Who will dominate tomorrow's world?

Power is no longer defined by control of land or oceans. It is entirely something else

People pose for photographs at the Beatles Statue in Liverpool on Friday. AFP
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At the ongoing G7 foreign ministers' meeting in Liverpool, Liz Truss has a chance to set a new tone for international policy. Just months after she was installed as British Foreign Secretary, Ms Truss is trailblazing some fresh ideas about how states can win the race for international influence.

At the think tank Chatham House last week, Ms Truss took the opportunity to explain her approach to the job. Some modish thoughts emerged in what was a disciplined discourse of what she thought was possible.

First, she argued that it is time to cast off some standard obsessions of international diplomacy. She called for an era of ideas, influence and inspiration. Countries best placed to prosper in this context, she said, would be those offering to build economic influence, set the terms of trade and lead the way to the technologies of the future.

As she greeted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other diplomats, Ms Truss was expected to promote partnerships and networks that cover defence, security and technological co-operation, plus the ideas of liberty and opportunity.

It is no accident that she has used her convening power in the G7 presidency to gather in Liverpool.

The city on River Mersey was founded on international trade and migration from the British Isles to America. As the UK briefing paper for the G7 noted, Liverpool has a global reputation, one that far outstrips its population size and indeed level of prosperity. "Liverpool has a rich maritime history and has played a pivotal role in international trade," the note said. "It has fostered global links through its diverse communities and has had an immense musical and sporting impact worldwide."

At the Museum of Liverpool sessions, these themes will come to the fore. There are sessions on global health resilience, acceleration of African investment and outreach to the Association of South-East Asian Nations.

There were echoes in Ms Truss's approach in the launch, also last week, of a new foreign policy framework from the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR).

In the aftermath of Brexit, the ECFR downgraded its presence in Britain but its priorities are surprisingly close to those set out by the UK foreign office. Its contention is that the post-Cold War era is over and the end of the 20-year battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan marked the moment when the door slammed shut.

With the erosion of US security supremacy, the ECFR claims that a dream of an ever more compelling liberal international order built on globalisation and the internet is no longer universal. Pursuit of one world defined by the flow of goods and services is off the table because inter-dependence has proved too "double-edged". Or, as Ms Truss put in her speech, countries "dependent on cheap gas, or reliant on others for vital technology like 5G" are guilty of strategic drift.

Instead, the think tank sets out an alternative power map for the international policymaker across seven key terrains in a "Power Atlas".

For the author on the economic file, the battlefield is complex and wide-ranging. Here, tools become weapons as states impose export controls, sanctions and data regulations or shift market access conditions to punish or barter for concessions.

Second is the great jockeying around critical digital infrastructure, raw materials, artificial intelligence and quantum technology. This is why some countries wage cyber attacks. It is also why listening agencies and cyber commands are now eclipsing the traditional intelligence agencies that had perfected the art of running humans as agents. Britain's MI6, the fictional home of James Bond, was challenged by its own chief to change its culture to ensure it could win the tech wars by working with Silicon Valley-style expertise.

The next terrain is the climate transition. Quick investment and willingness to embrace strengths shifts away from the carbon economy and defines the winners, the ECFR team surmises. Here, leadership in the process that has seen Cop26 wrap up and the focus now on Cop27 in Egypt and Cop28 in the UAE is a key platform.

Countries best placed to prosper would be those offering to build economic influence, set the terms of trade and lead the way to the technologies of the future

In a good example of the type of statecraft Ms Truss outlined, the UK harnessed the power of the City of London to align international investment forces behind climate declarations. People are players on this so-called power map – and not just as individuals but en masse.

ECFR identified shifting categories including "labour, migrants, refugees, tourists, students, expatriates and global elites" – all in way part of a strategic chessboard. Look at the way Belarus and Turkey have leveraged their role on the European borders for diplomatic dividends. Advantage and influence stem from changing the dynamics of the global population.

It isn't just national military strength that matters anymore. Technology differentiates attractiveness of countries as they seek to be acknowledged as military players.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown up the need to boast capabilities in health and system resilience. Vaccine nationalism is more than proof of the reality of this sphere of competition.

As the G7 meeting got under way in Liverpool – the city of The Beatles music band and the eponymous football club – the last battleground of the power map was culture and how that could contribute to a country's soft power. Take, for example, the impact K-pop has had in bolstering South Korea's but also diffusing the US supremacy in this field. Alongside this trend, there has also been the impulse in various parts of the world to close down certain types of cultural influence to preserve the national narrative on history.

How countries choose to traverse this Power Atlas could well determine their place in the world in the years to come.

Published: December 11, 2021, 2:00 PM