OF ALL POSSIBLE FUTURE WORLDS
global trends, values, and ethics

Chapter 6

Past Future Worlds

So far we have looked at trends based on their future trajectory. However, focusing on the present to predict the future gives us an incomplete understanding of trends. The past can be as vital as the present in forecasting. Since the NIC has published previous reports, we can better appreciate today’s various global trends reports.

Why did people in the past predict the futures that they did? The actual world that past authors lived in was the basis for their future predictions and biases thereof. To be more specific, when we look to the past we should look at two pasts: the past world and past envisioned future worlds. This nuanced distinction helps us understand how present biases can shape what futures we might predict. Thus, in addition to traditional and methodological biases, temporal biases, even if seemingly unavoidable, can have a determinative impact on predictions.

In this chapter, these differences will be made more concrete as I discuss past NIC reports. I will focus on the last three reports. In 2000, the NIC predicted future worlds for 2015; in 2004 for 2020; and in 2008 for 2025.[44] The end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s was the beginning of modern market-based globalization, hence “Global Trends 2015” featured globalization as the most prominent megatrend shaping its scenarios. Five years later in “Global Trends 2020,” globalization was still the most important megatrend but it was accompanied by two other major events: (1) emerging powers, particularly the BRICs, were beginning to rise during (2) a post 9/11 world. Thus, the worlds that the NIC envisioned were also heavily influenced by both concerns over transnational terrorism and pervasive security concerns. “Global Trends 2025” also foresaw globalization, the rise of new powers, and security concerns as major trends that would continue to shape the future world. Security concerns (particularly on transnational terrorism), however, became more muted than four years prior. A number of other major trends were introduced to “Global Trends 2025.” Climate change, increasing resource competition, and new technologies received greater attention than in the past. Thus the worlds envisioned tended to focus on the danger of narrowly interested states and their ability to cope with transnational challenges.

“Global Trends 2015” focused on seven disaggregate drivers, including demographics, natural resources and environment, technology, global economy, governance, future conflict, and the role of the US. Although it noted that no single driver or trend would dominate the global future in 2015 and each driver will affect different regions differently, one trend stands out in all of its scenarios: globalization was the most important megatrend between 2000 and 2015. It is not clear how the NIC methodically arrived at their four scenarios. Two of their scenarios looked at the positive and negative effects of globalization, while the other two focused on whether military conflict or competition would characterize regional power dynamics. In the Inclusive Globalization world, technology, economic growth, and demographic shifts start to positively influence lives in the developing world. Economic liberalization diffuses wealth, governance is effective but seen as less necessary, and since most states are benefitting and see no need for conflict. This world may be approximating a unified global state.

On the other hand, the Pernicious Globalization scenario may be seen as unleashing the Gini Out-of-the-Bottle world. Global elites are the prime beneficiaries of globalization while the majority of the world’s population sees a worsening or no improvement of their lives. Technology will not be able to address population growth and resource scarcities. Illicit networks will exploit technological innovations and an illicit economy will grow in both developed countries and today’s poor-performing developing countries. A governance gap will form as leaders will not be able to handle demands, and conflicts will arise due to inequities.

Globalization may also be the greatest driver of the Regional Competition world. This world best fits Walzer’s decentered conceptualization and would precede the Fusion, Stalled Engines, Interconnected Polycentric, and New Power Politics worlds of 2030. Globalization has helped the world grow, but not all countries want to be dominated by a US-driven globalization. Europe, Asia, and the Americas become more preoccupied with their own priorities. Regional economic blocs integrate and high levels of economic growth ensue–as does regional competition. Regional and state governance thrive in emerging and developed countries. However, global governance falls out of favor as regions become more insulated. Technology diffusion is uneven as intellectual property concerns limit sharing. And although great power military conflict among the US, Asia, and Europe is not likely since all regions are growing, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South Asia have few places to turn for support in the event of internal conflict.

In contrast to the other 2015 worlds, the Post-Polar world is a world where globalization plays a more limited role in the future. This world resembles Walzer’s vision of international anarchy. The US and Europe do not see gains in economic growth and both turn inward. Asian countries, however, become prosperous. America plays less of a role in Asia consequently, and geostrategic rivalries among China, Korea, and Japan come to light. Global and regional governance is weak, especially in Asia as none of these powerful three states are willing to cooperate.

The envisioned worlds of 2020 also foresaw globalization as the overarching megatrend that shaped all other trends, particularly the entrance of new global players. In the Davos World, globalization takes a more non-Western character as China and India rise to lead robust economic growth in both the developed and developing world. This world represents the decentered node from which the 2030 Fusion and Stalled Engines worlds might originate. Countries that can best utilize new technologies will benefit most from globalization. The US, Europe, China, and India will best be able to adopt these technologies for growth. However, not all countries will benefit from globalization equally. Japan and Russia will face demographic patterns that will stem their power. The US will see a relative power decline, though it will remain the most important country in many ways. Those in the developing world will not see as rapid of growth as in China and India and may grow resentful. However, interstate conflict is not likely to arise. Globalization and the rise of new powers will lead to another trend: pervasive insecurity. Since other countries will become richer, new powers will challenge the status quo. Great power conflict resulting in war will not be the chief insecurity, thus, interstate or intrastate conflict will not be likely. Countries in the Middle East and Northeast Asia may decide to develop nuclear weapons since it will seem as though their neighbors are as well. Instead, the global middle class and certain regions will face the most conflict. Members of a growing global middle class will compete with one another for jobs and their demands for better lives will depend on how political leaders respond and decent economic growth. Weak governments, stalled economies, religious extremism, and youth bulges will lead to internal conflicts in fragile states. These conflicts may spill over with the creation of transnational terrorism or illicit networks.

Three worlds might stem from pervasive insecurity. A Pax Americana scenario would allow the US’s predominance to survive changes in the world. This world would resemble the Russian Hierarchical Polycentric world, but would also fall within Walzer’s category of a hegemonic global empire. America’s military dominance would continue and the US would be able to determine for the world its own conceptions on liberty, justice, peace, and pluralism. The New Caliphate world envisions radical religious identity politics, driven by transmuting international terrorism, to challenge Western norms and values as the foundation of the global system. Together with new communications technology and Muslim identity revival in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Western Europe, the new caliphate would intervene in national and regional separatist struggles in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, and southern Thailand. By 2020 al-Qaida will be superseded by other Islamic extremist groups. A Cycle of Fear world is a scenario that may overlap with this New Caliphate world. It is characterized by the threat of proliferation among states. Thus either traditional state actors may endanger world security with weapons of mass destruction or nonstate terrorists may leave the world worse off.

Five years later in 2025, globalization, the rise of new powers, the relative decline of US power, and fears over terrorism, conflict, and proliferation will continue. However, a new transnational agenda on strategic resources, food, climate change, and new technologies will be major trends as well. The World Without the West scenario is the precursor to some world closer to Stalled Engines rather than the Fusion world five years later. Growth in the US and Europe are lagging and both look inward with protectionist measures as emerging powers continue to grow. This multipolar world may not be one of great power war, but there will be tensions over influence and energy resources. Regional organizations may play a more prominent role in this world.

On the other hand, slowed growth and resource shortages lead to a BRICs Bust-Up world that is a more atomistic and competitive variant of a World Without the West. Regional governance does not take hold as nationalist sentiments and energy competition make countries uncooperative. The chances for conflicts are much higher as supernational governance has given way to unmitigated anarchy.

Another world that focuses on the lack of cooperation among nations in pursuit of a “growth-first” mentality is the October Surprise scenario. Global inattention to climate change may leave the world vulnerable to catastrophic weather events. Governments would be forced to cope with crises of floods, droughts, and food shortages rather than on economic growth. Mitigation efforts would be of no use at this point since no technologies can reverse climate change in the short term. These challenges may prove to be too much for governments to handle, and both interstate and intrastate conflict might increase.

A more optimistic variant of a scenario that focuses on the ineffectiveness of nation-states to cooperate is the Politics is Not Always Local world. This world foresees the emergence of the empowered individual. Communications technologies enable political activists to form transnational networks around issues that matter most to them such as environmentalism or climate change. NGOs, labor unions, ethnic groups, and religious organizations wrest control away from many government powers, and pursue their groups’ core interests.

With each report, we saw how the addition of new temporal biases and trends altered future forecasts. In 2000, globalization shaped future worlds most for forecasters. In 2004, globalization still took precedence, but we also saw the rise of new powers and pervasive insecurity as emerging megatrends. In 2008, globalization remained an underlying megatrend, but its effects were more muted than in past reports. Globalization shared an equal footing with new global players and uncertainty as well as a new general category of strategic resources, food, climate change, and new technologies.

By 2012, globalization was no longer considered a megatrend by the NIC. Instead, the rise of empowered individuals became the overarching megatrend of the next fifteen years. Demography is also a new megatrend not previously emphasized (although considered as a trend in all past reports) that is growing alongside the diffusion of power to other states and natures as well as the growing problems of the food, water, and energy nexus. This is not to say that globalization will no longer become relevant for planning, but it will by then become so familiar and its effects so engrained that it will not necessarily warrant less consideration, but rather more specific considerations. The question for us is whether we should take the effects for granted or be more vigilant about them.

[44] See NIC, “Global Trends 2015: A Dialogue About the Future with Nongovernment Experts,” Washington, DC: Office of the Director of National Intelligence, December 2000, available at www.dni.gov/files/documents/Global%20Trends_2015%20Report.pdf ; “Mapping the Global Future: Report of the National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project,” Washington, DC: Office of the Director of National Intelligence, December 2004, available at www.dni.gov/files/documents/Global%20Trends_Mapping%20the%20Global%20Future%202020%20Project.pdf ; “Global Trends 2015: A Transformed World,” Washington, DC: Office of the Director of National Intelligence, November 2008, available at www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Reports%20and%20Pubs/2025_Global_Trends_Final_Report.pdf .

Copyright © 2014 by Thong Nguyen


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Of All Possible Future Worlds: Global Trends, Values, and Ethics by Thong Nguyen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.