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The Other Global Power Shift

The world is increasingly obsessed with the ongoing power struggle between the US and China. But the technology-driven shift of power away from states to transnational actors and global forces brings a new and unfamiliar complexity to global affairs.

CAMBRIDGE – Since 2017, America’s National Security Strategy has focused on great power competition, and today much of Washington is busy portraying our relationship with China as a new cold war. Obviously, great power competition remains a crucial aspect of foreign policy, but we must not let it obscure the growing transnational security threats that technology is putting on the agenda.

Power transitions among states are familiar in world politics, but the technology-driven shift of power away from states to transnational actors and global forces brings a new and unfamiliar complexity. Technological change is putting a number of issues – including financial stability, climate change, terrorism, cybercrime, and pandemics – on the global agenda at the same time that it tends to weaken governments’ ability to respond.

The realm of transnational relations outside of government control includes, among others, bankers and criminals electronically transferring funds, terrorists transferring weapons and plans, hackers using social media to disrupt democratic processes, and ecological threats such as pandemics and climate change. COVID-19, for example, has already killed more Americans than died in the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq wars, yet we spent little to prepare for it. Nor will COVID-19 be the last or worst pandemic.

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