SOUDAN— Longtime U.S. diplomat Tom Hanson portrayed a world in rapid change, with the U.S. no longer at the center of the action during a recent foreign affairs presentation held at the Vermilion …
SOUDAN— Longtime U.S. diplomat Tom Hanson portrayed a world in rapid change, with the U.S. no longer at the center of the action during a recent foreign affairs presentation held at the Vermilion Park Inn.
“This is probably the most turbulent period I can remember,” Hanson said. “There are tremendous changes. And there are huge geopolitical shifts going on without us.”
While much of the U.S. media focuses on the daily distractions in our nation’s capital, Hanson said seismic change is taking place, particularly in Asia and Africa, that most Americans never hear about.
“Our media does not do justice to this,” he said.
Hanson used two different maps to highlight the degree to which power has shifted on the world stage. He showed a map with which many Americans would likely be familiar, with the U.S. in the center with Asia to the west and Europe to the east. But that map was based on the U.S. as the central global power in the 20th century. Today, said Hanson, Asia is at the center, and the U.S. is increasingly on the periphery of world events.
Some of this was inevitable with the growth of the Asian economy generally and China in particular, but Hanson said the Trump administration’s decision to pull back from international alliances and treaties, has provided an opening for other countries to fill the international power vacuum.
At the Davos Economic Summit in 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a very clear message, said Hanson, that China would uphold the global free trading system.
“He said that protectionism was like locking yourself in a dark room with no air,” Hanson said. “He said that China, if it is necessary, will play the role of world leader. “
“This was a watershed moment in world affairs,” Hanson said.
While international leaders have typically been deferential to the U.S. at such events, Hanson said there was a new willingness by both business and political leaders to challenge U.S. leadership, particularly against complaints by the Trump administration that the world is taking America for granted.
Asian political and business leaders, in particular, accused the United States of “wasting” its wealth on its endless military interventions around the world, while other countries have invested their infrastructure and educating the next generation.
In 2017, the newly-formed Trump Administration sent no high-level officials to Davos, noted Hanson, sending only Anthony Scaramucci, who at the time had no formal title or job in the administration. This year, President Donald Trump attended Davos with a message that the United States wanted to reform the trade system to reward those who played by the rules and noted that the United States will no longer tolerate state-led economic planning.
Hanson noted that Trump has expressed his unhappiness with the idea of multi-lateral trade treaties, preferring bilateral agreements only.
Hanson said the risks of isolating the United States from multi-lateral trade deals are real, and that other countries are now actively striking trade deals among themselves, leaving the U.S. out of the picture.
“It is like a stone and water flows around it,” he said. “I am amazed at how rapidly it is happening.”
Perhaps one of the most dramatic examples is China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, otherwise known the New Silk Road. China is investing close to a trillion dollars on the project which eventually will 60 countries across Eurasia and Africa through high-speed magnetic levitation trains and high speed shipping and massive new seaports, some of which are already under construction.
“Chinese leaders are mostly engineers by training,” Hanson said, and the country is investing heavily in their education system. By 2025, noted Hanson, China will have more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates than all of the 34 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which includes the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, and all major European nations, combined.
This investment is helping to put China increasingly at the forefront of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, or AI.
In Davos this year, Hanson said the advances in AI and their potential implications for society and political systems dominated the discussion.
“We are not sure what the political implications are,” he said. “But this goes way beyond Russian hacking.” Once again, the Chinese are poised to dominate the advances in this technology. “The Chinese are investing $20 for each dollar the United States invests in AI,” Hanson noted.
In part, the Chinese appear to be investing in AI as a means of social engineering. “And the technological leaders in China are fully on board with this effort,” he said. Already, China has millions of facial recognition cameras throughout the country, even in rural areas, tracking the activities and movements of its 1.3 billion residents.
The goal, said Hanson, is to establish a social credit system, governed by AI, that will grade each citizen on a quarterly basis, taking into account their driving record, social media comments, circle of friends, unlawful behaviors, and workplace compliance, among other things.
“If you score poorly, it would influence your life across the board,” he said.
To make it all possible, China has developed the world’s largest and fastest supercomputer, which can now make one quintillion calculations per second, allowing it to verify facial recognition within just three seconds. “The computer is 1,000 times faster than today’s faster supercomputers,” said Hanson.
He noted that Chinese scientists are also working with the gene-editing “crispr” procedure, and basically have few limits on their scientific experiments surrounding gene manipulation, even on humans.
“It is very easy for them to get experiments approved on the local level,” he said, unlike in the United States.
“Their attitude is whatever strengthens the Chinese nation strengthens them as individuals,” he said.
Hanson’s eye-opening presentation noted that China isn’t alone in its push to advance AI. He noted that Saudi Arabia is advancing a project to build a vast autonomous economic zone and and technological center, known as Neom, with an entirely new high-tech city run almost exclusively through artificial intelligence. Drawings of the prospective city, now in the design phase, appear like something from science fiction. Neom is slated to be built near the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea, and Saudis hope it will become a center of advanced new technological research, attracting some of the best minds in the field. China is providing some of the funding for the project, Hanson noted.
With such developments happening around the world, Hanson said the western world, including the U.S., will face a major challenge on questions of technology and societal governance at a time when western countries are increasingly fragmented politically. He said factors such as social media and the increasing concentration of income and wealth are contributing to the political fragmentation both here and in western Europe. He said technological change is contributing to the situation. “These new technologies [like Facebook] are not what we thought and not that conducive to democracy,” he said.
Hanson also expressed concern that the U.S. is losing a significant portion of its foreign policy expertise with the shakeup in the State Department under President Trump, where nearly 60 percent of the senior staff has left since Trump’s election.
Hanson is currently serving his third semester as Diplomat in Residence with the Royal D. Alworth Institute for International Studies at the University of Minnesota- Duluth. He served as a Foreign Service Officer with the Department of State for nearly 25 years. His postings included East Germany, France, Norway, the Soviet Union, Sweden, and Georgia. He also assisted in opening new embassies in Mongolia and Estonia. He now serves as Program Secretary of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Committee on Foreign Relations and as a lecturer/consultant for the Great Decisions program at the Minnesota International Center. Hanson is also a Board Member for the Oslo Center of Peace and Human Rights, which is based in Norway. He hopes to establish a center in Minneapolis.