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Scenarios for the World’s Strategic Futures

Scenario-planning is a methodology that can help us think about the different ways the present can became future. This blog looks at four of the world’s possible strategic futures from the perspective of early 2014.

As we enter 2014, the strategic landscape seems rather more than a little bit adrift, to say the least.

The situation in the Middle East, three years after the beginning of the Arab spring, has gone from bad to very bad to even worse. Increasingly, the pattern seems to be one whereby the dyfunctionality of one country overflows into that of others.

Europe may be on the mend but my view from street level in a beautiful place called Tavira in southeastern Portugal (where I have fled the Canadian winter) suggests that Europe’s bailed out states have a long way to go, as does the EU itself.

Sub-Saharan Africa, a poster boy of economic growth in recent years, now finds itself confronting major insurgencies in the Central African Republic and the world’s newest state, neighbouring Southern Sudan, while the Democratic (sic) Republic of Congo and Nigeria, huge complexes with over a quarter million inhabitants continue to face gigantic governance and security challenges.

Putin’s Russia is at a crossroads, which can have it going in very different directions: towards greater suppression of dissent or a gradual opening towards liberalism, tolerance and federalism, and empowerment of its new elite, techo-wise and no longer beholden to the Russian market to make its way.

Then there is the situation in the strategic triangle constituted by the PRC, Japan and the Koreas, where mutually exclusive historical narratives prevail and the stakes grow apace with respect to loosely defined sovereignties over island territories. This is probably the world’s most febrile flashpoint. It is difficult to underplay the risk that tensions will embrace larger issues and implicate other powers and regions. Think India and the US.

All this is enfolding while the Americans are licking their wounds from over-engagement in largely unnecessary and unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In their wake, the American body politic is now preoccupied by a debilitating debate about domestic political options, as it seeks to put its financial house in order and sustain its economic recovery. In the process, it is relinquishing – or what is perhaps, more important, it is seen to be relinquishing – the hegemonic role it has played, mostly for the good, through the last seven or eight decades.

How to think through all this? There is no sure-fire solution. That said, there is a methodology called scenario–planning that can help us make sense of complex situations, such as that we now face strategically. In a nutshell, scenario-planning endeavours to anticipate the various ways the present may become future, and to use the multiple futures thus created as a platform for broadly-framed policy development. Typically, this is a process supported by a dialogue among twenty to thirty thinkers whose challenge is to think outside of the box and generate novel insights about what is going on, and what will go on in their area of enquiry, and how this relates to the central issue that is the target of the exercise.

In the absence of such a group, I have done some brainstorming on my own. I have identified a range of driving forces that I believe will be decisive in determining how the global strategic landscape may evolve over the next decade and a half or so. Here they are:

• US overstretch and disengagement

• The EU’s institutional and overall credibility crisis

• China’s ambiguous rise

• Russia’s governance failings and growing economic crisis

• India’s huge but uncertain potential

• The Middle East’s tortured transition

• Chaotic climate change

• The quality of governance world wide

• Burgeoning wealth differentials across the planet

• The degree of interconnectiveness of the world’s regions

The next step is to decide which of these forces will be decisive in shaping the course of the international community over the time frame that has been set out. This is a huge exercise in simplification and too much simplification can, of course, be counter-productive. That said, the purpose is to generate frameworks that can enrich our understanding of how the strategic now may become the strategic next. Typically, the choice centres on variables whose trajectories are potentially the most important and the least certain. I believe that the two forces that best meet these criteria and will accordingly drive our medium –term future, say to 2020, will be the following:

• The quality of governance worldwide

• The extent to which this plays out across the world’s regions

• Combining these variables to construct our scenarios, we end up with four very different stories about the future.

• The continuing present: the world out of control but still manageable

• Winning regions; losing regions: some regions are plunged into conflict; others escape this fate: e.g., while Europe, Africa and Asia spin out of control, North America and Latin America manage to maintain a modicum of stability

• Generalised descent into serialised chaos across the world’s regions: this is the scenario of another Great War under 21st century conditions

• Global governance revolution: somehow, somewhere, a coterie of leaders emerge who succeed in sparking democratic reform in their own countries, which then spreads regionally and further afield.

The scenario framework in place, the task is then to determine how each of the other driving forces identified above will play out in each of the scenarios. The idea is to use them to develop rich narratives that bring each of the scenarios to life.

Scenarios are caricatures of what may happen; they are not meant to be predictive. What may happen in practice can vary enormously. Two or more of the scenarios may co-exist for an extended period or meld into a new dominant scenario or follow one another in succession. Scenario-planning also works with the notion of a wild card intervening, one which places everything on its head. For example, for the four scenarios outlined above, chaotic climate change is not depicted as one of the two key drivers. But this could change, as the climatic events that have recently visited all the regions of the world underscore. Scenarios are above all think-tools.

There is no single recipe for an effort to deal successfully with the world’s emerging futures. But from my perspective, one initiative stands out. The world needs new thinking on governance, whether this be about how our national democracies function, how all levels of governments need to work together to address our multifold overarching challenges, and how our populations, individually and in the collectives through which they articulate their political choices, can become much more engaged in the political process. This is crucial for our global destiny.

And it is obviously a very tall order. But so was the creation of the system-changing internet and the related rise of transformational social networking systems. This happened largely without government intervention. This suggests to me that the intellectual energy and creativity required to lift us out of the present morass is available in the minds and energies of, in particular, the younger segments of our populations working individually in their garages or basements and/or gathered together in civil society initiatives of one sort or the other. Our governments need to channel their energies and technical skills in this endeavour, and to reward them accordingly. Or governments can fail to do so, which I suspect will mean that this process will still go forward, but much more painfully.

The future will be much more complicated than any effort to sketch its embryonic traits may suggest. That said, it is instructive to think about past periods of our history and to try to discern their predominant characteristics. For example, much of the Cold War was shaped by two overriding features: the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and their nuclear standoff that stood in the way of strategic and regional conflict spinning out of control, on the other.

And so it will be with our strategic futures. The challenge is to recognize, first, that we will have to deal with a wide range of possible trajectories, second, that we need to structure our understanding of these trajectories and how they may evolve, and third, that we need to mobilise our energies in what will be an ongoing struggle to favour the most optimal outcomes.

I wish ourselves luck. We are going to need it.

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