What if American Power Diverges Sharply from the Current Trajectory?

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?

By pfeaver Posted in GT2030

5 comments on “What if American Power Diverges Sharply from the Current Trajectory?

  1. Pingback: “Global Trends”- CIA: Asia will as before be the center of economich development – Europa and US will losse their postions. Middleclass will be soon most important globally, but consume more and more, which will be a big problem for envi

  2. Pingback: “Global Trends”-Prognose der US-Geheimdienste: Asien überflügelt USA und Europa. Zum ersten Mal überhaupt wird eine Mehrheit der Erdenbewohner 2030 nicht mehr in Armut leben, “erstmals wird die Mittelschicht in den meisten Ländern da

  3. The tension in the future rests on each sovereign nations’ ability to flex to both internal and external change (read…opportunities). While this supposition seems rudimentary, it has migrated from the periphery to the center stage. The United States, therefore, has and will continue to demonstrate the agility associated with the free market. China doesn’t. Africa doesn’t. Europe does to a lesser to degree. Assuming anarchy doesn’t prevail and countries like Greece and Spain do not cease to exist, the US is poised best to foster and exploit the emergent market opportunities. The changes which we like the least but which we must make (military drawdown, international copyright enforcement, cyber security, and drawdown of outdated agriculture subsidies) will make us stronger at a quicker pace than the austerity measures in Europe or South America. Finally, economic stress has opened the door for long overdue reform. We are beginning to see the final approach to P. Feaver’s optimistic trajectory of continued strength. Viva America

  4. Seth points to an interesting question, that of whether American decline relative to other great powers is “inevitable” enough as to merit any further debate. He seems to agree with the authors of GT 2030 that it is. I think that’s one of the intriguing questions largely left unaddressed by the report, and I will elaborate on that topic in an upcoming blog post.

    Here, I would like to comment a bit on the other “tail-end” scenario proposed by Professor Feaver, that of a rapid US collapse followed by the equally rapid rise of a different superpower of global reach. I agree with Seth that the rise of a “global governance scheme” is extremely unlikely, but I also believe that the rise of a more traditional power is worth examining in further detail. After all, much of the literature on American decline, very popular nowadays, in one way or another brings up the high rates of economic growth in China as an argument in favor of Chinese ascendancy to global power status.

    IF we accept the argument that China will become a global power by virtue of the size of its economy, and if we assume the US will retreat from the world due to a combination of economic distress at home and lack of political will, isn’t it reasonable to expect the Chinese to take over maintaining a global world order conducive to their further economic growth? As the US took over its shoulder the burden of providing global public goods like freedom of the seas from Britain in the aftermath of WWII, couldn’t the Chinese do the same now?

    China’s growth has been closely linked so far with a functioning global economy – wouldn’t it be in their interest to do whatever it takes to keep the global economy stable, even if that might mean having to shoulder the burdens of a global superpower, with all the costs associated with it? And if Beijing does decide that they do have to take over the mantle of world leadership from the US, wouldn’t it be very worthwhile pondering in more detail what kind of global order will the Chinese promote, and what would be the implications of that for the Western world, for the other BRICs, and other international actors?

  5. Professor Feaver raises a number of interesting questions in his post, but one in particular got my attention. “Isn’t it at least theoretically possible that the relative power gap between the US and the rest might actually widen over the next 15 years?” According to the analytic team that drafted GT2030, the answer to that question is knowable, and the answer is no. They write unequivocally: “the United States’ (and the West’s) relative decline vis-a-vis the rising states is inevitable…” (82). Though relative economic decline is mentioned at several places in the report (e.g., vi, 79), this statement seems to be one about power in general.

    Feaver does not contend, of course, that a widening power gap is the most likely scenario. Indeed, he states that this hypothetical is far less likely than the scenarios addressed by the GT2030 team. But he believes it is a scenario worth thinking about rather than ruling out. I agree with him on this point. Though the focus of the report is and should remain the illustration of possible future worlds, in thinking about those worlds we should be particularly careful about (not) ruling out scenarios.

    (Incidentally, I confess I cringed a bit during the discussion of game-changer 3 (p. iv), where great power conflict is said to be particularly unlikely to occur in the context of rapid power shifts since “too much would be at stake.” This, of course, was the argument made by Norman Angell in The Great Illusion on the eve of WWI.)

    To be clear, the GT2030 team should not be responsible for an exhaustive list of possible future scenarios; this would be an impossible and unhelpful task. Rather, the comment above is meant to suggest that a closer look at the tails of the distribution, as Feaver puts it, should be an integral part of writing this kind of report.

    There is the question, though, of how deep into the tails we should look. One of the other hypotheticals Feaver raises is about whether a kind of global governance scheme, with global reach, might supersede national sovereignty – a situation that he argues is unlikely but that merits consideration. On this point I have to disagree. Though a global governance scheme may well be in the cards several decades down the road (if pressed I would predict more than a century), it does not seem plausible to me by 2030, even in an incipient stage, and thus in my estimation does not merit attention in this kind of report.

    This is the tension. In a report designed to illustrate possible future worlds, where do we draw the line between what is possible and what is not? Between what merits consideration and what doesn’t? It seems that this kind of exercise, like so many exercises in the social “sciences,” is really more of an art. That is something we should remember in thinking about the difficult task before those responsible for drafting this kind of report.

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