Looking Back at What the Future Was Supposed to Be (#Lifein2035 Blog #1)

Much of the distress we’ve experienced during the last five to ten years has been due to the mistaken ideas about what was supposed to happen. With these notions now shaken, it’s worthwhile to start by looking back twenty or so years before we project ahead to the world of 2035.

In the 1990s, the US and its allies and partners were enjoying the benefits of the end of the Cold War and the initial burst of globalization. Certainly, the Yugoslav breakup clouded the mid-1990s, but most of us assumed we were still tracking toward a more peaceful, prosperous, and secure future, in which the rest of the world would also catch up to and model itself on the West. Four key assumptions shaped our view of the future at that point. All of them now lie in tatters:

Assumption 1 — With increasing economic interdependence, the risks of conflict would go down.

Instead, the risk of state-on-state conflict has increased, with new conflicts (e.g., Russia-Ukraine-NATO; China-Vietnam-Philippines-Japan-US) and old (India-Pakistan and continued turmoil in the Middle East) proving intractable despite the clear-cut economic benefits of peaceful relations.

Assumption 2 — Ideology is dead.

The hope that all ideological wars had been won by the West was misplaced. Jihadism is worldwide and is proving attractive to marginalized youths, including women. Authoritarianism is staging a comeback and state capitalism is now an alternative to laissez-faire liberal capitalism. Citizenship is being supplanted with self and group identity.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping signing documents following Russian-Chinese talks in Beijing on June 25, 2016.

Assumption 3 — The liberal order’s appeal would be enduring, particularly to major regional powers.

Instead, China and Russia have other ideas about how the international system should be run, rejecting post-Westphalian rule-sets and harking back to a period in which national sovereignty was sacrosanct. And they have adherents in the West: Europe’s new right-wing parties want to re-nationalize European politics and in the US, the Tea Party and nativist politicians want to get rid of immigration and downgrade US participation in multilateral institutions. Where does that leave the liberal order?

Assumption 4 — Technological growth would be purely beneficial.

Silicon Valley’s brain trust has operated under the assumption that if left alone, technology will solve all the world’s problems. However, in the short term at least, automation has eliminated, not created, more jobs. Authoritarians have been able to use social media for better citizen surveillance. Revolutions in biotech could be a time bomb if left unaddressed.

There’s a cautionary tale here for futurologists. Clearly it’s hard to forecast the future even if there is more need than ever before for better planning. Instead of one favorable future, we have to think about events and developments that can reshape the future away from our immediate post-Cold War linear and positive projections.

However, the world in 2035 isn’t destined to turn out badly if we begin thinking about how we might try to steer it towards the more positive outcomes. The original intent of the US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends series of reports was to encourage policymakers not to dwell on the current crisis, but to take actions that would help avoid future ones; the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council looks to continue this work in the upcoming Global Risks 2035 report and subsequent Atlantic Council Strategy Papers Box Set. This is the first of a series of blog posts that will set the stage for thinking about the issues raised in the Atlantic Council Strategy Papers Box Set. The innumerable surprises and deceptions over the past decade show the degree to which past planning has been inadequate, pointing up the need to develop better mechanisms for focusing on the medium-to-long term.

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The Atlantic Council Strategy Papers series is designed to enrich the public debate and build consensus on the great strategic challenges of our time, as well as to help shape strategic thinking in US and allied governments, the private and nonprofit sectors, and the global media. A non-partisan endeavor to influence policymakers, thought leaders, and the media at the highest levels to open new horizons in strategic thinking, the series has explored topics including grand strategy, sustainable energy security, failed states, economics, and space security. Regional strategies on Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Iran, and other Atlantic Council Strategy Papers, will join the series in forthcoming publications. The forthcoming Atlantic Council Strategy Papers Box Set will provide strategic foresight, outline a new strategy for the United States, and suggest recommendations for more effective strategy implementation to ensure the US government is best prepared and equipped to help shape and respond to dynamic changes in today’s world.

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Mathew J. Burrows is the director of the Strategy Foresight Initiative in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Previously Dr. Burrows evaluated global trends as the principle drafter of the National Intelligence Council (NIC)’s publication, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, which received widespread recognition and praise in the international media and among academics and think tanks.

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