The centre of the board: geopolitics and natural agency

14 April 2020

In chess, the centre of the board is critical to control. In the current pandemic, the real advantage may lie in better collective management of the natural commons

David Henry Doyle

Geopolitics is often seen as a global game of chess in which strategic plans and tactical decisions determine relative positional advantage. However, as we are learning in the current pandemic, our modern world relies on integrated economies and transnational supply chains. In this advanced stage of globalisation – where the entire system is vulnerable to microscopic shocks – the real advantage may lie in better collective management of the natural commons.

Developing the Centre

In chess, the centre of the board is critical to control. As with the high ground in a battle or debate, fail to secure position in the centre of a chessboard and your side will usually lose. Competition for advantage is not a feature of the game, it is the game. Neglect the centre and your opponent will make use of it. Squares equate to sovereignty.

The centre ground in classical geopolitics could be geographical, economic, military, technological, or ideological. In the Cold War it was all five. However, geopolitics has neglected the planet’s most formidable force: nature.

From Battleground to Marketplace

Following the end of the binary Cold War superpower system the centre of the board was no longer in question. It was secured by the hegemony of the hyper power. Some scholars even announced that geopolitics would be replaced with liberal geo-economics. They heralded the End of History and the birth of globalism.

The centre of the international system became a place to integrate rather than do battle. A place to trade, to visit, to innovate. Deeper integration of the centre inevitably fostered closer connections between the players. Sovereign squares became international marketplaces.

Trade became recognised as a force multiplier and a global network of new interdependencies crisscrossed the board. An ecosystem of interests and investment began to flourish. This centralised system enabled rising powers to develop into regional superpowers.

More Integrated, More Vulnerable

In the 21st century, the magnetism of multilateralism has begun to wane as a new balance of power slowly emerges. Some even observe the transformation to a G-Zero world. A new competition for the centre has begun leveraging Grand Strategy to secure advantage. The redeployment of strategic assets is once again key for geopolitical power projection. New challenges are visible on the horizon.

Yet, there has been limited recognition that the newly integrated centre itself was vulnerable due to the enhanced connectivity it supplied. The centre is not simply a space but a living environment. The centre also represents the global commons. In reality, unlike in chess, the board itself has agency. Nature has not committed to the same rules as the players. As we have discovered, nature can simply shut down areas of the board.

The Power of Natural Agency

Natural agency – the ability of nature to act or react – has mistakenly been considered a location specific disruption. The current pandemic has revealed the spectacular consequences of a failure to manage the central commons. The geography of geopolitics can be misleading. A key feature of geopolitics to date has been the assumption that geography, or the board, does not itself have sovereignty.

We are discovering through climate change and disease that nature has a form of agency that can not only disrupt human life but also inter-state relations. Volcanoes, epidemics, and weather events do not respect the sovereignty of squares on the board. The raw power of this natural agency has become apparent precisely because of the central connectivity of our highly globalised planet.

Old Threats, New Threats

Indeed, history is littered with examples of how natural phenomena changed outcomes. The decline and fall of Rome featured a series of pandemics. The Spanish Armada was defeated first in battle by the English sailors and then destroyed by a rare hurricane off the Irish coast. The collapse of feudalism towards the late middle ages followed sweeping socio-economic transformations due to plague.

Natural agency has reminded us that it must be acknowledged, respected, and managed in order to avoid massive systemic shocks. Indeed, the natural agency of disease is just one feature of the highly integrated centre board. Climate change remains another identified yet unresolved risk. Digital or artificial agency could also become a new risk matrix with the rise of Artificial Intelligence.

A New Architecture: Geopolitical, Geo-economic, and Geo-ecological

We have now arrived at a momentous inflection point in history. The world has never been so connected. The centre has never been so integrated. And yet, as we have seen, it has never been so vulnerable to natural agency. How will geopolitics respond to this new reality?

The actions and reactions to the pandemic will reshape the global architecture. The outcome of the next decade will shape the contours of the century to come. It will be a decade of recovery but also one of sharper focus on the centre of the chess board, as competition for resources and position resumes. Governance of this entangled centre is now a question of supreme importance.

Indeed, the accelerated rise of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) concerns in the financial sector is an expression of this changed reality. Investors and corporations have begun to employ tools to limit and manage exposure to disruptive risks to the globally integrated centre in which they must operate.

Protecting the Natural Centre

The obvious trend before this global health crisis was the re-purposing of normative tools into instruments of influence to govern, control, or defend the geopolitical centre. These tools included regulation, trade, technology, infrastructure, and finance.

It is now evident that global health as well as environmental and climate related governance should also be addressed in order to control for the disruption of natural agency. The same geopolitical toolkit can be deployed to safeguard the commons and protect the natural centre.

Where then, we might ask, will competitive advantage for the integrated centre lie in future: in competition or cooperation?

This article was first published on LinkedIn