How will the world look in 2030? It depends on how the United States looks in 2030.
That may be the most important takeaway of the current draft of Global Trends 2030. Of course, the analytic team has identified many key drivers that will shape global affairs over the next two decades, but perhaps the most important change from previous installments of this quadrennial exercise is the addition of a section devoted to “the role of the United States.”
Previous Global Trends efforts followed too closely the Intelligence Community mandate to look outward rather than inward. The mandate is a sensible reaction to Cold War abuses when the IC conducted covert collection operations against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. But when the task is forecasting global affairs into the future, it is absurd to fence off consideration of the most pivotal factor shaping the future – the trajectory of the sole superpower.
GT 2030 sensibly includes the United States in its analytical purview and does so without crossing any red-lines that would alarm civil libertarians. But nor does it stretch the analytical envelope to consider radical departures from the current trends.
It assesses two broad scenarios:
- An “optimistic” future in which the United States polity “would address its structural weaknesses” while other powers likewise get their fiscal houses in order. The result is a graceful relative decline in U.S. power, but one in which the United States is still primus inter pares and doing very well, thank you very much.
- A “pessimistic” scenario in which the U.S. economy does not rebound, resulting in a U.S. that is neither inclined nor capable of leading. No actor with global reach steps into the power vacuum, but regional hegemons (China) do and the result is a world split into hostile alliances, a la the 1930’s.
GT 2030 hedges, but seems to bet on the optimistic future. This is not the straight-line inertial path of the last several months, but it is fully in keeping with the old maxim that those who have bet on U.S. collapse have, in the long run, tended to lose their shirts.
But what if the outcomes we get are further in the tails of the distribution? For instance, what if the United States rebounds, but Europe and the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) implode? It is not too hard to make U.S. problems pale in comparison to the challenges faced by the Eurozone and the BRICs (and to this artificial grouping, I would add the other medium-sized powers competing for regional influence but all facing domestic hurdles at least as daunting as the ones faced in Washington: Turkey, Nigeria, South Africa, Japan, and perhaps Indonesia). Of course, if all of the other parts of the global economy suffer, the U.S. economy will suffer, too. But isn’t at least theoretically possible that the relative power gap between the U.S. and the rest might actually widen over the next 15 years? What would that world look like?
Or what about an outcome in the tail on the opposite side: the U.S. collapses, but an actor with global reach (presumably China, but perhaps a Europe arising phoenix-like out of its current fiscal/monetary crisis)? Or what if the actor with global reach is, in fact, some sort of global governance scheme that supersedes national sovereignty? None of these variants seems nearly as likely as the others, but it would be worth pondering their impact.
Previous Global Trends products tended to guess correctly at the trajectory of global affairs while underestimating the speed with which we would move in that direction. That would be good news for us in this case, since GT 2030 seems to predict a U.S. role that most Americans could accept. What if this time they have missed the trajectory, and we are heading in a very different direction?