The Next Global Superpower Isn’t Who You Think
What happens when the world is no longer unipolar, bipolar, or even multipolar?
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Who runs the world?
This used to be an easy question to answer. If you’re over 45, you grew up in a world dominated by two superpowers. The United States and its allies set the rules on one side of the Berlin Wall, while the Soviet Union called the shots on the other. Nearly every other country had to align its political, economic, and security systems with one side or the other. That was a bipolar world.
Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States as the world’s sole superpower. The U.S. dictated outcomes both through its dominant role in international organizations and by exerting raw power. That was a unipolar world.
About 15 years ago, the world changed again—and it got more complicated. The United States became less interested in being the world’s police officer, the architect of global trade, and even the cheerleader of global values. Other countries, getting more powerful, were increasingly able to ignore rules they didn’t like and, occasionally, set some themselves. That’s a “G-Zero” world: a nonpolar world without global leaders.
Three things happened to cause this geopolitical recession, when the global architecture no longer lines up with the underlying balance of power.
First, Russia wasn’t brought into the Western-led international order. Now a former great power in serious decline, Russia has become extremely angry and sees the West as its primary adversary on the global stage. Whether most of the blame for this lies with the United States and its allies or with Russia, the fact is that is where we are.
Second, China was brought into U.S.-led institutions—but on the presumption that as the Chinese became more integrated, wealthy, and powerful, they would also become more American (i.e., a free-market democracy willing to become a responsible stakeholder in the U.S.-led order and play by the rules without wanting to change them). As it turns out, they’re still Chinese—and the United States is not ready to accept that.
And third, the United States and its allies ignored the tens of millions of their own citizens who felt left behind by globalization. Their grievances were further fueled by growing income and wage inequality, shifting demographics and identity politics, and polarization from new media technologies. After decades of benign neglect, most of these citizens have grown fundamentally mistrustful of their governments and of democracy itself, in turn making their leaders less able or willing to lead.
All the geopolitical crises you see in the headlines every day? The war in Ukraine, confrontation over Taiwan, nuclear tensions with Iran and North Korea, you name it—some 90 percent of them are directly or indirectly because of the geopolitical recession caused by these three issues. In other words, the crises are not about individual leaders. They are a structural feature of our geopolitical landscape.
Yet for better or worse, geopolitical recessions don’t last forever. And the coming global order is something very, very different from what we’ve become used to.
We no longer live in a unipolar or bipolar or multipolar world. Why? Because we no longer have multidimensional superpowers—as in, countries that exert global power in every domain. That’s right, the United States and China are not superpowers today—at least not in the way we’ve always used the term. And no superpowers means no single global order. Instead, what we have today is multiple world orders, separate but overlapping.
First, we have a unipolar security order. The United States is the only country that can send soldiers, sailors, and military hardware to every corner of the world. Nobody else comes close. America’s role in the security order today is more essential—and, indeed, more dominant—than it was a decade ago.
China is rapidly growing its military capabilities in Asia, but nowhere else in a significant way. That’s increasingly concerning to America’s Indo-Pacific allies, who now rely on the U.S. security umbrella more than before. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has similarly made Europe the most dependent on U.S.-led NATO it has been in decades. Meanwhile, Russia’s military has been weakened by the loss of some 200,000 troops and much of its critical materiel in Ukraine, all of which it’ll find hard to rebuild in the face of Western sanctions.
Yes, China, Russia, and others have nuclear weapons, but actually using them is still tantamount to suicide. The United States is the world’s sole security superpower—and will remain so for at least the next decade.
But military might doesn’t allow Washington to set the rules for the global economy, because the economic order is multipolar. The U.S. has a robust and dynamic economy, still the world’s largest, but global power here is widely shared.
Despite all the talk about a new cold war, the United States and China are far too economically interdependent to decouple from each other. Bilateral trade between the two keeps making new highs, and other countries want access to both American muscle and the growing Chinese market (soon to become the world’s largest). You can’t have an economic cold war if there’s no one willing to fight it.
Meanwhile, the European Union is the world’s largest common market, and it’s able to set rules and standards that the Americans, Chinese, and others must accept as the price of doing business with it. Japan is still a global economic power, if barely. India’s economy is growing rapidly, and with it, so is its influence on the global stage.
The relative importance of these and other economies will continue to shift over the coming decade, but what’s certain is that the global economic order is and will remain a multipolar order.
Between the security and economic orders are tensions. The United States wants to define more and more areas of the economy as critical for national security, and it’s pressuring other countries to align their policies accordingly, on semiconductors, critical minerals, and maybe soon on TikTok. For its part, China wants to use its commercial and trade leverage to increase its diplomatic influence. Europe, India, Japan, and other countries want to ensure that neither the security nor the economic order dominates the other—and they’ll most likely succeed.
Those are the two world orders we already see. But there’s a third, rapidly emerging order that will soon have more influence than the others: the digital order. There, unlike every other geopolitical order past and present, the dominant actors setting rules and exerting power aren’t governments but technology companies.
You’ve heard how NATO weapons, intelligence, and training have helped Ukrainians defend their land. But if Western tech companies hadn’t quickly come to the rescue in the early days of the invasion—fending off Russian cyberattacks and allowing Ukrainian leaders to communicate with their soldiers on the front lines—Russia would have knocked Ukraine completely offline within weeks, effectively ending (and winning) the war. Arguably, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wouldn’t be in power today if not for tech companies and their power in the new digital order.
Tech companies decide whether former U.S. President Donald Trump can speak without filters and in real time to hundreds of millions of people as he runs for president again. Without social media and its ability to promote conspiracy theories, there is no Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill, no trucker riots in Ottawa, no Jan. 8 revolt in Brazil.
Tech companies even define our identities. We used to wonder whether human behavior was primarily the result of nature or nurture. No longer. Today, it’s nature, nurture, and algorithm. The digital order is becoming a critical determinant in how we live, what we believe in, what we want—and what we’re willing to do to get it.
That’s a staggering amount of power that tech companies have amassed—so much so that they have become geopolitical players in and of themselves. These for-profit actors already control aspects of society, the economy, and national security that were long the exclusive preserve of the state. Their private decisions directly affect the livelihoods, interactions, and even thought patterns of billions of people across the globe. Increasingly, they also shape the global environment in which governments themselves operate.
But how will technology companies use their newfound power? There are three possible scenarios.
If American and Chinese political leaders continue to assert themselves ever more forcefully in the digital space, and if the tech companies line up with their home governments, we’ll end up in a technology cold war between the U.S. and China. The digital world will be split in two, other countries will be forced to choose sides, and globalization will fragment as these decoupled strategic technologies become the commanding heights of national security and the global economy.
If the tech companies stick with global growth strategies, refusing to align with governments and preserving the existing divide between the physical and digital fields of competition, then we’ll see a new globalization: a globalized digital order. Tech companies will remain sovereign in the digital space, competing largely with each other for profits—and with governments for geopolitical power, much in the same way that major state actors presently jockey for influence in the space where the economic and security orders overlap.
But if the digital space itself becomes the most important arena of great-power competition, with the power of governments continuing to erode relative to the power of tech companies, then the digital order itself will become the dominant global order. If that happens, we’ll have a post-Westphalian world—a technopolar order dominated by tech companies as the central players in 21st-century geopolitics.
All three of these scenarios are wholly plausible. None is inevitable. Which one we end up in will depend on how the explosive nature of artificial intelligence drives changes in existing power structures, whether governments are able and willing to regulate tech companies, and—most critically—how tech leaders decide they want to use their newfound power.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Bremmer is the author of eleven books, including New York Times bestseller Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism, which examines the rise of populism across the world. His latest book is The Power of Crisis: How Three Threats—and Our Response—Will Change the World. Twitter: @ianbremmer
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