Geopolitics used to be a board game. Leaders defended and extended their physical territory in the terrestrial plane. Borders were defined by geography. Trade partners and military partnerships tended to fall in the same lines. We knew who our enemies and allies were, and where to find them.
But things are no longer so simple. Instead, I suggest we are now playing a multi-layer, multi-dimensional game; where nations borders do not fit neatly on the map, and where each layer may have borders that fall in different places…
In particular I see the following 5 layers shifting and consolidating across the multi-dimensional geopolitical playing field.
- Muscle – This refers to the physical layer, the actual geographic border, physical resources (coal, oil, terrestrial water, fishing rights), and infrastructure (dams, power grids, undersea cables) nations defend and attack through warfare, politics, and defence. The tangible layer we are most familiar with. Think the perpetual oil wars in the Middle East, or the seemingly everlasting battle over the West Bank. Looking further ahead, bio-engineered super-soldiers and so called “killer robots” will change how war games are played on the ground, separating attackers from targets, but still this is a game military strategists know well.
- Money – This refers to the trade and finance layer the flows of money and capital across the world. The money layer used to be controlled neatly by nation states, though sanctions, tariffs and trade deals. However, these lines no longer neatly map onto the geographical layer – not when we have borderless crypto currencies, and domestic corporations who follow the ideology of their own nations political enemies. Think US corporations and sports teams censoring their marketing communications in line with the Chinese Communist Party, or big brands boycotting (or refusing to boycott) markets that their politicians do not (or do), as Pepsi / Coke did during South Africa’s apartheid days.
- Medium – This refers to the international communications networks – the software / technology layer – that also do not map neatly onto geographic or financial border lines. Think China’s exporting of its social credit score technology to Africa, metaverse gaming worlds, big tech platforms, social networks, and the emerging “splinter net” where different nations allow (or forbid) access to different parts of the internet, creating a communications access patchwork that cuts across national borders in strange new ways. A good example here would be how pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong “escaped” terrestrial censorship by placing protest messages in the game Animal Crossing. Looking further ahead, the issue of “substrate monopolists” raises its head, as people spend more and more time in virtual words owned by “digital landlords”, effectively creating cities inhabited by “archipelago” populations scattered (physically) across nation state lines. How the medium layer is regulated (or not) affects the outcomes.
- Message – This refers to the cultural narrative layer, the most intangible of all the layers, but an important layer none the less. This is the battle for control over hearts and minds. Think international propaganda, Russian “maskirovska” or the UK’s defence department of “meme warfare“, or America’s Hollywood-exported cultural hegemony, or the influence the evangelical religions have had on the world thought history. Looking ahead, advances in mind control and behavioural economics “nudging” will increase the potency of the message layer.
- Meteōros – This is the newest layer and it refers to the physical battle ground in the (as of yet) borderless skies. Think “stealing rain” (climate geo engineering) and space rights, and believe it is about to get very, very interesting out there.