A tale of two futures

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
2 May 2008

Never make predictions, especially about the future, is a wise piece of advice. But prophecy can also be understood as "suggesting the possible". The possible large-scale consequences of current global trends have been explored in an earlier column in this series (see "A century on the edge, 1945-2045", 29 December 2007). The future imagined, hoped for or feared today may not be so distant, however. What might the world look like only a little more than a decade ahead, in 2020? Here are two scenarios. Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001 - this is his 350th column

2020, future one: an age of insurgencies

After the United States presidential election in November 2008, the incoming administration in Washington took office in the context of an unfolding global recession. It paid rather more attention to climate change than its predecessor, but - even as the scientific evidence of accelerating global warming mounted - it did little more than rhetorically support the goals agreed at the conferences in Bali, Poznan and Copenhagen between December 2007 and December 2009 (see "Climate change: a window to act" [22 November 2007] and "A global threat multiplier" [20 March 2008]).

In the security field, the new administration made some attempts to reduce US commitments in Iraq, while increasing forces in Afghanistan. Its efforts to manage and control either conflict were, however, constrained by resource pressures and local realities.

But it was the political reaction to a series of events in 2009-10 in the United States, Europe and the middle east that did much to determine the security environment of the 2010s. In London, multiple bomb-attacks on the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras International and the Kings Cross/St Pancras underground station killed well over a hundred people, many of them recent arrivals from Paris. The British and French governments reacted by imposing even tougher legal measures while further expanding their intelligence and security forces.

In Saudi Arabia, combined attacks on the Abqaiq oil-processing plant and the Ras Tanura oil-exporting port succeeded where the operation of February 2006 had failed (see "Abqaiq's message to Washington", 9 November 2006). The industrial disruption lasted only for a few months, but the impact on oil prices was massive. The Saudi authorities reluctantly acquiesced to American insistence on the return of a US military presence to augment internal security; this gave a renewed boost to the al-Qaida movement, whose propagandists could again highlight the "crusader" occupation of the "kingdom of the two holy places".

In the United Arab Emirates, the spectacular Burj Dubai skyscraper reached its planned height of just over 915 metres early in 2009. This symbol of Dubai's relentless property boom was hailed in much of the media as the eighth wonder of the world in an already extraordinary city (see Faisal Devji, "Dubai cosmopolis", 19 April 2007). The superlatives left unmentioned the half a million contract-workers from across south Asia who had provided the labour force for the emirate's building extravaganza. Many lived sixteen to a room in overcrowded labour camps out in the desert, separated for months or years from their families. Their grinding toil earned minimal wages and the same degree of protection from industrial accidents or health problems. They were the heirs to the slaves who had built the pyramids - one of those earlier wonders.

Six months after Burj Dubai's completion, explosives that had been hidden during construction detonated without warning, collapsing the building and killing over 20,000 people. Most were American, Russia and western European expatriates, though they also included many service workers. A group calling itself the Army of the Poor claimed responsibility.

Soon after, an Iraqi freight airline pilot crashed her Boeing 747 into the Capitol in Washington, killing over 1,000 people, including many members and staffers of Congress. It transpired that the pilot's parents had been killed by US marines at a checkpoint in Baghdad in 2004. Some analysts chose to regard this as an extreme instance of blowback.

The reaction to these attacks across the west, and especially in the United States, was to intensify the war on terror. In a hawkish political atmosphere, a selective draft was introduced, US intervention in Pakistan became routine, and the war in Iraq was at last extended to Iran (see "Iran: war and surprise" [13 September 2007] and "The Tehran fixation" [1 November 2007]. The retrospective view of the US's national military strategy of 2008 - envisaging an "era of persistent engagement" - confirmed earlier assessments that it formed the basis for a conflict without limits or ends (see John T Bennett, "Draft U.S. National Military Strategy Declares 'Era of Persistent Engagement'", Defense News, 14 April 2008 [subscription only]).

In these circumstances, the early intention of the new administration in Washington to focus on the problems of the global economy and of climate change was forgotten. The sheer scale and longevity of what the United States was involved in and committed to were vividly reinforced (see "The world as a battlefield", 9 February 2006).

Thus, the early 2010s were dominated by an even more ferocious war on terror. In global terms, however, far more people were immediately affected by the rampant Naxalite rebellion in India and the protracted social conflicts of an economically booming but ever more divided China. The decade of 2010-20 is now widely characterised as an "age of insurgency", and - beyond the fevered and desperate imaginings of US neo-conservatives - there is at last among political and media establishments a developing recognition of the evolving impact of global polarisation and the prevention of access to sustainable livelihood of millions of people.

What was less anticipated, and in 2020 was still far from being properly recognised, was the combined effect of this human insecurity and socio-economic division and deprivation with unavoidable environmental constraints. True, the pressing realities of climate change across much of the world - and most devastatingly in the tropics - were increasingly apparent by the late 2010s. But the main outcome in the global north was a closing of the castle gates. The border barrier between the United States and Mexico was supplemented by a hugely expanded US Coast Guard - the fifth and smallest element of the US armed forces (after the army, navy, air force, and marines), responsible for patrolling the seas; most of Europe (as well as Australia) followed the lead of "fortress America" (see "The New Atlantic Century?", 24 January 2008).

In much of the rest of the world, the elites continued to thrive in their heavily protected enclaves, yet lived too with a permanent undercurrent of fear (see "A tale of two towns", 21 June 2007). This was intensified by the way that the Army of the Poor has become a global anti-elite phenomenon. There was no one leader, no particular focus, just a loose amalgam of groups. In this respect it resembled the al-Qaida movement of the 1998-2010 years, which is now seen much more as an early symptom rather than a core phenomenon. In the wake of the Burj Dubai attack, the targeting of nodes of economic power became almost routine (see "The asymmetry of economic war", 14 February 2008).

This is the global predicament in 2020. It may be that the world's institutions of governance and citizens will in the decade to come begin to move towards a sustainable future, founded on greater understanding of the world as it is. A lot of luck will be needed for this to happen - and even if it does, it will follow two lost decades of missed chances which have inflicted a level of suffering that will haunt humanity for the rest of the century.

2020, future two: some small steps

In 2009, the incoming administration in Washington was preoccupied with the domestic recession, but there were signals of a cautiously progressive approach in some aspects of its foreign policy. These included a limited withdrawal of forces from Iraq, a willingness to allow negotiations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a more proactive and determined search for a settlement of the Israel/Palestine dispute. This limited departure from the policies of the George W Bush administration helped change the global atmosphere of antagonism towards United States policies, and even had the beginnings of an effect (if fragile and conditional) on support for radical Islamist movements.

By 2011, and in the wake of the world food crisis of 2008-09, transnational civil-society groups were focusing on what was being called a "new international economic order"; it was broadly similar to proposals made in the early 1970s, but underpinned by a much more clear-cut policy agenda (see "The world's food insecurity", 24 April 2008). This embraced trade reform, large-scale debt cancellation and sustainable pro-poor development assistance, and also concentrated on the increasingly urgent matter of climate change.

By late 2011, the largely discredited World Trade Organisation was being sidelined by many states in the global south which were insisting that the United Nations should refocus on the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as the main negotiating forum. The organisation's session in Qatar in 2012 - exactly forty years after the failure of UNCTAD III, in Santiago, Chile - was a formative moment for activists and media in arguing for this global reordering of political energies (see "Wanted: a new global paradigm", 8 November 2007).

In parallel with these arguments over food insecurity, poverty, development and trade, the issue of climate change was at last receiving serious government attention; Washington - and the American people and the country's states and cities - was engaged in a more than rhetorical way. Climate specialists continued to warn of a rapid acceleration of effects whose short-term consequences would include unpredictably febrile weather patterns. They were taken more seriously than ever - even more so when a series of formidable events hit in 2010-11: among them seven Category 5 storms within twenty months that caused extensive damage to Miami, Osaka and Hong Kong / Guangzhou, and severe heatwaves and floods across much of central and western Europe.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed But worst of all was the failure of the rains in a swathe of territory from east Africa to the eastern Mediterranean, southeast Turkey, northern Iraq and through most of Iran. The alarming decrease in the Nile flow created particular suffering in Egypt. The extensive social disruption was far more severe than during the 2008 food emergency, and included a massive escalation of migration pressures.

These desperate environmental circumstances, in the context of the shifting security and political landscape, helped generate a new global balance of forces. An effective coalition of transnational civil pressure (in which many north-south movements played an important role), some enlightened political leadership and a reinvigorated United Nations began to have significant practical achievements to its credit.

A striking example was the decision in 2012 to replace the surface panels of the world's tallest building, the Burj Dubai, with third-generation quantum-well photovoltaics. On a site guaranteed to have at least 350 sunny days in the year, the building was transformed into a veritable power station, giving an enormous boost to the entire region's ecological transformation (see James Howarth, "The quiet revolution: energy futures in Iran, the Gulf, and Israel", 7 February 2008). This experimental use of green technology was not at the time subject to narrow economic criteria of utility, but it quickly came to have enormous practical as well as symbolic value: in the development of photovoltaics and other renewables, in advanced-energy storage technologies and energy conservation, as well as in the challenge to existing technologies to refine their application.

At the same time, industrialising states were beginning to succeed in evolving low-impact economies. The overall result was that by 2016, a serious downturn in carbon emissions worldwide was beginning to be evident.

In 2020, no one can pretend that the future is bright. It is accepted that a high-priority concern with climate change will persist for at least half a century; and that its effects will require sustained efforts of amelioration, especially in tropical and sub-tropical areas. It is also acknowledged that the world economy is very little fairer than in 2008; that rich elites live in ghettoised, protected communities divorced from their fellow-citizens and insulated from the sense of a public interest; and that radical movements continue to provoke and scarify political establishments.

Yet amid this mix of limited progress and rooted danger, there is an air of - restrained and qualified - optimism. A deep regret and anger at this century's first wasted decade is being supplemented by a sense that the 2010s have at least begun the process of facing the world's realities.

There is no respite. The decade ahead demands a new phase of qualitative and even more radical change. The 2020s will determine whether global emancipation in a sustainable world is feasible; even now the prospect remains more dream than reality.

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