Technology and Sovereignty

Wriston, Walter B.




In the field of foreign policy, new technology is rewriting old concepts of sovereignty and over time will also change national objectives. As early as 1945, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden noted that "every succeeding scientific discovery makes greater nonsense of old-time conceptions of sovereignty." Although Eden was among the first leaders to recognize the impact of science on national sovereignty, the current shift in the power structure is not unique in history. There have been many instances throughout history of technology's impact on international relations, altering the balance of power between sectors of society and between countries.

The early science of blue-water navigation is a case in point. Although mariners from many countries had for years crossed oceans and explored foreign climes, only the Europeans exploited the political potential presented by this new knowledge. The historian Fernand Braudel has pointed out that "the conquest of the high seas gave Europe a world supremacy that lasted for centuries." The historical mystery is why the technology of ocean navigation, once demonstrated, was not grasped by other maritime civilizations to expand their own political power.

In more recent times, even the most jaded diplomat might have to concede that the balance of power in the world shifted decisively on July 16, 1945, in the desert at Alamogordo, New Mexico, when the first atomic explosion took place. (For the modern Luddites who explain almost daily that the Strategic Defense Initiative will not work, it is useful to remember that almost half of the scientists at Los Alamos thought the atomic bomb would not fire.) When it did, relations between nations were instantly altered and, indeed, the very survival of our planet came into question. The process works both ways: scientists suddenly also discovered the desirability of a world framework of international law and order to protect society from their own discoveries.

Some will say that while new technologies may affect the balance of power on a temporary basis, they cannot change the basic geopolitical interests of a country. This argument rests, in part, on the fact that it is vital for a country to have assured access to certain critical raw materials. Countries having these desired natural resources within their borders are therefore of strategic importance to the United States. The oil-rich nations in the Middle East are the most obvious examples, but there are other countries whose soils contain important minerals ranging from copper to titanium.

Not that long ago, armies fought and men died for control of the iron and steel in the Ruhr Basin because ownership of these assets conferred economic and political power. Indeed, the idea of a nation-state was based on the concept of territoriality. Today, these once coveted assets may be a liability. To the extent that new technology replaces once essential commodities with plastics or other synthetic materials, the relative importance of these areas to the vital interest of nations is bound to change.

When World War II cut the United States off from a supply of natural rubber from the Far East, we turned to synthetic rubber, the basic research on which had been completed before World War I. The technology had not been exploited because it was too expensive. The war emergency caused us to set aside economics in order to produce tires, but as we went up the learning curve, production costs were driven down. When we reached the point where synthetic rubber became cost-effective, the significance of rubber-producing countries to our strategic interests tended to decline.

Today, as fiber-optic cable replaces the twisted copper pair, the relative strategic importance of copper-producing countries will also shift. Sand, the most common substance in the world, is the raw material for computer chips. Clay is the base for superconducting ceramics that will speed data by a factor of a hundred, generally enhance the power of magnets and thus further shift the value of traditional natural resources. Over a period of years this same pattern, in various degrees, will continue to apply to other natural resources, even oil.

As scientific advances continue to unfold, diplomatic priorities are bound to change. Even the strategic importance of critical areas of the world is altered by technology. It was not so long ago that conventional wisdom held that lights would go out all over the world if the Suez Canal were ever to be closed. However, conventional wisdom did not take into account the technology that would allow the building of huge supertankers able to carry oil economically around the Cape of Good Hope. This feat was achieved by relatively simple technology, but it altered the importance of the physical control of a specific territory.

Today the velocity of change is so great in all aspects of science, technology, economics and politics that the tectonic plates of national sovereignty and power have begun to shift. Political scientists and statesmen are fond of remarking that generals usually prepare to fight the previous war. Now the policymakers may be guilty of similar errors. If today's leaders in government and business fail to recognize that the world has changed because what they see, in Tuchman's words, "does not fit in with their plans or suit their prearrangements," they will follow into oblivion a long list of leaders who have made similar mistakes. Those who can understand and master change will be tomorrow's winners.

  • This document was created from the article, "Technology and Sovereignty" by Walter B. Wriston for the Winter 1988/1989 edition of "Foreign Affairs." The original article is located in MS134.003.027.00008.
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