Global Trends 2030 is the 5th edition of the foresight document the U.S. National Intelligence Council prepares every four years and publicly publishes just after the  presidential election. It aims at being  “a forward-looking document to aid policymakers in their long-term planning on key issues of worldwide importance.” In the words of Chris Kojm, current chairman of the NIC, it is “a framework for thinking about the future.”

puzzle, Global Trends 2030The Global Trends (GT) series is an important read for those interested in the U.S., in international relations, national security, foreign policy and politics, in the future, as well as in strategic foresight methodology (this last edition is notably exemplary in the way it developed a real strategy of delivery). Considering the quality of the content, I was  particularly intrigued by a strange parallel made in the chapter on the role of the United States as game-changer, and deemed important enough to be used almost verbatim in the executive summary to introduce the “alternative worlds”, ie. the four fictionalised scenarios resulting from the study:

“The present recalls past transition points—such as 1815, 1919, 1945, and 1989—when the path forward was not clear-cut and the world faced the possibility of different global futures. We have more than enough information to suggest that however rapid change has been over the past couple decades, the rate of change will accelerate in the future.” (Executive summary, p.xii)

“The present recalls past transition points—such as 1815, 1919, or 1945—when the path forward was not clear-cut and the world faced the possibility
 of different global futures. In all those cases, the transition was extended and re-balancing was partly a matter of trial and error.” (p.105)

Those dates mark the end of wars but, unless we are not living in the same world, 2012/13 ends no war. Comparisons or analogies are never gratuitous and always mean something, would it be only to help the reader understand better the writer’s thoughts. We are thus faced with a puzzle, what did the authors of GT had in mind, and what could it mean, more generally, for our understanding of the world and its future?

1815, 1919, 1945 and 1989: war and new order

Why were those four specific dates chosen? GT 2030 explains those dates were chosen for what they heralded: a new area, a novel world order with a reconfiguration of power. The box p.106 titled “World rebalanced—Parallels with the Past?” and that focuses on the 19th century “long peace” starting in 1815, confirms this perspective. However, the author of this comparison also underlines that, in 1815, the great powers were “coming out of over 25 years of conflict”.

The four years chosen thus do also obviously correspond to the end of systemic or global war periods.

In a nutshell, 1815 marks the end of the French Revolution and of the corresponding wars, including the Napoleonic ones, when the new France defended its novel system against the interests of the old privileged monarchic system, as shown by Fred Halliday in the development of the concept of homogeneity (1994: 94-123). Using Burke, Halliday underlines that “The stability of other societies in Europe required that France too be liked them. Without homogeneity, there could be neither internal nor international peace… For what he [Burke] is arguing is that relations between states rest above all not on the conduct of foreign policy in the narrow sense, but on convergence and similitude in domestic arrangements, in other words on the prevalence of a homogeneous international society” (pp.107-112). Needless to say, the new ideas and system promoted by the French revolutionary ideals lost, to a Bourbon restoration in France and the continuity of privileges in Europe. It also ushered the period of the long European peace heralded by the Congress of Vienna – as GT 2030 emphasises – which lasted until 1870 when Prussia invaded and defeated France. This peace was mainly European, as China, notably, was opened to foreign powers during the 1839 Opium War, the 1839 Chinese defeat and the 1842 treaty of Nanking (Nanjing). The international system was being redrawn.

1919 marks the end of World War I, with its 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded (civilian and armed forces). It also directly prepared World War II, notably through the mammoth reparations demanded from Germany with the Treaty of Versailles. If World War I heralded the end of an order or failed to do so thus paving the way for World War II can be debated. Most importantly, the First World War was marked by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the birth of the Soviet Union.

WWII alliances, Global Trends 20301945 corresponds to the end of World War II, the “deadliest conflict in history” (60 million death), the fight to death between the Axis Power (Germany, Italy, Japan but also Thailand, Finland, Hungary, Romania, Iraq, etc. and the Allied Powers (see map). 1945 heralded too a world as divided at the Yalta conference and that was to give the bipolar order of the Cold War. Meanwhile, the fear of the spread of Communist ideals and power was instrumental in making the 1947 Marshall Plan possible, and in changing the balance of power between Western classes. The privileged elite, faced with the memory of the Great Depression and of the war and now the fear of Communism, gave much to the working and middle class. A new chapter of history indeed started with the expansion of the Middle Class during the post-war boom.

1989 marks the end of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet Union and of Communism. The Cold War was not as bloodless as could be believed, considering all the proxy wars that were fought and the casualties they implied (see UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset and an interesting synthesis by Filip Spagnoli, “Statistics on Violent Conflict”). It ushered the belief in the end of history (Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man) and of the inevitable, inexorable but fundamentally good globalization, the era of Davos, and of a gradually unchecked and “dislocating” capitalism, as pointed out by the Henry Jackson Initiative in its project ‘Towards a More Inclusive Capitalism.’

What if 2012/2013 were also perceived as the end of a war?

If we now come back to our 2013 world, it is obvious that the last 5 to 10 years have not seen such global lethal wars as those we briefly reviewed. Those wars are also so famous it is impossible that the scholars having researched and written the report ignore them, and overlook the instrumental role they played in the birth of a new world order, the element they want to stress.

The first (and less interesting) possibility that could explain our puzzle is that the comparison used (the dates chosen) to find a meaning to the current transition is unjustified and is linked to one or many biases. For example, the fear of a new global war could be at work. Such bias could also be seen in the asserted but debatable belief that, despite rising odds of interstate conflicts, world wars are now impossible. This fear, and the implausibility of global wars are exemplified in the introduction to GT 2030 first scenario, “stalled engines”:

“Arguably, darker scenarios are imaginable, including a complete breakdown and reversal of globalization due potentially to a large-scale conflict on the order of a World War I or World War II, but such outcomes do not seem probable.” (p.xii)

Yet, one finds instances of similar fears but with different comparisons and conclusions, the current period being compared with 1913, as in the opening sentences of the second scenario of GT 2030, or with the 1929 crisis.

GT 2030 could also be a victim of the current trend towards a lack of  historical depth – and daring to go as far back as 1815 is in itself a feat that deserves to be applauded. Yet, this may be insufficient and we may have to go even further back in history to find more adequate model, as suggested here. Our transition could be much deeper and larger than the one envisioned in GT 2030. However, then, could the authors truly write it? Would such thoughts meet the criteria of timeliness? Would references to even older times be considered or just dismissed as irrelevant because too ancient?

Another possibility to explain this strange choice is that, unconsciously or implicitly, 2012/2013 is really seen as the end of a period akin to a war.

The only instances that spring to mind are the War on Terror starting with 9/11 and that would then be over, or the financial and economic crisis starting with the subprime crisis in the U.S. in 2007 that would also have been overcome.

Considering the current war in Syria and the evolution of the situation there, the spread of Al Qaeda despite the death of Bin Laden, the uncertainties regarding the situations in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia among others, the tension with Iran, as well as the perspective found in GT 2030 on terrorism (pp. 52, 60, 68*, 103 etc.) or interstate war (pp. 61-68), it seems unlikely that the authors referred to the end of the War on Terror.

Thus remains only the global crisis.

Assuming this is correct, what would that mean? However serious and dangerous the financial crisis has been so far, it certainly should not compare with the scope of destructions of war, except in a world that would principally and foremost be defined in economic terms.

This would emphasize how much our present values material goods over life, which indeed tends to correspond to the modernizing materialist paradigm.

PIGS, RUPIIGS, 2010, Global Trends 2030This could also signify the relief that comes after tension, as harsh austerity measures have been finally imposed without leading to any serious social uprising besides protests (and there we should exercise great caution as the relief may be linked to our improper knowledge of dynamics and processes of revolts in our current world, as well as by the difficulty to think the time of political process, which is long.)

This could imply that the world of now entrenched and still rising inequalities, where the Western working class and middle class – to say nothing of the poor – are to be sacrificed on the altar of global profits and global growth (before Asians, for example, know the same fate), is not a transition period that will end but the start of a new order. This would thus made the third fictionalized narrative of GT 2030, “Gini Out-of-the-Bottle” the most likely scenario.

The real reason for the use of these strange parallels is probably a mix of all the above. It can be seen as exemplifying the various and conflicting beliefs and fears with which our transition era has to contend. Only by wondering and unpacking those puzzles shall we be able to make those beliefs conscious and, in the best of case, rise above them to create a better world for all… assuming this is not an old, past, out-of-fashion ideal.

*GT2030 envisions that “the recent religious wave is receding and could end by 2030” (p.68). This implies that it has not happened yet.

Published by Dr Helene Lavoix (MSc PhD Lond)

Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the President/CEO of The Red Team Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues. Her current focus is on the COVID-19 Pandemic, methodology of SF&W, radicalisation as well as artificial intelligence and quantum tech and security. She teaches at Master level at SciencesPo-PSIA.

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