Technology and the Shifting Balance of Power

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.

Pursuing a balance of power was a central goal for diplomacy in the great power competition of the nineteenth century. A balance of power meant preserving a rough parity with potential opponents, using alliances and military expansions. Alliances and military parity created stability. The objective was not to allow any single actor to dominate others. As a shaping concept for policy, balance of power has fallen into disuse. But it can provide a framework for the comparison of the relative strengths of states or groups of states, somewhat akin to the old Soviet concept of “correlation of forces.”

This comparison can take the form of simple “bean-counting,” e.g., comparing some metric like the number of missiles or number of patents, but such counts are often misleading as they can rely on inaccurate proxy measurements of innovation or undervalue qualitative advantages. This is particularly true for emerging technologies. These are likely to become a source of economic strength and military power, but some categories of technology, like quantum and bioengineering, are not yet mature and do not yet have practical applications. This and other factors, such as a country’s ability to incorporate emerging technologies and modify existing commercial practices and strategies, make assessing the relationship between emerging technology and national power complex, nuanced, and in many instances, indirect.

Power can be defined as the ability to force or persuade others to follow a preferred course of action they would not have otherwise chosen. At its most basic level, the components of a nation’s power derive from its economic strength, military capabilities, and political influence. Existing and emerging technology affect all these elements. A crude correlation—high-tech nations are more powerful than low-tech nations—seems intuitively correct. However, this correlation can be challenged. Access to and use of advanced technology does not explain why countries are powerful. There are instances where countries have been able to exercise influence on the international scene that is disproportionate to tangible measures of their strength. Conversely, countries with advanced technologies sometimes find that the sum of their power is less than the total of its parts.

The ability of nations or groups to take advantage of technological change—to innovate and adopt technology—is becoming the key to national power. But at the same time, it should be recognized that advanced technology does not automatically confer power. Many factors other than advanced technology affect national power and influence. One study once found that Finland was the most technologically advanced of nations, and while this may translate into wealth and prestige for the Finns, it does not translate automatically into power and influence. Political culture, policies, and organization can play a greater role, as may more mundane considerations such as geographic size or population. Leadership, whether skillful or inept, may be the most immediate determinant of power (and in peacetime, democracies often prefer the latter). Clumsy leadership and outdated or impractical strategies will undercut any advantage technology could provide.

Innovation and adoption of new technology are the keys to the growth that create national power. Investments in research and development (R&D) can lead to innovation and yield real economic returns, but at the same time, R&D spending is not an ideal metric. There are countries that invest heavily in R&D without direct benefit to their economy or their military strength.

The reasons for this have to do with the nature of innovation and the requirement for an entrepreneurial culture that can take advantage of research if R&D is to produce its full benefit. Fostering national power requires creating an environment that promotes innovation in both technology and strategy and allows its adoption. Both are challenging, given larger political trends that slow the pace of tech adoption. These political factors mean that countries differ in their ability to exploit new technologies and foster a climate of innovation. Over time, this discrepancy may be the best indicator of changes in power relationships. The capacity to innovate and to acquire and use knowledge may be more important than any particular technology. In this sense, countries that are powerful today but unable to continually make greater use of advanced or emerging technology will become relatively weaker than those that do make greater use. A general recognition of this dynamic helps explain the high-level interest in technology.

A “balance of power” does not describe the current competition, where China seeks to gain advantage and eventually dominance, and the United States seeks to preserve the status quo. Neither side pursues parity, which was seen as key to stability in the Cold War. Each pursues superiority. Other possible centers of power, such as the European Union or India, lack coherent strategies or a clear understanding of the terms and requirements of competition. China has clearly identified technological leadership as key to national power (and the survival of unchallenged party rule), but in building its technology base, China seeks to develop independent national capabilities that it can control, an effort buttressed and accelerated by the acquisition of technology it lacks from foreign sources. The United States, while increasingly tempted by an Indigenous model, relies on an open and interconnected market-driven approach and on commercial and governmental partnerships with key allies. This makes a competition between different models for creating and using technology a central aspect of the bilateral contest between the United States and China and in the general rebalancing of global power.

The perception that a nation possesses technological leadership may be as important as the reality for a nation’s stature and influence.

Public diplomacy, raised by Woodrow Wilson in 1919 as important, is now a central task for managing international relations, but this task is complicated as new technologies diffuse the ability to control narratives and undercut traditional media. Some modern technologies may actually work to diminish a nation’s influence. Digital technologies have created many alternative channels for information and opinion that limit the ability of governments to dominate the public debate1 and produce a diffusion of influence in what might be termed the battle for control of the global narrative.

Two decades ago, there was an expectation that more countries in the middle rank of the developing world, such as Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, and a few others, would join the ranks of the tech leaders. This is happening, but at a slower pace than expected. The diffusion of the ability to create new technologies is not as great as predicted at the onset of 1990s globalization.

If there has been diffusion, it is from public to private. Governments and defense firms are no longer the primary sources of innovation. Since the end of the Cold War, advanced technologies have derived from the commercial technology sector. The long-term effect of technology in shaping global competition may be its role in the diffusion of power among governmental and non-governmental actors. The countries that do best in taking advantage of private and commercial resources and are best able to exploit commercial technological developments will do better comparatively in business and military power.

But reliance on commercial innovation affects the contours of the bilateral contest. Unlike the Cold War, bifurcation is blurred as businesses and science are more interconnected and more collaborative. Research and innovation are now more often international rather than national. The incentive to maintain such connections is powerful, given both the size of China's market, its talent base, and the fact that collaborative research can be more productive. Reducing these interconnections will take time, and national power sits uneasily on top of these integrative trends.

The situation is not static. Technological progress is cumulative and continuous, and the pace at which nations develop and adopt technologies will determine their power relative to others. As societies accommodate emerging technologies and innovate around them, the result will shift the balance of power among nations. The diffusion of technology and pace of innovation means that to stand still is to decline.

James Andrew 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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1 Chinese and Russian propaganda are very influential in shaping the views of their national publics, if polls are to be believed, but polling in authoritarian regimes is open to question, and in the past, the ability to control access to other sources of information erodes in ways that are not immediately measurable. A better metric might be provided by polling audiences in other countries—where authoritarian propaganda appears to be persuasive on specific issues but not in general—and expectations are reactive and often shaped by media reporting. 5G, where China was wrongly assumed to have the lead, is a good example of this.

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