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Technological Competition in a Changing World Order

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As global politics is evolving away from the “liberal international order” towards a “new bipolarity” or a multipolar world order, we observe a deepening and intensifying competition for technological leadership among major powers. You know the relevant terms – the „AI (Arms) Race“, „technological sovereignty“, the „Chip War“, etc. To be sure, technological competition has always been an element of great power politics – just remember the Space Race. Nonetheless, this competition for technological capabilities in „emerging technologies“ among major actors (the US and China in particular) has clearly intensified over the past decade or so. In select technological fields, competition is about more than just market share. It is also colored by geopolitical/geo-economic frames where technological capability is associated with relative power positions, influence, and status. But why?

Technologies as Status Symbols

In our „Tech War“ project, we have found different justifications for the pursuit of technological leadership. Economic prosperity, social stability, military competitiveness all feature more or less prominently in different documents. There is another, more subtle reason that is frequently alluded to – international status. Being technologically capable and working at the cutting edge of AI development is a source of prestige and recognition and an important element of a nation’s „brand“. Hence, technological achievements are status symbols, a bit like the Porsche that the stereotypical man-in-a-midlife-crisis gets.

High technology is perfectly suited for this. Emerging technologies are more promise than reality. They are surrounded by a hype of the transformative and revolutionary. The less is known about their actual possibilities, the better they work as a blank slate upon which everyone can project their own utopias. More established technologies may be more impactful, even critical, but are less alluring. For instance, the supply security of food and medical goods briefly came into focus during the pandemic. But today, nobody is winning elections by touting their nation’s industrial output of FFP 2 masks. In contrast, AI, the quantum computer, biotechnology, space tech, blockchains et al. get a lot of attention precisely because so little is known about their actual affordances.

Why now?

While this is a sufficient explanation why countries pursue technological capabilities in general, it does not explain why the resulting competition is becoming securitized now. My tentative theory is that this due to general changes in world politics. During the „liberal moment“ of post-Cold War US hegemony, technological leadership of the West (the US in particular) was assured, especially given Japan’s economic malaise of the 1990s. However, as China became more wealthy and innovative over the 2000s, this position began to feel less and less certain. The international hierarchy is being renegotiated and status symbols acquire a whole new dimension of importance.

The shift towards a post-globalization era has also affected the politics of technology. Perceptions of interdependence have undergone the most dramatic change. It used to be hailed as an instrument of cooperation and growth but is now also/partly seen as a cause of vulnerability. All those countries and companies that so enthusiastically outsourced and off-shored their production are now scrambling to „re-shore“ and „near-shore“ it closer to home. The US Chips and Science Act and the EU Chips Act are recent examples of this but there are many others. As long as Western industrialized countries saw interdependence as non-threatening, tech leadership was economically desirable but not strategically important. Now it is and the space of what is considered to be critical not just for a nation’s wealth but also its security has expanded considerably.

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