The Shape of the World to Come III: The Path to a New World Order
The third part in the series on ‘The Shape of the World to Come’ attempts to describe the transition to and the shape of the New World Order. The first part had looked at the positive long term development trends taking place in the world today, providing historic breakthroughs in increasing material benefits on a global scale. The second part looked at the contrasting challenges, both shorter and long term, facing the world, many of which are unintended but direct consequences of the order and system that has enabled the benefits we enjoy today. Looking at these challenges and the pressures that they create it is clear that we live in revolutionary times, and that the world order that has governed the world for decades is coming to an end. This longer-term process is being further exacerbated by current events, with the instability and uncertainty being caused by the Trump Administration serving as a potential catalyst for the demise of the current world order and a harbinger of the transition to come, although the reality of where the Trump Administration are far more complex. In the third part of the series we try to draw out how these current events might impact the larger framework of global change taking place, describing the both transition scenarios the world might face as well as the ultimate result. We also seek to put the current shifts underway within the frameworks that describe the broader sweep of history. What is clear though is that the personal and collective choices we make today have the potential to shape the world for decades to come.
“Unless societies can agree on a set of truly universal values, a new sustainable world order cannot be forged in a ‘civilised’ manner. In which case, one will emerge from the chaos of competition and conflict that accompanies the collapse of the existing world order.”
We live in revolutionary times. The uprisings that unsettled dictatorships in the Middle East between 2010 and 2014 as part of the Arab Spring spread to the West and unsettled the European alliance as the British voted to leave the EU before moving to the US, where it caused the overthrow of every Republican candidate to elect a man widely believed to be unelectable, who went on to defeat the ‘defender of the Western World Order’. These revolutions are not at an end. The aftermath of these uprisings has left the Middle East unsettled, millions displaced from Syria, the EU set to suffer a fracture as the UK leaves and the US divided by fear, anger and bitter divisions. Where is all this headed?
The final piece of the three-part series on the shape of the world to come looks at the potential paths to the creation of a new world order. The first piece in the series laid out the long term positive arc of development and progress that have taken place in the world, leading to increasing longevity and prosperity, the reduction of child mortality, poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease, the spread of human rights and access to technology, and the long-term decline in war and violence in the world. Looking at this list, one is struck by the fact that all the positive long term improvements in people’s lives have at their core been driven primarily by a combination of two fundamental factors, namely the spread of liberal humanist values by the West, combined with advances in science and technology. Although scientific advances and innovation have made the world’s progress in the past century possible, it has been liberal humanism that has made them a reality and ensured their diffusion. The increasing value placed on human life and the idea of the inalienable rights of the individual have provided the critical direction and momentum to the application of technology to achieve the dramatic progress of our times.
The second part of the series looked at the significant challenges that the world is facing, including income inequality, employment dislocation, terrorism, pollution, cyberattacks, the overt use of fear and hate as a political weapon and the development of post-truth realities. Looking at the drivers of these challenges makes it clear that the same factors that led to the advances, liberalism and technology, also play a key role in the rise of these issues. Indeed, the western interpretation of liberalism is neither an endpoint of history nor a self-sustaining phenomenon (no more than its predecessors, communism, absolutism or theism). It is itself therefore subject to the very real challenges the world is witnessing today and, despite the great benefits it has delivered relative to any predecessors or any potential alternatives, could end up being a victim of its own shortcomings. Collectively, these challenges have the potential to alter the long-term trajectory of global development created by western liberalism.
The mounting emotion generated by these challenges, and indeed the nature of the challenges themselves, seems to clearly suggest that the current world order is at an inflection point. While it is clear that there has been great human progress, the underlying values and institutions that have shaped and maintained the current order are failing to solve the issues satisfactorily, with dislocation and disruption rising in both scale and frequency. This would indicate that many of the world’s core principles and the recognition of the value of the resulting institutions are not shared widely enough and are in dire need of reinvention. Recent geopolitical events highlight this need in the stark way they challenge the current world order. Within his first month in office, President Trump has launched an array of initiatives, some that have alarmed and some that have reassured. As the president doubles up on his attacks on the media, coinciding with their coverage of potential links between his administration and Russia, this has given rise to a growing feeling that there could indeed be substance to the allegations and hope to his political opponents, both Democrat and Republican, to derail Trump’s agenda if not the president himself. Current US events and their potentially long-term implications notwithstanding, the issues underlying the transformation of the world order are real and need to be addressed. In the scheme of such major shifts, what happens in the US, although critical to the nature of the transition path, are a smaller drama than the bigger one of global change that is set to happen regardless. However, if the US intends to finish this episode with dignity and have a chance at being the leader in the next world order, it will not only need to heed the lessons of history, it will need to avoid the fate of every previous superpower.
While both the magnitude of the disruption likely to face the world and the effort required to form a new order are daunting, it is important to remember that the world has been here many times before. Indeed, one of the most consistent trends in world history is the ability of societies to reinvent themselves after prolonged and intense periods of instability and conflict. This is true of the rise of the European Powers following the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, the rise of today’s PRC following the death of Mao and the rise of the US-USSR balance of superpowers during the Cold War following WWII and the decline of the British Empire. While these times have seen massive dislocations and disruptions in societies through wars and other man-made catastrophes, they have necessarily been accompanied by great creativity as leaders have repeatedly reinvented the world from the ashes of the previous order. This recurring process is the result of what one might call the “inevitability of history”, which witnesses repeating cyclical shifts between order and chaos, power and weakness, and progress and regression on a global scale. Over and above these shifts, there are greater patterns that indicate a possible direction to the drama and tragedies that accompany the smaller shifts. These will also be considered briefly in this paper. It is useful, at this stage, to note that man’s power to make change has grown exponentially throughout history given advances in science, technology and globalisation and so at today’s juncture, man is now capable of reshaping the world more dramatically than ever before to a more positive or destructive outcome. It is unclear whether the reshaping necessarily needs to be a violent one as it has often been in the past. A new world order will be the product of the choices made by powerful protagonists, increasingly empowered by their publics. One cannot assume it will be a ‘safe’ or ‘rational’ path, particularly given that some of the current players have risen to power on the promise of destroying much of the old world order without a fully articulated vision of what is to take its place.
The Next 25 Years – Certainties in Times of Uncertainty: The Canvas on Which the New World Order Will be Drawn
For all of the uncertainty facing the world today, there are a number of ‘certainties’ (in a conceptual sense) that will be features of the transition period the world is embarking on, certainties that invariably shape any new world order that will emerge.
Certainty I: US Primacy but the End of a Unipolar World Order. The America that forged the last world order cannot maintain indefinitely the relative level of global power it enjoyed at the end of the Cold War. China’s economic and military power is ascendant and Russia, following a period of internal turmoil caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, is pursuing ‘great power’ status with increasing aggressiveness. Both Russia and China have sought to change the balance of power and influence in the current world order to their favour, necessarily at America’s expense. China’s growing participation in the world reveals a path that is increasingly clear, as evidenced by its actions in the South China Seas and initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy which is aimed at placing China as the hub in a spoke of global corridors of trade. China is becoming more active in economic, political and security engagements not just in its own region but globally, and expects its engagement and influence in these areas to increase further over time. Russia on the other hand is not of the same calibre as the US and China in terms of power and potential, but remains a player because of its dogged determination or desperation to maintain its status at all costs. Although regionally concentrated rather than global in reach, Russia shows the willingness to act aggressively to defend and expand what it perceives as its core sphere of influence (the former Soviet Union), and establish new spheres of influence (Syria, Greece, Turkey) while resorting to asymmetric means in places where its hard power does not reach (the US, the EU, for now), using information warfare, electoral interference and other means to pursue its objectives. However, regardless of Chinese and Russian actions, barring a catastrophic event, the US looks set to continue to be the strongest of the three for the foreseeable future due to the many structural advantages it enjoys, including the world’s largest and most advanced military, a clear relative soft power advantage, the status of the US dollar as the global reserve currency and the grip of multi-national institutions in which the US enjoys favourable positioning, to name a few.
Certainty II: Emerging Markets Rise, India Ascendant. New countries are also rising and can be expected to play an important role in a future multi-polar world. These emerging markets will play a much more central role in world affairs, economically and therefore politically, India more than anybody. India has become the fastest growing economy in the world and the biggest buyer of arms and seems set to be one of the top three economies in the world. While the prediction of the rise of the BRICS back in 2003 now appears to have been somewhat premature, fundamental socio-demographic and macroeconomic factors all but ensure the ongoing rise of emerging markets. Among these, members of the G20 such as Mexico, Turkey and Indonesia are already well along the transition to modern industrial economies while still enjoying the demographic dividend and low cost structures associated with emerging markets. Among these countries, India stands in a league of its own in terms of size, growth and development potential. While the success and failure of the reform efforts of its current government have the potential to shape the speed and nature of its rise, the rise itself appears to be an increasingly accepted conclusion following decades of relative stagnation.
Certainty III: Consumerism, Population Growth and Competition for Resources. Mass consumerism, global economic development and continued population growth will continue to drive demand for the world’s core resources, which in the absence of synthetic substitutes or radical breakthroughs in science will be depleted at an accelerating rate. The global capitalist model adopted today requires continuous growth, inextricably linked to growing consumption, to which our happiness (and self-worth) have been made increasingly dependent. Politicians who do not satisfy this mass consumption addiction are removed from power. There are currently approximately seven billion people on the planet who aspire to live an American consumer lifestyle and there is simply not enough water, energy, land, minerals and other resources to enable this. Americans makes up 5% of the global population, but uses 20% of the world’s energy, eat 15% of the world’s meat (and produce a staggering 40% percent of the world’s garbage) and still felt dissatisfied with their economic position, based on the results of their last presidential election. With consensus estimates plotting the global population of nearly 10bn by 2050, the competition among nations to secure resources is set to accelerate. In the face of this growing demand and competition, existing multi-lateral agreements governing trade, access to markets, the sharing of water, ownership of critical reserves and natural resources will likely be inadequate, increasing the chances for escalating conflicts and ultimately leading to the undermining of international institutions designed to ensure transparent rules-based engagements between states. ‘National interests first’ is set to become a slogan of the powerful who will feel they have the most to gain from bilateral agreements with the weak.
Certainty IV: Environmental Calamities Threaten Social Stability. Environmental damage is set to reach levels that undermine social stability in many parts of the world. Rising sea levels, water acidification, desertification, increasingly erratic weather patterns and pollution are set to cause irreparable damage to the biosphere and change the way of life world over. In China 60% of groundwater is not fit for human consumption due to industrial and human waste, and over 50% of the population does not have access to safe drinking water. And while China’s air pollution has reached legendary proportions, causing 1.5m deaths annually, India’s has recently surpassed it as among the world’s worst, with nearly three times the ozone related deaths per capita. Clearly, this is not just a developing world issue, industrialised countries’ daily food waste equals the total food production of Sub-Saharan Africa. And with other countries seeking to adopt the West’s model of mass consumption, global waste production is set to triple this century. The loss of habitats and livelihoods that environmental degradation causes will also increase socio-political tensions, both within states and between them as societies face the reality of scarcities and other environmental dislocations.
Certainty V: Acceleration of Technological Disruption, Work and Mental Health. The timespan between scientific revolutions is continuing to shorten and continuing progress leads to a disparity between people’s comfortable frame of reference and the reality that surrounds them. The law of accelerating returns predicts that 20 years of progress at the current rate equals the total progress made during the entire 20th century. The level of technological change challenges every element of how people live their lives. It makes it possible for everything from online shopping to revolutionary ideas to spread worldwide. Automation has the potential to replace 50% of all jobs, including services jobs, within the next two decades. Intelligent systems which are today learning rapidly how to increase our propensity to buy are expected to know each of us better than any living person could by analysing and making connections between our emails, text messages, social media sites, photo libraries, credit card expenditures, calendars, subscriptions and workplace records. The desire of large sections of the population to hang on to the last wave of reality – industrial labour jobs, uni-cultural/uni-colour societies, island -status or walled fiefdoms – and resist the next wave of social change is set to create whole swathes of people struggling to stay in sync with the pace of change in the world that is set to leave them behind. Governments will either need to try to futilely stem the flow of change or offer credible solutions that soften the blow of this ‘future shock’ and enable people to successfully make the necessary transitions.
Certainty VI: Increase in Asymmetric Power. America’s reign as a hyperpower has been underpinned by its undisputed supremacy in hard power and its domination of the spectrum of soft power from entertainment to the promulgation of aspirational values by way of human rights organisations. The US accounts for over 35% of total global military spending, with an annual budget the size of the next 11 largest spenders combined, and three times the size of Russia and China’s combined. With America’s undisputed absolute military might likely to continue for decades, state and non-state actors have focused on the development of asymmetric power to compete with America and disrupt the current world order. Two forms of this have made the highest impact to date, international terrorism and cyber-attack. International terrorism has become a phenomenon that continues to morph from small disparate groups to worldwide movements and, despite the low numbers of casualties relative to less emotive incidents such as road fatalities, poses a threat to national stability world over. Cyber-based attack has come to the fore as one of the most disruptive means of destabilising national order. State actors, in particular Russia and China, have been accused of building and deploying significant cyber-attack capabilities against America and the West, and Russia is now recognised by the security agencies of the US to have interfered with the outcome of the US presidential election. The scope for influencing individuals’ belief sets and sense of identity as well as undermining the world order – including the functioning of democracy, the financial system, corporations and every manner of international body – is now possible and growing in capability.
Certainty VII: Migration Flows and Pressures. Conflict and instability, environmental degradation, widening income inequality and the relative attraction of the West will continue to drive mass migrations of peoples. Globally one in every 122 humans today is a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. If this were the population of a country it would be the world’s 24th largest, bigger than Korea. And the number of these involuntary migrants is dwarfed by the voluntary ones who are simply seeking a better life elsewhere. Existing migration patterns are driving population concentration, not just to ‘destination’ countries but also within nations to consolidate in urban areas. The number of people living in cities is expected to grow by 50% to 5bn by 2030, putting increasing pressure on infrastructure and systems as well as exacerbating the rural-urban divide in developing countries. Developed nations and cities, in particular, will need to make a choice regarding these migration flows: they will either need to accept increased migration and the many challenges it brings or spend inordinate amounts of direct and indirect capital to try to stem the flow. Countries today seem to be making a range of choices in this regard: Germany’s 1m refugees represent an example of the former, Donald Trump’s US$25bn border wall with Mexico is an example of the latter.
Certainty VIII: Shift Away from Industrial Jobs and Full-time Employment. The deindustrialisation of the American heartland and much of Britain during the past decades is but a small part of the larger dislocation underway. Germany and Japan can expect the same hollowing out of their industrial base. While the comparative low cost in the developing world provides a respite to the poorer nations, ultimately, the information society replaces industrial workers with robots and software and many service jobs. In the transition, jobs may temporarily move back and forth as emerging nations such as China lose their relative cost advantage and America regains competitiveness in certain industries, but ultimately, the shift is inevitably away from the old style industrial jobs. Moving from an era where power was driven by ownership of the core factor inputs of land, capital and labour to an era where power is based on knowledge and data is leading to shifts in capital, talent and trade flows that further destabilise the world’s industrial powerbases. In the previous era, advanced industrial nations attracted skilled manufacturing labour, generated current account surpluses on strong exports and invested capital internationally. In the future, these flows will likely shift from industrial to information societies (and transnational networks), creating significant global disruptions as the geo-political/economic deck is reshuffled. And technology will not stop at industrial automation, the service jobs that have replaced factory employment in many instances are themselves at risk of being made obsolete by technology, leading to further disruption.
While each of these eight factors represent varying degrees of disruption to the current world order, their co-existence and interactions spell its demise. The severity of disruptions for individuals, workplaces, communities and regions percolate up to the national level to upset the status quo in electoral processes such as the Brexit and the US presidential election. The change is unlikely to stop there and is set to rise to international levels, threatening unions of nations such as the EU and the UN. This global instability sets the scene for radical change before the new world order emerges, creating a gap in which the nature of man is likely to be laid bare.
One of the most fundamental benefits of the current Western liberal order has been global economic development, driven by democracy, capitalism and globalisation. The growth that the current world order has created, however, is not sustainable without profound changes. If the entire world were to live to the standard of the average American, it would need the equivalent of four more Earths to provide the necessary resources for them to do so, implying a significant impeding gap in resources. And barring the highly unlikely scenario that the entire world’s population settles for the lifestyle and consumption of say the average Chinese person today, growing demand will soon lead to shortages which can only be solved by technological breakthroughs that allows us to produce and consume more while using less of nearly everything. These breakthroughs are fundamental and will need to occur across a wide range of areas including energy, material sciences, manufacturing, healthcare, defence and information technology. And unless the breakthroughs create a near cost-free abundance of what the world consumes, it would still need to agree not only how much it can afford to consume but also how it would be shared. The likelihood that there is a gap before these breakthroughs are realized gives rise to the idea of ‘The Gap Years’. Until the necessary breakthroughs occur, countries during The Gap Years will face increasing pressure to secure what they deem to be their ‘fair’ share of the remaining resources. In this gap, the nature of the transition civilisation will be determined; mankind will learn whether our species has progressed to a level where sharing prevails over conflict or whether the fear of scarcity drives to acquisition for oneself at the expense of others. If The Gap Years are defined by fear and acquisition, this will drive increasing conflicts between states, initially based on trade and diplomacy but potentially escalating to war when the stakes are high enough. In any zero-sum game, however, escalation is all but inevitable. The peaceful alternative requires a global superpower with the will to create a bridge to the future, based on the belief that sharing and working to create plenty is the best way ahead, thereby creating a ‘Bridge’. Such a leader would use the credible elements of the infrastructure of the current world order as the platform to manage a transition to a new one. Today’s multi-lateral institutions could provide the means to create a rules-based transition to manage conflicts between countries while collaborating to find the solutions. In its absence, conflict would only accelerate and expand to multiple fronts, diplomatic, economic, conventional and asymmetric. A hopeful President Obama spoke of creating such a bridge based on digital technology, investing in science, sharing, ending poverty, delivering healthcare, ending oil dependence, new energy sources, ending terrorism and working with international alliances “exporting those ideals that bring hope and opportunity to millions around the globe”. This proved at that time to be a bridge too far. The early messages from the current US administration although mixed are clear on the rhetoric of “America First” and so the international community is focused on the idea that America, for now, seems to have chosen to relinquish its leadership in building a bridge to the future in favour of placing itself first during The Gap Years.
Today and the Next Four (or Eight) Years – ‘America First’ in the Transition to the New World Order
America’s apparent current withdrawal from global leadership in favour of its own interests, in other words, comes at a time when it is most needed. With the promulgation of an ‘America First’ position espoused by President Trump during the campaign and the various actions since the election, it is easy to point to the president as the instigator of America’s withdrawal from and the weakening of the global order. This is of course an oversimplification. The phenomenon of anti-globalisation, national primacy and isolationism is a broader one, and while the president is clearly perhaps the most important catalyst of this broader trend, he is also a symptom of the desire of a large portion of the American people to withdraw from global leadership. While President Trump has made this withdrawal, with closed borders and economic protectionism, a key element of his platform, it has been going on for some time. Following two wars abroad during the Bush Administration in Afghanistan and Iraq that left the US over US$4 trillion poorer, the American public was too tired and unwilling to engage in foreign adventures and so President Obama presided over the withdrawal of large scale ‘boots on the ground’ military action in favour of sanctions, allied action, massive use of drone warfare and diplomacy. While America successfully resisted allowing the war in Syria to escalate into a third world war, the cost of disengagement and pre-emption has been that in the absence of American boots on the ground a power vacuum was left in the region, in which parties such as ISIS and Russia have stepped in. In the meantime, America’s ‘pivot’ to Asia began with limited re-engagement on a slow-moving, US-led international trade initiative in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and picked up with active naval and air force manoeuvres in the South China Seas as China stepped up its sovereignty claims over the disputed region. However, while the Obama administration has pursed what can be seen as an attempt at an orderly withdrawal from US world leadership based on military might, the Trump administration has signalled its intent to tear up the world order wholesale. However, this too may be too simplistic a conclusion. Indeed, there are a number of possible scenarios for how the promise of ‘America First’ might play out over the next four (or possibly eight) years.
The Preservation of the World Order Behind a Show of Populist Rhetoric. It may well be that President Trump’s next four years are like his first four weeks, with lots of populist campaigning, media baiting, public anger, surprise executive orders that do not get fully (if at all) implemented and the use of alternative facts to secure his popularity with his base, but with few radical moves to undo the world order. Behind the public reality show, Republicans on Capitol Hill may then refrain from reigning in a president who serves as a diversionary smokescreen behind which the core conservative agenda is quietly but steadily progressed: deregulation, tax cuts, increased defence spending, renegotiated trade agreements and increased military commitments squeezed out of allies are all executed under Republican control of the House and Senate. A few sops are given to building a partial wall with Mexico, deporting some immigrants, banning a few Muslim nations temporarily and the like but no big programme of change is initiated. In this scenario, American enterprise, military and economic interests may well be strengthened for a given term, leaving effective US leadership intact despite an inevitable decline in global soft power, and thereby preserving the world order.
Full Intent Pursued in a Wide-ranging Transactional Mode. Alternatively, Donald Trump may follow through on his campaign promises, no matter the consequences for global stability or the world order, in fact, with a disregard for both, based on a transactional modus operandi or based on a recognition that this is the mandate that he was elected for. Under this scenario, America would build the wall with Mexico, widen the Muslim ban and then move to the full list of promises made during the campaign, which a previous Sign of the Times had captured as the ‘Trump Doctrine’ (See inset). Should this or an equivalent list be executed American power on a relative basis would still be superior to others but at the cost of making the world as a whole a more dangerous and unstable place, substantially increasing the risk of unforeseen consequences. Multi-lateral institutions would lose relevance and American accountability would decline, the Middle East would continue to be embroiled in conflict, the EU would be weakened and made easier to negotiate with, Asian security risk would increase and both China and of influence to focus on. Meanwhile, ‘Alternative Facts’ and a continuing campaign style at home with some jobs saved by preventing offshoring would be used to secure the support base and show sufficient confusion and frustration among the opposition to enable the agenda to be pursued. In this scenario, America might well still remain the leading power nation in the world and it may well strengthen its economy for a time too, subject to retaliatory measures from its major trading partners, and it would most certainly face opposition and a growing resistance movement on multiple fronts at home and abroad and its will and ability to succeed would be tested.
An ‘End of Days’ Ideological War. While it is widely recognised that America has the world’s most advanced scientific, technological, financial and military power, it is less well known that America also has the largest Christian population in the world (280m, representing 70% of the country’s population) and that roughly half of those (48%) believe that the biblical ‘End of Days’ or ‘End Times’ will occur within the next 40 years. President Trump’s chief strategist, Steven Bannon articulates this view in terms of the world being at “the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict”, in which he believes that white Christian America will need to “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity … that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000 years”. The follow through of this scenario, would see the White House launch an ideological war waged against not only Islam, which would be seen as an existential threat, but also against the political establishment, the government machinery, journalists, allies and enemies, and many of its own citizens. America’s allies abroad and the world order in general would be abandoned in favour of what some call a ‘racial-cultural nativism’ and ‘isolationism’ but certainly would be a specific and narrow view of primacy that carves the world up into clear zones of influence based on ideology: America first and its outlying Christian geographies; Russian influence over Central and Eastern Europe; Chinese dominance in Asia, and; perpetual war in the Middle East involving Israel, Iran, international terrorism, Middle Eastern and North African national governments and their oppositions. For the administration to achieve this would require co-opting a combination of transactional or technical players in the US who reshape regulation, trade and legal systems but also others – especially in the intelligence and military establishment – ready to make the interventions that carve up the world. Such a scenario clearly changes the world order, the nature of co-existence and world peace and the place of America in the world. This scenario has enough uncertainty and risk at its core to not guarantee specific economic or geo-political benefits. It too would galvanise massive resistance domestically and internationally, almost to the level of a civil war since it hits at the heart of what it means to be American, global and a leader.
While the first scenario creates a lull in America’s image in the world as a nation of aspirational values, it potentially strengthens America relative to others and may ultimately enhance the global economy, for a time at least, given the American consumer’s role in creating jobs world over. While it may undermine international institutions in the process, it does not in itself dismantle them or dramatically alter the world order. In stark contrast, the second scenario may well dismantle the world order through actions that bypass or undermine international institutions and agreements, while the third scenario actively seeks to do so. None of these scenarios are discrete, however, and actual policy might adopt elements from all three of them. In addition, the last two scenarios have the highest likelihood of driving substantial unintended consequences, potentially to triggering a vicious and escalating circle of action and reaction. For example, the US may find itself besieged in a series of terrorist attacks like the ones endured by France at home and assaults on US assets abroad; a broader regional war beginning with Iran and Israel and embroiling everyone else or; a broad alignment of nations forming a resistance against America and its actions, and; a near-civil war style conflict at home. The latter two scenarios also likely give rise to a domestic resistance that could take the shape of modern day civil rights movements, a liberal Tea Party, many faceted equivalents of the ‘Occupy Wall-Street’ movement, or something else entirely more extreme. It is worth bearing in mind that a large proportion of the American people might well believe it is time to have this conflict; the level of frustration is clearly quite high and has many reasons for being so. Alternatively, the results of these scenarios could also trigger a domestic counter-coup that topples Trump and puts a right-wing but mainstream Republican party back in charge. The other interesting and more dangerous phenomenon in relation to these scenarios is that they need not be mutually exclusive, the first can transition into the second or third with the right levers, strategy and strategist at the helm. Importantly, none of these scenarios actually seeks to preserve the best of the current world order for the world at large or addresses the fundamental issues of the current world order.
However, it is important to realise that The Gap Years are inevitable regardless of American actions, intent and leadership (or lack thereof). While the next four to eight years will determine America’s role in the world it cannot avert the reality of the certainties laid out above and their consequences. The choice is whether the world creates a bridge to cross to the future together or plays the gap from a more selfish perspective.
The Next 25 Years – The Path to the New World Order: Potential Roads
While it is possible that the current disruptions and harsh language amount to little and simply pass the problem of solving the big issues of our time to the next set of leaders, ultimately, the issues will need to be addressed. In the absence of leadership to create a Bridge to the future, survival will become a key factor. In such an unstable and shifting world, in the absence of the Bridge to the future, countries and societies will rethink existing alliances and form new partnerships to ensure that they meet their objectives and secure necessary natural, human capital and financial resources. In a fight for scarce assets, the power of existing alliances and institutions will wane and potentially become irrelevant, leading to many of them being dissolved. New coalitions will likely form and dissolve in the fight for self-interest, with partnerships forming, breaking down and re-forming as needs change and opponents react. These coalitions will form around and in response to the leading global power blocks, the US, China and Russia, with the rest of the world aligning and realigning around these players as required. It is also possible that the power blocks might ally with each other for a time or for specific reasons. The specific shape and duration of these coalitions are difficult to predict. The regionalism and often opposing world-views of the varying players would ensure that any coalitions remain tactical in nature and inherently temporary, formed to address discrete issues or in reaction to events that create common interests for a time, and abandoned when these issues are addressed or interests diverge. Accordingly, the shape and number of coalitions are myriad, and they would continue to shift, exposing the world to uncertainty and instability until a stable equilibrium is reached. Potential transient alliances could include the US and UK, united in withdrawal and building island fortresses; China and the EU, clinging to globalisation and global trade; the US and Russia, in a form of security détente; or China and Russia, carving up the Eurasian landmass, to name a few. In this difficult period, the underpinning culture of the world would shift to a survivor mentality where dignity and compassion give way to something more basic, akin to the survival of the fittest.
Solving the core issue of resource scarcity will require either a dramatic resetting of expectations and consumption levels or technological breakthroughs that enable a continuation of consumption behaviour with the level of required resources severely reduced. In the past, it has taken major dislocations such as world wars to reset expectations, and even these resets have been temporary. The only other examples of culturally low consumption per capital are in religious-spiritual communities or geographically isolated and insulated ones. So, absent a ‘spiritual’ revolution, a permanent solution will require major technological breakthroughs. However, the emergence of a new world order will require more than the technology to solve the resource gap, it will also require the emergence of shared values that underpin geo-political relationships for the sharing of technology and resources, and the establishment of institutions to enshrine the values and the rules they give rise to.
Technology, values and institutions will also determine the transition path to any new world order and determine whether, how and when The Gap Years give way to an alternative where the years are devoted to building The Bridge, where countries work together to share resources responsibly and jointly develop the breakthroughs required for a new equilibrium. Potential paths include the following:
- The Broad Bridge: The Gap Years Minimised. The creation of any bridge across the Gap Years requires one fundamental agreement, that resources will be shared. This agreement would allow the establishment of rules of engagement to enable this sharing in some broadly equitable manner and to resolve conflicts. These transition management arrangements would need to minimise shortfalls and mitigate their impact until the succession of technological breakthroughs ultimately allow the formation of new stable power structures. For this bridge to be a broad one, participants would need to embrace the vision of a world working together to solve the seemingly intractable problems of the planet underpinned by shared values and strong institutions. This would provide the basis of unlocking the creative energy to collaborate to attract and allocate talent and finance and execute ‘big ideas’, not unlike America’s efforts during the Space Race, where the country unlocked the best of its entrepreneurship, capital and risk-taking to put a man on the moon and launch whole new industries in the process. The idealistic view would require the US to work with others rather than in competition with others for a mission bigger than putting man on the moon, the future of the planet. A broad Bridge based on universal and sustainable values would in turn help usher in a new world order that itself is universal, inclusive and empathetic in nature. This world order has the potential to be defined by increasing connectivity, a weakening of barriers, physical, economic and mental and by a shared sense of ownership of the planet.
- The Narrow Bridge: The Gap Years Overcome. A narrow Bridge across the Gap Years on the other hand places the pursuit of key technological breakthroughs in a more nationalist and self-interested mode. While the narrow Bridge can also be successful, it risks potentially splitting the world into competing factions and leads to a very different type of new order, reminiscent of the Cold War. Without universal values there would be no universal order, but one that is nationalist or regionalist in nature, based on clearly delineated spheres of influence. This world order would focus on the bare minimum of shared values required to enable functioning trade and diplomacy, which provide stability and growth, but with clearly defined divisions and fault-lines. A series of “Space Races” would be launched against rivals. The US and China would be the likely adversaries in this transition order but, unlike during the Cold War, their competition could well be purely materialistic rather than ideological: America already appears to be on the path of relinquishing its position as the “Leader of the Free World”, and China will likely avoid falling into the trap of being a ‘control economy’ adversary as the USSR was. Although clearly less attractive than the broad Bridge, it is still much better than the third scenario, in which the required breakthroughs are not made, or not made in time.
- The Broken Bridge: The Gap Years Realised. If the prevalent spirit is one of resistance and fear of a world of nearly 10 billion technologically connected, mobile, diverse and cross-cultural people, it will likely see the rise of leaders focused on the primacy of national identities, the creation of boundaries and the hoarding of resources. This naturally creates a barrier to the collaboration required to secure the scientific breakthroughs to progress beyond scarcity, as well as to solving major transnational economic, environmental, trade and security issues. In this case, deepening crises would exacerbate zero sum thinking by leaders, driving a series of land grabs to secure dwindling environmental and economic resources that create a vicious circle of depletion while reducing the chances of the necessary breakthroughs being achieved. The initial winners would be the old-world exploiters of carbon based energy and natural resources who would monopolise power and capital to take their share of the scarce, to the detriment of the new fields required to make the breakthrough to plenty. The result would be further instability, not just at the geopolitical level but at the country level too: Revolutions such as the Arab Spring, Brexit, Trump election would increase in both frequency and intensity, further destabilising societies, economies and alliances. These revolutions can be expected to continue eastward before they return to their recent origins. Further, the inability of leaders to solve the underlying economic, social and security drivers of the initial revolutions would lead to waves of successive revolutions (as witnessed in Egypt) that would destabilise countries, their neighbours and exacerbate further the very issues they were meant to resolve. The result may well be wave after wave of coup-style revolutions that cross the globe, leading to a near total breakdown before the critical issues either lead to a mass catastrophe or to a new realisation that opens the way for progress.
The Shape of the World to Come – in the Arc of History
Stepping back, the changes disrupting the world today are occurring in the context of much longer-term patterns and changes playing out across the arc of history. A previous Sign of the Times had briefly introduced a number of these, including the cyclical rise and fall of great powers, the change of powers based on breakthroughs in key resources, and the transition to the information age and the ‘Third Wave’ society. The longest-term pattern or flow, though, may be the one of humankind itself into one united culture, a process that has been ongoing in fits and starts since the dawn of consciousness.
Rise and Fall of Empires. Throughout history, the rise and fall of dominant powers has followed a pattern of rapid expansion, a period of ‘stability’ marked by stagnation (relative to the first phase) and overstretch, and the inevitable decline, often in the face of a new and rising power. This is as true of the Roman Empire, the Ottomans, the Mongols as it is of the British Empire and in turn, today’s United States. By most measures the 20th century has been the American Century, one in which the US rose quickly following the First World War to lead the global economy, attained superpower status following World War II and became the sole world power with the demise of the Soviet Union. Applying the statistical analysis on the patterns underlying the rise and fall of previous great powers to the US indicates the following potential base scenario: American power expanded rapidly until the 1950-1960s (coinciding with its peak share of global GDP), was stable through the Cold War until the past decade, and since the fall of the Berlin Wall has begun to gradually decline, with the end somewhere between 2055 and 2065. While the 21st Century may have started as an American one, history would suggest that it will not end as one – no previous great power has re-risen – unless it is a new and reinvented America, quite different from the old. China stands ready as a rising power with the population, the energy, capital and patience if America is not willing or able to reinvent itself.
Waves in Transition of Civilisations. Overlaying the smaller transitional changes is a civilisational shift from the era of industrial societies to information societies. This shift disrupts the very foundations of the power structure of the old-world order built on industrial giants and replaces them with their information counterparts. Developed countries today are currently in just such a defining transition, from an Industrial Age society to an Information Age society, in which the emergence of the new society is pushing away the current industrial age order like a wave. The ‘First Wave’ described by futurist Alvin Toffler in his eponymous book observed a series of waves of big change beginning with the settled agricultural society that replaced hunter gather cultures triggered by the Neolithic Revolution. The ‘Second Wave’, industrial society, spread from Europe to the rest of the world in the 19th century triggered by the Industrial Revolution. The emerging ‘Third Wave’ is post-industrial; a high-technology information or knowledge-based society. In each previous revolution, the old order has sought to resist change, but was unable to stand up to the superior technology, organisation and culture of the new societies. The disruptive changes of our times, including Brexit and the US election would be a part of the older industrial and factional order reasserting itself in the face of the transition of eras. The new civilisation that will potentially emerge at the end of the Gap Years, with its integration of all dimensions of life and collective consciousness, has been described as a potential ‘Fourth Wave’ of humanity.
Strategic Resource Superiority in the Transition of Superpowers. Empires are built on the basis of their superior ability to exploit a prevailing source of power, typically in the form of energy sources and materials. These have included metals, minerals and oil. America’s exploitation of oil superseded the British Empire’s use of steam just as the Assyrian’s exploitation of iron gave them the advantage over their Bronze Age competitors and the Gunpowder Empires of the Mughals and the Ottomans overcame their adversaries with the advantage of cannon and firearms. The successful adoption of a new resource base – material or energy – galvanises nations to exploit their advantage just as it exposes established powers’ inability to transition away from existing resource bases. The nature of empires and the world orders that they create rest on the scarcity and exploitation of new materials and energy sources, which in turn are the fount of political power and wealth. Superpowers are those that initially monopolise these new materials and energies to build a strong home base, conduct trade and subsequently expand beyond their boundaries. Superpowers decline when their needs exceed their supply of materials and energies, when they lose control over the existing materials and energy sources, or when the material and energy sources that form basis of their power are superseded by superior alternatives. These new energy and/or materials resources will likely enable things that cannot be achieved today and lead to the rise of the next superpower. Today, this could likely be a new energy source, clean abundant and nearly free, but it could also be a breakthrough in material sciences and nanotechnology. Under this scenario, the current US administration’s defence and promotion of oil, coal and even gas as the basis of its superpower position is resisting change rather than embracing it to reinvent itself and thereby vacating the ground for another power to supersede them.
Flow of Mankind into One Culture. Finally, it is worth considering the direction in which the ‘stream of mankind’ is flowing. From the time since before the Neolithic Revolution mankind’s world has expanded, along with increased communications, travel, a growing definition of common goods, and a widening definition in society of ‘us’. The logical end-point of this development trend would be a borderless and fully globalised world, that eliminates (or at least marginalises) the divisive importance of ethnic and cultural differences in a global society built on shared values. Is such a flow to universalism an unstoppable force though? Catastrophes can change this flow. WWI led to insularism, withdrawal and nationalism that continued during WWII and knocked humanity back by decades in terms of trade and global integration. Since then, the rapid recovery driven by the post-war liberal values has created some momentum towards ‘One Culture’. However, as the world order hit limits on what it can deliver, the world appears to be regressing again to more insularity in the face of setbacks. As the rhetoric during both the Brexit and US campaign demonstrated, positions that were previously held only by adherents of radical religions and right-wing fringe fascist groups have become increasingly mainstream views that are held by not only Western working class whites but also middle class whites too (who ironically have been among the greatest beneficiaries of globalisation), forming what has been called “the white man’s last stand” and the proponents managed to coopt women and some minorities to their cause too. The alternative view is that it is time for those often called the “left behind” or “unheard” need to be heard. For the time being the flow toward a more unified or united stand among humanity appears to be slowing. For this to be effective at damming the flow toward ‘One Culture’ over the long term, however, it would require a global catastrophe, perhaps in the form of an ideological war of the type described above, although such a war in a nuclear weapons age may not leave much at all behind.
Beyond the Gap: The Potential for a New Civilisation
Regardless of whether mankind passes over the broad or narrow Bridge or even fails to initially cross the broken Bridge, mankind will eventually find itself at the end of The Gap Years. The choices people make today will determine the length of the road they take and the price to be paid along the way to a new civilisation. In a best-case scenario, mankind will follow the broad bridge and minimise the costs and impact of the transition. In the scenarios of the narrow and broken Bridges it will likely follow a more tortuous and indirect route, potentially contending with and overcoming interim world orders that fail to unlock humanity’s potential. For example, the narrow Bridge might lead to the emergence of three competing power zones or spheres of influence around the US, China and possibly Russia, which will continue to compete even when the resource gap has been successfully addressed. Similarly, the broken Bridge might lead to the US leveraging its huge material and other advantages and its strength in the information society into a renaissance of power that allows it to (eventually) make the necessary breakthroughs on its own, leaving it with global hegemony but with few friends and necessitating an overreliance on hard power to secure its position.
The good news is that the lifespan of these interim world orders will likely be a short one. The durations of successive world orders appear to be shortening; the Great Powers system lasted a century, the Cold War order lasted c.50 years and the Pax Americana of the Post-Soviet era is currently in its 16th year. Unless a new world order manages to resolve all of the problematic ‘certainties’ facing the world, its lifespan is likely to be shorter still, eventually paving the way for a world order that does, and ushers in a new civilisation as a result.
There is a scenario under which The Gap Years solves man, rather than the reverse. The stepping stones to this may well be war, famine and the disasters that religious texts and Malthusian economists predict. Under this scenario, man fails to find a solution to the world’s challenges, sinks into a ‘me-first’ approach and succumbs to catastrophic conflict and disaster and ultimately this reduces the world population to a level that can live within the means of the planet. The alternative sees man solving the problems. The eventual new civilisation that arises would be both individual and universal in nature. Enabled by technology that would have resolved many of the resource constraints facing the world today while having driven total connectivity creating interconnectedness and interdependence. Further, one way or another the transition to an information society will have been completed without a sizeable number of people being left behind. This combination of the absence of future shock or material shortages with global connectivity enables the emergence of a collective consciousness on which a new code of international conduct can be built. Such a civilisation would be borderless in practise and enable humanity to maintain its diversity while focusing on universal and shared values. Further, such a civilisation would fundamentally transform our planet physically, with achievements that today might seem like faraway dreams. The combination of technology and shared values could lead to a world order that includes, among other things, the preservation of the environment and the restoration of previously lost habitats, the elimination of today’s epidemic diseases, the end of poverty as we know it, universal education, an expanded footprint on earth that has created new habitats on land and on the sea, and humanity’s sustained expansion beyond Earth, to name a few.
Conclusion: Preparing for the New World Order
It is clear that the world is currently at an inflection point in history. The order that has defined our lives is in the throes of coming to an end and the world faces a period of increasing uncertainty, risk and instability. In the last US election, Americans may have chosen to end the world order and the Trump Administration stands as the arbiter of whether it does so in a dramatic fashion or finds a way to transition more smoothly to the next order. Previous changes of the world order suggest that the shifts are often accompanied by large scale violence. In today’s highly globalised world, this would raise the prospect of a world war, and with weapons of mass destruction available, this has the potential for catastrophic consequences. One of three potential scenarios examined in this paper point to a more stable situation for now where the US strengthens itself under the dramatic facade of a threatening president but makes measured and careful changes to today’s world order. This scenario leaves the task to the next leadership to be more aspirational in its vision and determination to work with others to solve the world’s issues rather than just the issues of a nation at the expense of the rest. However, we do live in revolutionary times and these have been evidenced in the demand for higher quality lives in the developed world even before we come to face the reality of demand from those living on a fraction of the West and also before we have considered the prospect of adding nearly 40% more people to the global population, mostly in poorer nations, in the first 50 years of this century. And so, as always in life, there are more conflictual and violent options driven by a more fearful and transactional mode or ideology, that the world can pursue to end the current world order in an attempt to forge the next one.
The choices that we and the world’s leaders make now will determine the severity and duration of the inevitable chaos and the trauma that accompanies the transition between world orders. These choices start today: How do we engage with our neighbours, our allies and our adversaries? What ‘Big Ideas’ do we focus our energies on? And how do we prioritise the often-competing demands of the world’s peoples, countries and the societies within them? What values are we prepared to share and use to anchor our collaborations? If we get these choices right, we can usher in a better world well within our lifetimes. The urge to define “us” too narrowly, sink into fear and break our alliances, working for our narrow self-interests, may well prevail.
The choices made by individuals will empower their leaders to make decisions of great importance to the world at large. These choices are played out in the context of the greater arc of history and civilisation shifting changes in the world which are coming to a fore in our times. As citizens cast their votes, protest to overthrow their regimes, fight for their beliefs, launch counter-revolutions and resistance movements to calibrate their leaders and each other, the world will add another three billion people to the global population, the world’s old industrial corporate giants will lose to a younger generation creating information companies, carbon based energies will reach the limit of functionality they can deliver, driving the breakthroughs of new alternatives and mankind will march inexorably towards creating universal interconnectedness to the brink of creating a more universal world culture. In the midst of all this change, American leadership of the current world order that placed it as the sole superpower of the industrial era is drawing to a close, its leaders facing the choice to either withdraw from the world, possessed by a more factional and narrower view of the nation’s role at this momentous point in history, or to conjure the energy to galvanise the world and reinvent itself as a force for collaborating and transitioning the world to a new civilisation.
World Order | Multipolar World | Gap Years | Trump | Geopolitics | Disruption | Third Wave | Information Society |Geostrategy