major agreement with France; to this must be added, of course, Italy’s exit from the ‘BRI – Belt Road Initiative’. It is a dispute characterised by a lack of leadership, where no power has the strength to decide and where each nation prefers to focus on its own national interest and development trajectories, rather than on the common good and the collective good. One reinforces one’s borders, one’s culture, one’s ideas and ideologies, the opposite of what has been happening over the last seventy years where there has been a move towards greater integration and fewer barriers. I am not saying it was all positive, I am just pointing out the different direction in which the world was moving. It was more about integrating different economies and societies, strengthening connections and relationships. Today, on the other hand, whatever happens, each nation puts itself first (‘America First’ is certainly an example). This is the second element, one of the causes of the resurgence of sovereignties and religious struggles at the centre of societies and identity issues. Hence other not insignificant aspects, including the questioning of alliances, even historical ones, in the name of specific national interests. When Trump was President, many doubts arose about the G7 (is it still the club of the world’s great powers?). The US wanted to add India, Australia, South Korea and Japan, but the G7 countries refused, opting to preserve a certain kind of context and balance. The concept of ‘Nation First’ is very important.

Thirdly, it is that Europe plays a central role in building a third pole alongside the United States and China, if it succeeds in focusing on strategic autonomy. A European pole, in which Europe is not dominated by either the United States or China.

Fourthly, we are facing an era characterised by a myriad of multiple crises converging at the same time. There are the demographic challenges: think of countries such as Italy (which is facing a demographic challenge dictated by a low birth rate and an ageing population), Greece, Germany, China (whose crisis is undermining its ability to drive economic growth and consequently the construction of a geopolitical power that matches its declared ambitions) and Japan (whose government, in order to cope with the problem, is opening up to immigration in large numbers). In other countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, which are also experiencing a demographic crisis and an ageing population, on the contrary, they opt for different policies, choosing to be increasingly selective, limiting the entry of migrants.

Fifth element, the role of technology. When I wrote the book ‘The World Is Vertical: How Technology Is Remaking Globalisation’, I was working in a company where my focus was on geopolitics and technology. Back then, technology was in the research and development phase, growing in laboratories and when applied in the world, it was in specific, controlled and restricted contexts. Now, however, it is spreading at exponential levels around the world. ChatGPT is one example, though not the only one, as are self-driving cars and Chinese humanoid robots, which are poised to trigger a huge geopolitical shift. Today, technology is beginning to move – in the wake of geopolitics – in unexpected and transversal ways. Think of G42, one of the UAE’s top companies in the artificial intelligence sector, at the centre of the struggle between the United States and China: while the company develops partnerships with American companies, its ties with Chinese firms continue to cause concern among American authorities. Here, then, is how technology and geopolitics, which are strongly intertwined, can together produce unpredictable compound effects, which governments and companies are called upon to know how to deal with and manage in entirely new ways.

T4F: The points made are obvious forces of change, but for a complete analysis of the world chessboard we must also consider the weaker signals, which are conflicting and complex in their implications. For example, what impact does the recent meeting between Putin and XI Jinping have on Europe-Russia-China relations?

Prakash: More and more frequently, conflicting signals are emerging, some easy to decipher, others not at all. During the latest meeting between Putin and Xi Jinping, no line of cooperation, which could be called strategic, was defined. Nothing important, compared to past meetings where energy and currency exchange agreements worth hundreds of billions of dollars were signed. It was a visit whose precise intent was to convey to the West that Russia and China are united, advancing side by side, and will face together whatever geopolitical storms may come their way. A clear shift eastward that reiterates the direction Russia has been taking for some time now. Another example is the invitation made by the BRICS to Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia and Iran to join the group as of January 2024. While Argentina declined membership from the outset, Saudi Arabia – which on the one hand is working to strengthen its sovereignty, build a new Arab sphere of influence and expand relations with global powers – on the other is stalling and still undecided when it comes to joining the BRICS. And so Indonesia which, following the sanctions dictated by the United States against Russia, on the one hand abandons the Visa and Mastercard payment systems and produces its own, but on the other declines the invitation to join the BRICS not only for economic reasons but also for broader strategic balances. Those mentioned are conflicting signals, balances that all countries currently adopt well aware that eventually, over a medium to long time horizon, they will have to choose sides. Be it the United States, China, Europe … every nation will have to choose a side. The question we must ask ourselves is: how long can nations continue to balance each other in this way, before numerous complex crises emerge? Let me explain. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, almost all the ‘green’ initiatives decided by Europe have come to a standstill. Although the European Commission is trying to restart them, it is in trouble because it is called upon to face other strategic challenges (farmers’ protests, competition between the US and China, competition with other nations using sovereign technologies, etc.) and is almost paralysed by ongoing geopolitical changes. For this reason, it is also crucial for Europe to redefine and rebalance what it wants to achieve against what is actually achievable.

T4F: One last provocation… Does it still make sense to talk about international cooperation, G7, G20 and UN?

Prakash: Post-World War II globalisation has been criticised by many countries for all kinds of reasons. I understand their point of view, but at the same time we cannot forget that globalisation has created a kind of world stability for decades, brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, defined the development of global systems, and generated a period in which innovation, invention, and the movement of people took off in ways that were not even conceivable before. Personally, I believe that – now more than ever – it is crucial to work to maintain a degree of international connection and cooperation and to organise broad forums for discussion where nations can meet, communicate and talk. The alternative is incredibly dangerous: a world of nations isolated from each other, a pre-war system of empires and spheres of influence, where nations do not talk and look at each other with hostility, without cooperating with each other. Hence the importance of international forums such as the G20 and anything that keeps international relations alive at a global level. However, in the current geopolitical climate, it is becoming increasingly difficult, almost impossible I would say, to make these forums work. Stalemates are challenges and headaches for countries that increasingly struggle to work freely with each other. By now, forums like the G7 and G20 seem to have become mere annual gala events: you go, you shake hands, you eat good food, you smile, but you don’t discuss and nothing concrete is achieved. And that will be the case for a long time, I would say at least for this decade.

Abishur Prakash - esperto di geopolitica internazionale

Abishur Prakash is a founder, keynote speaker, and author. He is one of the world’s top geopolitical experts. Prakash was born in New Zealand to Indian parents, spent his childhood in Australia and grew up in Canada.  For more than a decade, Prakash has been providing geopolitical advice and forecasting to leaders in business and nations. He is the founder of The Geopolitical Business, a Toronto-based consultancy that helps companies manage geopolitics intelligently. In 2013, Prakash was among the first in the world to define ‘Next Geopolitics‘, the intersection of geopolitics and technology. He is the author of five books, including “Next Geopolitics: Volume One & Two” and “Go.AI (Geopolitics of Artificial Intelligence).” His latest book, ‘The World is Vertical: How Technology is Redefining Globalisation‘, is about the new fragmented design of the globe, where barriers and walls exist everywhere. A provocative speaker, he brings new geopolitical thinking to audiences around the world. He has also appeared in many of the world’s leading media, including CNBC, Wall Street Journal, Nikkei Asia, Telegraph, CNN and Business Insider, among others.

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Nicoletta Boldrini

Futures & Foresight Director | Direttrice Responsabile Tech4Future Read articles Look at the Linkedin profile