How long can non-state power rise before it impacts the future of the international order?

Summary: Global Trends & the future of the international order in 2040

State governments have recognized the rising power of transnational organizations, businesses and community groups since the 1990s. The rise of non-state actors has been a feature of the quadrennial National Intelligence Council Global Trends reports since they first began reporting in 1997.

Is it time to consider not only how the United States and Western democracies see the future but how non-state powers see their future role concerning states? Today, there are clear indications that political and governing power is not solely the purview of governments.

In September 2021, Prescient (the Foresight consultancy I lead) will sponsor an event to explore the future of global power through the eyes of non-governmental organizations and private firms.

Who is powerful in the future global order?

In 2017, I had the good fortune to be invited to a multi-day conference at Wilton Park, a once-private estate in West Sussex surrounded by thousands of acres of natural parkland, now given over to government retreats. The 16th-century manor on the grounds is a beautiful and calming place to spend any time, even to discuss the Future of a Liberal International Order, our conference topic.

It had only been a few months since the combined shock of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Conference attendees—diplomats from China, India and Japan, senior American and British government officials, scholars and a smattering of futurists and corporate executives—arrived embattled, ready to fight for the rule-based international system to which many have devoted their careers.

The task was not without its challenges. If you are in a 16th-century country house of the sort where the architects of the international liberal order lived (think Downton Abbey), drinking sherry and eating little cakes, for three days, it is difficult to imagine anything but enduring tranquility beyond its thickly walled gardens. And, indeed, as the event report concluded, “There exists no alternative vision [of a future global order] with a global appeal.” The paradox between the setting and topic illustrated how challenging it is to imagine something new from inside the old —the proverbial box we are always trying to think outside.

How can we think clearly about how best to shape a new order if we keep studying reality through the lens of the old one?

Because, of course, the foundation of the old order is in the process of crumbling. This doesn’t mean that sovereign states disappear; it means they are disrupted by new institutions and forms of power, reducing their effectiveness. We know this story. In the mid-1970s, political scientists suggested that international relations were increasingly defined by “complex interdependence.”

As a result, instead of sovereign states and traditional military power, transnational issues and institutions would become the organizing principles of the international system. In this kind of system, power is laterally distributed across different actors. It doesn’t have to come from a state: politically powerful international groups or economically powerful multinational corporations could also play a part.

By the 1990s, globalized media, finance, and manufacturing eroded states’ abilities to control the flow of people, goods, and ideas across their national borders. Also, in the 1990s, the U.S. National Intelligence Council issued its first Global Trends report to understand how the world order and the U.S. strategic position might change due to economic globalization and the revolution in information technology. The “stable arrangement of power among states,” the report warned, “is drawing to an end.” Why? “Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from multinational businesses to transnational relief agencies … will weaken them.” That first report has now been followed by six more, issued at four-year intervals, with the most recent published in March 2021. Each, like the one before it, maintains the theme of growing non-state power.

Curiously, however, no matter how much non-state power rises, a systemic tipping point never seems to arrive. Instead, like a latent fear, significant non-state influence is perpetually pushed onto a future horizon. Like James Bond in the closing credits, the state system always rises from the wreckage, ready to star in the next Global Trends report. This raises the question, how much can non-state power rise before a tipping point in the system is reached?

Global Trends 2040: A Tipping Point in non-state power

The answer may have arrived in the Global Trends 2040 report, published in March 2021. Although it shares the same structure as all prior reports, reviewing trends and emerging issues and developing plausible but fictional scenarios about what the system could look like in 2040. It is not the first to posit that non-state actors might step into governance roles.

This proposition shows up in Global Trends 2035, which suggested that “The division of labor among service providers is evolving as governments increasingly compete with business and other non-state actors poised to assume the functions of government.” The 2040 report fixates on the battle of behemoth states, China and the United States. But it simultaneously expresses resignation about the potential for states and non-states to evolve to the point of shared governance. Competition and collaboration are now a wide-open field.

The most successful states in 2040, suggests the report, will be those that can “harness the relative expertise, capa- bilities, and relationships of non-state actors to complement state capacity.” In domains like technology, the trends report expected that “state and non-state rivals weill vie for leadership and dominance in science and technology.” The 2040 report proposes a possible future of “adaptive governance” in which non-state and local providers matter more and the possibility of new models emerge.

What does adaptive governance look like? How might it come about? Is it better or worse for citizens? Is it democratic or something else? What other models are there? How do states respond? We should strive to answer these questions now so that governments, citizens, and non-state providers can succeed in the next international system, not state-based but multilateral.

And yet, the evidence of the dispersal of power away from states is constant. Daily, platform companies, global corporations, NGOs, and major cities create new norms of behavior and business models that do not rely on states. Intelligence itself is being challenged by open source and private sector projects. Prescient, the foresight consultancy I own and lead is embarking on an experiment this autumn that will incorporate non-state viewpoints into the projected future. You can read more about that here and join us as long as space permits.

The chimera of great power competition and the return of the big state

But wait, you might say, we are in the era of great power competition. The U.S. government says that “big government” is back. Everything is about states again. Yes and no. Indeed, states like the U.S. are making resource commitments that are big and touting the idea of the “bigger state.” China is a behemoth power with a great willingness to protect its industries and interests.

But these facts don’t unseat the many other actors capable of competing with states. Theorists have defined power in different ways. One of those ways sees power as a zero-sum game, in which more for you means less for me. But that misses the crucial point that the ways of being powerful have also expanded in the last 50 years.

Two hundred years ago, power meant having wealth, an army, natural resources, and a large population. Today, power takes many forms. Can you set standards, create a market, shape a public narrative, innovate in a new technology economy, share knowledge or convene the powerful? Then you have a form of meaningful power.

What are the National Intelligence Council Global Trend Reports?

In 1997, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) published its first Global Trends report. Since then, it has issued a new statement at the beginning of every new presidential administration.

The advisory and research group that sits inside of and reports to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence evaluates how prevailing geopolitical trends may play out in the future through several fictionalized scenarios. Each report looks fifteen years into the future.

The goal is to connect the intelligence community’s outlook with policymakers and, like all scenario projects, to help policymakers evaluate a broader and less intuitive range of potential futures than they might otherwise. The reports are significant undertakings.

Since the first report, they have grown in scope and complexity. The first publication grew from a few conferences with academics, business leaders, and intelligence community professionals in Washington DC.

Today, each Global Trends publication is a multi-year global affair that involves regional meetings and consultations with hundreds of people at conferences, symposia and seminars. In a few cases, the reports have been cannily predictive, although that is not their intention.

Global Trends 2025, for example, suggests that a worldwide pandemic could surprise the world. The reports are distinctive for their use of fictional scenarios, miniature vignettes that show alternative paths to the future. The most recent publication, Global Trends 2040, was released in March 2021.

View and download an infographic charting the National Intelligence Council’s non-state power projections since 1997