Security Outlook 2030: Three Alternative Scenarios
The potential for rapid and radical change, even though the form it takes is unknown, raises fundamental questions about planning and preparedness. In this section, three scenarios describe potential evolutions of the international security landscape to 2030 (see Box 2.5 for a description of the methodology used). These are not intended to be predictions, but plausible trajectories that can usefully challenge current thinking and serve as a call to action for the development of more adaptable and resilient response systems.
Future 1: Walled Cities
As greater penetration of information and communications technology broadens the horizons of citizens in many countries, raising expectations in areas such as health, education, infrastructure and quality of governance. At the same time, fiscal challenges are reducing governments’ ability to meet citizens’ expectations – and citizens become disillusioned by their exposure to public sector corruption, poor service delivery and ineffective institutions.
This scenario foresees widening inequalities of wealth, income, health, environment and opportunity continuing to pull communities apart. In wealthier nations, the middle classes are hollowed out by declining wages and dwindling public goods. Those who can afford it are increasingly retreating to gated communities and turning to the private sector for what were once public services, divorcing their interests from the common good.23 Fertile soil, fresh water and even clean air become increasingly commoditized and traded between those who can afford them. With economic and political elites feeling ever more identical and distant from citizens, states lose their ability to bring people together around a shared narrative or identity. Trust is eroded, as is the social contract between citizens and government.
The vitality of many states is challenged by demographic trends. In some regions, large youth populations come of age with few opportunities for stable, well-paid employment. In other regions, the demographic bulge is of the elderly, creating ever greater needs for finance for pensions and healthcare; this puts pressure on declining working-age populations and limits the resources available for states to address security issues.
Social cohesion is further weakened by mass migration, as youth seek economic opportunities and humanitarian or environmental catastrophes displace people. In the absence of narratives that foster a shared identity and common cause, mismanaged migration flows and poor integration of migrant communities create tensions. Anxiety over migration fuels the rise of extremist, xenophobic and ethno-nationalist political parties that advocate for a return of authoritarian government and national identities based on culture, ethnicity or religion, effectively exploiting narratives of “us” vs. “them”.
As younger populations spend more of their lives online, they fill the need for shared narratives and a sense of community with like-minded people, sometimes in faraway geographies. Meanwhile, millions of children are coming of age in refugee camps, often under duress, and with no natural sense of belonging. Rootless and disillusioned, often traumatized by growing up amid civil wars or community violence, more young people become anti-system and vulnerable to recruitment by violent groups or gangs.
Insurgencies, terrorist groups, and criminal organizations all exploit the security deficit, leveraging new technologies to strengthen their hands against strained security forces. Overwhelmed by internal threats, states double down on internal security issues and disengage from multilateral collaboration, reducing the effectiveness of global institutions and mechanisms.
In some areas, lines between states and violent non-state actors blur. Terrorist or criminal groups, often in opaque alliances, seize control of more territories and run them like states, threatening nations and even regions with collapse. The corridor between South America and Mexico, Iraq and the Levant, and swathes of West and Central Africa are among the areas now under pressure from combinations of civil wars, humanitarian crises, violent extremist activity, crime and gangs.
More and more frequently, legitimate non-state actors and organizations fill some of the spaces left by weakened national governments, often with social support. Companies and private charities fill the void and manage what were once public services. With their operations located near desperate communities, many companies are drawn into addressing the social consequences of insecurity and violence. Eroding state power also increases city power, with cities coming to be regarded as the most practical, functional unit of governance.24
The world divides into islands of order in a sea of disorder. As large numbers of people are displaced by environmental change and social violence, still-functioning states seek to protect themselves, often deploying private military and intelligence apparatus to minimize risks of involvement in protracted conflict. In this scenario, by 2030 the world resembles medieval times, when the citizens of thriving cities built walls around them to protect themselves from the lawless chaos outside.
Future 2: Strong Regions
An alternative scenario envisages the volatile and competitive interregnum paving the way for the emergence of a stable world by 2030 with several seats of power.
In this future, as wealth accumulates in the South and East, more players are able to make strategic economic investments in diplomacy, critical technologies and infrastructures. The balance of power adjusts, creating a new order of mostly regionally based spheres of influence and interests that are generally accepted, as are newly evolved norms of engagement over political disputes and shared resources.
Far from their power being eroded, states in this world are strong – at times authoritarian. Strong leaders rise to power on promises to refocus on narrowly defined national interests, with minimum diversity and high solidarity for citizens. Narratives recalling (imagined) past glories and comforting homogeneity of ethnicity and creed become a strategy to compensate for the uncertainty of the future. As in the 1930s, leaders persuade their citizens to “escape from freedom”: these leaders strictly control borders, forcefully curb migration, invest more in military and police, and persuade people to accept mass surveillance as the only way to be protected from deadly threats.
Overwhelmed by mistrust among states, governments invest their political, financial and diplomatic capital in bilateral and regional processes. Effective regional powers emerge, as do new alliances of convenience where shared interests transcend the regional perimeter. Global governance mechanisms continue to lose credibility. New forms of cooperation initially run in parallel with the established global architecture, gradually taking over roles including development, trade, finance, security and the internet. Counterintuitively, this proves to reduce competition between states: with contentious issues taken off the global table, states are able to rebuild enough trust to maintain stability at the international level.
For example, in this world cyberspace is neither open nor global. States establish further controls over the internet, sometimes in collaboration with allies, building their own capabilities in data storage, search, and infrastructure – and using security threats and the promise of better public services through big data to win popular support.25 Climate change is another example: as its effects become clearer, states increasingly shift attention from cumbersome global efforts to more functional regional ones. The goal of saving all humanity from catastrophic climate change gives way to states and regions working together to adapt and protect “their own” citizens.
With bad memories of recent foreign interventions and increasing domestic polarization over foreign affairs, the United States refocuses its priorities and abandons its ambition to be the centre of the global stage, allowing others to fill the void on major political issues. China’s “peaceful rising” no longer raises apprehensions among other powers; its prominence in East Asia becomes an accepted fact. ASEAN goes into a comfortable orbit around its giant neighbour, while Japan focuses on maintaining good trade relations. The United States and China mutually accept their economic relevance and shared roles and responsibilities in a new world order.
Sweeping aside any last resistance, Russia consolidates its sphere of influence in Central Europe and Eurasia. Europe – having rebuilt its economic partnership with Russia and consolidated links with the United States – develops several levels of integration and remains functional as a coherent regional trade bloc. Latin America and the Caribbean leverage their abundant resources and strategic location to consolidate into a regional bloc. The push for African integration continues apace, with two sub-regional integration blocs emerging as twin poles of influence. Following years of fruitless proxy conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, two carefully balanced security alliances of functioning states restore some degree of order to the region.
Fifteen years into the future, this balance of regions and alliances is only beginning to consolidate as a new global order. Former rivals and enemies are tempted to test the boundaries, leading to strong pushbacks and reconfirmations from regional powers that the new order is here to stay. Security issues are handled by regional allies or relevant players, rather than at the global level.
Inevitably, there are losses for the global economy: geopolitical interests take predominance over economic ones, with corresponding inefficiencies as globalization goes into reverse. However, with the revolution in manufacturing and automation making it possible to produce goods closer to the consumer, there is less need for global trade in goods and less need to outsource production to low-wage countries. Companies must make costly and complex arrangements to be able to operate across regions; in many cases, abandoning international strategies, localizing or breaking up into smaller regional entities, prove to be more effective strategies.
Future 3: War and Peace
The final scenario envisages the world drifting into a major conflict during the next 15 years, which ultimately leads to a reworking of the global system.
In this future, established powers remain in denial about the major shifts of economic, demographic and political power that have taken place. Growing strategic competition between states erodes their trust in each other, and therefore their capacity to collaboratively resolve disagreements about the role of certain countries in certain regions: for example, the United States in the Asia-Pacific; Russia in Central Asia; and China in South-East Asia.
Meaningful progress slows on issues such as climate change, with global solutions blocked by states that calculate that taking action would be too problematic domestically, or that they could gain from new lands becoming suitable for crop production or resource exploitation. There is no longer consensus over the normative foundations or rules of the international system, which is not able to manage the rising tensions.
With stagnant growth and the rise of isolationist movements in established powers, space opens up for emerging powers to test the status quo. Meanwhile, internal pressures grow in many countries: to varying extents, social turmoil erupts as emerging technologies put many people out of work and extreme weather events overwhelm the responsive capacity of governments. In some countries, upheavals feed into virulent nationalism, drawing on historical grievances against powerful neighbours.
Eventually, in this scenario, a major conflict erupts between two leading powers. One state experiences a massive cyberattack on critical infrastructure, causing loss of life. It accuses another state of complicity, and launches a conventional attack in retaliation. Denying any involvement, the second state considers it has been attacked without cause. Outraged populations on both sides demand further action; nervous leaders seek to shore up their positions and miscalculate the gravity of the consequences.
Other states are dragged into the escalating conflict and forced to choose sides. Armed non-state actors on both sides seek to leverage the conflict for their own ends, forcing the parties to the war not only to fight each other, but also to engage in hybrid conflicts against third parties.
Ultimately, the conflict stops short of all-out mutual destruction, but not before imposing high costs on both sides – human, economic, and infrastructure. The “nuclear taboo” – that states abstain from using the ultimate weapons, even if they possess them, still proves to hold true – but belligerents did begin to prepare for their application. There is no clear victor. In this scenario, the aftermath of the conflict leads to a sense of determination to prevent a repeat interruption to business as usual. The commonly accepted argument is that the lesson to be learned from the failure of previous global mechanisms to mediate conflicts is that those mechanisms were not only excessively ambitious but also largely ineffective.
States set about identifying the few basic practicalities that truly demand global cooperation: norms, for example, relating to the seas, air corridors, and finance. Because of their economic relevance, many of these norms are looked after by multistakeholder organizations, rather than intergovernmental organizations. Civil society and business leaders take on management roles in global arrangements. Other areas previously of interest to global governance institutions, from human rights and free trade to international development and control of the internet, are set aside as non-essential to the basic aim of preventing conflicts. The UN nominally retains a peacekeeping function in protracted conflicts, but is not able to regulate relations between leading states.
The result is a stripped-down global system in which the liberal ideals of freedom, democracy, justice and equality are no longer put forward as a paradigm to which all should aspire. A new entente emerges on respect for differences of political and economic approach, though this means accepting a degree of entrenched global inequality and disintegration, and a parcelling up of the global commons. Where they can, people and companies move to places that suit their objectives best.
Box 2.5: Scenarios Methodology
What are the most pressing issues leaders should address? What trends are driving transformations? To be as prepared as possible for the future, leaders need to think broadly and consider the worst that could happen.
Strategic foresight enables assessments of what the future context might look like through carefully researched and validated scenarios. Scenarios extrapolate existing trends to provide insights that can inform more robust decision-making. The three scenarios presented here (Figure 2.5.1) describe how the seven driving forces of international security could interact and how prominent actors might respond. The collaborative process of developing and using scenarios can generate the relationships necessary to drive change.
During a year-long initiative, launched at the Annual Meeting in 2015.1 over 250 members of the World Economic Forum’s network participated in consultations to build the scenarios. To ensure a broad perspective, our team conducted 10 workshops in six regions, with participants from government, the security sector, academia, civil society, youth, and the business sector, which together comprised 41% of the total number of participants (see Figure in the Acknowledgements section). A full list of contributors is included in the Acknowledgements.