Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:08 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:08 | SYDNEY

Black swans and ruptured trend lines


Graeme Dobell

25 November 2008 12:45

Not since the Soviet Union died in bed have we seen so many ruptured trend lines. A flock of black swans has landed in the midst of the global system. Randomness and uncertainty abound. Politicians, bureaucrats, analysts and hacks (and plenty of bankers) are scrambling to rethink the future.

Into this predictive inferno walk the brave soothsayers of the US National Intelligence Council, with their report, Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World. As Allan Gyngell notes, this effort shows the great strengths of the US system. The analysts have given their new President a detailed discussion of the relative decline of the US in the global system. It is an impressive bit of work.

Even more striking is the fact that it has been published for all the world to read. Canberra’s 'official secrets' culture would find it hard to contemplate such an exercise in openness – especially with such a collection of unpalatable scenarios:

  • The whole international system — as constructed following WWII — will be revolutionized. Not only will new players — Brazil, Russia, India and China — have a seat at the international high table, they will bring new stakes and rules of the game. 
  • The unprecedented transfer of wealth roughly from West to East now under way will continue for the foreseeable future.
  • Unprecedented economic growth, coupled with 1.5 billion more people, will put pressure on resources — particularly energy, food, and water — raising the spectre of scarcities emerging as demand outstrips supply.
  • The potential for conflict will increase owing partly to political turbulence in parts of the greater Middle East.

Writing the negative stories out of this is easy: water wars, the West getting poorer and a nuke-race in the Middle East. To get the full flavour of the document, though, requires an exercise in cross-clicking or comparison reading. As you go through this 2008 document, keep referring back to the previous effort, released in 2004: Mapping the Global Future 2020.

The 2004 report was touched by the triumphalism of the US unilateral moment. It faithfully recorded the view that the US would be so dominant — economically, technologically, militarily – that there must be a question about whether any state would even bother to mount a challenge.

Some of the lamentation in the current document is really a reflection on the failures of the Bush presidency. The dimming of the Bush vision is most evident when the NIC muses about Western democracy losing its lustre as we head to 2025. So much for those long-ago days (in the first term) when George and the boys thought they could impose democracy at the point of a bayonet. A Washington that worries about the attraction of democracy and economic liberalism is clearly in need of a new Happy Warrior. And — the beauty of the US system — he will arrive in January.

Both documents criticise the limitations of international institutions. During their first term, Don, Dick, George and the gang put the boot into every international institution within kicking distance. Even allies such as 'old Europe' could be treated as optional extras. Bush's neglect of institutions which can amplify US interests is but one of the measures of the failure of his presidency. The Bush hosting of the G20 summit is a pointer to a late understanding of a different way of viewing the world.

Despite the gloom, I can't help thinking the half empty glass still looks pretty full. The US will remain central. US power may be in relative decline but the US will still be the first among equals.

Instead of looking to 2025, a glance backwards might reinforce this point. FDR and Truman wanted a world where the US was first among equals and Washington helped build international institutions. They would have been happy, too, with the way that democracy was built in Japan and Germany. Truman and Eisenhower would have been equally struck by the democracy that has developed in South Korea. Nixon and Kennedy would have been astounded that Formosa transformed itself from a military dictatorship to the first robust democracy in China’s history. And when Nixon and Kissinger flew out of Jakarta in 1975, a day ahead of the invasion of East Timor, they probably didn’t spend much time contemplating the chances of democracy in Indonesia.

Sometimes the black swan that arrives is actually the bearer of happy change.