Future Conflicts: Not Just Geopolitics

The theme of the annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club held in October was “Creative Destruction: Will a New World Order Arise from the Current Conflicts?” Given the current conditions, the acute geopolitical conflicts unfolding across the world come to mind first. However, only one of five panel sessions was devoted to the conflict between geopolitical visions of the world, which is telling. All other panels focused on matters far removed from military force and conventional international politics. Their titles speak for themselves, such as “The Conflict between Rich and Poor”, “The Conflict between Humans and Nature”, “The Conflict between Universalism and Identity”, and “The Conflict between Progress and Humanism.” 

Thus, the image of the future as discussed by the club members was related to anticipated major transformation of global politics and, more broadly, global society on a variety of issues that reach far beyond matters of war and peace. Finding a solution, or building a streamlined roadmap for the further development of our planetary society proved to be an extremely difficult task. After all, the grandmasters of diplomacy have long since learned how to achieve a geopolitical balance of power (at least, they have a clear understanding of how to do so), but no one in the world knows what to do with environmental, demographic and technological challenges: there’s no generally approved methodology for solving such equations (with an ever increasing number of variables). That is why, for all the acuteness of modern geopolitical crises, the club members focused on entirely different things. 

Moreover, an occasional lack of political correctness in discussing these matters creates additional complexity (and subtlety) during the discussion. Take, for example, the relationship between the global environment and demography. We can fight climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, introduce appropriate quotas, etc., but this will not resolve the global strategic issue of a long-term (a century or so) guaranteed food and water supplies for the ever growing population of Earth. This raises the issue of global demographic planning, which is an extremely politically incorrect topic. And this is why UN demographic forums are usually much less effective and much more prone to conflict than UN forums on ecology or climate change.                                                                        

Leading experts in this area cited a very typical example during the Valdai Club meetings: if the entire population of Earth were to live according to the consumption standards of the Western middle class (even the lower middle class), it would take three Earths to supply them with food and water and other natural resources. Since the population of Earth is expected to grow by a billion every decade, providing Western living standards for 9 to 10 billion people will require not three, but four planets, then five, and so on. However, since we have no access to new planets, the rapidly growing population will have to make do with just one. 

Importantly, the biosphere has limits. There is a limited amount of arable land and fresh water, and they are already being used by humanity to the maximum. The following figures were quoted at the club meetings. Not only is the population of Earth expected to reach 9 or10 billion within the next two decades, but equally important is the fact that the global middle class will reach at least 3 billion, which will cause an increase in global food consumption by at least 50 percent, electricity by 45 percent, water by 30 percent. All of this, as emphasized by the panel members, will occur at a time where environmental thresholds will impose additional restrictions, and climate change and other processes will increasingly affect all aspects of human welfare and environmental health. 

This means the growing population of Earth will soon not have enough food to eat. Admittedly, there may be enough resources on the planet to provide the proverbial bowl of rice a day for each person even with the population growing by a billion per decade (given the inevitable global acceptance of genetically modified foods). However, most likely, planet Earth won’t have enough resources to secure food or any other consumer basket for the global middle class (which will also grow by a billion per decade). 

This gives rise to a straightforward and extremely politically incorrect conclusion. The main problem in the future will be posed not just by uncontrolled growth of the global population, but by uncontrolled growth of the middle class. Therefore, in order to avert the neo-Malthusian apocalypse, it is imperative not to restrain overall population growth in the poorest countries, which has become part of conventional global demographic planning and is already causing lively debates and protests, including religious. The issue (or the task, if we adopt the politically incorrect Malthusian paradigm) is about preventing residents of the currently undeveloped countries from making the transition to the global middle class, meaning that the poor should remain poor. Otherwise, nature will buckle under the pressure. Admission to the global middle class should be prohibitively expensive, which translates into conscious global containment of development of third world nations, their residents and households. Clearly, the resulting conflicts of the future will be much more violent than the geopolitical disputes of today. Unlike geopolitics, there is no ready-to-use road map to provide a solution. What is available is either a Malthusian nightmare, or a decision to shift the problem to the next generation coupled with the total undermining of faith in progress. This means reviving the eschatological ideology of the old report, “Limits to Growth”, but in a more cynical version. Limits to growth are not for everyone, only for the poor. And “sustainable development” in its current form will be of no import. 

Global migration is another important ramification of global inequality. It is already a fairly acute issue (just think of the inflow of migrants to Germany and other EU countries in 2015-2016 and the obvious failure of the EU members to agree on ways to address it). However, many demographic experts are saying with confidence that this is just the beginning, and the pressure of many millions of migrants on the EU countries and the countries of the developed world as a whole will only increase in the future. 

So far, no rational and effective measures to respond to this process have been suggested, except for stronger police control over “fortress Europe.” However, as is known, no fortress is impenetrable, and new waves of migrants successfully prove this point. So, prohibitive measures alone will not resolve this situation. 

Moreover, within the context of the above line of thinking that will underlie demographic and social global development for the next two decades, the ideological background of – let's put it this way – global migration process  will also be transforming at an increasingly fast pace. The entitlement to migration may become an extremely acute issue as part of the above neo-Malthusian ideology of containing the middle class in the third world countries. Other global values ​​may come about, which will be completely different from the currently accepted ones. 

Let’s face it, everyone is entitled to a better life. The sustainable development concept officially adopted by the UN emphasizes precisely this point. However, if people cannot lead a better life in their own country because of global disparity in development, then, according to the logic of the global planetary unity of the human society, they have the right to move to a better place. Especially so in the context of the above containment with regard to the growth of the middle class in the third world, which will become part of the agenda during the next two decades. Such logic and the attending new values represent a completely different and fundamentally more powerful challenge to the sovereignty of states than all current geopolitical games involving interference in domestic affairs. 

Since, according to these new planetary values, everyone is entitled to not only live better, but also to live in better places, this leads to a completely different perspective. If life in Germany is better than in Eritrea, the Eritreans are entitled to migrate to Germany. In this case, the slogan “Germany for Citizens of Germany”, which underlies sovereignty, becomes outdated and comes into conflict with the values inherent in the right to development. Then, prosperous Germany becomes the province of not only its citizens, but the global province for the whole of humankind, and anyone can claim it. A new slogan (and a new value), “Germany for All”, will become the order of the day. 

After all, in the context of ever-shrinking natural resources to provide for the growing population of Earth, a situation where Eritrea faces hunger and a bowl of rice a day becomes the ultimate dream of its residents, whereas people in Germany will continue to prosper, will increasingly contradict the values of planetary unity of the human race and humanism in its highest original meaning. Then, the attempt of rich countries to wall themselves off from the poor by enforcing sovereign borders will increasingly be perceived as planet-wide apartheid separating the rich from the poor, which will, clearly, need to be somehow resolved. 

Thus, the neo-globalization values ​​of the right to development and to equal development, which have not yet been articulated, run counter to the values ​​of sovereignty and the politically incorrect task of containing the development of poor nations and isolating the developed world from the rest of humanity. Conflicts of the future that may arise from this contradiction will bear a completely different nature than traditional geopolitical wars of our time. That said, it is necessary to start developing a streamlined global strategy to prevent them.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.