The Power Atlas: Seven battlegrounds of a networked world

Power is now defined by control over flows of people, goods, money, and data, and via the connections they establish. Only states that see the new map of geopolitical power clearly will be able to control the modern world.

Edited by Mark Leonard · December 2021

A joint publication of

European Council on Foreign Relations Stiftung Mercator

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The Power Atlas

Power is now defined by control over flows of people, goods, money, and data, and via the connections they establish. Only states that see the new map of geopolitical power clearly will be able to control the modern world.

The post-cold war era is over. Its end came slowly and then all at once with the abrupt and chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The heart-rending scene of desperate Afghan civilians falling off American evacuation planes at Kabul airport may become an image that marks the conclusion of that US-dominated era. It was not simply Afghan civilians who were left behind, but also a certain dream of a liberal international order cemented by economic globalisation and the internet, and governed by liberal democracy and free-market capitalism. Of course, the shift had been a long time coming. The debacles that followed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 had severely dented America’s credibility as an international guarantor of economic and military security, while the Obama-Trump years had been defined by a desire to end ‘forever wars’ abroad and concentrate on domestic issues. And, outside the West, other powers had grown not just in economic and military might, but also in their determination to chart an independent course rather than follow the Western playbook. President Joe Biden likes to say that “America is back.” Well, maybe – but, if it has re-emerged from the populism and quasi-isolationism of the Trump years, America is a very different country confronting a changed world.

The contours of this world, and the new patterns of American engagement, have consequences in every region. Yet it is Europeans who feel the change most dramatically. For hundreds of years, we have been at the centre of geopolitics – either as the motors of history or the world’s most important battleground. For decades, we have been used to looking at global problems through a Western prism, with the transatlantic alliance as the main unit of analysis for addressing these challenges. And, since the end of the cold war, we have thought that the core lesson of the European Union – that interdependence reduces conflict by turning enemies into friends – could be applied to the rest of the world.

The chaotic end of the post-cold war era has raised profound questions about all three ideas. The United States has made clear that it is pivoting away from Europe and the greater Middle East to focus on the Indo-Pacific. That the US did not consult its European allies about the manner of the Afghanistan withdrawal – while simultaneously manoeuvring to sign a submarine pact with Australia and the United Kingdom – demonstrated once again that, while it values the EU’s support on key issues, it no longer looks at the world through a Western prism. And the fact that America was doing all this to become more battle-ready for a generational ‘cold war 2.0’ with China showed that the hope of using interdependence to forge a multilateral world order has given way to decoupling and great power competition. I have sought to describe the new geopolitical era conceptually in my book The Age of Unpeace. This atlas is a companion volume that shows through data where power now lies in the world.

Finding the right map

Many Europeans have been forced to let go of their dreams of moving towards ‘one world’ governed by economic interdependence and multilateral politics. But they do not know what will take its place. In recent times, commentators have often written about the world ‘going back to normal’ and encouraged us to dust off more traditional geopolitical frameworks to understand international affairs.

At the end of the nineteenth century, two grand theories competed to define the twentieth-century map of power. The first – best described by American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan – held that the emerging technologies of massive ships powered by fossil fuels implied that whoever held command of the seas would control the world. The second was exemplified by British theorist Halford Mackinder, whose heartland theory held that, in an age of railroads, power flowed to those in control of the large landmass and abundant natural resources of Eurasia. These theories implied different maps of the world and different strategies for prospering in the twentieth century. The Germans followed Mackinder’s map to eventual ruin; the Americans used Mahan’s map and prospered. Regardless of one’s destination, it is important to use the right map.

So, what map of power would explain the modern world? Europeans had hoped that it would be defined by flows of goods and services rather than geopolitical blocs, and by the rights of individuals rather than competing states. They tried to build a new world based on pooled sovereignty, mutually beneficial interdependence, and norms that everyone would eventually accept. But national sovereignty has proven too resilient, interdependence too double-edged, and norms too contested.

At the same time, the new world is not simply a return to old concepts, a geographical projection based on either land or sea. On the old map, states were well-defined entities that shielded themselves from the influence of others. It made sense, therefore, to map power geographically. In a globalised world, however, interdependence is a reality in everything from trade, investment, and supply chains to flows of people and information.

In an era in which states use their interdependence against one another, power is no longer defined by control of land or oceans, or even the normative influence of “soft power”. It is now defined by control over flows of people, goods, money, and data, and via the connections they establish. As states compete to control such connections and the dependencies they create, these flows cut across overlapping spheres of influence – shaping the new map of geopolitical power. Only those who see this map clearly will be able to control the modern world.

The purpose of this atlas is to describe the key terrains of power. The European Council on Foreign Relations commissioned seven essays that explore these seven terrains: economics, technology, climate, people, military, health, and culture. By studying each of the terrains closely, one can see how various states are already trying to seize what they view as the high ground, as well as what this means for the future of conflict and relative power. During the cold war, the world was split between free countries and authoritarian states – a divide that gave the West enormous soft power. It was not just that many people yearned for the freedoms of liberal democracy, but also that liberal democracies seemed to be richer and better at solving political problems than their rivals. And, in the case of the US, they were also more powerful in every measure. Superficially, the world looks very similar today, with many people talking about a new cold war between the US (as the ‘leader of the free world’) and a China that stands alongside other authoritarian powers such as Russia. However, while the map of global politics might appear to be similar, there has been a dramatic change in the very nature of power and the ways in which it flows through that map. Even if our world has not been defined by world wars, it is riven with global conflict, as each of the terrains of power becomes a battlefield. This liminal condition – neither a formal war, but certainly not peace – is something that cyber scholars such as Lucas Kello have theorised very skilfully. But now the same dynamics are spreading to all facets of globalisation. It is a condition best described by the old Anglo-Saxon word ‘unpeace’.

The seven key terrains of the Power Atlas

The Power Atlas describes the structure of the complicated web of connections and flows in today’s globalised world. Journalist Thomas Friedman once famously claimed that globalisation would lead to a flat world. But, in reality, the world is mountainous and criss-crossed by networks in which some powers are much more central than others. The nature of the ties that bind them together creates great opportunities for exercising power and influence.

Each essay in this collection focuses on one of the seven key terrains of the Power Atlas – describing how it has become a battleground of power, as well as the metrics of power, vulnerabilities, and ‘weapons’ on this terrain. The essays outline the power dynamics on each terrain and who has advantages in controlling them. The maps show that some of the legacy powers – such as the US and Europe – continue to have certain advantages even as the terrains become more multipolar and subject to a rise in Chinese influence. Maybe the biggest change to the effects of hard power in the first six terrains lies in the seventh one: culture. The fact that the world is moving from universalism and liberalisation to cultural resistance has blunted the advantages of many of the established powers in the other domains.

Jonathan Hackenbroich describes in his essay on the economics terrain how level playing field penalties and market access – together with other economic tools such as export controls, sanctions, and data regulations – have become the main non-military battlefield of great power politics. He differentiates between offensive tools governments can use to implement policies that increase their economic and geopolitical reach, and defensive tools that limit a country’s vulnerability to offensive economic instruments. However, efforts to build up defensive and offensive capabilities in the economic realm can have negative repercussions for economic strength – which the essay describes as the third metric of power on this terrain. Hackenbroich assesses global powers’ attempts to walk this fine line, highlighting the disadvantages the EU faces on the economic and finance terrain. The dominance of the US dollar gives Washington an extraordinary ability to act as the gatekeeper of the global financial system. Through the use of sanctions, entities lists, and rules on listing and delisting companies, the US has many opportunities to coerce other countries into compliance. And, paradoxically, the countries that are most vulnerable to this pressure are in Europe because they are the most exposed to the American financial system – and are least used to thinking they need to defend themselves from America. But this chapter also shows that, in the longer run, China could become an even more significant player on this terrain. Two-thirds of countries already trade more with China than America. And differential growth rates mean that the balance of power will shift. But the biggest changes come from the way that President Xi Jinping is shifting China’s economic model from one based on ‘export-led growth’ to a model of ‘dual circulation’. Under this system, the goal is to have two parallel economies – an internal one that is shielded from international pressure, and an external one that allows China to use others’ dependence on it to increase its international clout. China is working to achieve these two goals with a raft of new policies such as export controls and the development of non-dollarised payment systems. Meanwhile, powers such as Russia and Turkey are increasingly using negative offensive tools but lack the ability to project power at the global level. The EU – with its large market and single currency – does have the potential to be a player on this terrain. But the union is held back by the fact that it places the economic and political realms in different silos, and that it is reluctant to use its resources as a deterrent to weaponised interdependence.

Nowhere are these limitations clearer than on the technology terrain. José Ignacio Torreblanca outlines in his essay how today’s battles are about critical digital infrastructure, critical raw materials, and new industries such as artificial intelligence (AI), the control of data flows and storage, semiconductors, 5G and mobile equipment, and quantum technology, as well as the definition of standards for new technologies. New technologies are used for foreign influence operations, disinformation, and cyber-attacks. This has led to very low levels of public trust in technology. The great powers on the technology terrain – China and the US – are once again thinking in terms of spheres of influence and trying to lure countries into their technological ecosystems. In 2019 companies headquartered in the US and China accounted for 90 per cent of the market capitalisation of the 70 largest digital platforms (68 per cent and 22 per cent respectively), 75 per cent of all patents related to blockchain technologies, 75 per cent of the cloud computing market, and 50 per cent of global spending on the internet of things. The US continues to have huge advantages on this terrain. The market capitalisation of American companies means that they can outspend or buy up any potential competitors in smaller markets. The US also dominates the world of data centres and the use of bandwidth – giving it the opportunity to mine the data of other powers both openly and secretly (as Edward Snowden revealed). Once again, China is emerging as an increasingly important player. It is a hyper-power in its investment in research and development, as its ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative strives to transform the country into the dominant player in many of the technologies of the future, from AI and quantum computing to batteries and smart cities. China also outranks other nations in online retail sales. Its access to rare earths provides it with a possible choke-point – one that it has used to advance a geopolitical agenda. Its leadership in surveillance technology allows it to strengthen the repressive power of the state, build huge databases for AI, and forge links with other states that want to use its technologies to control society. The biggest losers in the new world are Africa and south Asia, which are still relatively offline – although this also makes them less vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Europeans, in contrast, have only just begun to look at technology through a geopolitical lens. The EU is wedged between the US and China; it fails on both fronts – tech sovereignty and competitive edge.

In their essay on the climate terrain, Alex Clark and Susi Dennison explore how climate change and the transition away from a carbon-fuelled economy are changing power dynamics in today’s world. A large proportion of remaining oil, gas, and coal resources will become stranded assets – with potentially devastating consequences for the main exporters. In the short run, the biggest losers are high-cost producers such as the US and Canada. But, eventually, even the lowest-cost producers in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) – such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, and Kuwait – are likely to see fossil fuel extraction become economically unviable. At the same time, a range of renewables superpowers is emerging through quick investment and innovation in the areas of carbon capture and storage, battery storage, advanced nuclear technologies (China and the US), and green hydrogen and battery production (the EU and China). The countries and regions with the largest, lowest-cost solar and wind resources also have clear advantages on this terrain – as do those in possession of the crucial raw materials needed for the green transition. There are huge differences between states in their vulnerability to, and capacity to deal with, the physical effects of climate change and concurrent environmental crises. However, as the distributional effects of climate policy become clearer, it is likely that there will be a backlash against Western countries that are seen as cloaking their protectionist instincts in green rhetoric.

Fiona Adamson and Kelly Greenhill argue in their essay on the people terrain that “labour migrants, refugees, tourists, students, expatriates, and global elites all emerge as potential pieces on a strategic chessboard on which states compete for advantage and influence.” A big population or appeal as a popular destination for migrants, students, or tourists can be a source of power but can also create dependencies and vulnerabilities. Adamson and Greenhill differentiate mainly between migration magnets (such as Gulf countries, the US, and Germany); diaspora powers (such as China and India); remittances seekers (such as Nepal, Tajikistan, and Ukraine); and those that commodify migrants by either selling citizenship (such as St Kitts-Nevis), using their geographical position to block migration outflows (such as Libya), or acting as ‘warehouses’ of their own or others’ populations (such as Turkey or Nauru). The authors highlight that the idea to weaponise migration is a surprisingly common strategy, one that states across the globe have long used to achieve a wide range of political, military, and economic goals. But, in today’s globalised world, it is increasingly important to retain the ability to manage cross-border mobility through effective immigration, entry, and diaspora policies.

Ulrike Franke shows how new technologies and shifting alliances are changing the balance of power on the military terrain. Global military expenditures have risen continuously over the last two decades, and last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, reached almost $2 trillion (of which almost 40 per cent is accounted for by a single country, the US). However, hard factors such as money spent on the military, possession of nuclear weapons, and number of overseas military bases are of changing significance. This is due to a range of less obvious factors that determine military power, such as alliances, combat experience, and readiness to act. Technological developments such as armed drones, cyber, and AI can shift the military balance – and highlight that not just possession of new technologies but also strategies for how to use them are determining who has an advantage. American military capacity is likely to be sustained by high levels of defence spending, nuclear power, overseas bases, war-fighting and other military experience, and an independent defence industry. However, several countries are mixing things up: Russia with its new nuclear posture, Turkey through its use of drones and its geopolitical promiscuity, and – above all – China, which is becoming a leader in cyber-power, military satellites, and military tech. The biggest losers in this world are African countries (some of which are experiencing conflicts and have underdeveloped militaries) and Middle Eastern states (some of which are also experiencing conflicts, while others have high military spending but are still behind technologically).

Anthony Dworkin describes how the covid-19 pandemic has turned the health terrain into a geopolitical battlefield. Governments entered a fierce competition for medical goods that could help them scale back rates of illness and allow economic activity to return to normal. Public health became a core indicator of governmental effectiveness at a time of systemic competition. East Asia, south-east Asia, and Australasia performed best in containing the impact of the disease; the US and Europe less well. China dominates the production of personal protective equipment and – together with India, Europe, and the US – plays a leading role in pharmaceuticals manufacturing. This creates dependencies that states can weaponise – as one can see during a health crisis. Before the pandemic, the EU was the world’s largest vaccine producer, closely followed by India. Now, China is the clear leader – in terms of not only production but also exports. The geopolitics of vaccines has seen the main powers adopt different approaches: “industrial strategists” (the US and the UK), “market champion” (the EU), “licensing giant” (India), “outward-facing authoritarians” (China and Russia), and “aspiring producers” (Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa). Even though the “outward-facing authoritarians” were able to use vaccine exports geopolitically in the short term, the lower efficacy of Chinese vaccines and Russia’s poor record of production limited their use as soft power tools or as a weapon in the longer term. In contrast, the “industrial strategists” and the “market champion” produced the most effective vaccines and, after having vaccinated their own populations, exported and donated doses – which boosted their perceived health power.

Ultimately, states’ ability to use their power resources has a lot to do with cultural norms. During the cold war, there was a battle of universalist creeds that won over elites and publics around the world through their ideas as much as their military and financial support. In the post-cold war era, there was also a sense that soft power would shape the world, as many countries seemed to embrace liberal democracy and free markets. This formed the backdrop to the fourth wave of democratisation and the expansion of the EU. However, in our essay on the culture terrain and the future of what Joseph Nye called “soft power”, Ivan Krastev and I show that the world has entered a decisive new phase. We discuss three trends that shift power relations on this terrain. The most fundamental change is to a new mood of “cultural decolonisation” – which replaces the universalism of the cold war and the “end of history”. We show how the development of successful alternatives to American pop culture and Hollywood – such as K-pop, Bollywood, and Turkish soap operas – reflects a deeper trend towards nationalism and efforts to ‘take back control’. This is leading to a multipolar world of ideas in which any universalist project is likely to provoke a backlash that is even more powerful than the original force. Powers such as China, with a mercantilist rather than a missionary outlook, are now better placed to thrive than those with Enlightenment missions to transform the world, such as Europe and America. And we argue that few people think that the world is clearly split between free and non-free countries, with the former performing better than the latter. This is partly because, in today’s world, the idea of democracy is becoming contested by leaders such as Viktor Orban and Donald Trump, who challenge the importance of liberalism. But it is also because it is not clear that democracies are outperforming their autocratic counterparts at economic growth or responses to covid-19. These two big trends lead to a third trend, namely a shift from relying on the power of example as a source of soft power to exploiting the vulnerabilities of other systems. This situation has further empowered spoiler countries such as Russia and China, which have become adept at hacking liberal democracies and exploiting the openness of their systems to undermine them from within.

Together, these seven terrains form a new map of power. They demonstrate that, in the modern world, power is exercised not by ships passing through contested waters but by people, goods, money, and data passing through the multiple contested domains of connectivity. Just understanding these new power dynamics is not enough, however. One needs to understand the strategies for exercising power on these new terrains.

The strategies of connectivity warriors

The beauty of maps is that they can mark out the great powers, the territory they control, and their spheres of influence. The old economic world of globalisation was crowned by a G7 of advanced economies but, as the Power Atlas shows, the connected world is dominated by a slightly different group of great powers – each of which has its own goals, as well as its own strategies for seeking power and glory.

In the new world, a great power can build its influence through its capacity to define regulations and set standards, its control over financial or energy flows, its ability to affect or corrupt political processes, or even its capacity to build social media platforms or set search engine standards – among other connections. Each great power tries to benefit from the high ground it already controls. But the strategies each adopts to pursue this power depends in part on the structure of its networks. In The Age of Unpeace, I have laid out the seven strategies of the most successful connectivity warriors, which are summarised in Table 1.

The seven habits of successful connectivity warriors
1. CentralityThe goal is to put yourself into a position where other people need you more than you need them. Then, you can dictate the terms of the relationship. Example: Russia blackmailing its energy customers.
2. GatekeepingThe ability to decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ of the network. Example: The US effectively shutting Iran out of the global financial system by threatening to exclude any banks from using the dollar if they trade with Iranian entities. Because 90 per cent of foreign exchange trading involves the American currency, the US has created a choke-point.
3. Data-miningThe ability to spy on others because you control the network or cables through which information flows. Example: Information collection by America’s National Security Agency.
4. SubversionThe goal is to intervene in other countries’ systems and overturn the normal rules so that they no longer apply. Example: Russia spreading misinformation about vaccines in the West.
5. InfiltrationRather than influencing a country from the outside, it is often more efficient to change it from within. This strategy involves encouraging companies to invest, political parties to develop friendships, or even citizens to emigrate to that country. Example: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaching out to Turkish minorities in European countries.
6. Rule-makingThe goal is to set the norms or rules for the whole network. Example: The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.
7. Independence-seekingIf many powers are trying to weaponise their links with others, the best defence can be to minimise one’s dependence on them and thereby resist external manipulation. Example: China trying to become independent in the production of semiconductors and computer chips.
Source: Mark Leonard, The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict, 2021

Every power is trying to take advantage of its centrality to specific parts of the complex international system to weaponise interdependence and expand its sphere of influence. And, on the seven terrains discussed above, several archetypes emerge.

Russia has become the ‘disruptor in chief’. In the last few years, its foreign policy has shaped the behaviour of its neighbours and other powers through tactics including gas cut-offs, sanctions, the expulsion of workers, cyber-attacks, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, and attempts to gridlock Western-led international organisations ranging from the UN Security Council to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In parallel, the country has worked to establish new organisations to extend its power, such as the BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the Eurasian Economic Union. But because Russia has not done enough to strengthen and diversify its economy – which relies overwhelmingly on hydrocarbon exports – its share of the global economy has declined. This will limit its ability to project power over time.

Turkey is positioning itself as a migration superpower. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has regularly used the threat of flows of people to change the balance of power between Turkey and the EU – demanding that the union remove visa restrictions on Turks, provide funds to help the country host more than two million Syrians, and reinvigorate its bid for EU membership. Turkey also uses its power to influence European foreign policy: in May 2020, Malta – a country that is heavily affected by migration – vetoed the EU’s allocation of funds to Operation Irini, a naval mission primarily designed to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya. As Turkey was shipping weapons to the Government of National Accord in Libya – and, therefore, was disproportionately affected by this operation – most analysts saw this Maltese move as a favour to Turkey.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have used the resources they acquire from energy to turn themselves into “powers by proxy”. Saudi Arabia draws its geo-economic strength from the 10m barrels of oil it extracts every day, which make it responsible for one-fifth of the global oil trade. For decades, the country has converted its hydrocarbons into geopolitical influence, positioning OPEC as the primary instrument for translating market power into international economic leverage. Saudi Arabia has been willing to take short-term economic hits to shape global markets to its advantage (relative to rivals such as Iran or US shale companies). Moreover, Riyadh has invested billions of petrodollars to achieve its foreign policy goals – supporting counter-revolutionary regimes during the Arab uprisings as well as waging a proxy war against Iran across the Middle East. Iran is the mirror image of Saudi Arabia in its efforts to become a global champion of Islam, forge links with proxies across the Middle East, and establish itself as a cyber-power.

And South Korea has emerged as a surprise cultural power. When the video for pop song ‘Gangnam Style’ became the most viewed in YouTube’s history, this seemed to be a quirky anomaly. But, just a few years later, other branches of K-pop have dominated the music charts, a South Korean film has become the first foreign-language movie to win the Oscar for ‘best picture’, and South Korean television series ‘Squid Game’ has had the most successful launch ever on Netflix. This reflects not simply the attractiveness of South Korea’s cultural products as a turn away from Western cultural hegemony. It may also be the fact that South Korea is unlikely to take over the world – and is, therefore, unthreatening to other national cultures – that has opened the door for its singers, film directors, and TV companies to thrive across the globe.

India is a big player on several terrains – as a demographic superpower with a large diaspora, as a cultural player with a huge film industry, and as a medical superpower with its enormous capacity to manufacture vaccines. And, in future, the country could emerge as a decisive force in efforts to set global standards for handling data, potentially becoming a technological superpower. However, even with its 1.3 billion people and its reach, India – like all the archetypes mentioned above – is still a niche player in the Age of Unpeace. The same is true of countries such as Japan, Australia, and the 54 states of Africa that, by mid-century, will collectively have more residents than China and India combined.

So far, only three powers – the US, China, and the EU – can set the rules for global competition across several domains. I have called them the three empires of connectivity.

The US is emerging as a ‘gatekeeper power’ – one trying to control access to the global commons. The country remains the world’s sole superpower and can still project military might with greater ease than any of its rivals. But, recently, the US has been using the role of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency and its control of the internet and cutting-edge technologies to develop new instruments for projecting power. After 9/11 and the American president’s declaration of a global “war on terror”, officials in the US Treasury started exploring how Washington could leverage the ubiquity of the dollar and their country’s dominance of the international financial system to target the financing of terrorism. What started as a war against al-Qaeda grew to encompass measures against North Korea, Iran, Sudan, and even Russia. The enormous fines the US authorities imposed on banks accused of breaking sanctions – such as France’s BNP Paribas – sent shockwaves through global financial markets and acted as a powerful deterrent to future deals that violated these measures. In the words of the then director of the CIA Michael Hayden: “this was a twenty-first-century precision-guided munition”. During this era, US security agencies capitalised on the fact that so much data runs through American cables and platforms to gather vast quantities of information.

The next phase of American thinking focused on using these techniques to prepare for what Biden calls “extreme competition” with China. This approach centres on efforts to multiply American strength by forging closer relations with democracies across the globe. The Biden administration wants the US and its democratic allies to create a bulwark against Chinese coercion, and to counter Chinese companies in markets in Eurasia, the Indo-Pacific, Africa, and other regions (particularly those affected by China’s Belt and Road Initiative) through offensive policies such as infrastructure and connectivity partnerships.

China is rapidly challenging American dominance by using investment and infrastructure. Today, Beijing uses economic statecraft more frequently, more assertively, and in a more diverse fashion than ever before. The Chinese approach to international relations focuses as much on the ties that bind different players together as on the resources of these players. And one of the keys to thinking about power in the ‘relational’ theories of international affairs that Chinese scholars have developed is to look at the structure and the nature of the relationships between different countries. Even though China’s trade and economic power is growing, its most innovative geo-economic tool is infrastructure – both physical and institutional. Stretching from Hungary to Indonesia, Beijing’s budget for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is $100 billion – as much as the Marshall Plan spent in Europe, in inflation-adjusted dollars. Most of this finances roads, railways, pipelines, and other infrastructure across Eurasia, smoothing China’s westward projection of power. Official Chinese sources claim that this investment will add $2.5 trillion to China’s trade in the next decade, more than the value of the country’s exports in 2013, when it was the world’s top exporter. In addition, while Beijing remains an active player within international institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, it is also promoting and financing parallel structures such as the SCO.

The overall goal of these efforts is greater autonomy, primarily from the US, and to expand the Chinese sphere of influence in Asia and beyond. China’s ambitions extend to the virtual world, where it is pushing a cyber-sovereignty agenda and challenging the US-backed multi-stakeholder and open model of internet governance – aiming to allow national governments to control data flows and the internet within their jurisdictions. And the Chinese leadership is strengthening its control over the internet and technology suppliers. China has the weight to achieve this, given that it is home to the world’s largest community of netizens: nearly 700 million Chinese citizens now use the internet regularly, around 600 million of them through mobile devices. By 2018, China was the world leader in data and technology nationalisation, seeking to develop technological standards and capacities that were different from global ones.

Chinese scholars have identified several areas in which China could soon have control over choke-points of advanced technology such as high-performance computers, quantum communications, core chips, and satellite navigation and operating systems. China has exported surveillance technology to more than 60 countries with dismal human rights records, including Iran, Myanmar, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. And the fear is that, in other critical technologies, China will use systems such as its Blockchain-based Service Network to try to rewire the world and create a parallel internet subject to Chinese standards.

Many people have characterised the EU as a hapless plaything of these two great powers – torn between its values-based security alliance with Washington and its economic dreams of trading with China. But, in recent decades, the union has emerged as a pole of its own on many of the terrains in this atlas, using its norms and the accession process to become a rule-making superpower. Because the EU has the world’s largest single market, most multinational companies depend on access to the region – which means complying with the union’s standards. The EU has used this economic power at various times over the years – blocking the merger of General Electric and Honeywell, forcing Microsoft to unbundle its Explorer browser, and challenging US agri-business in Africa and other global markets over the use of genetically modified organisms.

This export of regulations has extended to the political sphere on issues such as climate change – and, most dramatically, through the EU’s accession process and neighbourhood policy. These policies condition accession to the EU and access to its markets on countries’ adoption of the union’s rules and standards. To join the EU, candidate countries need to integrate more than 80,000 pages of law – governing everything from gay rights and the death penalty to lawnmower sound emissions and food safety – into domestic legislation. Moreover, as Anu Bradford argues in The Brussels Effect, regulatory power is less costly, more durable, more deployable, and less easily undermined by competitors than traditional foreign policy tools.

Managing and preventing the new wars

Military planners in Beijing and Washington are busy running war games for a conflict in Taiwan and over various rocks and atolls in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. A war between China and America that takes on a nuclear dimension is the scariest scenario one could imagine. And this is not the only part of the world that could see the use of nuclear weapons. European defence ministries are trying to understand changes in Russia’s nuclear doctrine and technologies that make the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons more likely, while the world has at various points been worried about nuclear escalation between India and Pakistan, and what governments in North Korea or Iran might do once they are emboldened with functioning nuclear weapons.

In the last decade, conflicts raging in Syria, Yemen, the Sahel, and eastern Ukraine have killed many civilians and tempted other states to wage war by proxy through their support for militias in each of these theatres.

But this atlas shows that, even in the absence of catastrophic scenarios, there will be a huge amount of conflict waged across all the terrains discussed above. As geopolitics takes over, global supply chains will unravel and the world may plunge into a recession. Technology wars could lead to the Balkanisation of knowledge and see the control of critical systems and components become choke-points in geopolitics – just as the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz were in earlier eras. As the world embarks on a dramatic carbon transition, there is a risk that all the elements of that process will be weaponised. And, as the global population grows and people are increasingly on the move, migration will continue to be central to our economic health, our cultural vibrance, and our politics. But it might be in the cultural realm that geopolitical competition plays out most dramatically. Fake news factories, interference in elections, and deep fake technology have the potential to sap faith in politics and exploit the tensions in our already polarised societies.

War is almost always an argument over relative power – states do not go to war unless they believe they can win. To avoid such misunderstandings, great powers have often tacitly signalled that they control a certain sphere of influence, usually to warn their rivals to stay away. War sometimes results from disputes about whether a country falls within a particular sphere of influence. The Cuban missile crisis, for example, resulted from the Soviets’ (ultimately successful) effort to draw Cuba into their sphere of influence.

Despite such dangerous disputes, it was relatively easy to define the Soviet and Western spheres of influence in an era in which territorial control was the primary determinant of power. The presence of military bases and technical advisers, and membership of military alliances, stood out on the power maps of those days. Today, however, great powers are putting forward very different concepts of their spheres of influence – ones based on the terrains that are most important to them.

Each great power now disputes not just the border of its sphere of influence but also what constitutes one. So, America is trying to build a sphere of influence based on control of information technology, the centrality of the US economy, and military power; China one based on trade and investment flows, as well as infrastructure projects; Russia one based on energy flows, corrupt business ties, and manipulation of the information space; and Iran one based on cultural and religious ties to Shia populations in the Middle East.

States are already constructing defences against these efforts. They are seeking to address their vulnerabilities by, for example, restricting data and investment flows, creating their own technology companies, or even developing ‘splinternets’ that sacrifice connections for greater control over the national information environment. They are, in essence, fortifying their positions at choke-points on the new map of power.

As each state promotes its own version of a sphere of influence, it risks interfering in others’ spheres, possibly without intending to do so. When two countries are reading different maps of power, they will often fail to understand how the other understands its sphere of influence. In Ukraine, for example, the EU’s ‘unconscious empire’ – in the form of an Association Agreement that threatened to remake Ukrainian governance – butted up against Russian efforts to move Ukraine into its sphere of influence. The result was a war over which sphere Ukraine belonged to, and the effective division of the country.

The idea of a European project that will benignly spread universal values clashes with the way that other powers are thinking about the world. The EU may object to the idea of spheres of influence, but these powers often see it as playing this game in a similar fashion to everyone else.

Unless Europeans understand how their actions appear to others, they will stumble into new conflicts with other great powers in the Balkans, other parts of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As increasingly diverse spheres of influence continue to overlap across the world, such disputes will likely become more common and more confusing.

All this implies that the starting point of trying to manage global problems and reduce conflict is to read from the same map. I hope that this atlas can contribute to the process. By mapping the terrains of power in new ways, we can better understand one another’s actions and strategies – and that can be the first step towards working out how to coexist more peacefully. If they do not read from the right maps, our leaders could literally find themselves lost in our new Age of Unpeace.  


This Power Atlas came into being out of an intellectual effort, together with Jeremy Shapiro, to understand the reconfiguration of international relations. This essay would have been a joint project had he not taken a sabbatical. The text on finding the new map of power and the historical reflections on Mahan and Mackinder bear his inimitable imprint. Lucie Haupenthal has been a wonderful intellectual companion and managed the whole project with great verve through a tough pandemic-affected period. She showed what an extraordinary person she is with the smartest ideas, a great humanity towards her colleagues, and a superhuman commitment to seeing the process through. It would certainly not have happened without her. Anthony Dworkin, who stepped in to cover Jeremy’s role as research director during his sabbatical, skilfully led the process of commissioning and editing the essays. Gosia Piaskowska did an amazing job in collecting, organising, and analysing the data, as well as preparing the visualisations in this atlas. All of this data may been like a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it without Chris Eichberger. Communicating data effectively requires creating data visualisations that are well-designed, clear, and efficient, so they can be easily understood, and Chris worked tirelessly and professionally to juggle the content and creative ideas from the authors and other colleagues and gave the project its distinctive look. Rafael Loss supported the project team in any capacity needed – from data collection to visualisation ideas, to logistics. Susanne Baumann and Swantje Green helped build a launch strategy around the atlas. Catherine Baron, Pau Ruiz Guix, Filip Medunic, and Alessandra Thomsen supported the project with their research.

We thank Michael Schwarz, Anne Duncker, Teresa Spancken, and Stiftung Mercator for their enduring support for ECFR and Re:shape Global Europe. And we thank the IWM Institute and the Austrian Ministry of Defence for supporting the work on the culture chapter.