April 10, 2023

Australia’s future generations are at risk in great power competition

Using our current strengths, Australia can safeguard future generations from existential threats, but the clock is ticking.

The global trend towards multipolarity has brought us to a time of great power competition (GPC). With the United States’ global standing stretched thin and military, economic, and cultural dominance being challenged in the Indo-Pacific, a multipolar world order is taking shape. Decision-making power is fracturing into the hands of a few nations, the survival and wellbeing of future generations rests with a few powerful individuals. Discourse is failing to consider the ramifications of global competition in the long-term.

In the absence of a world government, powerful nations largely dictate the mechanisms of the international system. This ‘systemic anarchy’ means that the rules that govern relations between nations, like trade and territorial integrity, are merely norms of agreement. In the context of GPC, rules lose their legitimacy when great powers are allowed to flaunt them without proper repercussions. In its essence, GPC is a struggle between powerful nations and blocs for pre-eminence, either preserving or disrupting the status quo.

Humans have always overcome threats. Yet, future generations will face a suite of existential and catastrophic risks that may result in our species either being unable to continue or leave us adversely affected. Author Toby Ord highlights unaligned artificial intelligence (AI), biorisks, and catastrophic climate change as particularly dangerous. GPC likewise puts future generations in peril. While some scholars point to the looming likelihood of world war, competition also exacerbates the likelihood of other long-term risks. Competition dynamics cloud governments’ policymaking, viewing issues through a strategic lens to achieve a decisive advantage. If unchecked, a variety of pathways could lead directly to greater risks to humanity.

If GPC segments the world into smaller antagonistic parts, tribalism and distrust will likely build, further exacerbating frictions. In doing so, the multilateral systems that pool humanity’s energy to deal with long-term risks become undermined. GPC is a self-defeating paradigm; through unmitigated power contests, nations’ capacity is syphoned off and global problems are left to fester. The world is witnessing this already. At last year’s COP27, the US and China engaged in a highly choreographed blame game over climate (in)action and rivalry over critical technologies.

The risk of competition over AI
AI is research and production is proliferating at a rapid pace. While its potential promise for humanity is immense, without AI safety mechanisms, the risks are just as great. The longer powerful states engage in competition, the greater the risk profiles escalate. If competition persists, critical technologies such as AI will continue to be seen as essential in gaining an asymmetric advantage over adversaries. Greater competition will result in a trade-off between advancing the technology’s capabilities and investing in AI safety and effective governance, which increases the probability of an AI related disaster in the long-term. Luckily, there are safeguards to counter this.

Managing the existential risks to future generations requires consideration for the interests of those who currently have no agency in securing better conditions for their future. Policies made today must reflect this. Challenges such as unmitigated AI proliferation heighten risk profiles to these future generations through no fault of their own. Our country’s advanced institutions allow Australia to forge a way in confronting these challenges, but meaningful action is possible only in tandem with international partners.

Australia has a disproportionate level of global influence, with high government effectiveness and capacity to dissuade competition and contribute to sustainable regional initiatives. Harnessing existing international networks and issue-based dialogues like the Quad Tech Network and the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence can act to assuage tension, replacing zero-sum competition with concerns for collaboration on the technology’s existential risk.

Australia has extensive networks within Asia and has taken steps to become a more impactful and inclusive regional partner. By leveraging existing programs and networks such as those with Pacific Island nations that focus on disaster response and resilience, Australia can cement itself as a leader on long-term resilience, and as a trusted partner by taking seriously the core interests of regional states.

Our advanced economy with a high-functioning public sector lends itself to the research and expertise needed for long-term risk mitigation strategies. Specialised institutes such as the Centre for Policy Development have conducted research on long-term planning and reform, and think tanks like Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures can act as guides for future generations policy.

Most of humanity’s potential lies in the future, but existential threats risk disrupting our civilization’s continuity. The current trajectory is unsustainable, and the dangers posed by problems like unfettered AI are compounded in a world of great power competition. If we choose to be, Australia is well-positioned to spearhead mediation between great powers for the benefit of future generations. We have dwindling time left to deeply consider the kind of values our nation wishes to promote, and what sort of future we wish to create.