It seems only yesterday that scarcity was the story. Energy and commodity prices were heading into the stratosphere. The oil was running out, food shortages loomed, Russia was resurgent and China was marching into Africa amid a scramble for dwindling resources.
Now? Prices everywhere are falling as recession bites. Investment banks have disappeared; and the global credit system is on life-support. The big threat is deflation rather than inflation. The oil price has slumped, wiping the smirk from authoritarian leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
When Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination for the presidency he expected Iraq and healthcare would be the priorities of his presidency. No one told him the banks were facing bankruptcy and the US an economic shock as severe as any since the Great Crash.
The scale and speed of this turnround offers a stiff warning of the perils of seeking to peer beyond the present. Think back also to all that stuff a few years ago about the unipolar moment and the new American imperium. The mistake always is to project the here-and-now into an indefinite future. History rarely travels in straight lines.
So what should the president-elect make of the hefty tome that has landed on his desk courtesy of the cleverest minds at the US National Intelligence Council? After all, Global Trends 2025*, the NIC’s four-yearly exercise in crystal ball-gazing, tries to map the contours of the world more than 15 years hence.
The answer is that Mr Obama would do well to read it closely: not because he gets a top-secret version denied to the rest of us; nor because the authors have discovered the philosopher’s stone of forecasting, but because understanding the forces driving political and economic change should be the starting point for his decisions as president.
The NIC does not pretend to have all the answers. Its stated purpose is to explore the forces and factors driving events rather than to predict the destination. The authors rightly eschew the determinism peddled by the snake oil salesmen of futurology. The world may be travelling in this or that direction now, but that does not mean the trajectory is preordained.
One of the report’s important messages is that political leaders, and Mr Obama most particularly, have the capacity to chart alternative paths. Another – this one implicit – is that the decisions taken in the White House during the next four or eight years will be critical.
At first glance, the core conclusion – that the world is witnessing the emergence of a new multipolar system – seems unremarkable. But it matters that the president-elect is being told by his foremost intelligence analysts that the US faces relative decline. There are plenty of people in Washington who dismiss such a prospect as the malevolent thinking of woolly-headed Europeans; the more so, perhaps, when France’s Nicolas Sarkozy keeps trumpeting it.
In the NIC’s view, the rise of China, India and the rest will mean that by 2025 the US will be “one [my emphasis] of a number of important actors on the world stage, albeit still the most powerful”. For more than 200 years, even when challenged, the US has been a rising power. The adjustment will not be easy.
New great power rivalries, though, are only one part of the emerging picture. Nations face challenges from non-state actors empowered by globalisation. Businesses, religious zealotry, criminal networks and non-governmental organisations are all testing state power.
Overlay these changes, geopolitical and societal, with an array of transnational forces – climate change, terrorism, unconventional weapons proliferation, demographic bulges, migration, resource competition – and you begin to see how complicated things are getting. Add in all the unknowns – of both the known and unknown variety – and you start to get a headache. The other day Mr Obama said that sometimes he asks himself where on earth he should start as president. Reading the NIC report one can understand why.
What can be said with moderate certainty is that a global system designed in 1945 will not survive the coming age of discontinuities. An order centred around the political, cultural and economic hegemony of the west can scarcely outlive the redistribution of global power.
The rising powers are unlikely to want to tear down the system as did, for example, Germany and Japan during the 20th century. More likely, the trend will be towards fragmentation and instability as the new powers take what they want from the existing order while preserving a freedom of manoeuvre outside it.
This “multipolarity without multilateralism” points to the absence of any over-arching system of global governance. Instead, current trends point to a “patchwork of overlapping, often ad hoc and fragmented efforts” with shifting coalitions of member nations and international organisations undermining the capacity of the United Nations for effective multilateral action. In this respect, the NIC adds, speaking of the “the international order” may become something of a misnomer.
The key phase in the last paragraph, though, is “current trends”. The extent to which coherence prevails over chaos in a changing system will depend to a large extent on the decisions taken between now and then by political leaders. To do nothing is to invite disorder. Doing something demands the imagination to create a new and inclusive architecture.
As for the US, its relative decline should neither be exaggerated nor underestimated. Its power will be constrained by the economic and military muscle of other great powers and, perhaps, by disenchantment among its own citizens with America’s role as global policeman.
On the other hand, the enthusiastic clamour that has greeted Mr Obama’s victory testifies to the fact that much of the world still sees the US as an essential guardian of security. For the next two decades at least America will remain the only real superpower. Decisions taken in Washington will have a greater impact than those of any other global actor on how the international system evolves.
This is what the political scientists call human agency. Look back at the past century and most of the good and the bad flowed from the ideas and decisions of political leaders. The same will be true of the coming decades. Bad outcomes, as the NIC concludes, are not inevitable.