How to imagine the future of global governance

Researchers have developed a series of world scenarios that can help shape global governance and minimize the negative impact of ongoing instability.

Angel Saz-Carranza
Enrique Rueda-Sabater
Marie Vandendriessche
Carlota Moreno Villar

Scenarios devised by a research team offer detailed new insights into a diverse range of possible futures, with the aim of helping policymakers and analysts adapt more efficiently to real-world events as they unfold. 

Esade’s Angel Saz-Carranza, Enrique Rueda-Sabater, Marie Vandendriessche and Carlota Moreno, together with Jacint Jordana from the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals, conducted a rigorous exploration of different possible outcomes for the world in 2035. 

The research, described in detail in the journal Global Policy, will help policymakers understand the impact of the possible scenarios and develop more anticipatory and flexible policies

Setting the scene 

Assuming that future global governance will follow the patterns of the past provides little strategic value in the current highly volatile socio-political arena. Scenario thinking — in which a range of possibilities are developed and explored — is an underused practice in global governance, but it can provide useful insights and help to guide strategic planning. 

Using this approach, the research team developed a diverse range of scenarios. They included four possibilities for the world at large in 2035, four corresponding scenarios for global governance, and a range of scenarios in the sectors of trade, security, climate change and finance. 

Current socio-political dynamics point towards a future of regressive global governance

Each scenario focuses on the environmental and contextual factors, as well as dynamics of change that are likely to have a significant impact on states, local governments, intergovernmental organizations and non-state actors.  

The research is part of a wider body of work coordinated by Professor Jordana as part of the EU-funded Horizon 2020 research project Global Governance and the European Union: Future Trends and Scenarios (GLOBE), developed in consultation with policymakers and experts. 

Uncertain futures

Some aspects of the future can be predicted with an element of certainty: 90 percent of the global citizens of 2035 have already been born, providing foreseeable demographic structures; digitalization will presumably continue to evolve; and global surface temperatures will continue to increase as the long-term effects of climate change take hold. 

Each of these premises, however, brings a set of uncertainties. How much will migration impact the demographics of individual states? How will the fast-paced development of digital technologies transform business and society? Will governments rise to the challenge of climate change or will climate action wane in the coming decades? 

Using the three premises outlined above, the researchers identified a dozen related uncertainties on four axes relevant to global governance: international, national, corporate and social. Different outcomes were selected for each uncertainty and possible cause-and-effect relationships were mapped out.  

The scenario-writing team eliminated implausible scenarios and developed the final global governance simulations using the keywords stipulated by the research funding body: ‘regressive’, ‘disjointed’, ‘incremental’ and ‘transformational’.  

The world in 2035

The result was four potential variations of the world in 2035, each with a corresponding global governance scenario: 

  • Drifting: a bipolar world, divided into two spheres of influence, with multiple tensions and regressive, fragmented and highly informal global governance. 
  • Shifting: widespread instability and North-South conflicts lead to disjointed global governance and shifting alliances based on the short-term interests of states. 
  • Rising: markets acquire an outsized role in a world characterized by incremental global governance, relatively fluid intergovernmental relations, and a return to multilateralism and cooperation in many policy fields. 
  • Flowing: a multipolar world of strong regional governance with a more inclusive and transformational global governance architecture and increasing relevance of non-state actors and authorities. 

These global scenarios were then used as the basis for a deeper investigation into four sectors – trade, security, climate change and finance, resulting in a further 16 potential futures

Global trade governance

These scenarios are based on the future role of the World Trade Organization (WTO). They depend on states' commitment to upholding the WTO as the primary regulator of global trade, their willingness to reform the institution, and whether protectionism or free trade prevail.  

Global governance (WTO)

Global security governance 

These scenarios touch on the future role of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and hinge on potential reforms to rebalance power relations within the organization. An important aspect will be how often the UNSC’s permanent members resort to their veto power to block international security proposals.

Global governance (UNSC)

Global climate governance

These scenarios focus on the future of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its members’ commitment to the Paris Agreement. The scenarios reflect on the varying success of the ratchet mechanism, and on the potential inclusion of Non-State Actors (NSAs) and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in the organization.

Global governance (UNFCCC)
*NDCs (National Determined Contributions) 

Global financial governance 

The last set of scenarios revolve around the future role of the Financial Stability Board (FSB), the international body responsible for monitoring and providing recommendations regarding the global financial system. A key aspect of these scenarios is the extent to which the FSB will be reformed to become more inclusive, and whether it will act as a central coordinator across regions and functional areas. 

Global governance (FSB)
*RMB (renminbi, Chinese currency) 

Building capacity 

By developing scenarios of potential global contexts, the research team has given national and international policymakers tools that will help them strategize for an uncertain future. As this future begins to take shape and reality unfolds, capacity can be monitored, indicators analyzed, the direction of change foreseen and alternative forms of governance prepared. 

The indicators provided within each scenario — such as the role of the World Trade Organization or the relationship between the United States and China — allow states and organizations to prepare and adjust their policies to minimize potential negative outcomes should those circumstances arise. 

For business leaders and non-profit organizations, the scenarios provide valuable insight into the potential impact of alternative forms of global governance on their sector. This knowledge can be used to inform strategy and aid preparedness. 

Based on the scenarios they developed, the researchers suggest that current socio-political dynamics point towards a future of regressive global governance. However, they acknowledge that scenario exercises are limited in design by the factors they consider, and by the potential bias of strategists during their use.  

Further research could analyze what contingencies policymakers use when determining whether to use scenarios in their planning, and whether they behave differently from business and non-state actors when using such exercises, the researchers conclude. 

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