Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Big Tech Won't Remake the Global Order

| Nov. 08, 2021

If you had to bet on which will shape the future, the smart money would be on states over technology.

Will Big Tech transform geopolitics and perhaps one day supplant the nation-state? In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, titled "The Technopolar Moment: How Digital Powers Will Reshape the Global Order," Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer argues we can't rule that possibility out. In a provocative analysis of the rapidly evolving digital space, Bremmer writes that the major technology firms—Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon, and foreign counterparts such as Alibaba, Huawei, and Tencent—have become powerful, autonomous actors that are "increasingly shaping geopolitics."

In particular, he suggests that these firms have created a "new dimension in geopolitics—digital space—over which they exercise primary influence." With increasing power over "how people spend their time, what professional and social opportunities they pursue, and, ultimately, what they think," these firms are already "exercising a form of sovereignty," he writes. The future geopolitical environment will take one of three forms: "one in which the state reigns supreme, rewarding the national champions; one in which corporations wrest control from the state over digital space … or one in which the state fades away." These are starkly different alternative futures, but which one is most likely?

Taken as a whole, the article is vintage Bremmer: far-reaching, mind-stretching, bridging commerce, politics, and technology, and well worth reading. (Full disclosure: Bremmer and I are good friends—except when on opposite sides of a tennis court.) But I'm not persuaded that Big Tech is as powerful or as autonomous as he thinks, and I certainly don't think these firms will supplant or replace the nation-state at any point in the foreseeable future. Of his three alternatives, the smart money should be on states.

Physical space is essential. Digital space is optional.

To see why, let's start with the fundamental differences between physical space and digital space. Physical space is familiar and tangible: It is air, water, food, arable land, the built environment in which we dwell and work. Physical space is essential to human life; our species cannot eat, breathe, procreate, clothe and house itself, or do much of anything else without it. You can't surf the internet or play a virtual reality game without a place to sit and plug in your device. Our inescapable dependence on the physical environment is why humans fight over territory, control of sea routes, and other physical resources, and it is why states created borders and devised institutions such as sovereignty to regulate political authority over the inhabitable land areas in which we dwell. To make an obvious point, the indispensability of physical space is why climate change looms so large today....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Big Tech Won't Remake the Global Order.” Foreign Policy, November 8, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt