Gavin E L Hall

The Future Declassified

Burrows, M. (2014) The Future, Declassified: Megatrends That Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

“We live in an era of profound change. The status quo is not an option.” (p. 13)

The two opening sentences of the book set the tone for Burrow’s argument in
The Future Declassified and provide a neat summary of the core underpinnings of the text. However, the author does frequently point out that whilst some threats may occur as a result of this change it is not yet time for the doomsayers to break open their champagne equivalent. The outcome of the timeless struggle between good and evil will be decided by how the United States, the world’s righteous hegemon, responds to the challenges posed by this new world. And action is required now.

The book is essentially a presentation of the
Global Trends 2030 report and is heavily geared towards influencing American policy. However, this book appears to be aimed at bringing the report findings to a wider audience to generate pressure for change by gaining traction. As a result the book is split into three bite-sized chunks for mass digestion, with specific sections of society able to identify each part. How the world is changing (Megatrends), what will affect the world in the future (Game Changers), and what could happen (Alternative Worlds).

The significant trend, presented, is the empowerment of individuals and the wide-ranging implications that can be enthused from such a notion. Though Burrow’s does posit that the implications for the state and security are not necessarily negative he argues the diffusion of power will alter our current understanding of national government and multilateral organisations, especially the United Nations. The likely beneficiaries of new power are Greek style city-states and regions. Think David Cameron’s speech in the wake of the Scottish referendum stating his ambition “
to empower our great cities”.

In the second and third sections the focus shifts towards fictional ‘what if scenarios’, which will no doubt have a popular audience amongst the hyperbole seekers. The central problem is that the United States has under-performed in the post-Cold War era and has missed a number of opportunities by not planning adequately for the future. The significance of the structural changes taking place in the world could be better understood. Burrow’s states that the world has moved from the G7 in 1991 to the G20 today which is characterised by a growth in the overall number of the middle class, but represents a decline, in percentage terms, in the developed world of the global middle class population. The past has primarily involved the developed world as the main consumers of goods, i.e. spending money, whilst the goods being consumed have been built in the developing world. As the BRICs countries establish and grow their middle class how will this affect the availability of resources and supplies in the developed world? Would prices go up due to increased demand? Would this result in a net decrease in wealth effectively making the middle class poorer?

The potential for solving these problems and the more important question as to how the United States can better manage its future planning are more elusive. The short-term nature of government planning is highlighted and one assumes that the electoral cycle must be a new phenomenon in American politics. Furthermore, that the lack of vision and depth in planning is exacerbated by the increase in global competition. The worst scenario of all is the irreparable harm to global development from the United States losing its hegemonic position. This could be averted if the United States enhances its future planning and identifies the important role of technology in shaping our world, the ‘megatrends’. This is not a new concept but a revisiting of Heidegger’s assertion that ‘the essence of technology is not technological’. In short Burrow’s is arguing for a rebalancing of the subject/object relationship between human and machine.

When considering any form of analysis a degree of scepticism on the quality of the argument being presented occurs when the participants feel it necessary to state their former affiliation. The implication is that you should listen to them for whom they are not what they are saying and thereby the argument being presented is not able to stand up to outside rigour. Although Matthew Burrow’s, former counsellor National Intelligence Council (NIC) does fall into this category, as seems to be the trend in American Intelligence circles, the quality of the book is not undermined and the underlying message is important to be understood properly.

Although this book is based on the
Global Trends 2030 report and as such of limited utility to anyone familiar with the report, especially American policy makers, and that the focus of The Future Declassified is unashamedly American-centric, the first part does have a significant place in the literature. It presents the core changes that are affecting how the globalised world is developing in our technological-driven era. It fulfils a similar function to Christopher Coker’s The Future of War but on a broader geo-political scale. Though whether the core assumption that the world is better off with United States hegemony, as an innovative society that is central to democracy, is dubious at best it remains hard to argue that the United States does not need to shift its thinking and approaches in this new technologically driven era.

The Future Declassified is an argument for leadership through this era of change. After all that is what great powers do.

This article was originally published on 30th October 2014 by
LSE Review of Books