Musk versus Mackinder

This commentary is part of Technology and Power, a series from the CSIS Strategic Technologies Program on the development and governance of key technologies and how they can be used to gain national advantage.

The United States is no longer the sole superpower, hegemon, or whatever term one prefers.  This situation, accompanied by its military failures and domestic political turmoil, has led some to return to that ever-popular theme: the United States' decline. But the discussion of decline can reflect Schadenfreude or wishful thinking as much as impartial analysis. While it is true that the unipolar moment is over, the United States is still more like the first among equals rather than a vanishing superpower. 

This becomes clearer if one compares the current moment of multipolar competition to an earlier episode, as Britain went from dominance and Pax Britannica to face challenges from new competitors. Halford Mackinder, the British scholar who in the 1900s created the concept of a Eurasian “heartland” as the center of global power, predicted Britain’s decline—unless the empire restructured itself to compensate for the arrival of powerful new rivals like the Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Mackinder was a counterpoint to Alfred Mahan, whose writings on the influence of sea power as central to the rise of Britain shaped foreign and military policies in many countries for decades. Mackinder argued that continent-sized powers with a strong industrial base, large populations, and national resources would dominate world politics—not those that ruled the seas.   

Most of Mackinder’s argument still holds, but there is one important change. One can add a nation’s technological base as a determinant to Mackinder’s list. Technology joins the list of the fundamentals of geopolitical power (a term used to describe competition among powerful states coined at roughly the same time as “heartland” by Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén). Technology and the other fundamentals all point to the United States remaining among the most powerful countries in the world. It is third in population, fourth in land mass, and first in income. It remains the most technologically innovative major economy and its universities and research institutions rank first globally. U.S. military power, while no longer unrivaled, remains formidable. Its government institutions are relatively efficient compared to others of its size. The U.S. cultural “engine” can be a source of global influence and is still powerful. All this means that even under less than competent leadership (a proposition the United States seemed determined to test), the United States will remain a powerful member of the international community. 

One way to put this in perspective is to compare the United States’ position to other leading powers. Russia has land mass and resources, but a shrinking population and an economy hollowed out by corruption. The European Union’s awkward political structure makes coordination on security matters difficult and Brussels’ regulatory interventions slow its technological growth. India lacks a strategy for global influence, its political fractures more than equal those of the United States, and its bureaucracy hampers economic growth. Japan has political limitations, and other large countries are not yet sufficiently developed or organized. This leaves China, which alone has the combination of capability and global vision needed to compete with the United States.

The United States’ central position does not translate automatically into leadership. U.S. leadership has been badly dented and will not fully recover, given the competition and mistrust it now faces. The pinnacle of unchallenged U.S. power was the first decade of the twenty-first century. It has been downhill ever since. The issues of leadership and influence are not whether the fundamentals of power remain strong but whether the United States can organize itself to take advantage of this intrinsic power. That remains an open question, making decline a matter of choice rather than some inevitable outcome. The limits to the U.S. capacity for leadership have more to do with its political and strategic culture. The United States may be in decline, but not for geopolitical reasons. 

Mackinder and others wrote about the effect new industrial technologies in reshaping geopolitics. Using the metrics of the late nineteenth century, the sources of international power were industrial production, trade, foreign investment, and the size of armies and fleets. The output of coal and steel was a key indicator and the final decades of the nineteenth century saw the first “arms race” as nations strove to outbuild others with fleets of battleships. Industrial power included what British politician Leo Amery put in a 1904 response to Mackinder, “the power of invention and of science.”

Invention and science—the ability to create new technologies and to gain economic and commercial advantage from them—is now essential for geopolitical power. Technology creates power, and emerging technologies will change the geostrategic equation. Technology increases the diffusion of political authority. It expands the potential of authoritarian states for surveillance and social control, and it changes the terms of military power. The strategic effect of technological leadership explains the focus in leading countries on policies to support, secure, and accelerate the creation of things like autonomous devices, artificial intelligence, and networked services. The semiconductors that underpin these technologies are now more important as a metric of power than steel and coal. It is now necessary to add technology and innovation to landmass, population, resources, and industry. 

One key difference between now and the late nineteenth century is that the fabric of international connectivity is much more robust. Nor is the sharp bifurcation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, with very little trade of contact, repeatable. Another is that access to intangible resources (knowledge, intellectual property, and software) is as important, if not more important, than access to materials for creating wealth and power. Generating new knowledge and then being able to turn it into economic or military power is the competition of the twenty-first century, not the scramble for raw materials or territory as in the past. 

The terms of competition have also changed. International competition in the nineteenth century focused on the acquisition of colonies to ensure control over markets and resources. Competitors were excluded or disadvantaged in the colonial market. The desire to end this kind of controlled trade helps explains U.S. foreign policy (going back to the 1899 “Open Door” policy) and the creation of an institutional fabric of connectivity, based first in trade agreements, and later in technology for seamless connectivity. 

Access to resources remains important, but the idea of competition for resources is often phrased in terms more appropriate for an earlier century. Much has changed. Colonies and empires have disappeared and with them captive markets, to be replaced by global supply chains, the networks and markets that take raw materials to become a final product. Political agreements, logistics technologies (like cargo ships and jets), and telecommunications, have lowered the risks and costs of relying on this global market. The risk is of disruption is greater now than the end of the Cold War, given tensions between the United States and China, it is not near to what it was before 1990. 

This explains much of the anxiety over supply chains, but intangible goods and services enabled by digital technologies (data, software, intellectual property, even standards) are now more important as a source of wealth, making this a transitional period. For military forces, the value of the large weapons system that dominated conflict in the last century is diminished by precision and autonomy. For politics, the requirements for legitimacy and the ability to govern have not yet accommodated the political and social forces created by the massive expansion of information and expression enabled by digital networks.

These changes are widely recognized, but in many ways the terminology for geopolitical contests (and the concepts that lie behind them) have not fully caught up. The biggest single change is the creation of what is in effect a single global network to which the bulk of the world’s population can connect. The utopian expectations that this global network would end competition among states proved to be wrong, but the United States is clearly at the start of the political and economic effects this network has created, even if it cannot yet describe them.

James Lewis is senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.  

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).  

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James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program