3 crystal ball overviews on global security – not looking good

December 15, 2008 0 By admin

The futurologists (from NIC, ippr, and DCDC) have been busy, with varying degrees of success. The US Government’s National Intelligence Council has a good report out, ‘Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World.’  Media coverage has focussed on its predictions of US decline and the ‘rise of the East’, but it’s much richer than that. Here are a few examples from the two page summary table of ‘relative certainties’ and ‘key uncertainties’ (known knowns and known unknowns in Rumsfeld-speak):

Relative Certainty: The United States will remain the single most powerful country but will be less dominant.
Likely Impact: Shrinking economic and military capabilities may force the US into a difficult set of tradeoffs between domestic versus foreign policy priorities.

Relative Certainty: Continued economic growth—coupled with 1.2 billion more people by 2025— will put pressure on energy, food, and water resources.
Likely Impact: The pace of technological innovation will be key to outcomes during this period. All current technologies are inadequate for replacing traditional energy architecture on the scale needed.

Key Uncertainty: Whether global powers work with multilateral institutions to adapt their structure and performance to the transformed geopolitical landscape.
Potential Consequences: Emerging powers show ambivalence toward global institutions like the UN and IMF, but this could change, as they become bigger players on the global stage. Asian integration could lead to more powerful regional institutions. NATO faces stiff challenges in meeting growing out-of-area responsibilities with declining European military capabilities. Traditional alliances will weaken.

Couple of comments – as with many such reports, it feels more like an extrapolation of existing trends, and so more like ‘the world to 2015’ rather than 2025 – the further out from the present, the more unforeseen wildcards are likely to produce ‘unknown unknowns’, for example technological breakthroughs like the internet, political shocks like the fall of the Berlin Wall, or natural events, like a major climate change tipping point such as methane release or melting ice caps.

Secondly, the impact of climate change is in there, but the impact of the response to climate change is pretty thin (e.g. there is no breaching the taboo on discussing limits to growth if we fail to find a technological magic bullet in time).

For a non-spook thinktank version, there’s IPPR’s, sorry, ippr ’s (isn’t it getting a bit naff to try and look modern by using lower case for acronyms instead of upper case?) ‘Shared Destinies: Security in a Globalised World’, bringing together enough serious foreign policy and security heavyweights to justify the rather grandiose subtitle ‘The interim report of the ippr Commission on National Security in the 21st Century.’ Here, in slightly abbreviated form, are the Commission’s 13 perspicacious (if largely depressing) ‘observations’ about the state of world security. It then goes on to set out some general principles for responding to the new world order, and a series of more specific recommendations.

1. Globalisation is fuelling a massive redistribution of economic and political influence from the Atlantic seaboard to Asia and the Pacific, increasing interdependence between states, empowering non-state actors, and creating new opportunities for both legitimate and illegitimate action in a largely unregulated and uncontrolled global space.

2. A world population of 9.2 billion by 2050, only 1.25 billion of which will live in developed countries, means the end of the West as the pivotal region in world affairs, intense pressure on natural resources, an increasingly marginalised global majority, and increased migration flows from poor to rich states.

3. Climate change is likely to reduce and shift the availability of habitable land, food and water, to exacerbate inter-state tensions and to generate forced movements of people. Weak and failing states in Africa and parts of Asia will face serious challenges in attempting to respond to climate change. The phenomenon may even play a key role in shaping the character and outlook of major powers such as China.

4. Weak and unstable states outnumber strong and stable ones by more than two to one, and state failure and sometimes collapse will be a highly visible feature of the international security landscape for decades to come. 

5. Massive global poverty is a contributing factor to this development and when combined with inequality, particularly horizontal ‘between group’ inequality, acts to fuel violent conflict.

6. Conflict itself remains an enormous problem. While the figures indicate that instances of violent conflict are declining, the estimated number of people displaced by conflict is at its highest since the early 1990s, and campaigns of one-sided violence in which civilians (particularly women and children) are targeted and terrorised have become increasingly prevalent. Conflict and the pressures of poor governance, including weak or absent rule of law, are creating both ‘swing states’ in the struggle for international peace and stability, and the risk of ungoverned spaces that become havens for criminal and terrorist activity.

7. Transnational criminal networks have expanded their trafficking operations in drugs, arms and people and are undermining and corrupting state governance arrangements in many countries, facilitating and profiting from violent conflict in the process.

8. Since the end of the Cold War, we have entered a second and far more dangerous nuclear age in which renewed state proliferation is a major threat, stockpiles of dangerous nuclear materials remain insufficiently secure, and terrorist groups actively seek a nuclear capability.

9. Terrorism using conventional weapons remains the most likely challenge but the threat of technologically sophisticated chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) terrorism is real and no longer comes only from organised groups like Al Qaeda and its imitators, but also from lone individuals with relevant expertise and access to the necessary technological infrastructure.

10. Rapid advances in information technologies and biotechnologies are creating new vulnerabilities for national and international security. Cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism are already realities. New discoveries in biotechnology put to deadly purposes would have terrifying implications.

11. Humanity is increasingly vulnerable to infectious disease and to the possibility of new and devastating global pandemics. Population concentrations in urban centres in the developing world, global people movement on an unprecedented scale, an increased criminal trade in animals and animal-related products and the growth of drug-resistant diseases are combining to enlarge this threat.

12. Governments around the world own less of their critical national infrastructure and private sector organizations have become more important to delivering security and societal resilience as a result.

13. The UK is not and cannot be insulated from any of these developments and has a clear stake in ensuring that this does not happen.

Alas, as is often the way, the Commission’s diagnosis is more impressive than its recommendations, but both the NIC and ippr reports compare favourably with that of the UK Ministry of Defence’s Orwellian-sounding Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC). ‘The DCDC Strategic Trends Programme 2007-2036’ identifies the right issues: climate change, globalization and global inequality, but the analysis is boyzone stuff, focussing almost entirely on technology and warfare. This is perhaps not surprising since of the 29 people listed in the acknowledgements, 29 are men. Of the three ippr (surprise, surprise) gets my vote, despite the acronym – the Commission’s final report is out in June.