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Global Futures and their Underlying Drivers

(The view of the globe is from The Great Globe Galley.)

On June 21 2018, the TopLink site of the Word Economic Forum posted a sightly revised version of this post under the title of Three Scenarios for the Future of Geopolitics

To understand events in the international arena, it helps to distinguish whether our current period is essentially stable or in significant flux. In an article written a quarter of a century ago, during another time of rapid and relentless change, my co-author and I described the former type of period as a plateau phase, and the latter as one of historical transition.

A series of recent developments suggests that the domestic political situations of several key players in the international arena are undergoing significant shifts, as are relations between players. Everything seems to indicate that the world is in another period of historical transition.

A shortlist of the developments that point in this direction include: the breakdown of the political centre in several advanced democracies; centrifugal tendencies in the long-prevailing regional and international structures, of which the Brexit vote is one example; the accentuation of authoritarianism in Russia and China; and last, but certainly not least, the collapse of American moral leadership.

Against this backdrop, how might we expect strategic relations to evolve in the next 20 years? In the short to mid-term, the key issue is the relationship between those powers that have been largely responsible for creating the post-WWII order, and those that are challenging it, in an effort to erect a new paradigm calling that order into question. In which direction this relationship is moving should become clear within the next five to ten years, and perhaps much sooner. There are essentially three possible outcomes.

One is that the current Western-dominated paradigm, weakened because of internal and external challenges, manages to overcome its difficulties and creates space and energy for a renewed democratic revolution, in the process forging an environment in which the challenging powers can be successfully encouraged to integrate. Call this LIBERAL INTERNATIONALISM RENEWED, a revamped version of the paradigm that prevailed after the end of the Cold War.

A second has the challengers of the Western-led paradigm – primarily, but not exclusively Russia and China – succeeding in taking advantage of its contradictions to more or less peacefully establish the basis for the multi-polar world they have been militating for. Call this TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY CONCERT after the nineteenth century Concert of Nations.

A third resembles the second but with one crucial difference. The rise of the multipolarists turns violent, characterized by spiralling patterns of conflict that encompass ever greater regions of the world. The resulting situation is similar to the strategic free for-all that prevailed as the aforementioned Concert of Nations weakened and inter-state conflict increased and got out of hand. Call this GEOSTRATEGIC MELTDOWN, a new period of global conflict.

As for the factors driving these developments, the key ones would seem to be five in number.

A first factor concerns the economic viability of the main protagonists – whether their economic model continues to engender sufficient wealth to maintain their programmes of hard and soft power.

A second factor relates to whether these states will succeed in reducing the inequality gapamong their citizens. The existence of this gap spans borders around the world but is particularly significant among the states that are the main protagonists in shaping the emerging world order.

A third factor has to do with the competing countries’ governance capacity. Are the democratic states that have traditionally exercised governance leadership relinquishing this role? Will authoritarian states prove capable of fashioning a new paradigm, based on a political monopoly of the ruling group but in a position to lead society effectively owing to their prowess in mastering cutting-edge technological paradigms? Or will the world end up with a new kind of democratic paradigm, quite different from what we have known in recent decades but sufficiently similar to still be considered as a democratic genre?

Then there is the possibility of a military breakthrough, one that could convince the leadership of one or the other state that it was in a position to stave off other challengers and/or take a strategic risk in challenging the prevailing system. Think submarines in World War I and nuclear weapons in World War II.

The wild card moving forward is about how key states in the international community will address the growing environmental challenges that all states of the international community face. A less than rigorous response to the environmental realities of our times will increase the likelihood that a serious climatic contingency will intervene, relegating traditional strategic considerations to a position of lesser importance or alternatively combining with them to create strategic challenges of a new order.

# global scenarios # global futures

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