The Big Question for 2015: What Kind of World Are We Headed For?


By: Mathew Burrows

2015-01-12 |

Every new or re-elected US President receives a special unclassified study from the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) projecting global trends out fifteen to twenty years.  It's published to help him (or possibly her in the future) understand the world he faces and the many complex forces at work. Five such studies have been produced since the mid-1990s (1). I was the author of the last three, starting with President George Bush's second term and including President Barack Obama's two terms. 

A lot changed over the short time space of eight years, particularly the shape of the international system and nature of US power. I began work on the 2004 edition when US unipolar power was at its height. The year before, the US had invaded Iraq despite almost universal condemnation. But by 2012 when I completed my last edition, China was well on the way to becoming the world's largest economic power with a number of other so-called developing states catching up to the West. We had graduated from the G-7 to the          G-20.   

2004: toward a post-Western world 


The 2004 edition drew upon Goldman Sachs' invention of the BRICs. We had endless arguments within the NIC over what the BRICs meant for broader geopolitics. Some senior NIC officials, called National Intelligence Officers or NIOs, did not see how BRICs could collectively amount to much even if they were transforming the Western-dominated global economy.  In the end, we decided that we faced a fundamentally different world. The West was not going to absorb the new emerging powers as happened with Japan, South Korea, and others as they rose in the postwar period. We were headed in a post-Western world. No doubt some Western values would survive, but we couldn't see how giant new powers wouldn't want to set new "rules of the road." This finding was hotly disputed by the Bush Administration. I remember a revealing exchange we had with a senior official who contended there was no question that the West and its value wouldn't stay supreme.    

That 2004 edition was also controversial in downgrading the importance of the terrorism. It was a growing and serious threat, to be sure, but it was not an existential one, the way the Bush Administration had treated it. The changing geopolitical landscape was of far greater significance for long term US interests.    

2008: Quickening pace of change


The new edition in 2008 was even more emphatic about the emergence of a multipolar world, which in the months after the 2008 financial crisis still met with resistance in US foreign policy circles. Both Republicans and even Democrats were not yet ready to acknowledge the quickening pace of change and new facts on the ground. 

That and the next edition in 2012 talked about the relative decline of US power. I've detailed in my recently published book The Future, Declassified: Megatrends That Will Undo the World that even President Obama's National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon, was uncomfortable with the use of that term. My own view is that Americans have nothing to feel ashamed about. The fact that others have risen should be a source of pride, reflecting well US efforts to build an open international system after the Second World War. I also don't think that the emergence of a post-Western world means all Western values are doomed. I believe, for example, some sort of democracy is inevitable in China. However, I am very worried that the multilateralist international system that the US had the genius to establish after the Second World War may have its days numbered. If we are not careful, we could end up with multipolarity without multilateralism.       

The future of multilateralism


Multilateralism won't completely go away, but the prospects for further advances towards a rules-based order appear increasingly uncertain. Russia's invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea is perhaps the clearest evidence that the nineteenth century realist politics did not die. Both Russia and China are clearly interested in establishing spheres of influence in which their interests are protected and buffers are established against intervention by outside powers. China has little interest, for example, in a multilateralist framework for settling differences over maritime claims in the East and South China Seas. Increasingly, China, Russia and the other BRICs are interested in developing competing institutions such as the recently established BRICs development bank. I don?t believe we are headed back to a Cold War in which China, Russia or any of the emerging powers want to cut themselves off from Western institutions (3). But they definitely want to choose, and they are also interested in setting their own rules in their surrounding spheres of influence.

As important to the future of multilateralism is the US and European commitment to maintaining it. The US has historically been more ambivalent than Europe about sharing sovereignty, which is multilateralism's underlying principle. 

2015: growing fragmentation


2015 could be a turning point, accelerating even more the rapid fraying of the multilateralist fabric over the several years, if Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and Trans-Pacific Partnership; the Iran nuclear talks; and a climate change treaty fail. Even if they succeed and put a brake on the growing fragmentation, we won't be headed into a "world restored" scenario (3) in which multilateralism reemerges triumphant. Rather, it will remain an uphill struggle to contain the growing instability, particularly in the Middle East, and the temptation by many powers - including in the West - to go it alone, intent solely on protecting their own interests.   

MBMathew Burrows serves as director of the Atlantic Council's Strategic Foresight Initiative. His recent book is entitled The Future Declassified: Megatrends that Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action (Palgrave/Macmillan, published 9 September 2014).  In August 2013 he retired from a 28-year career in the CIA and State Department, the last ten being spent at the National Intelligence Council (NIC), the premier analytic unit in the US Intelligence Community. 

This is an excerpt from a full length article, which will be published in the next issue of UI's Internationella Studier (in Swedish) coming out in March 2015.


1. The NIC's Global Trends editions are available on the Director of National Intelligence's website.
2. For a subtle analysis of China's interest in establishing alternative institutions, see the recent article by Sebastian Heilmann, Moritz Rudolf, Mikko Huatari, Jonannes Buckow, "China's Shadow Foreign Policy: Parallel Structures Challenge the Established International Order," China Monitor, 28 October 2014. The authors make the argument that "Chinese foreign policy is not seeking to demolish or exit from current international organizations and multilateral regimes. Instead, it is constructing supplementary - in part complementary, in part competitive - channels for shaping the international order beyond Western claims to leadership."

3. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822 was Henry Kissinger's 1954 book describing how the Congress of Vienna put an end to a quarter century of European fighting by establishing a new order that largely kept the peace in Europe until the outbreak of the First World War. There's little possibility of a repeat given the multiplicity of actors on the world stage these days and diversity of values in play.   


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