How Technology Promotes World Peace

Much as economic integration made the world more cooperative and less conflict-prone, so can technology. Is this Pax Technologica?

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U.S. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, center, meets with Chinese counterparts at a lab in Shanghai. (AP)

Every era comes with a vision of global peace, usually named for the reigning hegemon of the time. Pax Romana during the Roman era, Pax Mongolica when the Mongols ruled so much of the world, Pax Brittannica for many years, and Pax Americana today. None of these were particularly peaceful periods, of course. The great power enforced their dominance through, among other things, advances in military technology, which intimidated its enemies but spurred arms races and competition. The Romans had bronze weapons and artillery launched from giant catapult ballistae; the Mongols used stirrups and the composite bow to gallop across Eurasia; steam engines and rifles enabled the British military to build a global empire; and the U.S. still has an edge in nuclear weapons, aircraft carrier fleets, and long-range bombers, among other technologies.

It is little surprise, then, that some observers see historical patterns of competition playing out in China's rise today. The Asian power is behaving in some ways like a classic mercantilist empire, locking up natural resources across continents, while flooding global markets with its cheaper goods. Some of its current account surpluses have been plowed into military investments, such as a blue-water navy, space-based weapons, and cyber-security.

Since the rise of Song Dynasty China a millennium ago, you might say that there's been a hegemonic power transition somewhere in the world about once every century. That's not a scientific formula, of course, but it certainly informs speculation that China might someday surpass the U.S. on the global hierarchy. But, as the world potentially faces yet another round of national competition, there is one factor that is leading the powers, great and non-great alike, to be more cooperative and less competitive: technology. As states become more populous, urban, and interconnected, they are more reliant on technology -- medicine, agriculture, communication, and so on. Technology requires long supply chains to build and cross-border cooperation to develop, both of which are easier if states cooperate rather than compete. Even as technology evolves to suit military objectives, and is often guided by the military (the Internet began in part with U.S. Department of Defense funding), we might be about to enter a sort of Pax Technologica of global stability through, in part, technology.

It was the realization that economic power is the foundation of geopolitical security that prompted scholars in the late 1980s to speak of "geo-economics" as an alternative approach to world politics. Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers warned that poor economic health at home is a prime cause of  "imperial overstretch" abroad. And Samuel Huntington, for example, pointed out that "economics is the most important source of power and well-being." Since the end of World War Two and especially since the end of the Cold War, global conflict has been declining rapidly as economic integration and cooperation increases. This inter-dependence, the theory goes, promotes peace.

Geo-economics never really displaced geopolitics, a term coined about a century ago, but we do now understand the two as complementary. And as the global economy has become more integrated, states have greater interest in cooperating and less interest in conflict, which can lead to a kind of mutually assured economic destruction. There are many, many important differences between the U.S.-China relationship today and the U.S.-Soviet relationship before the outbreak of the Cold War, but one is that the U.S. and China are deeply intertwined through geo-economic interdependence. Now, the rapid and global diffusion of technology is accelerating these changes.  

Presented by

Ayesha Khanna & Parag Khanna

Ayesha and Parag Khanna are co-directors of the Hybrid Reality Institute. Parag is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and Ayesha directs the Future Cities group at the London School of Economics.

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