What will the world look like about two decades from now? Obviously, nobody knows, but some things are more likely than others. Companies and governments have to make informed guesses, because some of their investments today will last longer than 20 years. In December, the United States National Intelligence Council published its guess: Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds.
The NIC foresees a transformed world, in which “no country – whether the US, China, or any other large country – will be a hegemonic power”. This reflects four “megatrends”: individual empowerment and the growth of a global middle class, diffusion of power from states to informal networks and coalitions, demographic changes owing to urbanization, migration and aging, and increased demand for food, water and energy.
Each trend is changing the world and “largely reversing the historic rise of the West since 1750, restoring Asia’s weight in the global economy, and ushering in a new era of ‘democratization’ at the international and domestic level”. The US will remain “first among equals” in hard and soft power, but “the ‘unipolar moment’ is over”.
It is never safe, however, to project the future just by extrapolating current trends. Surprise is inevitable, so the NIC also identifies what it calls “game-changers”, or outcomes that could drive the major trends off course in surprising ways.
First among such sources of uncertainty is the global economy: Will volatility and imbalances lead to collapse, or will greater multipolarity underpin greater resilience? Similarly, will governments and institutions be able to adapt fast enough to harness change, or will they be overwhelmed by it?
Moreover, while interstate conflicts have been declining, intrastate conflicts driven by youthful populations, identity politics and scarce resources will continue to plague some regions like the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. And that leads to yet another potentially game-changing issue: whether regional instability remains contained or fuels global insecurity.
Then there is a set of questions concerning the impact of new technologies. Will they exacerbate conflict, or will they be developed and widely accessible in time to solve the problems caused by a growing population, rapid urbanization and climate change?
The final game-changing issue is America’s future role. In the NIC’s view, the multi-faceted nature of US power suggests that even as China overtakes America economically – perhaps as early as the 2020s – the US is most likely to maintain global leadership alongside other great powers in 2030. “The potential for an overstretched US facing increased demands,” the NIC argues, “is greater than the risk of the US being replaced as the world’s pre-eminent political leader.”
Is this good or bad for the world? In the NIC’s view, “a collapse or sudden retreat of US power would most likely result in an extended period of global anarchy”, with “no stable international system and no leading power to replace the US”.
The NIC discussed earlier drafts of its report with intellectuals and officials in 20 countries, and reports that none of the world’s emerging powers has a revisionist view of international order along the lines of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or the Soviet Union. But these countries’ relations with the US are ambiguous. They benefit from the US-led world order, but are often irritated by American slights and unilateralism. One attraction of a multipolar world is less US dominance; but the only thing worse than a US-supported international order would be no order at all.
The question of America’s role in helping to produce a more benign world in 2030 has important implications for US President Barack Obama as he approaches his second term. The world faces a new set of transnational challenges, including climate change, transnational terrorism, cyber insecurity and pandemics. All of these issues require cooperation to resolve.
Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy argues that the US must think of power as positive-sum, not just zero-sum. In other words, there may be times when a more powerful China is good for the US (and for the world). For example, the US should be eager to see China increase its ability to control its world-leading greenhouse gas emissions.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has referred to the Obama administration’s foreign policy as being based on “smart power”, which combines hard and soft power resources, and argued that we should not talk about “multipolarity”, but about “multi-partnerships”. Likewise, the NIC report suggests that Americans must learn better how to exercise power with as well as over other states.
To be sure, on issues arising from interstate military relations, understanding how to form alliances and balance power will remain crucial. But the best military arrangements will do little to solve many of the world’s new transnational problems, which jeopardize the security of millions of people at least as much as traditional military threats do. Leadership on such issues will require cooperation, institutions and the creation of public goods from which all can benefit and none can be excluded.
The NIC report rightly concludes that there is no predetermined answer to what the world will look like in 2030. Whether the future holds benign or malign scenarios depends in part on the policies that we adopt today.
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard and author of The Future of Power.
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