Geopolitics affects everyone

January 05, 2023 09:56
Photo: Reuters

One would be forgiven for thinking that the above is a most mundane proposition. After all, it is clearly true that geopolitics is a universal, all-encompassing, and ubiquitous phenomenon.

Yet this statement must nevertheless be said. The thought – that geopolitics is but a matter that affects states and governments, or that can be confined to the subject of conversations over high politics in ‘respectable establishments’ – is sadly delusional and anachronistic. We live in an age when geopolitics affects everyone, including companies and corporations, philanthropy and education, and individual citizens at large.

Whilst I’ll delve into the upshot of this statement in later discussions, it’s worth establishing how the above is true, across the various contexts outlined above.

On the corporate angle – corporations must grapple with a global business climate that is precipitously steered not purely by relatively straightforward calculations pertaining to costs and benefits, but the ongoing encroachment by ideologies and ideologues, national and territorial security considerations, and broader, strategic deliberations revolving around how countries relate to one another. Supply chains are being rerouted as we speak, despite the emerging patterns being neither economically sustainable nor conducive towards private profits for businesses – such rerouting is conducted in name of ‘autonomy’ and ‘security’: the former, for there are sectors that politicians now deem to be too important to be tampered or entangled with by ‘non-aligned’ forces; the latter, for in the age of over-securitisation, anything and all – ranging from food, culture, to gender and family – could be deemed the subject of ‘security discourses’. One could lament such politicisation; one could also ignore it and portray it as some economically rationalisable, defensible move. One would be mistaken in so doing.

Businesses and investors can no longer shield themselves, through equivocation or pollyannish dismissal, from the flashpoints and conflict zones that are coming to define the world we inhabit. Globalisation is splintered, thwarted, and resisted on a local level, as countries come to weigh jingoistic sentiments and brute-force chauvinism over mutually conducive multilateralism. For all the talk of an international order, it is clear that the international multilateral order does not extend to small or medium states whose voices and sovereignties are regularly discarded by powers that subjugate them for their own purposes and as they see fit. Corporate actors must adapt, plan, and hedge accordingly – take the commodity and energy crises that unfolded after Russia invaded Ukraine: a failure to foresee such a drastic and callous move, would have resulted in billions of dollars of deadweight loss as firms rewired their energy and manufacturing schemas in a post-hoc, ad hoc fashion.

Then there’s the question of education and philanthropy. Whilst education should – in theory – be a space sacrosanct from the inanities of partisanship and political Machiavellianism, this is an era where educators, researchers, and academics are increasingly coming under the firing line for… being from the “wrong side”. Their crime? Often no more than bearing the wrong skin colour in the wrong country – for looking and being “alien” to cultures that are inimical to their difference. From the China Initiative to campaigns haranguing foreign academics for importing “malign cultural influences”, it is clear that academia can no longer be kept a relatively sacrosanct and open space free of ideological wrestling. Those who are tasked with teaching and thinking about our future, are now cornered into fighting for their very present existence and right to live and work in places that they call home. They can’t run away from the behemoth – the elephant in the room being, precisely, geopolitics. In face of collectivist struggles and labels, individualism is suppressed, silenced, and eventually fundamentally subjugated – unless we opt to actively fight back against dichotomous, zero-sum thinking.

And that ties me onto the individual question. Can individuals be immune from geopolitics? In theory, we could live in kumbaya and opt to embrace a post-political world order, one where nationality, race, and ethnic/religious background quite simply does not matter in how we interact with or perceive other individuals. In practice, however, this is very much easier said than done. Our media, cultural publications, and even interactions with mentors and friends embed within them stereotypes and controlling images that the public space seeks to inculcate in its participants – there may be no single individual who dictates and can manipulate our cognition on their own, but collectively, in combination, social structures and ideologically enshrined doctrines come to skew and mold how we imagine ourselves, in relation to other peoples. Why are some taught to hate the “West” and all that the “West” stand for? Why are others instructed and raised to be colonial apologists for the British Empire? Our agency is inevitably constricted and conditioned by those who wield real, ideological power in our communities. And the way such power is wielded is neither transparent nor accountable to the masses. Indeed, one could even say, ‘tis geo-political in kind and at its core.

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Assistant Professor, HKU