A World In Flux

Two recent publications identify the key trends impacting the world, fuelling uncertainty and endangering the world’s security and prosperity. While very different in approach and scope, they deal with a number of common themes and are useful to review together because both raise fundamental questions about the nature and direction of global change and challenge. The first is the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) “Global Risks 2012” report based on a survey of responses from over 450 experts from government, industry, civil society and academia. The second is the 2012 “Strategic Survey”, a flagship publication of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS). Both map a world in political and economic flux in a strategic environment of shifting power and financial stress.
The WEF study looks at the risk landscape over a ten-year timeline, considering both the likelihood and impact of global challenges. Its survey responses indicate that the world’s concerns have shifted decisively to socio-economic risks, which top the dangers to global stability. The report identifies three sets of global risks. Of these, the most serious is the confluence of fiscal, demographic and societal pressures that foreshadow a bleak or dystopian picture of the future. In the case study of this risk cluster, the report describes how fiscal and demographic trends are colliding — because of ageing populations in developed nations and the youth bulge in developing countries, both of which demand greater resources from financially challenged governments.

A World Economic Forum (WEF) report describes how fiscal and demographic trends are colliding — because of ageing populations in developed nations and the youth bulge in developing countries, both of which demand greater resources from financially challenged governments. At both ends of this spectrum, the young and old could confront income inequalities and a skills gap that could threaten social and political stability.

At both ends of this spectrum, the young and old could confront income inequalities and a skills gap that could threaten social and political stability. The negative trajectory of the global economy could also engender a new wave of protectionism, nationalism and populism. While the core theme of the IISS’s annual review of world affairs is also similar: A world of unsure transitions where weakness and fragility threaten stability and growth but which lacks the leadership to deal with economic and diplomatic challenges. The diffusion of power and emergence of different kinds of power are challenging old certainties and yielding hectic crisis management rather than strategic responses just when global affairs appear inherently unstable.
International diplomacy has become more complicated, which is making global problem solving more difficult. This is similar to a key finding of the WEF report in which respondents cite the failure of diplomatic conflict resolution as among the greatest geopolitical risks. The IISS study sees the continuing rise of ‘strategic nationalism’ in this changing landscape. In almost every region, states will place greater reliance on themselves rather than regional associations. And outside powers will not be able to deal with just ‘regional champions’ as their smaller neighbors will act to protect themselves from regional dominance. While there is much to learn from both reports, in crucial respects they are Western-centric in their approach and appraisals. The principal lens through which the world is seen is for the most part Western interests and concerns. Moreover, for all the ‘trending’ exercises undertaken both by Western research organisations, their capacity to anticipate or define geostrategic shifts from apparent trends remains rather modest. The most telling example has been the inability to see the Arab upheavals ahead of time.
For example, the “Global Trends 2025” report (of 2010), produced in the US by an effort led by the National Intelligence Council, listed key drivers and developments likely to shape world events in the decade ahead. While it identified demography as a key variable and a source of future discord, it did not relate this to the politics of unfulfilled expectations in the Middle East and its potential for social unrest and regime change.
Small wonder then that most analyses churned out by Western think-tanks of the recent protests across the Islamic world have failed to understand that the anti-Islam film became the latest trigger for popular expression of deep-seated Muslim resentment of the West’s policies and conduct that has built up over decades. In casting these protests mostly in terms of Muslim intolerance of freedom of speech, such assessments have been unable to comprehend the underlying reasons for Muslim grievances with the West. This, in turn, has led to the failure to acknowledge the substantial consequences of fraught relations between people in the Islamic world and the Western nations. Without such acknowledgement it becomes impossible to find a lasting resolution of these tensions.
Dr. Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and United Kingdom.

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