Inflection Points and the Difficulty of Scenario Planning

The authors of GT2030 note that “the current transition is analogous to other historical inflection points – 1815, 1919, 1945 – in fundamentally shifting the trajectory of the international system” (79).  In 1815, the Congress of Vienna ushered in Europe’s “long peace,” and of course the two world wars resulted in a fundamental rebalancing of power throughout the international system.

Others have pointed to different inflection points in history.  In “The Post-American World,” Fareed Zakaria points to “three tectonic power shifts over the last five hundred years.”  The first was the rise of the West (which began in the fifteenth century and accelerated in the eighteenth), the second was the rise of the United States (end of the nineteenth century), and the third is what we are experiencing now: “The Rise of the Rest.”

Niall Ferguson has written about imperial falls.  To think of the collapse of the British empire as a protracted process, he argues, is wrong.  “The zenith of British territorial power was in fact in the 1930’s.  To Churchill, sitting as an equal at Yalta (Feb 1945) with Roosevelt and Stalin, it didn’t seem as if the sun would set on the British empire under his watch.”   As for US power today, he believes it is danger of a dramatic fall, not a slow decline.

The most interesting discussion of inflection points I’ve come across recently was in a lecture by Frank Gavin, a historian at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at UT-Austin.  Gavin asks whether the United States today is more like the United States in the 1970’s or Great Britain in the 1870’s.

Recall the global position of the US in 1975.  We had just lost Vietnam; Nixon had resigned in disgrace; the economy was bad; there was a sense of cultural malaise.  Who would have thought that the nation was on the verge of an economic and technological explosion that would last for decades?

Or think of Britain in the 1870’s, halfway through its imperial century.  In that decade, Britain was on top militarily and economically, had the world’s best education system, and presided over enormous swaths of land.  Yet that decade, many scholars believe (Ferguson excluded), marked the beginning of Britain’s decline.

So where are we?  Are we undergoing a third tectonic shift as Zakaria believes – a transition as monumental for the international system as the rise of the West?  Or is the current transition more akin to the reordering of the international system after one of the world wars?  Are we back in the 1970’s?  Might we be on the verge of the next technological revolution, one that will leave the United States atop its global perch?  Can any of these scenarios be ruled out?

In his lecture, Gavin quipped that “Any time you hear someone in 2010 tell you something about where America’s power is going, it should make you laugh.  There is no one in 1976 who thought that America’s power was not in decline.”  Is this true (and is this true)?  Is the direction of American power unknowable?  Did everyone in 1976 believe America was in decline?

By scantey1 Posted in GT2030

5 comments on “Inflection Points and the Difficulty of Scenario Planning

  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. It seems to me that we should distinguish between periods of evolution and points of inflection. The points of inflection initially highlighted were pretty specific points that changed how international relations were conducted in dramatic ways. The other comparisoins–1970s America or 1870s Britain–were much more extended periods of dramatic evolution.

    If the world’s experienced inflection points in the recent past, 9/11 and the USSR’s collapse seem like the most credible candidates. These two both seem likely to be seen as events that changed how the international system operated. The present upheaval seems to be less defined by a single event and more a kin to evolutionary periods from which a dominant or decisive force asserts itself on a global basis.

    What will emerge from the current seething pot global events seems likely to remain up for discussion for some time. An interesting point to consider, in my view, is that while the US began to eclipse Great Britain in the 1870s, no alternative power was able to take advantage similarly of the US stumble in the 1970s. The lack of a usurper may have allowed the US to re-assert its dominance in a way Britain was not able or allowed to a century earlier. Today, many talk of China rising but it seems scarcely capable–or willing!– of playing the role of usurper to the US today. I hope I’m not naive or a pollyanna, but I can’t help but see a second renewal of US dominance as more likely than not, if only because there isn’t any other power capable or interested in assuming the role.

    The implications aren’t all upside, however. While the US may remain “indispensable” because no other power can or wants to rival it, the de facto burdens, responsibilities and obligations are wearing the US down. Two recent events focus my mind on this specifically, US Ambassador Louis Susman’s speech at Chatham House this week and the release of “The Weary Policeman” by IISS. It makes it less likely that the US will be able to renew itself and re-assert its international dominance next time there is an inflection point event or uncertain period of evolution.

  4. Seth,

    Implicit in this discussion of inflection points in the dynamics of US power is the understanding that there aren’t any real, concrete “inflection points” in historical events, but instead the post-hoc collective recognition (usually decades later) that a particular time period seemed to mark a shift in global power trends. The generals at Gettysburg never consciously realized that Pickett’s charge served as the “high watermark of the Confederacy;” it was for historians decades later to recognize the true significance of that chaotic and fateful day and to put it in perspective for the relative fate of each power in the Civil War. And while Pickett’s charge had immense significance for Gettysburg’s outcome, it was a mere convenient and symbolic historical moment that represented the overall (and most likely inevitable) defeat of the weaker rural South at the hands of the industrializing and expanding North. Similarly, despite some of the previous theorizing on this issue noted earlier, there never has been a true “inflection point” in historical events, only events that later take on symbolic significance years after the fact that crystallize the overall greater historical trends in the consensus of later commentators.

    Similarly, in the debate of the future status of American global primacy, it’s important to note that there is not and never will be a true “inflection point” in America’s global position, but instead some symbolic event that takes on epic significance in the consensus of future commentators and historians. The actual inflection point is merely the collective trends in economic, military, social and diplomatic indicators over decades that will later culminate in a post hoc (and ultimately artificial) “inflection point.” Importantly, it usually takes some crystallizing moment, some event of great historical significance (such as war, major economic crisis, etc), to reveal the trends of the previous decades as a newly-found “inflection point.”

    All this is to say that I believe this search for a tipping point in US power primacy and the discussions over the future of America’s role in the world to be premature and a bit of academic naval-gazing. It matters not what the academic bloggers (and even policymakers) pontificate about regarding the future role of the US and the tipping point of American power. Future historians (of all national persuasions) will come up with that designation, based most likely on whatever crystallizing moment– be it major power war, major economic meltdown, or whatever–conveniently serves as an “obvious and inevitable” historical marker. In truth, the change in power dynamics will have been set in motion based on the economic and social trends decades beforehand.

    What matters most importantly is the task that policymakers (and even academics) have in fixing the daily mundane, quotidian problems that face their communities at the national and local levels: fixing schools, increasing economic prosperity, creating jobs, improving environmental conditions, strengthening families, promoting justice and human freedom, and continuing to make the US an attractive, inspiring beacon of hope and prosperity for people looking for a better life around the world. These tasks of improving prosperity and the quality of life in for people in communities in this country will be the most important drivers of determining the dynamics of US global power in the decades and centuries to come. Commentating about American power primacy won’t improve US power and influence over the global long term. Ensuring strong community support for the magnet school down the road will.

  5. It’s harder to tell whether the United States today is like the United States in 1976, but I think it is definitely not Britain in the mid nineteenth century. The United States is a contiguous (if we leave Alaska and Hawaii to one side) continental state with a population of over 250 million, Britain is an island of 50 million. Britain managed to maintain a slight qualitative edge over the rest of Europe and a large qualitative edge over the rest of the world for several decades because of the industrial revolution. But Britain’s small population meant that it would have had to continue using its national resources with incredible efficiency in order to stay top dog. British policymakers tried to overcome this by molding the ‘Dominions’ – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa – into a coherent whole with Britain itself, but for reasons of simple geography this couldn’t really hold up for long. British military, as opposed to naval, power was never as dominant as the United States’ is today. Bismarck once remarked that if the British Army tried to intervene in Schleswig-Holstein, he’d send a village policeman to arrest them.
    The United States has further to fall, but could still decline by quite a lot and still be far more dominant economically and militarily than Britain ever was.
    In the immediate future, I think a scenario in which all major powers decline, but the United States declines less, is quite plausible, so that America’s relative power position actually is enhanced, as Peter Feaver suggested.

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