This article is part of the Futures Forecasting series we’ve asked experts to identify crucial trends – from a shortlist of categories – that will influence national security out to 2035 and how those trends might intersect in a future scenario.
In this article, Jean-Marie Guéhenno concludes that a multipolarity of weak poles will emerge. Within countries, politics will be more inward looking and more often authoritarian, but the global economy will remain deeply interconnected. Political crises are there likely to cascade quickly, with global impact.
1Connectivity: interactions between people in both the physical and digital realm amplify risk and in turn exacerbate fear, opening the doors to authoritarianism.
For decades, physical connectivity has been an engine of globalisation for good (such as cheaper goods for western consumers and more opportunities for what was then the developing world) and bad (not least pandemics and the global impact of terrorism). Now, data connectivity is intensifying and will become the world’s most important source of wealth and power.
How governments, corporations and other entities collect and manage data will become the most important political issue. With the internet of things adding power to what already exists, every second of citizens’ lives will be recorded. As data grows at an exponential rate, the only way to manage it and create value will be through algorithms that can sift through that ocean and identify patterns. Those companies and governments which can produce the most effective data-sorting algorithms will enjoy an economic and strategic edge.
Connectivity will also change how governments and citizens perceive, and manage, risk. The ‘butterfly effect’ is particularly pronounced in a connected world. As the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted, increased complexity and global interdependence can increase the risk of crisis contagion, in turn, public demand for more control and provision of ‘security’ by governments. At the same time, ‘datification’ and the associated rise of algorithmic decision-making will also make control of individuals and societies more feasible, as companies and governments which collect and manage vast amounts of data will be increasingly powerful . The probability of a more authoritarian future world is therefore high.
2Black Elephant: a major political crisis in at least one of the world’s global economic poles: the United States, China and the European Union
All three of the world’s economic poles face major challenges. The European Union (EU) is facing the most visible challenges, as it struggles to complete a monetary union that is plagued by deep divisions between its members . For the United States, many observers hope that the chaos and divisiveness of the Trump era will come to an end with the 2020 elections, but this is far from assured. In any case, the country faces structural problems of political gridlock and growing inequality that have been made more visible by the pandemic crisis and ongoing race protests. These problems are unlikely to go away without a reinvigorated civil society and sustained political will.
China appears to be in a stronger position, but it also faces major challenges. It will have to significantly alter its economic model as its population ages, its export-driven strategy faces headwinds, and its economy is laden with debt. China has, more than any other country, perfected its means of social control. However, it is torn between the need to decentralise authoritarian control to keep it manageable, and the risk that decentralisation leads to the kinds of crises epitomised by the outbreak of COVID-19, where the central government seems to have been belatedly informed of the outbreak in Hubei province by provincial officials who were reluctant to convey ‘bad news’. China’s increasingly well-educated population may eventually challenge the country’s increasingly totalitarian model of governance, especially if a slowing rate of growth leads to a re-evaluation of the trade-off between individual rights and prosperity.
While each of these three economic poles may avoid a major crisis, it is unlikely that in the next 15 years all will.
2035 future forecast
A major political crisis is likely and will have cascading effects for the entire world, but the outcome will differ, depending on where crisis strikes.
The demise of the EU could shift world order into a zero-sum dynamic. The demise of the EU would make it very difficult for a cooperative approach to managing global affairs to survive. First, disintegration of history’s greatest experiment in interdependence would be perceived as a triumph for statist, realist approaches to world affairs. Second, the EU would no longer provide a balancing approach to confrontation between China and the United States – which would become the defining feature of world affairs. At the same time, this confrontation would differ greatly from the Cold War: there would not be the same level of ideological competition, the intense connectivity between the two countries would not disappear, and the competition for the domination of the data economy would take centre stage.
The demise of the EU remains a low probability scenario, but the EU may become more inward-looking, focusing on the regions that most directly affect it in political terms because of their geographic proximity, namely Africa and the Middle East.
If there was a crisis in China or the United States, the country not affected may enjoy strategic benefits, but would also suffer due to global connectivity. No model is likely to come out stronger, and both will try to exploit the weaknesses of their adversaries. In any case, both China and the United States will find it easier to exploit fragility than to build their own strengths. The losers will include global standards of living, with economic inequality likely to widen.
What would this mean for Australia?
In the age of multipolarity of weak poles, nimbleness and capacity to adapt will be crucial. In particular, a political crisis that starts in one of the world’s big economies will impact Australia. The impact will be most direct if the crisis starts in the United States – its main ally – or in China – its main trade partner. If Europe suffers a major crisis, Australia will also indirectly suffer because a waning Europe will lead to increased confrontation between the United States and China.
While alliances and partnerships will remain beneficial, Australia will need to be prepared to assert an increasingly independent approach to domestic and foreign policy. Its economy and society will need to be geared to withstand strategic shocks and surprises. This might involve more government intervention in markets and society, but if so civil society will need to be attuned to – and assiduously push back against – government overreach if Australia is to escape wider trends of a tilt towards authoritarianism. At the same time, Australia must adapt to the increasing importance of data as a global source of wealth. As a major producer of commodities, it will have to evolve its economy accordingly, refining its business processes through intensive use of big data, and maximizing its comparative advantages in the services and financial industry .