What will world politics look like over the next few decades? Will the United States be able to retain the dominant geopolitical position that it currently enjoys? The National Intelligence Council, a CIA-affiliated research group, recently published a report that attempts to answer these questions. Titled “Mapping the Global Future,” the report draws on the work of an array of experts and describes the likely political, economic and ideological landscape of 2020.
Many of the report’s conclusions are quite positive. The global economy should grow steadily, lifting people out of poverty across the world. Flows of information, capital, goods and people among countries should increase in volume. No wars pitting major powers against one another should break out.
Unfortunately, the world forecast by the report is likely to pose several serious challenges for the United States. First, militant Islam is not expected to subside over the next several decades. The report predicts that international terrorism will continue and that al Qaeda will be superseded by a less centralized but more extensive network of extremists. Second, economic insecurity in Western countries will increase. As globalization accelerates and developing countries’ technological and manufacturing capabilities improve, even more jobs in the United States and Europe will be lost.
Third, and most importantly, the report predicts that the relative power of several non-Western nations will dramatically increase. China and India, in particular, will become true global players, surpassing the GDP of the big European countries and asserting their political and economic influence across Asia, if not the world. The United States will remain the most powerful single country, but its relative power will erode and coalitions rivaling its might will become easier to assemble.
In my view, the report’s conclusions are unassailable, especially regarding the downward trajectory of American power. If two countries whose combined population is eight times that of the United States double the United States’ GDP growth rate over a 20-year period, of course their influence will increase relative to the United States’. The key question for America, then, is not how to prevent the report’s forecast from materializing, but rather how to make the most of a more challenging international environment.
One obvious answer is that the United States should avoid actions (and rhetoric) that tend to isolate it from the rest of the world community. American foreign-policy decisions that are opposed by most other countries — the invasion of Iraq, for instance — have a doubly negative impact on American power. Because of the lack of foreign support, the United States is forced to bear most of the actions’ cost, while the global consensus that U.S. policy is misguided facilitates the formation of anti-American coalitions. Facing a future in which American influence is already likely to decrease because of unfavorable demographic and economic trends, the United States should be seeking to shore up its global position rather than accelerate the adverse trends.
A second related answer is that the United States should strive to enhance its cultural and ideological leadership. As outright economic and military dominance becomes more difficult to maintain, the United States should focus on building its “soft” power. It should more aggressively advertise the advantages of free markets and democratic elections. It should try to link the United States’ global reputation to the better aspects of the American national character, rather than crass commercialism and ruthless realpolitik. It should welcome foreigners to its shores so they may experience the American system first-hand, and build international institutions that constrain emerging powers’ ability to destabilize the status quo.
Finally — and perhaps most difficult for the current administration to swallow — the United States must rebuild its partnership with other Western countries, particularly those in Europe. Over the next few decades, the rise of China and India (and to a lesser extent, Brazil and Indonesia) will undermine the United States’ ability to unilaterally accomplish its foreign-policy goals, especially in South and East Asia. In combination with its traditional European allies, though, the United States will still be able to overpower any coalition that is formed against it. In the 21st century, diplomacy will be a necessity, not a luxury, if American geopolitical leadership is to continue.
All these recommendations would clearly be deemed liberal in the current political environment. Avoiding unilateral action, emphasizing soft power over military might, resolving trans-Atlantic differences — these are all policies that are more reminiscent of the Clinton administration than its Republican successor. Ironically, though, these liberal policies are the best way to accomplish the classic conservative goal of maximizing American power. If the National Intelligence Council is correct in its prediction that the United States’ relative influence will decline as at least two new great powers emerge, then cooperation, not confrontation, is the optimal American strategy.
Nicholas Stephanopoulos is a second-year student at the Law School. His column appears on alternate Mondays.