Based on a review of global geopolitical forecasts, this study summarizes the main political, economic and social trends that will likely shape international developments over the next two decades. On the economic front, much optimism surrounds global economic and demographic growth in emerging countries, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the political outlook is far gloomier: experts warn of a potentially conflict-ridden, multipolar world order where international institutions play a more limited role. Fast-paced developments in technology, the fight against anthropogenic climate change and the coming shift away from fossil fuels will serve as the backdrop to these changes. The article also highlights the most contested issues in the geopolitical forecast literature. These include the electoral outlook for populist parties in Western democracies, Russia’s future role in the international arena, along with the potential trend of economic isolationism and increased trade barriers.
Author: Diána Szőke, senior analyst, Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (IFAT), Budapest, Hungary
By the 2010s, it has become apparent that the post-bipolar word order that followed the end of the Cold War is undergoing a profound transformation.[i] This has often been marked by surprising, at times tragic, turns of events, such as the Arab Spring, the civil war in Ukraine, Brexit, or the election of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential vote in the United States. All these developments raise the question of how the world will change in the decades to come, and what potential yet unknown processes we must factor into our geopolitical forecasts.
This article attempts to shed some light on these myriad issues based on an assessment of the major geopolitical predictions published over the past few years. It not only outlines the key political, economic and social trends that will likely shape the world order over the medium term, but also highlights certain topics about which there is much debate in the literature. Furthermore, it details how we should evaluate both known unknowns and unknown unknowns, such as so-called “black swan” events.
This study deals with the geopolitical dynamics of the coming decades, and the way the global world order could change during this period. First, it is of course necessary to conceptualize the term “world order” for the purposes of this analysis, since the expression does not carry a definitive, normative meaning. In the context of this article, the “world order” can be interpreted on three possible levels:
- interstate relations (i.e. political and diplomatic ties between countries, economic competition, military conflict, etc.);
- the interplay between the state and non-state actors (i.e. intergovernmental organizations, transnational companies, armed groups, etc.); and
- the global environment within which these interactions unfold (i.e. the natural environment, prevalent ideologies, demographic trends, etc.).
This analysis was undertaken by the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (IFAT) upon the request of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, during spring 2017. From a methodological viewpoint, it was predominantly deductive, meaning that its main findings were derived from the available literature. The project was based on an analysis of the geopolitical forecasts of some of the world’s leading think tanks, in order to answer the following questions:
- Where is the world headed, if we assume the post-Cold War world order has ended?
- What key factors will shape the future?
- What major global political, economic and social trends can we expect?
- What are the most contested issues and the uncertain factors in the predictions?
Given the vast literature at hand on this topic, the search was narrowed down based on the selection criteria below. We therefore searched for forecasts that were:
- produced by a globally renowned think tank, government agency, international organization or advisory body;
- presented a medium or long-term outlook (i.e. up to 2030-2050, or potentially even 2010 in the cases of certain megatrends);
- published over the past 5 years (2013-2017); and
- attempting to provide a holistic approach to geopolitical developments.
Geographic representation was not a major factor in our choices; as a result, the majority of the studied publications tend to originate in North America or Europe. (A complete list of the studied forecasts can be found in Annex 1.)
A key question is of course whether it is even possible to predict the future in the first place. There are multiple factors affecting the global outlook, with a high probability for dramatic and unforeseen changes, or the ripple effects of certain events. Consequently, the main trends outlined in the strategies must be handled with a degree of caution. Nonetheless, the method of strategic thinking behind the formulation of these predictions can often prove more interesting than the forecasts themselves. We must also be aware of the potential psychological biases in our thinking: for instance, we tend to extrapolate existing trends as if they were to naturally continue, or lean toward overemphasizing current problems. Ideological preferences and personal convictions may also distort our predictions for the future.
Major global geopolitical trends
To summarize the general trends highlighted in the outlook to 2035, the forecasts tend to be pessimistic politically, but more optimistic in economic terms. The major findings of the predictions studied within the scope of this research project are presented along the lines of eight major aspects.
The role of the state
States will remain the dominant players in the international arena, but the so-called Westphalian global system of (theoretically) nation-based states will continue to erode.[ii] The decline of the Western state model stems from a variety of reasons, including the crisis of the welfare system, the spread of post-capitalist ideologies, and oftentimes the weakened legitimacy of representative democracy. As the Western model struggles, alternative governance forms may become more attractive (such as the Chinese or Russian cases).
This erosion of the Westphalian system coincides with the further prominence of non-state actors, be that corporations, religious groups, international organizations, paramilitary forces, etc.
Digitalization, innovations in IT technology and social media could have additional effects on politics and civil society too. For instance, new methods of communicating with politicians, of cross-border cooperation, and potential online referendums may come to the fore.
The forecasts concerning the shifting geopolitical balance until 2035 are rather gloomy in their outlook. They essentially argue that the world must adjust to life without a hegemonic power. A multipolar world order is likely to emerge, with greater room for maneuver for regional powers (i.e. Russia, Brazil, India). This could potentially lead to more competition and inter-state conflict.
The international security landscape will continue to undergo a profound transformation. In a more conflict-ridden global order, military and defense expenditures will probably rise. New security challenges are already emerging, such as energy security, the security-related aspects of climate change, migration, cyber security, or information warfare. These problems require fundamentally different approaches compared to a traditional, narrowly-focused military viewpoint.
Most of the assessed publications believe the United States will remain a superpower, although its relative strength would somewhat diminish. China is likely to continue its global ascendancy, and could prove a game-changer in many respects. Its rise is already indisputable thanks to its steady economic growth and greater international diplomatic clout. It therefore comes as no surprise that the US-China relationship will be the key global bilateral partnership over the medium term.
The majority of analysts are pessimistic about the global role of Europe, predicting a further weakening of the bloc. Certain signs of these internal fissures are already apparent, including the eurozone crisis, Brexit, or differences over how to manage mass migration. It looks to become a rather fragmented alliance of values and interests, although economic interdependence could increase over the coming years.
The future role of Russia is highly contested in the literature (and shall be discussed in greater detail in later sections of this article). Overall, most predictions see Russia as a regional player within Eurasia. South and East Asia are poised for substantial political and economic success. Meanwhile, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa will likely continue to be riddled with conflicts, coinciding with both demographic growth and increasing environmental stress. Latin America will presumably continue to suffer from its dependence on the fluctuating prices of key commodity products in global markets.
As for the outlook for global institutions and intergovernmental cooperation, there are echoes of the pessimism surrounding geopolitics in this regard as well. The forecasts contain much talk of the end of multilateralism, and the legitimacy crisis of the global institutions enshrined in the post-World War II period. This could ultimately lead to a weakening of international institutions and multilateral practices in general.
The United Nations (UN) is expected to have a narrower mandate in the coming decades, focusing more on “softer” issues such as humanitarian assistance in conflict zones and sustainable development. The heated debate over the future composition and role of the UN Security Council will continue, with calls to include other powers (i.e. Japan, Germany, Brazil or India) among the permanent global decision-makers with veto rights.
Global economic trends
There is a clear consensus about global economic trends until 2035, and the literature is much more optimistic in its economic outlook. Developing countries will be the motors of medium-term international economic growth. The Asia-Pacific region in particular will emerge as the focal point of the global economy. In terms of size, China, India, the United States, Indonesia and Brazil are expected to be the top five economies by the mid-century.[iii] Despite the world economy’s center of gravity shifting towards Asia, the West will retain some of its existing global economic / financial structural advantages: for instance, the US dollar is likely to remain the dominant international currency. In the meantime, transnational corporations will continue to grow in terms of size and lobbying power, potentially limiting the room for maneuver of certain states. One of the ongoing debates in the forecasts is whether economic interdependence will deepen over the coming decades, or if protectionism and trade barriers are going to become more prominent.
Ideologies and values
Ideologies and ways of thinking about the world are incredibly hard to pin down in the present moment, let alone predict in advance. There is nonetheless a general view in the examined literature that the underlying values and practices of liberal multilateralism have suffered heavy blows in recent years. The international liberalism of the post-Cold War era may be on the decline, but there are few coherent alternatives on the table.
In terms of ideologies, we are not talking merely of a political shift. In fact, the 2008 global financial crisis has had philosophical repercussions, and the idea of laissez-faire capitalism has been somewhat discredited.
As for party politics, experts predict that domestic politics in Western countries will surpass traditional divisions between the left-wing and the right-wing parties in the coming decades. One possible alternative division in the ideological spectrum may be between pro-globalization and anti-globalization parties.
Technology and innovation
There is an almost unanimous consensus in the literature that the period until 2035 will see ongoing revolutionary progress in technological development. The key sectors where most growth is expected are big data, biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics.
In many respects, this rapid technological progress is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, innovation may potentially bring about huge gains in human development, medicine, education, living standards, etc. On the other hand, certain scientific advances could carry inherent dangers as well. The nature of these risks may be ethical (i.e. artificial intelligence), security-related (i.e. cyber attacks on critical infrastructure), or socioeconomic (i.e. automatization’s implications for jobs). Furthermore, the benefits of technological development will continue to spread unevenly between different regions of the world.
A pivotal aspect of technological progress relates to the global energy industry. Patterns in aggregated macroeconomic energy demand are expected to follow the trends in global economic prospects. Primary energy demand will probably grow fastest in China, India and Southeast Asia (thanks to their dynamic economic growth), along with Sub-Saharan Africa (due to its demographic boom). However, the global energy landscape will continue to change. The so-called “oil era” is expected to end slowly, with a whimper rather than a bang. Natural gas and renewables will play a growing role at the expense of coal and crude oil. By 2040, most experts predict that world’s energy mix shall be roughly divided into four quarters: crude oil, coal, natural gas and fossil fuels. Other major trends will include the spread of electric vehicles and self-driving cars, the growing importance of liquefied natural gas (LNG), together with a focus on energy efficiency and smart city infrastructure.
Change in primary energy demand, 2016-2040 (Mtoe, million tons of oil equivalent) [iv]
Future population sizes are relatively easy to predict based on global statistical databases as well as trends in health care, pandemics, urbanization, etc. World population will probably hit 9 billion by the mid-century.[v] There is a stark contrast between the demographic outlook for developing and developed countries. Emerging countries will experience a demographic boom, leading to the expansion of the global middle class. Meanwhile, the developed world will be plagued by the social and economic implications of ageing. In relative terms, the largest population growth is expected in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Nigeria as the largest contributors. India is likely to surpass China in terms of population size in the coming decades.
As for the long-term outlook, some predictions suggest that the global population could continue increasing throughout the 21st century, with projected highs in excess of 11 billion. Other forecasters take a more nuanced view, envisioning the demographic boom to level off from the 2050s onwards.
Urbanization will be another key trend. By the mid-century, the majority of the Earth’s population will live in cities. This will present new challenges in itself, considering transport, health services, air quality or public utilities.
Global population forecasts, 2015-2050[vi]
The natural environment
On a planetary scale, anthropogenic climate change will be an ongoing, pressing issue dominating the global diplomatic agenda in the decades to come. We are already experiencing signs of this, such as rising sea levels, the melting of the Arctic ice caps, and large-scale desertification. The frequency of extreme weather events (i.e. hurricanes, landslides, droughts, etc.) will increase over the medium-term. Efforts to curb global warming to meet the Paris targets must be stepped up.
As a consequence of climate change, the natural environment will be increasingly interconnected with security, even on a micro level. Access to natural resources could be a persistent source of grievances by 2035. Its potential effects include famines, a lack of arable land and drinking water, armed conflict over access to natural resources, or the mass exodus of so-called “climate refugees”. Developing countries will be most vulnerable to these changes in general. Sub-Saharan African countries are at great risk, while the Middle East may suffer from acute water shortages. Certain small island developing countries will continue to face climate change and rising sea levels as existential threats.
Uncertainties and contested predictions
The previous section dealt with the major global geopolitical dynamics regarding which there seems to be a general consensus in the examined literature. However, there are some recurring debates in the forecasts as well, which may also be worth highlighting. These are the questions that are interpreted in many different ways within the predictions, leaving much room for argument.
The first contested prediction relates to the outlook for populist politics in the West: will this trend prove long-standing, or will it fizzle out over time? The difficulties in forecasting the future for populism lie partly in the fact that the term itself is quite difficult to define. As a general rule, populist parties and politicians cannot usually be placed along the traditional ideological divisions of left-wing and right-wing parties; instead, they usually tend to take an anti-elite or anti-status quo position. Populist tendencies in turn may be fueled by a variety of voters’ concerns, such as over globalization, job security, changing cultural identity, etc. As a result, it would be very difficult to gage whether populist tendencies will remain a mainstay of global politics. It is much more logical to assume they may have several different iterations, depending on the most pressing economic and cultural topics dominating the agenda at a given time and place.
The second debated issue in the forecasts is the role of Russia within the international system over the coming decades. This has generated much discussion in part because its foreign activities have dominated global headlines over the past few years – whether it is the wars in Georgia or Ukraine, or even the alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. The key question is whether Russia will accept the global status quo, and adhere to international norms (such as the sanctity of borders, or the principles of non-aggression/non-interference).[vii] This ultimately ties in to the debate over what role Russia will play within Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Over time, the developments of Russian foreign policy will be strongly influenced by economic factors too, such as the effects of relatively low global energy prices on its fossil fuel exports.
The third topic on which there is much discussion is the outlook for global economic relations. Will the following years bring further economic interdependence, or shall we witness a new wave of isolationism and trade barriers? This is again a topic that has come to the fore in light of recent events, such as US President Donald Trump’s anti-globalist stance. The influence of populism in Western countries can also be felt in this regard. It is probably safe to assume that globalization will continue to bring countries and economies ever closer together, but the political reaction to this will likely remain mixed.
As the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr is rumored to have once said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future”. Any forecast that aims to pinpoint the major geopolitical trends shaping the world order in 2035 will be faced with a very high degree of uncertainty. Not only is it impossible to take all possible factors into account, but there is also a potential for so-called “black swan” events. “Black swans” can be defined as unpredictable and unforeseen occurrences, often with extreme consequences, that render other forecasts and expectations invalid.[viii] In this sense, “black swans” delineate the limitations of the validity of our predictions. Examples of such potential “black swans” in the studied forecasts include a democratic transformation in China, the acceleration of climate change, outright nuclear war, a sudden collapse of the eurozone, or the outbreak of a global pandemic.[ix] In short: there are many known unknowns… and perhaps even more unknown unknowns.
Overall, most geopolitical forecasts are pessimistic about political developments, but optimistic about economic growth. In the political realm, they envision a multipolar, conflict-ridden world, one with a limited role for international institutions. From the perspective of economics and demography, developing countries (especially in the Asia-Pacific region) will be the main drivers until at least the 2030s. Fast-paced scientific and technological advances, and the fight against climate change will continue to serve as the backdrop to these processes. However, there are many debates over these questions in the literature, and we must not discount the impacts of so-called “black swan” events either.
Author: Diána Szőke, senior analyst, Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (IFAT), Budapest, Hungary
[i] NIBLETT, Robin: „Liberalism in Retreat: The Demise of a Dream”. In: Foreign Affairs, Vol. 96 No. 1, 2017 and ROSE, Gideon: „Out of Order? The Future of the International System”. In: Foreign Affairs, Vol. 96 No. 1, 2017
[ii] HAAS, Richard: „World Order 2.0: The Case for Sovereign Obligation”. In: Foreign Affairs, Vol. 96 No. 1, 2017
[iii] PricewaterhouseCoopers: „The Long View: How Will the Global Economic Order Change by 2050?”. In: The World in 2050: Summary Report. https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/world-2050/assets/pwc-world-in-2050-summary-report-feb-2017.pdf (24.02.2018)
[v] Atlantic Council: „Global Risks 2035: The Search for a New Normal”. In: Atlantic Council Strategy Papers. http://espas.eu/orbis/sites/default/files/generated/document/en/Global_Risks_2035_web_0922.pdf (24.02.2018)
[vi] The Economist: „Global Population Forecasts: How the World Will Look in 2050”. https://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2015/08/daily-chart-growth-areas (24.02.2018)
[vii] LUKYANOV, Fyodor: „Putin’s Foreign Policy: The Quest to Restore Russia’s Rightful Place”. In: Foreign Affairs, Vol. 95 No. 3, 2016
[viii] TALEB, Nassim Nicholas: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. London. Allen Lane, 2011