Global flux

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Two recent publications identify the key trends impacting the world, fuelling uncertainty and endangering the world’s security and prosperity. While very different in approach and scope, they deal with a number of common themes and are useful to review together because both raise fundamental questions about the nature and direction of global change and challenge.


The first is the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2012 report. This is based on a survey of responses from over 450 experts from government, industry, civil society and academia. The second is the 2012 Strategic Survey, a flagship publication of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. Both map a world in political and economic flux in a strategic environment of shifting power and financial stress.


The WEF study looks at the risk landscape over a ten-year timeline, considering both the likelihood and impact of global challenges. It distinguishes three constellations of risks from the fifty examined in five categories. Its survey responses show that the world’s concerns have now shifted decisively to socio-economic risks, which top the dangers to global stability.


The report identifies three sets of global risks. The most serious is the confluence of fiscal, demographic and societal pressures that foreshadow a bleak or dystopian picture of the future. In the case study of this risk cluster, the report describes how fiscal and demographic trends are colliding – because of aging populations in developed nations and the youth bulge in developing countries, both of which demand greater resources from financially challenged and heavily-indebted governments. At both ends of the demographic spectrum, the young and old could confront income inequalities and a skills gap that could threaten social and political stability.


The report warns that the risk from the intersection of economic stress and social upheaval could be amplified by the west’s ongoing financial crisis. The negative trajectory of the global economy could engender a new wave of protectionism, nationalism and populism.


The second cluster of risks relates to a subject of much global debate – the diminishing capacity of global governance institutions to manage current challenges. Questioning how safe are ‘safeguards’ that serve as foundations of global security and prosperity, it finds them weak and brittle. The challenges of new technology, financial interdependence and resource depletion are not matched by policies, regulations or institutions that can serve as a protective system. Safeguards are inadequate to manage vital resources, stable markets and public safety. This compromises competent responses to emerging risks.


The third constellation of risks comes from what the report calls the ‘dark side of connectivity’. Describing hyperconnectivity as the world’s present reality – over 5 billion mobile phones, together with Internet user and cloud-based applications – it says this has magnified the threat of cyber attacks and digital disruptions. This points to another area of heated international debate – the lack of rules to manage digital space even “as power shifts from the physical to the virtual world”.


Complexity, the report asserts, threatens to overwhelm countries, companies, cultures and communities. The report’s ‘call to action’ is for the international community to strengthen cooperation as none of the present risks respect national frontiers.


The IISS’s annual review of world affairs belongs to a genre of its own. No other research institution produces such a comprehensive assessment of long-term strategic trends – based on research not an opinion survey. The core theme of this year’s report is stark if familiar: a world of unsure transitions where weakness and fragility threaten stability and growth but which lacks the leadership to deal with economic and diplomatic challenges. The diffusion of power and emergence of different kinds of power are challenging old certainties and yielding hectic crisis management rather than strategic responses just when global affairs appear inherently unstable and conflicting interests are jockeying to secure their objectives.


Among the key trends the Survey identifies are the following:


• The US remains stuck in a political impasse over how to manage its deficit-ridden economy.


• Europe is mired in a crisis of confidence and unresolved financial problems of the 17-member eurozone.


• The western appetite for overseas military intervention has greatly diminished.


• The US is continuing the transition from an interventionist era to a new but undefined role.


• The world has reduced expectations of the US even as it shifts its strategic attention to Asia-Pacific.


• A rising China is altering the regional balance but also preoccupied by its political transition and managing a possible slowdown in economic growth.


• The landscape in the Middle East is shifting amid the growing uncertainty of transitions in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings of 2011 that shook the world.


• Iran’s nuclear quest will remain a vital international issue especially as both Iran and the west raise the stakes and Israel intensifies tensions with Tehran.


• Emerging new economic powers – the so-called BRICs – will find their interests diverge as much as they converge.


International diplomacy has become more complicated with the redistribution of global power, which is making problem solving more difficult. This is similar to a key finding of the WEF report in which respondents cite the failure of diplomatic conflict resolution as among the greatest geopolitical risks.


The IISS study sees the continuing rise of ‘strategic nationalism’ in this changing landscape. In almost every region, states will place greater reliance on themselves rather than regional associations. And outside powers will not be able to deal with just ‘regional champions’ – an important perspective with policy implications – as their smaller neighbours will act to protect themselves from regional dominance and contribute to the diversity of regional diplomacy.


While there is much to learn from both reports, in crucial respects they are western-centric in their approach and appraisals. The principal lens through which the world is seen is for the most part western interests and concerns, reflecting the backgrounds of those writing the assessments, and in case of the WEF report, the framers of survey questions.


Another thought struck me in reading these publications. For all the ‘trending’ exercises undertaken both by private and public research organisations in the west, their capacity to anticipate or define geostrategic shifts from apparent trends remains rather modest. The most telling example of this was the inability to see the Arab upheavals ahead of time.


For example the Global Trends 2025 report (of 2010), produced in the US by an effort led by the National Intelligence Council, listed key drivers and developments likely to shape world events in the decade ahead.


While it identified demography as a key variable and a source of future discord, it did not relate this to the politics of unfulfilled expectations in the Middle East and its potential for social unrest and regime change.


Once the Arab awakening began to unfold, western think ‘tankers’ sought to out compete each other to offer ‘authoritative’ perspectives and draw quick conclusions. But this did not obscure the fact that, like their governments and intelligence communities, they had failed to see the signs of growing ferment in the Middle East – which is still playing out.


Small wonder then that most analyses churned out by western think tanks of the recent protests across the Islamic world failed to understand that the anti-Islam film became the latest trigger for popular expression of deep-seated Muslim resentment of western policies and conduct that has built up over decades. In casting these protests mostly in terms of Muslim intolerance of freedom of speech, such assessments have been unable to comprehend the underlying reasons for Muslim grievances with the west.


This in turn has led to the failure to acknowledge the substantial consequences of fraught relations between people in the Islamic world and western nations. Without such acknowledgement it becomes impossible to find a lasting resolution of these tensions.

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