What are we missing?

by | Jan 25, 2009

Over the past few weeks the UK government has been organising an extensive series of horizon scanning events to feed into the current revision of the National Security Strategy.  In all, some 24 workshops have been held on the full range of foreign policy issues; various other events have also been held, including the Wilton Park conference I mentioned a couple of weeks back. 

Having been to a few of these events, I must admit to being less than convinced that the sessions are really breaking out of the comfortable groupthink that can so easily characterise futures work.  Like Charlie, I’m starting to feeling a sense of deja vu each time I attend an awayday or brainstorming session that concludes that emerging economies are, well, emerging; that resources are becoming more scarce; that everything’s interconnected; and so on. 

I can see the utility of futures work that focuses on a pretty specific area – prospects for the pharmaceutical sector, say, or the future of UN peacekeeping – but I suspect that very big picture horizon scanning is only really helpful at this stage if it yields up insights or possibilities that are being ignored or overlooked.

For me, the really stand-out risk that barely got a mention in the events I attended was the possibility that serious erosion of states’ capacity and legitimacy undermines their ability to respond to all the global trends that we were discussing (viz. climate change, organised crime, economic meltdown, terrorism, energy scarcity – you know, the usual list).

Normally, when we think about state fragility we assume that we’re talking about the Lebanons, Somalias and Guinea-Bissaus of the world.  But as people who work in the counter-insurgency sphere have been pointing out for some time, the problem of erosion of state capacity is a whole lot more widespread than that. 

The credit crunch and subsequent slide into recession have already exposed some of the limits to state action in developed countries: look at the way central banks have appeared to be losing control of interest rates, or the nagging questions about whether the UK banking sector is just too big for the state to rescue. Then think of the atonishing list of countries that have had to accept IMF austerity programmes (and of those states that may still need to do so), and you’ve got another reason again to wonder whether states have the capacity to deliver on the demanding agendas that confront them.

Meanwhile, there’s a new spirit of disorder abroad in many countries as the downturn starts to bite: look at Greece last year, or the unrest in response to the financial crisis that’s taken place in Iceland, Latvia and Bulgaria.  Or look at cities like Naples or Tijuana which have been hollowed out by 4GW actors, with the states concerned apparently unable to get a hold on the situation (although note also the more upbeat case of Sao Paolo, where there’s been an apparent sea-change in prospects since the city’s nadir in 2006).

None of this amounts to a concrete prediction, but there is nonetheless a worrying set of drivers on the table that raises questions about whether, in (say) 5 years’ time, we’ll be starting to think that states just don’t have the legitmacy and capability they need to manage 21st century challenges. Whether that possibility figures in the next UK National Security Strategy, though?  Not if the perspectives I heard at these horizon scanning events were anything to go by.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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