Global Governance

A 6-point plan for avoiding a dystopian future

Image: REUTERS/Sri Lankan Government/Handout

Anja Kaspersen
Former Head of Geopolitics and International Security, World Economic Forum
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Global Governance

The year 2015 ended as it began: proceeding from calamity to calamity, leaving us less than optimistic about the future of international security and the ability of states to respond. Looking around the world, the landscape can seem bleak: wars rage across the Middle East, tensions in East and South Asia simmer, parts of Africa are on the brink of political violence, millions of people are fleeing their homes, and the increase of terrorist attacks across the globe or the “weaponization” of economic policies have globalized the battlefield in modern conflicts. The geopolitical uncertainty that has become a feature of our time shows no sign of letting up, with new crises cropping up and protracted conflicts spilling into 2016.

Despite the number of issues, there are primarily two main phenomena characterizing the current geopolitical and international security landscape.

The first is the vacuum created by frail or weakening states, which opens up space for the rise of armed non-state actors in the global security space and causes crises to spill over. The rise of well-organized, armed non-state actors demonstrates a departure from the traditional Westphalian notion of the role of the state. The second is the return of strategic competition between strong states with conflicting interests.

The two phenomena may seem contradictory but are in fact related: when instability leads to the breakdown of the existing order, openings are created that other powers or irregular actors may seek to exploit to improve their positions. This makes it all the more difficult to craft effective responses to these calamities, allowing them to fester and worsen.

It also goes to show the difficulty of envisaging what is around the corner. And yet, we must try to avoid sleepwalking into more widespread chaos or all-out war. We spoke with over 280 constituents in the Forum’s network to help us build three scenarios for the international security landscape of 2030. The results of the scenarios sound the alarm, by demonstrating how some of the world’s current trajectories could end in disaster.

But there is also reason for hope: the following six pieces of guidance are possible ways to avert the looming crises.

1. Overhaul the social contract

To avoid a future of instability, policy-makers must focus on re-establishing trust in governance, improving the accountability of institutions and leaders, reducing social and economic divergences, and delivering better services. Although trust in government has stayed relatively stable for the past couple of years, it’s still low, as this chart from Edelman shows.

But this alone will not be enough. Today, the fabric that binds citizens to the state and to each other is fraying. Policy-makers must set about reinforcing notions of citizenship and narratives of inclusion within national discourse. Doing so could help reconcile political and theological differences both domestically and internationally.

2. Rewire global governance

Taking collective decisions on key international security matters will require greater efficiency of multilateral systems. Progress on reform of the multilateral apparatus has been slow and unfocused. The choice ahead of us is between implementing comprehensive reform to create the right mechanisms and responses for tackling future global challenges, or allowing the “death by a thousand cuts” of the global governance system – an outcome that would not favour international security.

3. Foster global leadership

Today’s world is in need of strong leadership, new compromises, innovative ideas and a capacity for

long-term thinking. This is not limited to government and international organizations but also applies to civil society and the business sector. Because power is distributed among many sectors, multistakeholder cooperation is more important for tomorrow’s security than ever before.

4. Enhance the role of cities

Global trends in urbanization and urban violence point to the need for refocusing some security efforts at the city level. As urbanization gathers pace, cities will increasingly rival states as the most natural level of government for harnessing technology to deliver public services and security.

Cities have also proven their advantage as sites of innovation, employment creation and higher productivity, because they, at times, prove to be more focused on practical problem solving than on the “status and prestige” issues that tend to obscure interstate relations.

5. Get the private sector involved

Security risks affect companies as much as they affect governments engaged in trade, diplomacy and maintaining the security of their citizens. Yet the potential of the private sector to contribute to peace and security is not reflected in global security mechanisms or at the multilateral level.

Many companies are already dealing with the root causes of insecurity, directly or indirectly. From inefficient governance to corruption, environmental degradation, social disparity and unrest in surrounding communities, often companies have policies in place to protect their interests while also addressing these drivers of insecurity within their core areas of operations. There is a need to build on this by creating a more credible platform and taxonomy of issues for collaboration.

6. Encourage ethical behaviour

Ethical frameworks and norms guiding technological innovation, especially concerning new technologies, could be elaborated between those actually involved rather than relying solely on regulators, who inevitably struggle to keep up with the pace of change.

Achieving any of these six goals will require the engagement of a wider range of stakeholders to set a new course for the global security paradigm. To have any chance of avoiding the dystopian futures we’ve outlined, we must change the way we plan, prepare and make decisions, ensuring we are less reactive and become more responsive and forward-looking.

Read a detailed version of the 6-point plan here.

Authors: Anja Kaspersen, Senior Director, Head of International Security, World Economic Forum, and Isabel de Sola, Practice Lead, International Security, World Economic Forum

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