2025 will mark the end of the first twenty-five years of the twenty-first century: a good moment to assess the state of the planet

This article was published in Oasis 9. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:44:03

In 2025, when making a first assessment of the twenty-first century twenty-five years on in its journey, one fact more than other will probably strike observers. The international system created after the end of the Second World War, and which has accompanied the history of the world in recent decades, will at that point have changed in such a way as to be unrecognisable. With the scenarios of the Cold War which characterised the second half of the twentieth century swept away, with the sensitive balance of bodies such as the United Nations (created in the post-war outlook of sixty years ago) in crisis, the new panorama will be that of a multipolar global system. And the leading actors of this new world scene will not only be nation-States but also a gamut of different powers: big business, tribes and ethnic groups, religious organisations and criminal networks.

In this way, at least, is the future seen, not in the studios of Hollywood but in the research centres of American intelligence, in the principal think tanks of Washington, and among the experts that provide geopolitical analyses to the White House and the Congress of the United States of America. Every five years the best of what is produced in this sector is brought together in a study coordinated by the National Intelligence Council, the centre for studies of the CIA, and by the other American secret services. The most recent report produced by this elite body of American intelligence is entitled Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World and it offers the possibility of a fascinating journey, at times of worrying features, in search of the future that awaits us.

The prospects outlined by American intelligence offered President Barack Obama on his arrival last January at the White House bases upon which to organise the foreign policy of the new administration. In the daily briefings that the President of the United States began to receive the day after his election in November 2008, before he entered the Oval Office, the CIA called to his attention specific information on immediate risks and opportunities, accompanied by a mound of in-depth analyses, obviously in large part reserved or top secret. But the long-term scenarios which are considered at the White House, at the Department of State or at the Pentagon, are not very different from those which emerge from reports such as that produced by the National Intelligence Council.

This was seen during the first foreign trips of Obama, in particular during the trip which in April led him around Europe for the meetings of the G20 and NATO, and then to Turkey to support the request of Ankara to join the European Union and to launch a dialogue with the Islamic world. Beyond the contingent situation and the global economic crisis that is shaping the state of international relations in a 2009 that is marked by recession, Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, have shown that they are working to structure in the long term relations conceived for a multipolar world, in which the hunt for energy sources will be increasingly important and which is witnessing the emergence of new regional powers such as Turkey, which is increasingly wooed by Washington, and which it is envisaged in the future will have a progressive and steady growth in influence.

Imagining the scenarios some fifteen years beforehand, in a world that is changing at its current rhythms, may seem equivalent to engaging in fiction, an exercise in science fiction which in the final analysis is useless. For that matter, fifteen years ago who would have imagined that internet and mobile phones would have acquired the role that they now have in our daily lives, in social relations and in business? Or that the Twin Towers in New York would have disappeared, knocked down by two passenger aeroplanes? Or that the Vatican would have had a German Pope and the United States of America an Afro-American President?

However, it is possible to identify a series of key trends that will help to stimulate essential strategic reflections for long-term decisions. It is these trends that are the subject of the analysis of the experts of American intelligence and helped them to present a first draft of the state of our planet in 2025.

The chief trend relates to the change that will be experienced by the system of international relations. The questions and issues of a transnational character will increase and this will bring with it a framework for governments that will be increasingly complex to decipher. The ageing of the population in the developed world, the limits to energy, food and water resources, and fears about climate change, all threaten an epoch which will continue to be one of prosperity when compared to previous centuries, but one which will be exposed to risks that will not be secondary in character.

Looking at the examples offered by history, the most disturbing comparison that the men of the CIA outline is that of the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, when a first stage of globalisation, managed by a multipolar system akin to the one that is once again emerging, led to a crisis and finally to the First World War. American intelligence does not believe that there are similar risks but scenarios of territorial expansionism and military contrast are possible. A source of concern will be above all what the American experts define as the ‘arch of instability’, that slice of the planet that goes from North and Sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East and to the regions of central Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa is seen in particular as the most vulnerable area because of its political and economic instability, and is seen as being most exposed to the risk of conflicts.

One of the most impressively large-scale phenomena recorded in these American studies is connected with the transfer that is now underway in global wealth and economic power, which has taken on an unprecedented importance in modern history. The countries of the so-termed BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are set to equal the overall GDP of the G7 countries by 2040-2050 and by 2025 China should have the second largest economy in the world and military power on a vast scale (in addition to being the greatest importer of natural resources and the greatest polluter of the planet). A substantial growth will also take place in other countries, such as Indonesia, Iran and Turkey. For this reason, it is not surprising to note the renewed attention that the Obama administration has paid to relations with these areas.

The Case of Egypt

The hunt for resources will dominate the international agenda and in fifteen years the world should be at the height of an epoch-making transition in terms of energy: moving away from oil in the direction of a greater use of natural gas, coal and alternative sources. Countries with economies based on oil will have to deal with a challenge that will accompany important demographic changes and pressures for political reforms. In North Africa and the Middle East, the period that separates us from 2025 will enable us to understand if a trend in the direction of reform and changes in economic systems will emerge or whether leaders will instead fail in their task of preparing their populations for active participation in the global economy. In this last case, the authoritarian regimes will be forced to become increasingly authoritarian and regional conflicts will remain unsolved, and at a time when population growth will reduce the resources that are available.

A case that American intelligence uses as an example of a sample country for the region is Egypt. Over the next fifteen years, the proportion of its population that is economically active will be much greater, compared to other countries, than the proportion that is economically dependent. This is a differential that will generate opportunities for economic growth but also pressures for greater liberalisation and risks that social tensions will explode.

The analysts of the American secret services believe that in much of the world a substantial pragmatism will prevail in the face of the challenges of globalisation, which should constitute a barrier against ideological conflicts such as those of the Cold War. But ideology could continue to play a strong role in the Muslim world. American intelligence fears that the growth in the young part of the population and economic deterioration could radicalise countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and the Yemen, with the rise of Islam of a Salafite kind.

“We are not at war and we will never be at war with Islam”, Obama said emphatically during his speech to the Turkish parliament last April, observing, however, that the United States would not tolerate Islamic radicalisations that created a cultivable terrain for possible threats to American national security or the West. Pakistan and Afghanistan have rapidly become the new hot fronts of the Obama administration, in the same way as Iraq and Iran were for the administration of George W. Bush.

The Muslim population of Western Europe, according to these analysts, will in 2025 be between twenty-five and thirty million, compared to the 15-18 million of today, and this circumstance will have consequences for trans-Atlantic relations as well. ‘The present tension at a social and political level in Europe as regards the integration of Muslims’, the report states, ‘will probably make the Europeans increasingly sensitive to the possible internal repercussions of any foreign policy for the Middle East, including an overly close alignment with the policies of the United States, seen as pro-Israeli’.

Great challenges are also seen on the front of the sharing of food and water resources. The World Bank expects a growth of 50% by 2030 in demand for food. The rapid urbanisation that is underway and the addition of another 1.2 milliard people to the world population over the next twenty years will make water sources increasingly scarce and valuable. At the present time, the American experts see twenty-one countries in the world (with a total population of 600 million people) as being in a situation of scarcity as regards water resources. In 2025 this number of countries will increase to 1.4 milliard people. The scarcity of resources will be aggravated by the effects of the climate change that is now underway, which will have a differentiated impact in the different regions of the planet. In many developing countries a fall in agricultural production is envisaged which could have devastating effects on their already very fragile economies.

The Expansion of Nationalisms

What, however, most worries the ‘futurologists’ of Washington is the multiplicity of actors and the difficulties in identifying international instruments that are able to manage the new scenarios. Terrorist organisations will find areas they can infiltrate, exploiting the possible radicalisation of large sections of the younger part of populations. The spread of technologies and scientific knowledge will enable these groups to use biochemical and nuclear weapons, and with devastating effects. But nuclear proliferation will remain a problem that will certainly not be confined to the world of movements and small groups practising terror. Various States will continue to oppose each other with the search for atomic weapons in order to increase their geopolitical weight. The example that has been most discussed in recent years – and which runs the risk of being so in future years as well – is Iran, which could set in motion a very dangerous nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

American intelligence believes that the risk of the use of nuclear weapons will be greater in twenty years’ time than it is today because of the spread of technology in the field but also because of the possibility that the danger levels will be breached in conflicts which today are of ‘low intensity’, such as that between India and Pakistan. If a nuclear weapon were to be used over the next fifteen to twenty years, the shock generated could set in motion unpredictable turning points in history.

At the level of international instruments and bodies able to keep up with the unrelenting change that is underway during the first quarter of the twenty-first century, the basic problem remains the fact that the multiplicity of actors on the world scene seems to hold up a fragmentation of shared action. Bodies such as the United Nations do not seem to offer a solid approach to the challenge of the forthcoming decades. The countries of the BRIC will hardly become adversaries of the international system in the same way as Germany and Japan were in the twentieth century, but they could decide to follow a path that is different from that proposed by the West, bringing with them various followers.

We should not underestimate the possibility of greater Asian regionalism, with the countries of this region able to lay down the law inside the WTO (World Trade Organisation) and to impose their standards in fields such information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology and intellectual property rights. The United States of America, at the same time, will remain powerful but not as much as in the past and it will have to resign itself to being one of the actors in many sectors, and not necessarily with the role of the protagonist.

American intelligence believes that in such a fragmented world nationalism and political identities will flourish. But networks based on religion will also proliferate which could act as a real glue in relation to subjects such as environmental policies and the fight against planetary inequalities, acting – with a strong network of NGOs as well – to make up for the weakening of traditional international institutions.

Although all these observations are of essentially a general character, the ‘futurologists’ of the CIA have not resisted the temptation to try to hazard a bet on some specific events as well. By 2025 – this is one of their predictions – a government of central or eastern Europe could completely end up in the hands of organised crime. Some African or South Asian States could disappear from the map, cancelled by revolts or the implosions of their respective governments. And a new technology that has not yet been identified could turn out to be capable of enabling the world to escape from the epoch of dependence on oil. l the articles