It is the season for the traditional year-end evaluations and prognosis for the future of international security and global governance. This year’s annual ritual was enriched by the release of the US National Intelligence Council’s report Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds (gt2030.com/). This report, which pulls together the considerable wisdom of the US intelligence community as well as other international experts, reinforces some well-known trends and reveals other, not so well established ones that are likely to unfold over the next 20 years.
First, and perhaps the most definitive mega-trend is the shift in power from one dominant global hegemonic actor (the US) to “network and coalitions in a multi-polar world”. While this trend has been apparent for some time, it is perhaps the first time that US officialdom has acknowledged it, much to chagrin of the Barack Obama administration, especially when he has just been named the person of the year by Time magazine.
In addition to the rise of China, India and Brazil, the report flags the growing significance of regional powers, particularly Colombia, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa and Turkey, to the global economy. However, the report cautions that these rising powers despite “strong fundamentals—GDP (gross domestic product), population size, etc.—will not be able to punch their weight unless they also learn to operate in networks and coalitions in a multipolar world.” Thus, almost by default, the US will remain the first among equals because no one else is likely to provide the necessary leadership.
Second, non-state actors—individuals and groups—rather than states will be “key to solving the mounting global challenges over the next 15-20 years”. At the same time, these actors will also have “greater access to lethal and disruptive technologies (particularly precision-strike capabilities, cyber instruments, and bioterror weaponry), enabling them to perpetrate large-scale violence—a capability formerly the monopoly of states.” This is a lesser appreciated trend, even though the world’s most powerful armies are already pinned down in asymmetrical warfare with armed non-state actors.
Third, related to the emerging consumption pattern of the expanding middle class among the global population, “demand for food, water and energy will grow by approximately 35%, 40% and 50%, respectively”. While this may still not result in global scarcity, countries will not be able to avoid food and water shortage without outside help. Moreover, trying to address the supply and demand of one commodity will not be possible without addressing the problems of other commodities. This nexus is a threat for countries that look to address the challenges posed by these commodities in silos and in purely nationalistic terms.
Against this backdrop, the report predicts that the international governance institutions, such as the UN Security Council (UNSC), World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, “will have been transformed by 2030 to be more in line with the changing hierarchy of new economic players”. However, this transformation alone will not necessarily provide the impetus to addressing the challenges identified by the report. In fact, as the recent tenure of Brazil, India and South Africa on UNSC has shown, the much-needed reform of these institutions will not necessarily make them more effective in the short-term. Indeed, these institutions are likely to become effective only when new powers take on a bigger leadership role.
At present, none of them has the ability to perform this role of rule-making individually for a number of reasons. At best they could be expected to play the role of rule-shapers; working with other powers to seek multilateral solutions for the most pressing transnational problems. That would be a promising way to start the new year.
W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.