Global trends: discontinuity and disruption – risks and challenges for the world


A portrait of W.P.S. Sidhu

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

Key global trends include rising income, climate change, growing cyber dependency, ageing population, artificial intelligence, and the changing nature of conflict

Last week, two events held the world spellbound: one featuring outgoing US President Barack Obama was a cerebral, dignified and solemn affair while at the other guttural, farcical and burlesque circus, incoming US president Donald Trump held centre stage. The former was a justified celebration of some significant domestic and international achievements over the past eight years, while the latter caused understandable consternation about the legacy of those very achievements and the neonate leadership of a deeply divided country. Yet, there was a common theme: both warned of a more disorderly world and Washington’s growing desire to detach from it. As one late night host quipped, both were “goodbye America” speeches.

The two high-profile events in the US also overshadowed the low-profile release of two significant reports on global trends and risks and how to address them. The first is the Geneva-based World Economic Forum’s annual The Global Risks Report 2017, released on the eve of the Davos jamboree, which identified five key global risks. The second is Global Trends: Paradox Of Progress, a quadrennial effort of the US National Intelligence Council, which looks at the implications of several existing trends until 2035. Both reports identify a number of common trends and factors. Perhaps given the state of US domestic politics, the Global Trends report is far more pessimistic and, in a bid to identify dramatic black swan events, even includes a rather unconvincing scenario of a possible India-Pakistan nuclear war in 2028.

Among the key trends are: rising income and wealth disparity; the challenges of climate change; the increasing polarization of societies; the growing cyber dependency, without the attendant secure infrastructure; ageing population, especially in richer countries, but a growing working population in poorer countries; the role of rapidly growing technology, such as artificial intelligence and automation in both providing new opportunities but also causing disruptions in traditional economic models; and the changing nature of conflict, which can now be sustained at a distance on account of disruptive technologies.

Given these trends, the traditional approach of state-based interaction in multilateral institutions like the UN to establish norms to cope with these trends is unlikely to be timely or effective. Instead, the reports make a case for multi-stakeholder multilateralism, where traditional instruments of state work along with the private sector, civil society and local governments to address challenges.

However, given that nations are in different stages of formation—pre-modern, modern, postmodern—it is unlikely that all of them would be willing or able to adopt the new approach. In addition, the UN is, perhaps, even slower to adapt to the changing global challenges (with one or two exceptions) than its constituent member states. Moreover, given the end of the post-Cold War unipolar era and the emergence of a truly global multipolar period, no single state or institution has yet developed the ability to be effective in such an environment. While the number of actors who can veto consensus both within states and in the international system is on the rise, those who can work to shape rules within nations and globally are still extremely small and not always effective.

Perhaps the single biggest challenge that both reports identify is a crisis with democracy itself and Global Trends cautions that “democracy itself can no longer be taken for granted”. Global Risks argues that the crisis with democracy might be on account of the dramatic changes brought about by rapid economic growth and technological innovations, which have translated into greater income inequality at the domestic level. For instance, in the US, between 2009 and 2012, the income of the top 1% grew by more than 31% while that of the rest grew by less than 0.5%. Other democracies, such as India, which benefited from globalization, also have similar income inequality.

Similarly, anti-establishment populism, local ethnic identities and cultural values have paradoxically risen on account of an interconnected world. Consequently, as Global Trends notes, “political leaders will find appeals to identity useful for mobilizing supporters and consolidating political control” and religious influence might become increasingly consequential.

Another element undermining democracy is “post-truth” or “false news” driven political debate. Here the “fragmentation, antagonism and mistrust” of the media, coupled with the rise of social media, which also serves as an echo chamber for reinforcing biases, prevent the possibility of an open debate and genuine efforts to resolve differences. This in turn is leading to greater polarization both at the domestic and global levels.

Unsurprisingly, all these developments that challenge democracy found mention in President Obama’s farewell address. Ironically, Trump’s conduct of the press conference also highlighted these perils. Clearly, these threats are not unique to the US but are true for all democracies, including those like India that have benefited the most from globalization.

While the reports are prescriptive on how to address these and other deficiencies, the solutions are unlikely to appeal to disruptive leaders who stand to benefit the most in weak democracies and a chaotic world. One issue that the reports do not deal with is: how to create a new generation of leaders who can provide the necessary inspiration and will to comprehend and address these challenges. That is a vital trend to track.

This article first appeared in the Mint, on 16 January 2017. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this article is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are of the author(s). Brookings India does not have any institutional views.