Some disruptive scenarios for the world of tomorrow

Foresight is always an interesting way of challenging preconceived notions and the intellectual comfort afforded by relative certainty in the evolution of international relations. But, of course, relations between countries are in perpetual motion, sometimes leading to real disruptions that turn the world upside down. If foresight is indeed about anticipating, not predicting, let us open our thinking to the whole field of possibilities, without overlooking scenarios which, because they are disturbing, do not deserve to be considered.

By Matthieu Anquez

United States: From isolationism to the religious far right in power

The majority trend resulting from the reflection of many specialists in history, sociology and political science, highlights a strongly polarised American society, exacerbated under the Trump presidency (2017–2021) and symbolised by the attack on the Capitol on the 6th of January 2021. This attack contributed to an abundant production of analyses, some of which suggested the risk of a new civil war in the United States.

Without going to this extreme, the United States’ return to isolationism would have significant consequences for the world and would probably imply the United States leaving NATO. Donald Trump already mentioned this hypothesis in 2018, and it could become relevant again in the coming years. Without a total break between European countries and the United States, relations could be strictly bilateral and subject to American arms purchases in exchange for political support (but not military support, with the isolationist American president refusing to expose any American life for the defence of “distant countries, which do not concern the security of the United States”).

An American withdrawal from NATO would have immediate repercussions on Europe’s security architecture, deprived of the alliance with the world’s leading military power while the Russian threat is still very present.

First hypothesis: A break-up of NATO, whose existence would no longer be justified in the absence of the United States. Each state would fall back on its own security interests, acknowledging the failure of collective security institutions. This assumption would increase the vulnerability of Western Europe and would be a victory for Moscow. The independence of the Baltic countries would be seriously compromised.

Second hypothesis: European countries would become aware of the risks involved in such a scenario and would decide to react by founding an integrated European defence structure. The aim would be to make the existing NATO institutions fully European, in the absence of the United States, and to link them to the European Union as much as possible. The aim would be to build a political-military bloc credible enough to deter Russia from threatening Europe’s Eastern borders. Eurocorps, bringing together various European units in an organic way, could be formed to ensure the collective commitment of all countries in the event of an aggression. Although weakened by the American withdrawal, common command structures, a larger headquarters, joint training and a more rational organisation of defence procurement could make such a European security architecture sufficiently credible.

An American scenario that would impact Europe even more would be a regime rising to power that is not only isolationist but based on an ultra-nationalist and religious ideology. In addition to the internal disturbances that the country would inevitably suffer, economic and trade relations between the two sides of the Atlantic would be considerably reduced, with the majority of European public opinion rejecting any further interaction with such a regime. Beyond the US withdrawing from NATO, all trade and service flows would be reviewed, in addition to foreseeable disruptions to the credibility of the dollar as a world reference currency. What would become of a Europe orphaned by the United States? As with the withdrawal from NATO, two main trajectories are worth considering: the rise of nationalism in individual countries, with either the dilution or strengthening of the European Union to better withstand the inevitable global upheavals in the wake of this scenario.

Collapse of China

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) often portrays itself as a prosperous, rising, self-confident, efficient State, called to replace the United States as the world’s leading power.

However, several factors should moderate this perception, given the challenges Beijing faces: the demographic crisis, which is expected to accelerate by 2030, a strong economic slowdown, provincial indebtedness, soil and water pollution, and more. An authoritarian regime such as the PRC can claim to solve these challenges, but an extreme verticality of power, while it encourages decision-making, does not guarantee its effective execution or validity. The combination of economic, social, demographic and ecological elements could, in an extreme scenario, lead to a questioning of internal political balances, leading to the regime’s delegitimization and eventual collapse.

But is the world, Europe, ready to suffer the consequences of such an upheaval?

Given the organisation of the world economy, where China is often presented as “the world’s factory”, the effects on Europe would be primarily economic. According to Cairn, EU imports from China in 2022 amounted to €40 billion per month, including many consumer goods and essential energy transition technology (battery cells and motors for electric vehicles, photovoltaic panels, etc.) and critical high-tech metals such as gallium and germanium. The European economy highly depends on Chinese imports, despite the current of reindustrialisation that was implemented following the Covid pandemic. Furthermore, China is an outlet for many European industries, including important sectors of the French economy such as the luxury goods market. Factories that depend on imported Chinese components (automotive, renewable energy, electronics, etc.) would shut down for lack of supply, as would distributors, causing a significant rise in unemployment.

A political collapse of China would undoubtedly result in a phase of internal recomposition in which autonomous governments would try to maintain a minimum level of order with the support of competing military factions, following a model relatively similar to that of the “warlords” of the 1920-1930s, with the addition of nuclear weapons stockpiles. There would be enormous impact on production, exports and imports as the economy would be completely disorganised in the absence of the directives of the Communist Party and the Plan.

It is doubtful whether European industry would be able to offset China’s import deficit quickly, with reindustrialisation or a reorganisation of the world economy taking years, if not longer. This would lead to shortages of many consumer goods previously produced at low cost in China. Mobile phones and computers, not to mention electric vehicles, would become luxury goods that only a country’s elite could afford, exacerbating internal social tensions.

The most dramatic result would be on an ethical level with the humanitarian disaster that would result from the PRC’s collapse and its splitting into competing entities. Disrupted food and energy supplies would lead to famine and shortages across the country, an exodus of refugees that could destabilise neighbouring countries and millions of victims.

Interdependencies between nations are such that an event of this magnitude would have unprecedented repercussions, profoundly disrupting the entire world for several years to come.

Russia: Victory in Ukraine

The 2024 US election brings to power a president with isolationist tendencies. Convinced that he has the capacity to settle the Ukrainian conflict through a quick meeting with his Russian counterpart, he flies to the Kremlin and proclaims shortly afterwards that he has put an end to the war, assuring that Russia’s fears were quite reasonable in the end. He immediately ends arms shipments to Ukraine to force Kiev to accept « an honourable peace ». The peace agreements are finally signed. The occupied part of Ukrainian territory is absorbed by Russia. A 100-kilometer-wide strip along the old front line is demilitarised. Finally, as the White House wants to refocus on the United States (and the Chinese threat), American troops in the former Eastern Europe republics are evacuated.

NATO would be greatly weakened and so would the credibility of the American protector. Betting on the fragility of companies drained by inflation (energy, food, etc.), Russia promises several members of the European Union very advantageous tariffs for new gas deliveries. Public opinion in some countries is pushing governments to accept to curb inflation and the creeping economic and social crisis. In the end they believe what is happening at the edge of Europe does not affect them as much as the crisis they are experiencing.

With the undermining of Atlantic solidarity, there is a gradual dilution of the European Union, with competing interests proving to be more powerful than solidarity based on common values. The European edifice is crumbling, while Russia is rebuilding its military machine.

Populist parties come to power in several major European countries, whose stance on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict was ambiguous. The anti-American and pro-Moscow discourse has once again gained a wide audience.

In light of this situation, the European countries bordering Russia and its allies take note of the considerable weakening of NATO and the EU, and form a specific alliance uniting the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Moldova.

With its military reconstituted, and after several years of dividing Ukrainian society, Russia is again attacking a Ukraine in the middle of an economic crisis, no longer benefiting from Western financial manna. Unlike 2022, the Russian forces plan their offensive skilfully and overwhelm the Ukrainians. Kiev falls in a few days, and a regime at the Kremlin’s beck and call is installed.

This causes panic in several European countries and a peace conference is organised. The Kremlin’s claims are simple: return the territories that once belonged to the USSR to the Russian fold. Europeans are unable to oppose a united front. The conference ends in failure as the Russian armoured divisions set off to attack the Baltic States and Moldova. Poland tries to come to Lithuania’s aid but too late, while the Romanian forces fail to stop the Russian armies in Moldova and withdraw.

The new Russia is proclaimed with the absorption of the conquered territories into a fictitious federation, in the face of a divided and humiliated Europe incapable of defining a long-term defence policy.

The study of disruptive scenarios, in the sense that they would dramatically change the world by introducing one or more strategic disruptions, is therefore a useful foresight exercise, if we keep in mind that foresight is about anticipating, not predicting. Disruptive, but nonetheless conceivable, they allow us to think the unthinkable, to reflect on futures that are sometimes uncomfortable or disturbing, but which we need to envisage to reduce the surprise effect and avoid being caught off guard.