Global Politics

by Andrew Heywood

Chapter 22 Notes: Images of the Global Future

  • How do images help us understand reality?
  • What role does image play in global politics?
  • What have been the most influential images of modern global politics?
  • What have been the key strengths and weaknesses of these images?
  • Can images help to uncover the global future?
  • Is it possible to know the future?

Theories can help us to understand the world. But as the preceding chapters make clear they have significant limitations in helping us to predict the likely shape of global politics in the twenty-first century. A useful starting point for such a discussion is perhaps provided by a range of sometimes stark, even dramatic, images, which academics, policy analysts or political commentators have advanced, often with the explicit intention of predicting the global future. Frequently having an impact well beyond academic circles, and influencing popular discourse about world affairs, these have, amongst other things, announced the arrival of a 'borderless world', proclaimed the 'end of history', predicted an emerging 'clash of civilizations' and announced the birth of the 'Chinese century'. Such images have been thrown up by the shifts and deep transformations that have occurred in global politics in recent decades – the advance of globalization, the end of the Cold War, the advent of global terrorism and so forth. As old certainties have been thrown into question and the contours of global politics have become more indistinct, a thirst has grown for pithy explanations and neat hypotheses – that is, for images. What trends do these images highlight, and how persuasive are they as visions of the global future? These images nevertheless raise still larger questions, notably about whether we can ever know the future, and, if so, how far into the future we can see. Although greater resources than ever before are currently devoted to forecasting economic, financial and other matters (not least the weather), there is little evidence that we are much better off as a result. Are these efforts worthwhile? Or do they merely sustain delusions about the extent and reliability of human knowledge?

  • An image is a representation or likeness of an individual, a group or a thing (an institution, event, system and so on). As such, images are nothing more than illusions or constructs of our mind. However, images may play an important role in building up knowledge and understanding by imposing meaning on an otherwise shapeless reality.
  • As the basis for explaining the behaviour of actors on the world stage, image is important in shaping both how people see themselves and how they see others. This is perhaps most clear in relation to nationalism and the role of national image. The emphasis on the role and significance of image in modern global politics has nevertheless been taken furthest by poststructuralist theorists.
  • Images may also serve as wider explanatory tools, graphic ways of highlighting important trends and developments in global politics. Influential images of modern global politics have highlighted trends such as the declining significance of national borders, the spread of democracy, the growth of cultural conflict, the rise of China, the increasing importance of international community, the emergence of the global South, the greater likelihood of environmental catastrophe and the democratization of international organizations.
  • The value of examining images arises less from the insight they give us into the shape of the global future and more from their ability to highlight important trends in the global present. The one thing that these images share is that they will each, in their different ways, be confounded by events.
  • The future is unknowable, in part, because extrapolations from present trends are always incorrect due to the fact trends inevitably, sooner or later, diverge from their course. Moreover, our knowledge of the present is always limited, a problem that is more acute the larger the scale of our thinking, because of the greater number of factors that may influence outcomes. This implies that the future of global politics is, and must remain, unknowable.