The fast pace of scientific and technological breakthroughs has enabled mankind to surmount many serious obstacles of the day, be it in the domain of medicine, space, information technology, or engineering. At the same time, these leaps have also brought to the fore unique implications. For example, cloning has presented special opportunities but has also raised many ethical dilemmas. Moreover, researchers predict the increased use of Internet to find information is overtime changing the way our brain operates, with memory function on the decline.
The full magnitude of the societal impact being caused by the information and communication revolution is not clearly known but it has opened up a Pandora box of issues. The information technology revolution is also posing unique security threats in the form of cyber crimes and cyber warfare. Self-help guides on how to construct Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are easily accessible on YouTube for non-state actors and individuals to utilize.
Many claim the Arab Spring may not have bloomed the way it did if it was not due to the facilitation offered by the Social Media tools. It pointed out to the divide between virtual and physical reality, and it was the virtual reality that appeared to have influenced the ground reality. In essence, the cross-pollination of free flowing information has created serious consequences for existing structures of governance, while threatening the status quo in many places of the world.
On one level, questions are being raised about what laws and conventions apply to different risks and challenges introduced by new technologies, such as the drones and robotics. On the other hand, there are hurdles of how to make policy in an unpredictable environment and fast moving change. Most seriously, when so much is uncertain, how to make decisions. Inadvertently, the focus has shifted to deal with the immediate constant crisis, at the cost of long-term planning and strategy.
But how does this global transformation apply to the region of South Asia and Middle East. It appears that the leaders of these regions dedicate most of the their attention on distracting the masses from the real challenges and not on educating them. This in turn becomes their strongest weakness. As oppose to working on trends and understanding the underlying causes, the focus is on the outcome of these patterns.
The lofty goals of spreading health, education, and economic opportunities, only work under stable law and order situation. If the security threats from state and non-state actors continue to dominate the national landscape, all other domains will suffer and disorder will spread. In fact, it can be argued that preoccupation with political and security risks may have resulted in the very situation that is confronted today in these regions. Meanwhile, a new kind of non-state threat has been added to the list: the climate change, or the risk posed by nature.
These pressures have made governance even harder, when the citizens are increasingly empowered to question their governments. Moreover, when governments fail to administer and as extremism spreads, the chances of a state failing grows even further. In this environment, the western capitals are increasingly worried about a whole array of political, economic, security and technological threats posed by these regions. From the western perspective, many parts of the world are likely to be unable to cope with the fast moving technologically driven change. To protect their interests, they have to be ahead of the curve to mitigate the risks.
In the era of financial recession, agility to respond is more and more the buzzword in the western strategic policy making circles. The threats are quadrupling and this requires dealing simultaneously with state and non-state actors, while the resources to prepare for these risks are drying up. At the same time, many western strategic thinkers are pondering if the goal of aspiring stability as even attainable in such uncertain times. Perhaps, it is wiser to get used to the constant flux and uncertainty, while managing change and the accompanied anxiety, as best as possible.
Former US sectary of state Madeleine Albright recently conceptualized this debate as a distinction between being objective or subjective. There is growing realization and alarm that the present governance structures, institutions, and policies, which most nations have in place, are not fit, or are moving too slow, to deal with the impediments.
Renowned American strategist and former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, commented at the inception of Asia Society’s Policy Institute (ASPI) in April that the world needs fresh conceptual frameworks to identify underlying problems, analyze them, and develop solutions. Associated with this concern was a discussion about the availability of conceptual contexts to understand world affairs and where it may be heading. For example, he stated, there is a difference of opinion on what triggered Arab Spring and its future direction. And if there are no mechanisms in place to identify problems and risks, understanding and solving them will become even more difficult.
Widely available communication tools have enabled and empowered individuals while creating new sources of influence. Although the application of hard power has persisted, the soft power is increasingly at play as well. With the rise of non-state actors and technological advances, a debate has emerged about when and against whom should a state apply different tools of its economic, political and military power, and what does that imply for international law and state sovereignty.
The very scientific and technological advances that leapfrogged the human civilization are also on the other hand becoming the sources of chaos, by making affairs unmanageable and changing the very norms under which the present world operates. While the risks created by humans may be manageable, more worrisome are the threats emerging from nature, which may ultimately provide the true black swan event. And even behind climate change, human tinkering is involved.
At the same time, the spirit of human adventurism cannot be tempered down. The nations that have the best ideas, accompanied by smart utilization of resources to explore them and solve real problems, will have the advantage; to not only shape the emerging world but also to formulate the rules that govern it. This realization is further fueling the race amongst competing powers to acquire cutting edge technological knowhow, whether by hook or crook. The ones left behind will once again be relegated to complain, adapt or perish. The battle is between status quo and change that is inevitable, and the ones that are able to master the art of transformation will no doubt lead and win.