Published 2021-06-16

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In the wake of the pandemic: four geopolitical scenarios

The norm-based international cooperation established after the Second World War is falling apart. Global gaps are widening, and countries’ varying ability to manage the coronavirus pandemic is bringing increased polarisation and politicisation. Mistra Geopolitics has been developing possible lines of development and future scenarios for the COVID-19 pandemic’s global effects.

In March 2020, Karl Hallding, researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), fell ill with COVID-19. At the time, the superficiality of media analysis of the pandemic’s long-term effects struck him. Once back on his feet, jointly with the Swedish Defence University, he launched a project in the Mistra Geopolitics research programme to use scenario methodology to study how the pandemic could affect global trends in the years ahead.

Karl Hallding, Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

‘Scenarios are often used for long time frames, but my argument for studying trends over the next three years was that the pandemic as such represents completely new conditions and drivers of behaviours and processes, as well as being an accelerator and catalyst for change that’s already under way. The aim was to identify global development trends and alternative lines of development in the short term,’ Hallding says.

Twenty-five experts in a wide range of fields and organisations helped to identify 30 key external factors, all of which might move in various directions. In a questionnaire survey, 500 selected decision-makers in politics, business, research and civil society, with a good balance of age and gender, were asked to assess the likely direction the variables might take, and to pick out what they saw as the 10 main factors.

‘Surprisingly, sustainability was deemed the most important external variable. A year ago, in the throes of the pandemic, it didn’t feel like that issue topped the agenda,’ Hallding says.

Nation-state seems increasingly important

A few experts in the group addressed the decision-makers’ responses and continued to work on the material. Probable global development trends and more uncertain future scenarios emerged. There are five clear trends, according to Hallding. The first is that, in the wake of the pandemic, there is a gradual disintegration of the norm-based international cooperation that has emerged since the Second World War.

‘The importance of free markets, freedom of expression and human rights looks set to decrease in the future. The only country showing a clear trend in its survey responses is China, which is expected to expand its spheres of influence through an ever more confrontational and authoritarian global stance.’

The second trend is that the nation state seems to be increasingly important, often through more authoritarian rule, but in many countries because of democratisation. The third trend is that global inequalities appear to be widening because of economic pressures. Countries with a sound economy can handle the pandemic and finance recovery measures, thereby strengthening their economies, while poor nations risk getting caught up in debt traps and short-term political decisions. Trend four is that countries’ varying abilities to manage the pandemic means that there are risks of growing polarisation and politicisation, which can themselves lead to widespread dissatisfaction, open social conflicts, growing hatred and development of parallel societies. The fifth clear trend is that sustainability and climate adaptation seem to be set to become increasingly important in both national arenas and commercial contexts, but that many countries are falling behind.

Alternative future scenarios

The work also culminated in four alternative future scenarios.

‘In this methodology, the external factors that were considered most important but most uncertain are combined, to enable understanding of how the world might develop in entirely different directions. The four scenarios become corner posts that jointly mark the area of uncertainty,’ Hallding explains.

The four scenarios are:

  • Reconnected

Direct and indirect effects of the pandemic drive a renewed trans-Atlantic connection, focusing on sustainable reconstruction, to restore international cooperation.

  • Fragmented

Fear of new virus outbreaks, combined with global tensions, leads to higher international barriers and conflicts and undermines globalised society.

  • Reconfigured

Internal conflicts in the US and the EU increase, creating scope for emerging economies and technology companies to play a larger role on the global stage.

  • Conventional

Democracies in the industrialised world are socially and financially robust enough to navigate their way out of the pandemic and secure a return to a world order similar to that of the pre-pandemic period.

No platform for future issues

Hallding is now putting the finishing touches to a report on the project. In his view, the work has created added value throughout the process because it was largely driven by the experts and decision-makers, while the role of the Mistra Geopolitics researchers was to design, lead and facilitate the process.

‘The very purpose of studying alternative developmental paths and future scenarios is to be able to act on them and improve preparedness in an uncertain future. Last summer, when we’d started the work, the Swedish Armed Forces’ management received an initial briefing focusing on the security-policy situation. The scenarios developed during the autumn and winter were the basis of a major exercise in TRR (translator’s note: a foundation, formerly known as the Swedish Employment Security Council, affiliated to the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise) focusing on skills requirements and provision. In the run-up to the US Presidential Election, we discussed its outcome and America’s role in global climate action. And I’ve taken part in several seminars at, for example, the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise and Futurion (an independent Swedish think tank founded by trade unions),’ Hallding says.

Having missed out on future analyses of the pandemic’s effects while on his sickbed, Hallding now sees an awakening of keen interest in conceivable scenarios. In the project, a small-scale follow-up survey is being discussed to check out the four future scenarios, and there is ample scope for broad outreach using both the methodology and results.

‘In Sweden, we have no platform for future issues or anyone heading work on future scenarios. Look at the Public Health Agency of Sweden’s scenarios during the pandemic and how they turned out. Instead of using a quantitative modelling methodology that has not been subjected to any expert assessment, we do the opposite and use a qualitative methodology based on what the experts say. Global trends and future scenarios are important documentary support for decisions on Sweden and global development.’