On 18th January 2022, the Mathias Corvinus Collegium’s Budapest Lectures series welcomed Abishur Prakash to give a lecture on the role of technology in remaking geopolitics.
Abishur Prakash is a co-founder of and geopolitical futurist at Center for Innovating the Future (CIF), an advisory firm based in Toronto, Canada. At CIF, Prakash works with multinationals, governments and institutions, helping them understand what’s next for business and geopolitics. He is the author of five books, including his latest book, The World Is Vertical: How Technology Is Remaking Globalization. Prakash is also an Advisory Board Member of the Budapest Centre for Long-Term Sustainability (BC4LS) and has appeared on some of the world’s largest broadcast media, including CNBC and the BBC, and has been interviewed by major publications such as Scientific American, South China Morning Post, and The Telegraph.
I understand you have roots in India, New Zealand, Australia, and Hong Kong, as well as in your homeland, Canada. How has that impacted your views on geopolitics?
My global upbringing – parents immigrating from India to New Zealand, me being born in New Zealand, spending time in Hong Kong, growing up in Sydney, Australia, going and moving to Toronto, Canada, spending time in Vancouver – that movement, at such a young age, one hundred per cent has influenced my outlook on the world. Because, when you move that much, when you spend that much time in different cultures, different environments, different political systems, different ways of doing things, that influences the way you think about the world. And, so, I have always had a global outlook, not a regional outlook or a national outlook – a global outlook. And, if you think about geopolitics, geopolitics has always been about power, domination, influence; but that is traditional geopolitics. That is how geopolitics has functioned. And I always assessed that and realized that, when I was thinking about the world, that is kind of the status quo of geopolitics. But then when you go and spend time in different countries, different nations and you look at their strategy for different aspects – economy, politics, trade, diplomacy – it is always about, ‘What should we do next? Where should we go next? What is the next level to take things?’ And I realized that, if that is the momentum moving forward, then every country who wants to take their geopolitical strategy to the next level is going to have to accept where geopolitics is heading, which is that it is converging with technology, and it is leading to what I call the ‘Next Geopolitics’.
Conventional wisdom has long held that China will be the next leading world power. Is there any chance that transition will take so long that another country will supplant China? If so, what are some candidates?
We’re now going to live in a world where different superpowers coexist with one another, and their power will be directly drawn from technology
There is a big problem in the way in which the world is assessing China’s growth. It is assessing China’s rise through a linear lens – that China’s development, China’s military growth, China’s economic growth is rising, and, therefore, it could supplant the United States. But what the world is missing is that China’s rise is taking place in a world that is not linear. So, we are exiting the world where a single superpower calls the shots – whether it is America or China. We are entering a world where we are going to have multiple superpowers that exist. And this fundamentally changes geopolitics, because geopolitics has been about one nation having its way over another nation. ‘I have more power than you. You are going to do things how I say.’ We are now entering a world where geopolitics is about coexistence. It is about different superpowers – U.S., China, India, Russia, others that may emerge in the future – Brazil, for example. Japan is not going away. South Korea is becoming more important. Israel is becoming more important. The United Arab Emirates is becoming more important. So, we’re now going to live in a world where different superpowers coexist with one another, and their power will be directly drawn from technology, whether it is AI, whether it is 5G, whether it is sustainable technology, whether it is space technologies. And, so, that is the new lay of the land. So, it is not that China will supplant America. It is that China cannot supplant anybody, because nobody is calling the shots for everybody anymore.
Will the transition to a tech-driven geopolitics be a net positive or negative for a relatively small, landlocked country like Hungary?
A key message in my book, The Next Geopolitics, is that, with technology, any nation can rise up. Nations are no longer defined by their geography, or past, or history. They can imagine a new destiny for themselves with technology. So, for example, in Africa you have a country called Senegal. Senegal is by no means a large economy. Their president has announced that he wants to move all government data from foreign servers, which are largely in the West, to local servers. And he is achieving this by going to China, and China is funding the project. It is about $150 million, and companies like Huawei are building the local servers in Senegal. The point here is that, perhaps Senegal wanted to achieve this kind of sovereignty for decades; but, before technology came along, it could not. Now, with technology, it can take action it could not take before. Japan imports ninety per cent of its energy. So, now the Japanese space agency has started to launch these solar panels into space. Because Japan has this goal of creating solar farms in space that absorb energy and beam it back down to Japanese cities. So, through solar power, Japan can achieve energy independence, which will change the Japanese foreign policy completely. So, I think, wherever you are looking, whether it is Hungary, whether it is Senegal, whether it is Japan, whether it is somebody else, I think any nation can rise up. The problem here is a catch-22. Yes, technology allows any nation to rise up. But the moment you touch technology, you are entering a new battlefield called the Vertical World. So, there is a beautiful diamond there, and you can take it if you want; but, the moment you take it, be prepared for some serious challenges to emerge.
I’m glad you mentioned Japan, because it leads to the next question. Japan and Germany have had limited militaries since the end of World War II, yet they are undoubtedly two of the world’s technological giants. Could the transition you have described in your books allow those countries to restore the leading power status they held prior to the world wars?
At the same time, in Europe, the EU is realizing that it does not want to depend on America anymore. And it is realizing this with technology
Definitely. In fact, if you look at what is happening with Japan right now, Japan is realizing that its neighbourhood is changing, that China has risen – China is not an emerging power; China is an emerged power. China’s shadow is growing in Asia; and, at the same time, America is not the same nation it used to be. And, so, Japan is realizing that, ‘Hey, we have to take matters into our own hands.’ So, Japan is now applying artificial intelligence across its military to deal with manpower shortages, to boost its reconnaissance capabilities, to do all kinds of things that it once depended on America for. So, with technology, Japan is able to almost modernize its military to the next level; and, as this happens, Japan is also passing, every year, record military budgets, budgets that it was not passing in previous years, when China was not as big of a concern. At the same time, in Europe, the EU is realizing that it does not want to depend on America anymore. And it is realizing this with technology. You have now several initiatives underway, from Gaia-X, which is a cloud computing project, to put European data on European servers, not American servers, to ELLIS, which is its AI labs, to stop European AI talent from going to America. So, you have these different initiatives, and Germany, being the largest economy in Europe, is going to play a role. The problem is that the Vertical World is emerging here too. For example, we are all familiar with the expression “space force”. America launches its space force, so Europe wants its own space force. In Europe, however, there will not just be one space force. The EU wants its own space force. France wants its own space force. Germany wants the EU’s space force; but, at the same time, NATO wants a space force in Germany. So, you can see that, with technology – sure, nations are going to redefine their role in the world; but, at the same time, the fragmentation is beginning.
Some countries have particularly benefited from a geopolitical system that rewards natural resources. Gulf oil states especially come to mind. How, in your opinion, will these states respond to the new geopolitics?
Absolutely, countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia have benefited from natural resources tremendously. But, both nations also know that these resources are losing their value. In fact, Saudi Arabia is so deeply aware of this that it is rapidly putting technology at the centre of its economy, causing Saudi Arabia to diverge from the whole Arab World. With Programme HQ, a new project, Saudi Arabia wants to attract businesses and talent from Dubai to Riyadh. With technology in the driver’s seat, Saudi Arabia is now competing with its closest regional ally! Or look at Russia’s work with a “sovereign internet” that allows it to unplug from the worldwide internet – a global system that has integrated the whole world. These nations are already responding to Next Geopolitics and the Vertical World. The question is how far they will take their vision with technology.
The United States and many European nations are deeply divided along ideological lines at the moment. How will that impact the new tech-based geopolitics you have described in your writing?
It is a bit of a puzzle to unpack. At one level, the deep ideological division will determine the “vertical strategy” of governments. Take the EU. It is focused on creating European unity and autonomy – especially from the US and China. This kind of ideology will drive more European initiatives around “tech sovereignty”. But, at another level, ideological divisions can threaten nations in the Vertical World. The current partisan split in the US means that there may be no longevity in how Washington responds or drives the Vertical World, as every few years, a different election result might usher in radical new foreign policies – retaliation against the other party. And, on top of all this, technology is going to amplify what already exists. When then-President Trump held his first re-election campaign in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2020, the event was hijacked by TikTok. It was Gen Z and millennials who used TikTok to reserve seats so that actual Trump supporters could not book them. Then, Gen Z and millennials never showed up, leaving an empty stadium for Trump. With technology, Gen Z and millennials played a new role in US politics.
Will war be more or less common in the next one hundred years than in the last?
We are reverting to a world where division and barriers will become the norm. Technology is pulling nations apart, and this will create new fault lines that separate the globe. This kind of global environment is eerily similar to what has preceded world wars. One great benefit of “old globalization” is that, because of economic reliance, world powers have hesitated to take military action. But if this reliance changes or weakens, and if the “vertical borders” truly divide nations, then the propensity for war increases.
Michael O’Shea is a visiting fellow at the Danube Institute. He is part of the Budapest Fellowship Program, sponsored by the Hungary Foundation and the Mathias Corvinus Collegium.