The Shape of the World to Come Part III: The Path to a New World Order

The third part in the series on ‘The Shape of the World to Come’ attempts to describe the transition to and the shape of the New World Order. The first part Leader_New World Orderlooked at the positive long term development trends taking place in the world today, providing historic breakthroughs and increasing material benefits on a global scale. The second part looked at contrasting challenges facing the world today. Looking at these challenges and the pressures that they create it is clear that we live in revolutionary times, in which the order that has governed the world for decades is coming to an end. Current poltical events may well define the nature of this transition, in particular, the Trump Administration has the potential to serve as a catalyst for the current order’s demise should it choose to pursue the ‘doctrine’ espoused during the election campaign. In the third part of the series we attempt to draw out the potential impact of current events on the global changes underway, describing a series of transition scenarios the world might face as a result. We also attempt to place the current shifts underway within a series of frameworks that describe the broader sweep of history. What is clear from this analysis is that the personal and collective choices we make today have the potential to shape the world for decades to come.

“Unless societies can agree on a set of truly universal values, a new sustainable world order cannot be forged in a civilised manner. In which case, one will emerge from the chaos of competition and conflict that accompanies the collapse of the existing world order.[1]” 

We live in revolutionary times.  The uprisings of the Arab Spring in the Middle East between 2010 and 2014 have spread to the West, unsettling Europe as the British voted to leave the EU, and enabling the election to the US presidency of a man widely believed to be unelectable, defeating an opponent perceived as a defender of the ‘Western World Order’.  These revolutions are not at an end.  Their aftermath to date has left the Middle East unsettled creating millions of refugees, the EU set to suffer a fracture and the US divided by bitter partisanship, anger and fear.  Where is all this headed?

The final piece of the three-part series on the shape of the world to come looks at the potential paths to the creation of a new world order.  The first piece in the series laid out the long-term, positive arc of development and progress that have taken place in the world, delivering increasing longevity and prosperity, the reduction of child mortality, poverty, hunger, illiteracy, war, violence and disease, and the spread of human rights.  Looking at this list, one is struck by the fact that all the positive long term improvements in people’s lives have at their core been driven primarily by a combination of two fundamental factors, namely the spread of liberal humanist values by the West, combined with advances in science and technology.  Although scientific advances and innovation have made the world’s progress in the past century possible, it has been liberal humanism that has made them a reality and ensured their diffusion.  The increasing value placed on human life and the idea of the inalienable rights of the individual have provided the critical direction and momentum to the application of technology to achieve the dramatic progress of our times. The second part of the series looked at the significant challenges facing the world, including income inequality, employment dislocation, terrorism, pollution, cyberattacks, the use of fear and hate as political weapons and the development of post-truth realities.  Collectively, these challenges have the potential to alter the long-term trajectory of global development enabled by the western liberal order, breaking down the consensus that has governed both international relations and those between governments and their citizens.

The nature of these challenges and the mounting emotions that they generate, seem to suggest that the current world order is at an inflection point.  The underlying values and institutions that have shaped and maintained the current order, while enabling great human progress, have failed to solve these issues satisfactorily, leading to increasing  dislocation and disruptions and the recognition that that many of the world’s core principles and institutions are in dire need of reinvention.  Recent geopolitical events highlight this need in a stark manner.  Within his the early days of his office, President Trump has launched an array of initiatives designed to fulfill a number of key campaign promises, while flip-flopping on many others. As the president doubles up on his attacks on the media, coinciding with their coverage of potential links between his administration and Russia, this has given rise to a growing feeling that there could indeed be substance to the allegations and hope to his political opponents, both Democrat and Republican, to derail Trump’s agenda if not the president himself.  Current US events and their potentially long-term implications nonwithstanding, the issues underlying the transformation of the world order are real and need to be addressed.  In the scheme of such major shifts, what happens in the US, although critical to the nature of the transition path, are a smaller drama than the bigger one of global change that is set to happen regardless.  However, if the US intends to finish this episode with dignity and have a chance at being the leader in the next world order, it will not only need to heed the lessons of history, it will need to avoid the fate of every previous superpower.

While both the magnitude of the disruption likely to face the world and the effort required to form a new order are daunting, it is important to remember that the world has been here many times before.  Indeed, one of the most consistent features of world history has been societies’ ability to reinvent itself after prolonged and intense periods of instability and conflict.  This is true of the rise of the European Powers following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the rise of today’s PRC following the death of Mao and the rise of the US-USSR balance of superpowers following WWII and the decline of the British Empire.  While these times witnessed massive dislocations and disruptions through wars and other man-made catastrophes, they also witnessed great creativity, as leaders repeatedly reinvented the world from the ashes of the previous order.  This recurring process may well be a function of the “inevitability of history”, which has driven repeating cyclical shifts between order and chaos, power and weakness, and progress and regression on a global scale.  Over and above these shifts, however, there are greater patterns that indicate a possible long-term direction to the drama and tragedies that unfold over human lifespans.  These will also be considered briefly in this paper.  It is useful, at this stage, to note that man’s power to make change has grown exponentially throughout history given advances in science, technology and globalisation and so at today’s juncture, man is now capable of reshaping the world more dramatically than ever before to a more positive or destructive outcome.  However, it is unclear whether the reshaping necessarily needs to be a violent one as it has often been in the past.  Nevertheless, a new world order will be the product of the choices made by powerful protagonists, increasingly empowered by their publics.  One cannot assume it will be a ‘safe’ or ‘rational’ path, particularly given that some of the current players have risen to power on the promise of destroying much of the old world order without a fully articulated vision of what is to take its place.

The Next 25 Years - Certainties in Times of Uncertainty: The Canvas on Which the New World Order Will be Drawn

For all of the uncertainty facing the world today, there are a number of virtual ‘certainties’ that will be features of any transition the world embarks, and that will invariably shape any new world order that emerges. 

Certainty I: US Primacy but the End of a Unipolar World Order.The America that forged the last world order cannot indefinitely maintain the relative levels of global power enjoyed at the end of the Cold War. China’s economic and military power is ascendant and Russia, following a period of internal turmoil caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, is pursuing ‘great power’ status with increasing aggressiveness. Both countries have sought to increase their power and influence in the current world order, necessarily at America’s expense. China’s increasing engagement with the world reveals an ambition that is increasingly clear, evidenced by its actions in the South China Seas and initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy, all of which position China as a global trade hub. Beyond its own region, China is becoming more active in economic, political and security engagements globally, and expects its influence in these areas to increase further over time. What is a unipolar world? It is world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And this certainly has nothing in common with democracy. I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible
Russian President Vladimir Putin, 2007
Russia, while not of the same calibre as the US and China in terms of power or potential, remains a player because of its dogged determination (or desperation) to maintain its great power status at all costs. Although its regional base remains huge, Russia has repeatedly shown its willingness to act aggressively to defend and expand what it perceives as its core sphere of influence (the former Soviet Union), and establish newspheres of influence (Syria, Greece, Turkey), resorting to asymmetric means (e.g. information warfare, electoral interference) in places where its hard power does not reach (the US, the EU, for now). However, barring a catastrophic event, the US looks set to continue to be the strongest of the three for the foreseeable future not least because of the many structural advantages it enjoys, including the world’s largest and most advanced military, a clear relative soft power advantage, the status of the US dollar as the global reserve currency and its leadership of key multi-national institutions, to name a few.

Certainty II: Emerging Markets Rise, India Ascendant.  New countries are also rising and can be expected to play an important role in a future multi-polar world.  These emerging markets will play a much more central role in world affairs, economically and therefore politically, India more than anybody.  India has become the fastest growing economy in the world, and it is on track to become one of the three largest within the next decade.  While the prediction of the rise of the BRICS back in 2003 now appears to have been somewhat premature, fundamental socio-demographic and macroeconomic factors all but ensure the ongoing rise of emerging markets.  Among these, G20 members such as Mexico, Turkey and Indonesia are already well along the transition to modern industrial economies while still enjoying the demographic dividend and low cost structures associated with emerging markets.  Among these countries however, India stands in a league of its own in terms of size, growth and development potential. While the success and failure of the reform efforts of its current government have the potential to shape the speed and nature of its rise, the rise itself appears to be an increasingly accepted conclusion, following decades of relative stagnation.

Certainty III: Consumerism, Population Growth and Competition for Resources.  Mass consumerism, global economic development and continued population growth will continue to drive demand for the world’s core resources, which in the absence of radical breakthroughs in science will be depleted at an accelerating rate. There are currently approximately seven billion people on the planet who aspire to live an American consumer lifestyle and there are simply not enough water, energy, land, mineral and other resources to enable their aspirations.  Americans makes up 5% of the global population, but use 20% of the world's energy, eat 15% of the world's meat and produce a staggering 40% percent of the world's garbage (but still felt dissatisfied with their economic position, based on the results of their last presidential election).  With consensus estimates plotting the global population at nearly 10bn by 2050, the competition among nations to secure resources is set to accelerate.  In the face of this growing demand and competition, existing multi-lateral agreements and institutions governing trade, access to markets, the sharing of water, and the ownership of critical reserves and natural resources will likely be inadequate, increasing the chances for escalating conflicts and a potential breakdown of transparent rules-based engagements between states. ‘National interests first’ risks becoming the slogan of the powerful who will feel they have the most to gain from bilateral agreements with the weak than from multi-lateral institutions.

Certainty IV: Environmental Calamities Threaten Social Stability.  Environmental damage is set to reach levels that undermine economic and social stability in many parts of the world.  Rising sea levels, water acidification, desertification, increasingly erratic weather patterns and pollution risk causing irreparable harm to the biosphere and changing our way of life the world over. In China 60% of groundwater is not fit for human consumption due to industrial and human waste, and over 50% of the population does not have access to safe drinking water.  And while China’s air pollution has reached legendary proportions, causing 1.5m deaths annually, India’s has recently surpassed it as among the world’s worst, with nearly three times the ozone related deaths per capita. Clearly, this is not just a developing world issue though, with industrialised countries’ daily food waste equalling the total food production of Sub-Saharan Africa.  And with other countries seeking to adopt the West’s model of mass consumption, global waste production is set to triple this century. The loss of habitats and livelihoods caused by that environmental degradation will increase socio-political tensions, both within states and between them as societies come to face the reality of scarcities and other environmental dislocations. 

Certainty V: Acceleration of Technological Disruption, Work and Mental Health. The timespan between scientific revolutions is continuing to shorten, and continuing progress is leading to a disparity between people’s comfortable frame of reference and the reality that surrounds them. The law of accelerating returns  predicts that 20 years of progress at the current rate equals the total progress made during the entire 20th century. This level of technological change challenges every element of how people live their lives. Automation has the potential to replace 50% of all jobs, including services jobs, within the next two decades.  Intelligent systems which are today learning rapidly how to increase our propensity to buy are expected to know each of us better than any living person could by analysing and making connections between our emails, text messages, social media sites, photo libraries, credit card expenditures, calendars, subscriptions and workplace records. The desire of large sections of the population to hang on to the last wave of reality – industrial labour jobs, uni-cultural/uni-colour societies, and island-status or walled fiefdoms – and to resist the next wave of social change is creating whole swathes of people who struggle to stay in synch with the pace of global change that is set to leave them behind.  Governments will either need to try to futilely stem the flow of change or offer credible solutions that soften the blow of this ‘future shock’ and enable people to successfully make the necessary transitions. 

Certainty VI: Increase in Asymmetric Power. America’s reign as a hyperpower has historically been underpinned by its undisputed supremacy in hard power. The US accounts for over 35% of total global military spending, with an annual budget the size of the next 11 largest spenders combined. With America’s absolute military might likely to remain undisputed for decades, state and non-state actors have focused on the development of asymmetric means to compete with America and disrupt the current world order, most effectively in the forms of international terrorism and cyber-warfare. The phenomenon of international terrorism has morphed from acts by small disparate groups to coordinated actions by worldwide movements, increasingly posing a threat to the stability of countries the world over. While in most countries the direct impact of terrorism is marginal, plane crashes and gun accidents. Cyber-based attack has emerged as one of the most disruptive means of destabilising national order.  State actors, and Russia and China in particular, have been accused of building and deploying significant cyber-attack capabilities against America and the West, while Russia has been recognised by US security agencies to have interfered with the outcome of the US presidential election. The scope for influencing others’ belief sets and sense of identity, and for undermining the functioning of democracy, financial systems, corporations and every manner of international body is now possible and growing in capability. 

Certainty VII: Migration Flows and Related Pressures. Conflict and political instability, environmental degradation, and widening income inequality will continue to drive mass migrations of peoples. Globally one in every 122 humans today is a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. If this were the population of a country it would be the world’s 24th largest, bigger than South Korea. And the number of these involuntary migrants is dwarfed by the voluntary ones who are simply seeking a better life elsewhere. "In many regions war and terror prevail. States disintegrate. For many years we have read about this. We have heard about it. We have seen it on TV. But we had not yet sufficiently understood that what happens in Aleppo and Mosul can affect Essen or Stuttgart. We have to face that now."
Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, 2015
Existing migration patterns are already driving population concentration, not just to ‘destination’ countries, but also within nations into urban areas. By 2030 the number of people living in cities is expected to grow by 50% to 5bn, putting increasing pressure on infrastructure and systems as well as exacerbating the rural-urban divide in developing countries. Developed nations and cities, in particular, will need to make a choice regarding these migration flows: accept increased migration and the many challenges it brings or spend inordinate amounts of direct and indirect capital to try to stem the flow. Countries today seem to be making a range of choices in this regard: Germany’s 1m refugees represent an example of the former, Donald Trump’s US$25bn border wall with Mexico is an example of the latter.

Certainty VIII: Shift Away from Industrial Jobs.  The de-industrialisation of the American heartland and much of Britain during the past decades is but a small part of a larger dislocation underway, and  Germany and Japan can expect the same hollowing out of their industrial base in the future.  While low cost in the developing world may provide some respite to the poorer nations, ultimately, the emerging information society will replace industrial workers with robots and and service jobs with software. During the transition period, jobs may temporarily move back and forth as emerging nations such as China lose their relative cost advantage and America regains competitiveness in certain industries, but ultimately, the shift away from ‘old style’ industrial jobs is inevitable. The move from an era where power was based on the ownership of the core factor inputs of land, capital and labour to one where power is based on knowledge and data is driving shifts in capital, talent and trade flows that will further destabilise the world’s industrial powerbases. In the previous era, advanced industrial nations attracted skilled manufacturing labour, generated current account surpluses on strong exports and invested capital internationally. In the future, these flows will likely shift from industrial to information societies (and transnational networks), reshuffling the deck of geo-political/economic power.

The Essence of the Transition: The Gap Years vs. a Bridge to the Future

One of the most fundamental benefits of the current Western liberal order has been global economic development, driven by democracy, capitalism and globalisation. The growth model of the current world order, however, is not sustainable without profound changes. If the entire world were to live to the standard of the average American, it would need the equivalent of four more Earths to provide the necessary resources for them to do so, implying a significant impeding gap in resources. And barring the highly unlikely scenario that the entire world’s population settles for the lifestyle and consumption of say the average person in China today, growing demand will soon lead to shortages which can only be solved by technological breakthroughs that allow us to produce and consume more while using less of nearly everything. These fundamental breakthroughs will need to occur across a wide range of areas including energy, material sciences, manufacturing, healthcare, defence and information technology. And unless the breakthroughs create a near cost-free abundance of what the world consumes, it would still need to agree not only how much it can afford to consume but also how resources would be shared. The likelihood that there is a gap before these breakthroughs are realized gives rise to the idea of the ‘Gap Years’. Until the necessary breakthroughs occur, countries during the Gap Years will face increasing pressure to secure what they deem to be their ‘fair’ share of the remaining resources. During this gap, mankind will learn whether our species has progressed to a level where sharing prevails over conflict or whether the fear of scarcity drives to acquisition for oneself at the expense of others. If the Gap Years are defined by fear and acquisition, they will drive increasing conflicts between states, initially trade- and diplomacy based, but potentially escalating to war when the stakes are high enough. In any zero-sum game, however, escalation is all but inevitable. The peaceful alternative on the other hand requires a global superpower, or group of powerful and aligned nations, to lead the world based on the belief that sharing and collaborating to create plenty is the best way ahead, thereby creating a ‘Bridge’ to the future.

Today and the Next Four (or Eight) Years - ‘America First’ in the Transition to the New World Order

America’s potential withdrawal from global leadership in favour of its own interests, in other words, comes at a time when Amerian leadership is most needed. With the promulgation of an ‘America First’ position espoused by President Trump during the campaign and the various actions taken since the election, it is easy to point to the president as the instigator of America’s withdrawal from and the weakening of the global order. This is of course an oversimplification. The phenomenon of anti-globalisation, national primacy and isolationism is a broader one, and while the president is clearly an important catalyst of this broader trend, he is also a symptom of the desire of a large portion of the American people to withdraw from global leadership.

Following two wars abroad during the Bush Administration in Afghanistan and Iraq that left the US over US$4 trillion poorer, the American public tired of foreign adventures, leading President Obama to preside over the withdrawal of large scale ‘boots on the ground’ military action in favour of sanctions, allied action, massive use of drone warfare and diplomacy. While America successfully resisted allowing the war in Syria to escalate into a third world war, the price of disengagement has been a regional power vacuum, which parties such as ISIS and Russia have stepped in to. Elsewhere,America’s ‘pivot’ to Asia began with limited re-engagement on the slow-moving, US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade initiative and expanded to include naval and air force manoeuvres in the South China Seas in response to China stepping up its sovereignty claims over the disputed region.

However, while the Obama administration has pursed what can be seen as an attempt at an orderly withdrawal from US world leadership based on military might and in favour of other means (sanctions, drones, multi-lateral efforts), the Trump administration’s rhetoric, and to a lesser degree some of its actions, have signalled its willingness to tear up the world order wholesale.However, this too may be too simplistic a conclusion, and there are a number of possible scenarios for how ‘America First’ might play out over the next four (or possibly eight) years.

The Preservation of the World Order Behind a Show of Populist Rhetoric. There is a growing concern that President Trump’s next four years might be like his first four weeks, with lots of populist campaigning, media baiting, public anger, surprise executive orders that do not get fully (if at all) implemented and the use of alternative facts to secure his popularity with his base, a few attacks on foreign targets to bolster domestic and allied opinion but with few radical moves to undo the world order. Behind the public reality show, Republicans on Capitol Hill may then refrain from reigning in a president who serves as a diversionary smokescreen behind which the core conservative agenda is quietly but steadily progressed: deregulation, tax cuts, increased defence spending, renegotiated trade agreements, the occasional show of military force and increased military commitments squeezed out of allies are all executed under Republican control of the House and Senate. A few sops are given to building a partial wall with Mexico, deporting some immigrants, banning a few Muslim nations temporarily and the like but no big programme of change is initiated. In this scenario, American enterprise, military and economic interests are all strengthened for a given term, leaving effective US leadership intact despite an inevitable decline in global soft power, and thereby preserving the world order. This scenario entails the demotion of Trump’s alt-right advisor Steven Bannon, a re-commitment to NATO and ‘constructive talks’ with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Full Intent Pursued in a Wide-ranging Transactional Mode.  Alternatively, Donald Trump may follow through on his campaign promises, no matter the consequences for global stability or the world order, in fact, with a disregard for both, based on a transactional modus operandi. Under this scenario, America would build the wall with Mexico, widen the Muslim ban and then move to the full list of promises made during the campaign, which a previous Sign of the Times had captured as the ‘Trump Doctrine’ (See inset). Should this or an equivalent list be executed, American power on a relative basis would still be superior to others but at the cost of making the world as a whole a more dangerous and unstable place, substantially increasing the risk of unforeseen consequences. Multi-lateral institutions would lose relevance and American accountability would decline, the Middle East would continue to be embroiled in conflict, the EU would be weakened and made easier to negotiate with, Asian security risk would increase and both China and Russia would be provided a renewed sphere of influence to focus on. Meanwhile, ‘alternative facts’ and a continuing campaign style at home with some jobs saved by preventing offshoring would be used to secure the support base and sow sufficient confusion and frustration among the opposition to enable the agenda to be pursued. In this scenario, America would face opposition and a growing resistance movement on multiple fronts at home and abroad and its will and ability to succeed would be tested. The ability or willingness of President Trump to stick to key points of the “Trump Doctrine” is the indicator of the likelihood of this scenario being fully realised.

An ‘End of Days’ Ideological War. America, the world’s most advanced scientific, technological, financial and military power, also has the world’s largest Christian population (280m, representing 70% of the country’s population), roughly half of which (48%) believe that the biblical ‘End of Days’ or ‘End Times’ will occur within the next 40 years . President Trump’s chief strategist, Steven Bannon, articulates this view in terms of the world being at “the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict", in which he believes that white Christian America will need to “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity … that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000 years”. The “Judeo-Christian West is collapsing … It’s imploding… And somewhere over the next 10 or 20 years, we’re going to come through this crisis, and we’re either going to be the country that was bequeathed to us or it’s going to be something that’s completely or totally different.
Steve Bannon, White House Chief Strategist, 2011
The follow through of this scenario, would see the White House launch an ideological war waged against not only Islam, perceived as an existential threat, but also against the political establishment, the supposed ‘deep’ government, journalists, allies and enemies, and many of its own citizens. America’s allies abroad and the world order in general would be abandoned in favour of a racial-cultural nativism and isolationism and narrow view of primacy that would likely see the world carved up into clear zones of influence based on ideology: America first and its outlying Christian geographies; Russian influence over Central and Eastern Europe; Chinese dominance in Asia; perpetual war in the Middle East involving nations, states, governments and their oppositions, and; pervasive international terrorism and counter-terrorism. For the administration to achieve this would require co-opting not only ‘transactional’ players in the US who reshape regulation, trade and legal systems but also others – especially in the intelligence and military establishment - who create the disruptions that carve up the world. This scenario, clearly changes America’s place in the world, the world order itself and the nature of co-existence and world peace. The likelihood of this scenario rests for now on whether globalists prevail over ideologists in the White House.

While the first scenario creates a lull in America’s image in the world as a nation of aspirational values, it potentially strengthens America relative to others and may ultimately enhance the global economy, for a time at least, given the American consumer’s role in creating jobs world over. While it may undermine international institutions in the process, it does not in itself dismantle them or dramatically alter the world order. In stark contrast, the second scenario may well dismantle the world order through actions that bypass or undermine international institutions and agreements, while the third scenario actively seeks to do so.  While the early signs from the White House appear to indicate that the former two scenarios are the more likely for the time being, none of them are discrete, however, and actual policy might adopt elements from all three of them. Among the three scenarios, the last two have the highest likelihood of driving substantial unintended consequences, potentially triggering a vicious and escalating circle of action and reaction. For example, the US may find itself facing a myriad of interrelated threats: a series of domestic terrorist attacks like the ones carried out in France , along with assaults on US assets abroad, a broader regional war beginning with Iran and Israel and embroiling everyone else and/or a growing coalition of nations forming a resistance against America and its actions. Indeed, the world would like to believe that the first scenario is the only one that can prevail and so will look for signs that this scenario is the one prevailing. If lulled into a false victory, the risk of the last two scenarios rises. The threat of the last two scenarios is likely in the US, unlike in the nearly 50% of UK voters, to inspire a myriad of domestic resistance movements: legal blocks, a modern day civil rights movements, a liberal Tea Party, many faceted equivalents of the ‘Occupy Wall-Street’ movement and has the potential to create something new too. The alternative is worth considering, namely that the results of these scenarios triggers a domestic counter-coup that topples Trump and puts a right-wing but mainstream Republican party back in charge.

Perhaps, the more dangerous phenomenon in relation to these scenarios is that they need not be mutually exclusive, the first can transition into the second or third with the right levers, strategy and strategist at the helm. Importantly, none of these scenarios actually seeks to preserve the best of the current world order for the world at large or addresses the fundamental issues of the current world order. However, it is equally important to realise that the Gap Years are inevitable regardless of American actions, intent and leadership (or lack thereof). While the next four to eight years will determine America’s role in the world, it cannot avert the certainties laid out above and their consequences. And while it is possible that current disruptions and harsh language amount to little and simply pass the problem of solving the big issues of our time to the next set of leaders, ultimately, the issues will not be avoidable, they will have to be addressed.

The Next 25 Years - The Path to the New World Order: Potential Roads

In the absence of leadership to create a Bridge to the future, survival will become the key determining factor. In such an unstable and shifting world the power of existing alliances and institutions will wane and potentially become irrelevant, leading to many of them being dissolved. In a fight for scarce assets, countries and societies will rethink existing alliances and form new partnerships to ensure that they secure necessary natural, human capital and financial resources. In this difficult period, the underpinning culture of the world would shift to a survivor mentality where dignity and compassion give way to something more basic, akin to the survival of the fittest.

New coalitions will likely emerge from the fight for self-interest, with partnerships forming, breaking down and re-forming as needs change and opponents react. These coalitions will be built around and in response to the leading global power blocks, the US, China and Russia, with the rest of the world aligning and realigning around these players as required. “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests”
Henry Kissinger, 1979
The specific shape and duration of these coalitions are difficult to predict. The regionalism and often opposing world-views of the varying players would ensure that any coalitions remain tactical in nature and inherently temporary, formed to address discrete issues or in reaction to events that create common interests, and abandoned when these issues are addressed or interests diverge. Accordingly, the number of potential coalitions are myriad and shifting, exposing the world to uncertainty until a stable equilibrium is reached. Potential transient alliances could include the US and UK, united in withdrawal and building island fortresses, although the early signs are that the UK is not significant outside the EU to be fully relevant to the US; China and the EU, clinging to globalisation and global trade; the US and Russia, in a form of security détente; or China and Russia, carving up the Eurasian landmass, to name a few. In the absence of technological breakthroughs reducing the need for resource inputs, scarcity can only be solved by a dramatic resetting of expectations and consumption levels. In the past, it has taken major dislocations such as world wars to reset expectations, and even these resets were driven largely by the loss of production means which reduced consumption only temporarily. The only other examples of culturally low consumption per capita are in religious-spiritual communities or geographically isolated and insulated ones. So, absent a ‘spiritual’ revolution or a world crippling war, a sustainable solution will require major technological breakthroughs. However, the emergence of a new world order will require more than the technology to solve the resource gap, it will also require the emergence of shared values that underpin geo-political relationships for the distribution of technology and resources, and the establishment of institutions to enshrine these shared values in an accepted code of conduct.

Breakthroughs in technology to solve scarcity, the return to a set of shared values and the creation of respected of governing institutions will determine the transition path to any new world order and determine whether, how and when the Gap Years give way to an alternative where the world builds the required Bridge, working together to share resources responsibly and jointly developing the breakthroughs required for a new equilibrium. Potential paths include the following:

  1. The Broad Bridge: The Gap Years Minimised. The creation of any bridge across the Gap Years requires a core fundamental agreement: that resources will be shared. This agreement would allow the establishment of rules of engagement for sharing in some broadly equitable manner and for resolving conflicts. These transition management arrangements would need to minimise shortfalls and mitigate their impact until the succession of technological breakthroughs ultimately allows the formation of new stable power structures. For this Bridge to be a broad one, participants would need to embrace a world that works together to solve the seemingly intractable problems of the planet, underpinned by shared values and strong “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
     President John F Kennedy, 1962
    institutions. This would provide the basis of collaboration to finance and execute a series of ‘big ideas’, not unlike America’s efforts during the Space Race, where the country unlocked the best of its entrepreneurship, capital and risk-taking to put a man on the moon, launching whole new industries in the process. The idealistic view sees the US working with others, rather than competing with them, on an even bigger mission: securing the future of the planet. A broad Bridge based on universal and sustainable values would in turn lead to a new world order that itself is universal, inclusive and empathetic in nature. This world order has the potential to be defined by increasing connectivity, a weakening of physical, economic and mental barriers, and by a shared sense of ownership of the planet.
  2. The Narrow Bridge: The Gap Years Overcome. A narrow Bridge across the Gap Years on the other hand places the pursuit of key technological breakthroughs in a more nationalist and self-interested mode. While the narrow Bridge can also be successful, it risks potentially splitting the world into competing factions and leading to a new order with characteristics reminiscent of the Cold War. Without universal values there can be no universal order, and so the prevailing order will be one that is nationalist or regionalist in nature, likely based on clearly delineated spheres of influence. This world order would contain the bare minimum of shared values required for functioning trade and diplomacy, which enable stability and growth, but with clearly defined divisions and fault-lines. The US and China would be the likely adversaries in this transition order but, unlike during the Cold War, their competition could well be purely materialistic rather than ideological: America already appears to be relinquishing its position as the defender of Western liberal values, and China’s own increasing engagement with the world is based on capitalist economics and a longstanding China-first approach. Although clearly less attractive than the broad Bridge, it is still much better than the third scenario, in which the required breakthroughs are not achieved in time, or even at all.
  3. The Broken Bridge: The Gap Years Realised. If the prevalent spirit is one of resistance and fear of a world with nearly 10 billion technologically connected, mobile, diverse and cross-cultural people, it will likely see the rise of leaders that focus on national identities, defending boundaries and hoarding resources. This naturally creates a barrier to the collaboration required for scientific breakthroughs to resolve scarcity, as well as to solve major transnational economic, environmental, trade and security issues. In this case, deepening crises would exacerbate zero sum thinking, driving a series of land grabs to secure dwindling environmental and economic resources and create a vicious circle of depletion. The initial winners would be the old-world exploiters of carbon based natural resources, who would monopolise power and capital to take their share of the scarce, to the detriment of the new fields required to make the breakthrough to plenty. The result would be further instability, at both the geopolitical and the country level: Revolutions such as the Arab Spring, Brexit, and the 2016 The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.
    Thomas Robert Malthus, 1798
    US presidential election would increase in both frequency and intensity, further destabilising societies, economies and alliances. The inability of leaders to solve the underlying economic, social and security drivers of the initial revolutions would lead to waves of successive revolutions (as witnessed in Egypt) that would further destabilise countries and their neighbours, exacerbating further the very issues they were meant to resolve. The result may well be wave after wave of coup-style revolutions that cross the globe, leading to either a mass catastrophe or a near total breakdown that opens a new realisation and a way for progress.

The Shape of the World to Come – in the Arc of History 

Stepping back, the changes disrupting the world today are occurring in the context of much longer-term patterns and changes playing out across the arc of history. A previous Sign of the Times had briefly introduced a number of these, including the cyclical rise and fall of great powers, the change of powers based on breakthroughs in key resources, and the transition to the information age and the ‘Third Wave’ society. The longest-term pattern or flow, though, may be the one of humankind itself into one united culture, a process that has been ongoing in fits and starts since the dawn of consciousness.

Rise and Fall of Empires. Throughout history, the rise and fall of dominant powers has followed a pattern of rapid expansion, a period of ‘stability’ marked by cultural stagnation and overstretch, and the inevitable decline, often in the face of a new and rising power. This is as true of the Roman Empire, the Ottomans, the Mongols as it is of the British Empire and in turn, today’s United States. By most measures the 20th century has been the American Century, one in which the US rose quickly following WWI to lead the global economy, attained superpower status following WWII and became the sole world power with the demise of the Soviet Union. Applying statistical analysis on the rates of the rise and fall of previous great powers to the US indicates the following potential base scenario: American power expanded rapidly until the 1950-1960s (coinciding with its peak share of global GDP), was stable throughout the Cold War, and has begun to gradually decline since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the end somewhere between 2055 and 2065. While the 21st Century may have started as an American one, history would suggest that it will not end as one unless it is a new and reinvented America, given that no previous great power in history has re-risen from decline. China, possessing the required population, energy, capital and patience, stands ready as a rising power if America is not willing or able to reinvent itself.

Waves in Transition of Civilisations. Overlaying the transitional changes between world orders is a civilisational shift from the era of industrial societies to information societies. This shift disrupts the very foundations of the power structures that defined the old-world order, replacing industrial giants with their information counterparts. Developed countries today are in the midst of this defining transition, from an Industrial Age society to an Information Age society, with a new society emerging to pushing away the current industrial age order like a wave. The ‘First Wave’ described by futurist Alvin Toffler in his eponymous book observed a series of transformational waves, beginning with the settled agricultural society that replaced hunter gatherer cultures and triggered the Neolithic Revolution. The ‘Second Wave’, industrial society, spread from Europe to the rest of the world in the 19th century and triggered the Industrial Revolution. The emerging ‘Third Wave’ is post-industrial; a high-technology information or knowledge-based society. In each previous revolution, the old order sought to resist change, but was unable to stand up to the superior technology, organisation and culture of the new societies. Within this framework, the recent disruptions of our times, including the UK’s Brexit and the US election, are part of the older industrial and factional order reasserting itself in the face of the next wave, ultimately to be futile. Recent thinking points to a new civilisation that will potentially emerge at the end of the Gap Years, with its integration of all dimensions of life and collective consciousness, has been described as a potential ‘Fourth Wave’ of humanity.

Strategic Resource Superiority in the Transition of Superpowers. Empires are built on the basis of their superior ability to exploit a prevailing source of power, typically in the form of energy sources and materials, such as metals, minerals or oil. America’s exploitation of oil superseded the British Empire’s use of steam just as the Assyrian’s exploitation of iron gave them the advantage over their Bronze Age competitors and the Gunpowder Empires of the Mughals and the Ottomans with the advantage of cannon and firearms overcame their adversaries. The successful invention or discovery and adoption of a new resource - material or energy – affords rising nations to exploit their advantage and challenge established powers while these incumbents struggle to transition away from the resource base that underpinned their rise and current success. So, the nature of empires and the world orders that they create rest on the control and exploitation of new materials and energy sources, which in turn are the fount of political power and wealth. Superpowers are those that initially monopolise these new materials and energies to build a strong home base, conduct trade and subsequently expand beyond their boundaries. Superpowers decline when their needs exceed their supply of resources, when they lose control over the existing materials and energy sources, or when the resources that form the basis of their power are superseded by superior alternatives. These new resources enable things that could not be achieved previously and lead to the rise of the next superpower. Today, this could be a new energy source, clean abundant and nearly free, but it could also be a breakthrough in material sciences and nanotechnology. Under this scenario, the current US administration’s defence and promotion of oil, gas and even coal as the basis of its superpower position is a symptom of resistance to change and potential reinvention, and one that vacates the ground for another power to supersede America. Given the US is the leader in almost all sciences that might lead to the next resource, it would be a strategic error to leave it to another nation to take the lead.

Flow of Mankind into One Culture. Finally, it is worth considering the direction in which the ‘stream of mankind’ is flowing. From the times before the Neolithic Revolution, mankind’s world has expanded, along with increased communications, travel, a growing definition of the common good, and a widening definition in society of ‘us’. The logical end-point of this development trend would be a borderless and fully globalised world, one that eliminates (or at least marginalises) the divisive impact of ethnic and cultural differences and creates a global community built on shared values. Is such a flow to universalism an unstoppable force though? Catastrophes can change this flow: WWI led to insularism, withdrawal and nationalism that continued during WWII and knocked humanity back by decades in terms of trade and global intergration. Since then, the rapid recovery driven by post-war liberal values has created some momentum towards ‘One Culture’. However, the current world order has hit limits on what it can deliver, and the world appears to be disintegrating in the face of setbacks. As the rhetoric during both the UK’s Brexit and the US election campaign demonstrated, positions that were previously held only by adherents of radical religions and right-wing fringe fascist groups have become increasingly mainstream, held not only by the Western white working class but the middle class too (who ironically have been among the greatest beneficiaries of globalisation), forming what has been called “the white man’s last stand” . For the time being therefore, the flow appears to be slowing at least. Effectively fully stopping the flow toward ‘One Culture’ over the long term however, would require a global catastrophe, perhaps in the form of an ideological war of the type described above, although in the age of nuclear weapons age such a war may not leave much behind for the ‘winners’.

This leads us to question whether the Trump Administration and its actions matter at all. The answer is that it is one piece of what matters. The outcome is a function of the individuals (in this case the Trump Administration), the system (in this case, the world order underpinned by American power) and the arc of history that shapes the long term flow of events (many longer term drivers of change including, as described above, the rise and fall of empires, the shift to the next wave of civilization, the role of strategic resources and the broader flow of mankind). The Trump Administration is clearly a piece of the answer but may well be overwhelmed by the system (which is designed to force individuals to conform), which in turn risks being overwhelmed by the greater force of the flow of events. To change the flow of events requires the application of tremendous force generally beyond the ability of individual actors to harness or apply without a massive joint and coordinated effort. Part of the dilemma is the knowledge that we can make a difference if we amass the joint will to do so but that if we do not, the world trajectory has a path it will push us down.

Beyond the Gap: The Potential for a New Civilisation

Regardless of whether the world passes over the broad or narrow Bridge or even fails to initially cross the broken Bridge, mankind will eventually find itself at the end of the Gap Years.  The choices people make today will determine the length of the road the world  take to reach a new civilisation and the price to be paid along the way. In a best-case scenario, mankind will follow the broad bridge and minimise the costs and impact of the transition.  In the scenarios of the narrow and broken Bridges, it will likely follow a more tortuous and indirect route, potentially contending with and overcoming interim world orders that fail to unlock humanity’s potential. For example, the narrow Bridge might lead to the emergence of multiple power zones or spheres of influence that continue to compete even when the resource gap has been successfully addressed. Similarly, the broken Bridge might lead to a withdrawn US, leveraging its huge material and other advantages to eventually make the necessary breakthroughs on its own, leaving it with global hegemony but with few friends and necessitating an over-reliance on hard power to secure its position.

The good news is that the lifespan of these interim world orders will likely be short. The durations of successive world orders appear to be shortening; the Great Powers system lasted a century, the Cold War order lasted c.50 years and the ‘Pax Americana’ of the Post-Soviet era is currently in its 26th year.  Unless a new world order manages to resolve all of the problematic ‘certainties’ facing the world, its lifespan is likely to be shorter still, eventually paving the way for a more sustainable world order that does. 

The eventual new civilisation that arises would be both individual and universal in nature, enabled by technology that resolves many of the resource constraints facing the world today while driving interconnectedness and interdependence. Further, the transition to an information society will have been completed in an inclusive manner. This combination of the absence of future shock  or material shortages with global connectivity enables the emergence of a collective consciousness on which a new code of international conduct can be built. Such a civilisation would be borderless in practise and enable humanity to maintain its diversity while focusing on universal and shared values. Further, such a civilisation would develop the ability to fundamentally transform our planet physically, with achievements that today might seem like faraway dreams. The combination of technology and shared values could lead to, among other things, the preservation of the environment and the restoration of previously lost habitats, the elimination of today’s epidemic diseases, the end of poverty as we know it, universal education, an expanded footprint on earth that has created new habitats on land and on the sea, and humanity’s sustained expansion beyond Earth, to name a few. 

Conclusion: Preparing for the New World Order 

It is clear that the world is currently at an inflection point in history.  The order that has defined our lives is drawing to a close and the world faces a period of increasing uncertainty, risk and instability.  In the last US presidential election, large parts of America appears to have voted for the end of the world order and the Trump Administration today stands as the arbiter of whether this occurs in a dramatic fashion or in a smoother transition to the next order (or conforms to the power of the current system and fails to grasp the nature of the transition needed, making instead an effort to enhance America a little, thereby leaving the problem to future leaders). Previous changes suggest that the transition between world orders are often accompanied by large scale violence.  In today’s highly globalised world, this would raise the prospect of a world war, and with weapons of mass destruction available, this has the potential for catastrophic consequences.  One of three potential scenarios of US conduct examined in this paper point to a more stable situation where the US,  underneath the dramatic facade of the president’s rhetoric, makes measured and careful geopolitical changes. This scenario, the least destructive of the three painted, leaves to the country’s next leadership the task of aspirational vision and the determination to work with others to solve the world’s issues,  rather than enhancing a nation at the expense of the rest.  

The choices that we and the world’s leaders make now will determine the severity and duration of the inevitable chaos and the trauma that accompanies the transition between world orders.  These choices start today: How do we engage with our neighbours, our allies and our adversaries? What ‘Big Ideas’ do we focus our energies on? And how do we prioritise the often-competing demands of the world’s peoples, countries and the societies within them?  What values are we prepared to share and use to anchor our collaborations?  If we get these choices right, we can usher in a better world well within our lifetimes. If we do not, the urge to define “us” too narrowly, sink into fear and break our alliances, and work for our narrow self-interests may well prevail.  

The choices made by individuals will empower their leaders to make decisions of great importance to the world at large.   As citizens cast their votes, protest to overthrow their regimes, fight for their beliefs, and launch counter-revolutions and resistance movements to calibrate their leaders and each other, the world will add another three billion people to the global population, the world’s old industrial corporate giants will lose to a younger generation creating information companies, carbon based energies will reach the limit of functionality they can deliver, driving the breakthroughs of new alternatives and mankind will march inexorably towards creating universal interconnectedness to the brink of creating a more universal world culture.  In the midst of all this change, American leadership of the current world order that placed it as the sole superpower of the industrial era is drawing to a close, its leaders facing the choice to either withdraw from the world, possessed by a more factional and narrower view of the nation’s role at this momentous point in history, or to conjure the energy to galvanise the world and reinvent itself as a force for collaborating and transitioning the world to a new civilisation.


  1. See the January 2017 Sign of the Times:   The Shape of the World to Come Part II: The Key Challenges Facing the World
  2.  Russia’s strengthening under Vladimir Putin has been accompanied by a hollowing out of the emerging democratic institutions of the Yeltsin era, suppression of political opposition, human rights abuses, sharply declining life expectancy, and economic stagnation (with 0% GDP growth between 2008 and 2016)
  3.  Proposed by Ray Kurzweil in ‘The Age of Spiritual Machines’ (1999) according to which the rate of change in a wide variety of evolutionary systems (including but not limited to the growth of technologies) tends to increase exponentially. The law of accelerating returns is analogous to Moore’s Law, which predicted the exponential growth of computing power (specifically predicting the doubling of the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit every 18 months).
  4.  See the July 2013 Sign of the Times:   Cyber Attack, Defence and Security in the Making and Preserving of Superpowers
  5.  He has also raised the possibility of removing the 12m illegal immigrants in the country today, with an estimated deportation bill of US$200bn.
  6.  And this is before we approach anywhere near the much talked about ‘singularity’ of technology and people that many expect will disrupt the world order even more profoundly. “The accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, can not continue.”  Stanislaw Ulam, “John von Neumann, 1903-1957″ Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society 64, no.3, part 2 (May 1958)
  7.  Democracy’s impact on growth remains a hotly debated topic. See the Oct 2015 Sign of the Times:   Does Democracy Drive Growth? China’s initial explosive growth and current slowdown while it closes down open access to the internet and deals with corruption and tries to pull the ever-elusive levers of an increasingly complex economic system indicate that while democracy might not be crucial for initial growth, it may well be required for long term sustainability.
  8.  Source: Ketan Patel, Greater Pacific Capital, “The Gap Years”, 2009
  9.  Source: “the digital age … army of teachers … invest in scientific … lay down broadband … sharing in our prosperity … be the generation that ends poverty … tackles our health care crisis … frees America from the tyranny of oil … turn this crisis of global warming into a moment of opportunity for innovation, and job creation, and an incentive for businesses that will serve as a model for the world … work together to track terrorists down … rebuilding our alliances and exporting those ideals that bring hope and opportunity to millions around the globe.”  Obama Presidential Announcement, Springfield, Illinois , Our Past, Future & Vision for America, February 10, 2007
  10.   Source: Washington Post
  11.   See the May 2016 Sign of the Times:   The Trump Doctrine and the Future of American Power
  12.  Source:
  13. Source: Steve Bannon – 2014 Speech at the Human Dignity Institute at the Vatican
  14.  As exemplified by the July 2014 attack in Nice, where a 19 tonne truck was deliberately driven into a celebrating crowd, killing 86 and injuring over 400; the January 2015 coordinated shootings at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo office and four other locations in Paris, killing 17;  or by the November 2015 Paris attacks, which included multiple suicide bombers and mass shootings, killing 130 people and injuring 368.
  15.  See the Dec 2016 Sign of the Times:   The US Election in Context: We Live in Revolutionary Times
  16.  See the Dec 2016 Sign of the Times:   The US Election in Context: We Live in Revolutionary Times
  17.  See the June 2012 Sign of the Times:   American Power, Patterns of Rise and Decline, excerpted from “Obama and the World: New Directions in Foreign Policy”, edited by Inderjeet Parmeer, (Routledge 2014)
  18.  Source: The Fourth Wave, Herman Bryant Maynard
  19.  A phrase interestingly used by both supporters ( CBS News) and critics ( The Washington Post, of the stand in America
  20.  Described as a certain psychological state of individuals and entire societies reacting to too much change in too short a period of time, and the social paralysis induced by rapid technological change.  The term was popularized by Alvin Toffler in his book of the same name (published by Random House, 1970)