Publié le 03/01/2022

Alice PANNIER, édito paru sur Planete Energies

Technologies from big data to quantum computing, artificial intelligence and next-generation drones are fueling power struggles between nations and large industrial companies. Alice Pannier, head of the Geopolitics of Technology program at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), talks us through the impact of these new technologies, which have added a further level of complexity to the major energy issues seen in the 20th century.

Geopolitics (derived from the ancient Greek word “ge”, meaning earth) is the study of the effects of geography in its broadest sense – both physical (i.e., the topography of the planet) and human (i.e., climate, demographics, natural resources and economic exchanges) – on international relations.

Mining and energy resources (coal, then oil and gas) have for centuries weighed heavily on geopolitical relations and wars. Over the last three or four decades, new digital information and communication technologies have taken military, economic and cultural practices by storm all over the world, introducing new potential conflicts into geopolitical relations.

New Types of Tech Conflicts

New technologies are at the center of three potential battlegrounds: military, economic and political.

From a military point of view, technologies make a difference on several levels – the most obvious being innovations in weaponry itself (such as combat drones, hypersonic missiles and underwater and space warfare), providing armed forces with an advantage. Methods for intelligence gathering and analysis have been revolutionized with the advent of satellites, surveillance drones, and artificial intelligence to inform decision-making. Most people are familiar with the impact that cyber-influence can have in already tense situations, with the use of false information or bots to sway public opinion. Lastly, digital technologies can be used in direct cyber-attacks on transportation, energy and power infrastructure.

Economically, countries can reap substantial rewards from their capacity to innovate in robotics or artificial intelligence, telecommunications infrastructures or the energy transition to ensure greater energy independence. These benefits increase what is sometimes called “soft power”: a set of economic or cultural means that governments may use to influence other countries in a non-coercive way to serve their own interests.

In terms of values, technology is not neutral. It produces political and social models that can lead to rifts and conflict. We know that China and Russia have a very strong hold on the development of digital technologies that, in the name of the collective interest, give them control over industrial chains and populations. In the West, with some differences between North America and Europe, the management of sensitive data very quickly leads to the question of civil liberties.

Technology and Resource Availability

These three levels of conflict are nothing new. During the Cold War (1945-1990), the U.S.S.R. and the United States were locked in a race for new nuclear weapons and the conquest of space, a competition between economic systems and between capitalist and communist models. So references to a new “cold war” between the United States and China have some heavy connotations.

Current tensions also echo the classic rivalry to control natural resources. The development of renewable energies and electric vehicles has prompted concerns about the availability of certain minerals and materials such as “rare earths”. The widespread use of semiconductors has raised the question of organizing production channels in the country of consumption, or in non-hostile countries. So it’s clear that the issue of “dependence”, which has deeply marked the history of oil and, more recently, gas, is still very much on leaders’ minds.

Lastly, even though technologies are at the center of military force, economic power and the influence of political models, they do not automatically ensure “victory” in future conflicts. The withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan after 20 years of war against the Taliban is a poignant example.


Lire l'édito sur le site de Planete Energies [1].