Opinion | Columnists

State versus the individual in tomorrow’s world

The world is changing faster than at any time in human history and most of us are still reluctant to step outside today’s frameworks

  • By Philip Stephens
  • Published: 20:00 December 14, 2012
  • Gulf News

Here are three things to ponder about tomorrow’s world. States are becoming at once more assertive and less capable. Newly empowered citizens are becoming more demanding of their political masters. Put the two together and you may have a recipe for resurgent nationalism and conflict.

Last week, the National Intelligence Council (NIC), the agency that sits atop the US intelligence community, published its quadrennial report on what the world might look like 20 years hence. Launched at a conference hosted by the Washington-based Atlantic Council, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds is a must read — a treasure trove of well-chosen facts, prescient analysis and strategic insights.

The headlines generated by the assessment focused on its view of US power. The Pax Americana, the period of American ascendancy that began in 1945, was coming to an end, the NIC said, You might say: So what? The global power shift is hardly new. However, the significance, it seems, is that the US is now admitting it. The word in Washington was that the White House was distinctly nervous in advance of the report’s publication.

Headlines apart, the NIC’s analysis is a lot more subtle than the China-up, America-down narrative — beloved of the gloomsters who declare we all will soon be ruled from Beijing. For one thing, the spooks — and just about every other serious analyst — believe that the US will remain primus inter pares among the great powers in 2030. The point is that it will have to work harder if it wants to get its own way.

The report invites the reader to be optimistic or pessimistic according to taste. Surely there is something to celebrate in the arrival of at least a billion more people in the ranks of the global middle class? But then what about the strain this will put on finite natural resources? The vast majority of us will live longer, healthier lives, but the world is getting old. Technology promises to multiply our personal relationships and access to knowledge. It is also a lethal weapon in the hands of tyrants and terrorists. Shale oil and gas will keep the lights on as climate change threatens our security, prosperity and, perhaps, the very future of the planet.

What is certain is that the world is changing faster than at any time in human history and that most of us are still reluctant to step outside today’s frameworks. Keynes saw the problem long before anyone talked about a digital age. “The idea of the future being different from the present”, he wrote, “is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behaviour that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice.”

For me, the fascinating story of the next couple of decades will centre on the interaction of two big power shifts. The first is the familiar one, from West to East, and North to South. By 2030, Asia will have surpassed the US and Europe on most measurements of relative power. However, this is not just about China and India. Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, Vietnam, Iran and others all have the potential to become significant powers. This is the post-western world that the US will find it harder to shape in its own image.

The more striking trend, though, is the ebbing of power away from the state. This has been happening for some time. Governments everywhere, in the West and among the rest, have been weakened by globalisation — losing power to multinational corporations, footloose capital and cross-border networks. The NIC identifies a second shift — from the state to the individual. The report calls this individual empowerment a “megatrend”, a development that will change fundamentally the way societies are organised.

In rising states, growing prosperity and costless communications technology are emancipating hundreds of millions of people who have hitherto been locked out of politics. Women almost everywhere are securing greater access to education and the beginnings of a voice in politics.

We have caught a glimpse of the awakening in the uprisings in the Middle East, but it reaches well beyond the Arab world. Ask the Chinese policy makers who forever fret about the social and political expectations of that country’s burgeoning middle class.

Most of these developments are benign. A world in which women are empowered will surely be a deal safer than one in which international relationships are ruled by male machismo. In the West, the digital revolution should be seen as an extension rather than a threat to democracy. But autocrats everywhere as well as democratic leaders steeped in the old politics of party and patronage will find the loss of power hugely destabilising.

So where is the threat in the diffusion of power? The problem is that states will be operating in a more fragmented and unpredictable international landscape. As the world becomes more multipolar it is also becoming less multilateral. The rising states are jealous of national sovereignty. Politicians in the West have grown reluctant to cede power to international institutions.

The paradox is that this makes it all the harder for governments to address the insecurities, whether economic or physical, that most trouble their citizens. Uncontrolled migration, economic offshoring, financial instability, climate change, unconventional weapons proliferation, cross-border crime and terrorism — none of these are problems within the capacity of individual states to resolve.

To reclaim power, governments will have to act in concert. The danger is that they will look instead for someone else to blame by stoking the fires of nationalism.

— Financial Times

Gulf News