Oz intelligence review: challenges and threats
4 Sep 2017|

The new normal of international affairs has lots of abnormalities. Not least is the way the norms of the system of states are being tested and stretched and pushed and punished.

Along with all the noise, the biggest of shifts just keeps on keeping on. See the trajectory forecast five years ago by all of America’s intelligence agencies, sitting as the US National Intelligence Council, in their Global Trends report:

In a tectonic shift, by 2030, Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power, based upon GDP, population size, military spending, and technological investment. China alone will probably have the largest economy, surpassing that of the United States a few years before 2030.

The US will still be the number 1 world power. Yet it’s about to become the number 2 economic power. That is a power paradox to ponder. And it’s one of the paradoxes expressed in the title for the new US Global Trends report, The paradox of progress, issued as Donald Trump was sworn in.

The next five years will see rising tensions within and between countries. Global growth will slow, just as increasingly complex global challenges impend. An ever-widening range of states, organizations, and empowered individuals will shape geopolitics. For better and worse, the emerging global landscape is drawing to a close an era of American dominance following the Cold War. So, too, perhaps is the rules-based international order that emerged after World War II. It will be much harder to cooperate internationally and govern in ways publics expect.

China became the biggest economy in the world in 2014 (measured by purchasing power parity). And about 10 years from now, China will reconfirm its place atop the world economic table, based on exchange rates. That means America and China and the rest of us still have a further 10 years to get used to the megatrend that has already happened. Trend moments get no bigger. We’ve been living with this for a while, so it has lost some of its surprise element. But not its sense of danger.

In the 20th century, Europe’s wars were world wars. In the 21st century, world wars will come—if they come—from Asia. For Asia, power has arrived. In the world of states, that shift is profound. Paradox, indeed. That’s why the modern Metternich, Henry Kissinger, was moved to pen the book World order, arguing that the ultimate problem of our day is ‘the crisis in the concept of world order’. And, says Dr K, the ultimate challenge for statesmanship is ‘a reconstruction of the international system’.

As Kissinger commented in August, ‘the United States and China will become the world’s two most consequential countries both economically and geopolitically, obliged to undertake unprecedented adaptations in their traditional thinking’.

Just stroll around that last thought: the two biggest beasts on the planet will have to make ‘unprecedented adaptations in their traditional thinking’. And the tradition in both countries, as Dr K notes, is to ‘think of themselves as exceptional, albeit in fundamentally different ways’. Tough for exceptional countries to alter their fundamental thought processes, much less cope with a geopolitical equal that also thinks itself unique.

The tectonic stuff in the world of states is matched by the shifts in the other realms of peoples and technologies. That inelegant phrase ‘non-state actors’ only hints at all the acting up these non-state players are conjuring. The modern age of terror arrived with the first decade of this century. The age of cyber drives this second decade.

Australia finds itself ‘wedged between the limits of sovereignty and the constraints of multilateralism’. That phrase is from Michael L’Estrange, in the second of the ASPI interviews on the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review.

The L’Estrange–Merchant review spends its first chapter surveying Australia’s national security environment. It’s a six-page sprint through the abnormalities of this new international normal, arguing that Australia’s security interests have become ‘more complex, less predictable and more volatile’ because of:

  • changes in the balance of wealth and power in the international system
  • new dimensions of the interaction between economic globalisation and geopolitical power politics, particularly in the Indo-Pacific
  • the asymmetrical influence of non-state actors, including extremists
  • technological advances.

The review groups those forces around three key focal points:

  1. Fundamental changes in the international system: ‘The trend in the global balance of wealth and power is favouring China and India. The Western ascendancy in international institutions and values that characterised the second half of the twentieth century, and the early years of the twenty-first century, is eroding.’ Power politics remains important. Rivalry and competition between states ‘will become more accentuated over coming years’.
  2. Extremism with global reach: Globalisation accelerates the movement of people, goods, money and ideas; the dark side of those positive trends is ‘the illegal and destabilising transfer of goods, money, weapons and people. This has broadened the potential for extremism, sectarian fundamentalism, radicalisation and terrorism to take root and have their destructive impact.’
  3. The security consequences of accelerating technological change: Disruptive technological innovation places ‘enormously destructive capabilities within easier reach of rogue states and non-state actors. This trend is not reversible and it will lead to an even more threatening international environment than now exists.’

Here’s the APSI interview with Michael L’Estrange on challenges and threats.