Thursday, November 20, 2008

Global Trends 2025: Update

The National Intelligence Council (NIC) has released its final version of the report Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World. (pdf here) Here are some initial assessments:

  • The whole international system—as constructed following WWII—will be revolutionized. Not only will new players—Brazil, Russia, India and China— have a seat at the international high table, they will bring new stakes and rules of the game.
  • The unprecedented transfer of wealth roughly from West to East now under way will continue for the foreseeable future.
  • Unprecedented economic growth, coupled with 1.5 billion more people, will put pressure on resources—particularly energy, food, and water—raising the specter of scarcities emerging as demand outstrips supply.
  • The potential for conflict will increase owing partly to political turbulence in parts of the greater Middle East.
I will be dividing my commentary into several posts over the coming days. I will begin by highlighting two sections that set the stage for the rest of the report. First, the report is compared to its predecessor, Mapping the Global Future: Report of the Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project.

The most dramatic difference between Mapping the Global Future: Report of the Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project and Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World is the latter’s assumptions of a multipolar future, and therefore dramatic changes in the international system. The 2025 report describes a world in which the US plays a prominent role in global events, but the US is one among many global actors who manage problems. In contrast, the 2020 report projects continued US dominance, positing that most major powers have forsaken the idea of balancing the US.

The two documents also differ in their treatment of energy supply, demand, and new alternative sources. In 2020, energy supplies “in the ground” are considered "sufficient to meet global demand.” What is uncertain, according to the earlier report, is whether political instability in producer countries, supply disruptions, or competition for resources might deleteriously affect international oil markets. Though 2020 mentions the global increase in energy consumption, it emphasizes the domination of fossil fuels. In contrast, 2025 sees the world in the midst of a transition to cleaner fuels. New technologies are projected to provide the capability for fossil
fuel substitutes and solutions to water and food scarcity. The 2020 report acknowledges that energy demands will influence superpower relations, but the 2025 report considers energy scarcity as a driving factor in geopolitics.

Both reports project probable strong global economic growth—fueled by the rise of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, absent major shocks. The 2025 report, however, assesses the likelihood of major discontinuities to be high, emphasizing that “no single outcome seems preordained” and that the next 20 years of transition toward a new international system are fraught with risks, such as a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and possible interstate conflicts over resources.

The scenarios in both reports address the future of globalization, the future structure of the international system, and the dividing lines among groups that will cause conflict or convergence. In both reports, globalization is seen as a driver so pervasive that it will reorder current divisions based on geography, ethnicity, and religious and socio-economic status.
Next, the hazards and pitfalls of attempting to foretell the future are examined. Predictions such as these are notoriously inaccurate, so a grain of salt is in order.
In the 20th century, experts forecasting the next 20 years—roughly the time frame of this study—often missed major geopolitical events, basing their predictions largely on linear projections without exploring possibilities that could cause discontinuities. Before WW I, while tensions between European “great powers” were on the rise, few had an inkling of major changes in the offing, from the extent of mutual slaughter to the downfall of age-old empires. In the early 1920s, few envisioned the lethal situation about to unfold, ushered in by the Great Depression, Stalin’s gulags, and an even more bloody world war encompassing multiple genocides. The postwar period saw the establishment of a new international system—many of whose institutions—the UN and Bretton Woods—remain with us. Although the bipolar and nuclear age did not lack war and conflict, it did provide a stable framework until the collapse of the Soviet Union. The development of a globalized economy in which China and India play major roles has opened a new era without clear outcomes.

Lessons from the last century, however, appear to suggest:

- Leaders and their ideas matter. No history of the past hundred years can be told without delving into the roles and thinking of such leaders as Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler or Mao Zedong. The actions of dominating leaders are the hardest element to anticipate. At several junctures in the 20th century, Western experts thought liberal and market ideas had triumphed. As demonstrated by the impacts of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Truman, leadership is key even in societies where institutions are strong and the maneuvering room for wielding personal power is more constrained.

- Economic volatility introduces a major risk factor. Historians and social scientists have discovered a strong correlation between rapid economic change—both positive and negative—and political instability. The massive dislocation and economic volatility introduced by the end of the “first” globalization in 1914-1918 and the rise of protectionist barriers in the 1920s and 1930s, combined with the lingering resentments over the Versailles peace settlement, laid the groundwork for WW II. The collapse of multinational and ethnic empires—begun after WW I and continuing with the end of the colonial empires in the post-WW II period—also unleashed a long series of national and ethnic conflicts that reverberates today. Today’s globalization also has spurred the movement of people, disrupting traditional social and geographic boundaries.

- Geopolitical rivalries trigger discontinuities more than does technological change.
Many stress the role of technology in bringing about radical change and there is no question it has been a major driver. We—as others—have oftentimes underestimated its impact. However, over the past century, geopolitical rivalries and their consequences have been more significant causes of the multiple wars, collapse of empires, and rise of new powers than technology alone.

Other Global Trends Posts:
Global Trends 2025
Global Trends Update
Global Trends Update II
Globalization and the Crash of '08
Demographics of Discord
Timing is Everything
Winners and Losers in a Post-Petroleum World
Scarcity in the Midst of Plenty
Final Thoughts


Global Patriot said...

That the emerging world will approach parity with the West is potentially a good thing, as more voices will be heard.

The potential for tragedy lies in the reality of limited resources - especially oil - and that will cause conflict throughout the world.

Chief said...

I suppose if your voice is increasing in volume, it could be good thing for you. If your voice is being drowned out, you might see it differently. And when it comes down to it, the content of the discussion is what truly matters...

Anonymous said...

There it is Chief, Americas word is quite rightly being ignored considering her record on subverting democracy and propagating proxy wars and conflict around the world

Anonymous said...

Yep, feelin' supine smarmy.