Winning the 21st Century

By Thomas Wright (

Hardly a month goes by without another book or article on whether this century will be Chinese, American, or a free for all. It is a frustrating debate. These arguments all rely heavily on past performance and future projections—especially crude metrics like GDP growth and military spending. They often predict how other states will behave decades into the future when we know from history that intentions can change both from the bottom up and top down.

There is a pre-season mentality to much of this debate. In the pre-season, sports fans and pundits look at past performance and recent trades to predict who will win the Superbowl or the World Series. It’s an entertaining exercise but the favorites usually lose. The season is too long, too contingent upon performance, tactics, and strategy, to be determined by a few basic metrics. One thing is certain: it would be a foolish manager who accepted the pre-season noise as truth.

Accurate long-term predictions about geopolitics are impossible. We have no idea if the 21st century will see the continuation of the American era, a Chinese century, or a multipolar balance of power. All of these scenarios are plausible but it is a mistake to argue that they are inevitable or even likely. The 20th century is proof that geopolitics is inherently surprising. Its outcome was contingent upon strategic decisions, ideas, accidents, and personalities. In 1912, it was not obvious that the next eight decades would be an age of extremes, dominated by ideological movements, punctuated by vast industrial wars, and ultimately constrained by the threat of complete and mutual destruction. Nor was it obvious that the United States, a growing power whose people had little desire to seek global hegemony, would make the century American. There is no reason to believe that the human capacity for foresight has improved over time.

Consider then why the 20th century became known as the American century. Certainly, part of it had to do with projections of economic growth but, decade by decade, strategic planners got the medium term future badly wrong. Other factors were crucial—particularly social and ideological movements inside societies and adaption to technological change. But perhaps most importantly, the struggle for mastery was influenced by the strategic decisions, in wartime and peacetime, taken in Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo, London, and Washington. The 20th century became the American century partly because the United States responded well to the challenges presented to it but also because other states did not do so well and made major mistakes. So, it “won” the century. But it was hardly preordained.

It’s easy to engage in pre-season speculation about the future of U.S. power and the international order. But, ultimately it is a distraction. Understanding how the world is changing in terms of GDP growth is important but it’s not the same as understanding how the game of strategy is changing or how to play it. The real question that foreign policy experts must grapple with is this: how does the rise of the rest change the strategic competition for international influence.

There is little doubt that this will be a new strategic environment.  The United States is economically interdependent with its only potential great power competitor, China. That is new. America’s allies in Asia are increasingly dependent upon China for their economic growth even as they seek to deepen their security ties with the United States.  That is new. The United States will probably be more of a status quo power than it used to be. That too is fairly new.

These changes, and others, will transform how states compete in the coming decades. The state that masters these dynamics will have a much greater chance of coming out on top. For the United States this means understanding how the liberal international order must adapt and change. For others, it may mean something different. But one thing is shared: the state that spends its time and energy building a crystal ball to pick the winner will probably lose.

Thomas Wright is a fellow at the Brookings Institution 

By billburkewhite Posted in GT2030

A Path to Security Council Reform?

By: William Burke-White

My last post examined three possible scenarios for the shape of the UN Security Council in 2030, suggesting that, but for the possibility of a lucky crisis, Security Council reform remains unlikely and that there is a real possibility that the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Council will wither considerably by 2030. This post seeks to instill a bit more optimism by considering the possible sources of global political leadership for Council reform and ways that existing stalemates might be broken to allow the kind of reform that would lead to what I termed the “Reform and Reinvigoration” scenario in that earlier post.

Part of the challenge of Security Council reform is the lack of global political leadership to drive such a process forward. Existing efforts for Council reform have stagnated, weighted down by UN bureaucratic process, divides among states contending for permanent membership, and an unwillingness of any current permanent members to champion a reform process. While states such as Brazil and India that have a possible claim to permanent seats on the Council invest significant political capital on the issue, they lack the global political influence needed to drive the issue forward and each potential new member has a regional competitor—Mexico or Pakistan, for example—ready to invest equivalent capital. As a result, such states are unlikely to have ability to break existing stalemates or find workable formulas for reform.

Beyond these contender states, there are really only two meaningful sources of political leadership for Security Council reform: the United States and Europe. Both the US and existing European member states have reasons for preferring the current shape of the Council and sitting on the sidelines of reform, but there is also a compelling logic for the US and Europe to show leadership on the issue. Moreover, collectively the US and Europe could find potential break-through solutions to existing logjams in a way that might make the “Reform and Reinvigoration” scenario viable.

Start with the US. Of course, the US benefits form current Council dynamics. The US veto ensures US interests are ultimately protected on the Council. Similarly, the US can usually muster the minimum additional 8 votes needed for a resolution to pass, assuming no other permanent members veto. Yet, the US also has a deeply vested interest in ensuring the long-term effectiveness of the Security Council and, more generally, the post-World War II order, of which the Council sits at the heart. By acting sooner, rather than later, as a leader in Security Council reform, the US will be far better positioned to help define the shape and structure of the reformed Council that emerges. Moreover, by taking a clear leadership role, the US can shift the political costs of opposition to other Permanent Members of the Council who may, in fact, be more reluctant to support reform and who have been able to effectively hide behind the US on the issue. Ultimately, if and when the US is willing to the look at Council reform from a slightly longer time-horizon, the benefits of leadership on the issue are obvious.

Over the past few years, of course, the Obama Administration has shown some willingness to advance the issue. While maintaining redlines on questions such as the expansion of the veto and the total membership of any reformed Council, the US has explicitly backed India’s bid for a permanent seat and given support to Brazil’s claims. Yet, these statements – in the context of presidential trips to both countries—have not been backed by visible diplomatic efforts or by evident changes in approach either in New York or in national capitals. The time may well be ripe for more active US leadership. And while such leadership would certainly not lead to immediate reform, it would put the US in a far better political and diplomatic position to shape reform when and if it ultimately occurs.

The second possible source of global leadership on Security Council reform is Europe.  The logic for issue leadership from Europe is even more apparent than for the United States. Ultimately, Europe seeks three seats on a reformed Council – the existing French and British permanent seats and, presumably, one for Germany as well. In light of Europe’s economic woes, internal challenges, and reduced relative political influence, the longer Europe waits to lead on Council reform, the less likely it becomes that this three-seat goal can be achieved. In fact, the more time that passes before reform occurs, the less likely it is that both France and the UK can reasonably maintain their existing seats. For Europe, early Council reform is far better than Council reform in 2030.

The Europeans may also hold the key to breaking current logjams and finding a mutually acceptable formula for Council reform. Specifically, a key redline for the US is the maximum number of permanent members on any reformed Council. Too large a group and the US (among others), rightly fears that any consensus on the Council will become impossible. Yet, most formulas that would incorporate the new members necessary for the Council’s perceived long-term legitimacy quickly push against that numerical ceiling. What if the Europeans could reach an internal agreement on say two post-reform European seats? Such an agreement might involve, one seat for the EU itself and one that rotates among Germany, the UK, and France.

Admittedly, current political divides within Europe make such compromise seem far-fetched. But if Europe could reach such an agreement, the symbolic value of both internal European compromise on the issue and the slot that such an agreement would free-up might make real reform possible. In light of a European compromise, competitor states to those states with the strongest claims for new seats might have to relax their diplomatic postures. A promise of European magnanimity on the issue could well serve leverage to push for compromises among other contenders. And, of course, the third seat, to which Europe would, essentially, relinquish a claim could be used to enhance the broader legitimacy of the Council, while more easily staying within a fixed maximum number of members.

Perhaps this is a leap too far. Admittedly, the efforts to build a common European foreign policy through the new External Action Service have underperformed. And, while, Europe’s current financial woes seem to occupy all available diplomatic time and energy, a new European bargain (and perhaps identity) that might serve as the solution to the current economic crisis could well be the foundation for a broader political bargain within Europe that might include a new approach to the Council. Even if such an agreement is a stretch, it offers perhaps the best hope for protecting Europe’s long-term interests, finding the global leadership needed for Council reform, and identifying a workable formula for the inclusion of new permanent members. Should the Europeans reach such an agreement and the US be we willing to demonstrate real political commitment to reform, the “reform and reinvigoration” scenario discussed in my last post might not be unattainable.

By billburkewhite Posted in GT2030

The Shape of the Security Council in 2030

This week (even if getting a bit of a late start) the blog turns to the shape of international institutions and organizations looking ahead to 2030. This first post starts with a consideration of the future of the United Nations Security Council, while subsequent discussion will examine other institutions, such as the IMF and World Bank. I look forward to a robust discussion.

The Shape of the Security Council in 2030

By William Burke-White

Following the approach of the Global Trends 2030 Report, let us consider three possible scenarios for the Shape of the Security Council in 2030. The first, Stasis, assumes that, in light of the background trends presented in the Global Trends Report, the Council remains essentially unchanged over the next 18 years. The second, the most optimistic but perhaps least likely scenario, termed Reform and Reinvigoration, considers the possibility of meaningful reform of the Security Council and a new role it could play in the global order. The final scenario, termed Crisis and [Reform] or Collapse, explores the possibility of Council confronting or, perhaps, failing to confront, a global crisis and either reforming or rapidly losing its legitimacy and effectiveness.

Assume for a moment that the membership of the UN Security Council, with the US, UK, France, Russia, and China as permanent members and a rotating cast of non-permanent members remains unchanged. In the short term, such stasis is actually relatively favorable to the United States, given both the US veto power and the relative ease of finding 8 concurrent votes when needed to pass a resolution. As a result, the US will likely continue to look to the Council as the primary institution of global governance, at least in the security area. Today, the Council is relatively effective in part because it is still seen as legitimate in the eyes of most states due to its legal grounding in the UN Charter and, in part, because it is able to, at least some of the time, deliver results. Active US commitment, along with support from European states, can maintain the Council’s role for some time, though not indefinitely.

In light however, of the diffusions of power, the rise of regional institutions and groupings, and greater role asserted by newcomers to the tables of global influence – all explored in detail in the Global Trends 2030 report—both the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Security Council will likely decline over time. Without meaningful reform of membership and operating practices, by 2030 the number of states that respect the Council’s decisions as legally binding and authoritative is likely to decline. Neither the political bargain of 1945 nor the Charter’s legal status can carry that legitimacy indefinitely. While lack of reform will, obviously, challenge the Council’s legitimacy, so too will it undermine the Council’s effectiveness. With a diffusion of economic and military power to new states and non-state actors, an ever smaller share of global power, influence, and economic might will be represented on the Council, limiting its ability to deliver results. Simultaneously, the growing role of regional organizations and new regional groupings and the potential of the G20 (at least in the international economic arena) or other ad hoc coalitions of states suggest the likelihood of the continued rise of alternative fora for the coordination (if not legitimation) of global or regional action. And if not embraced by new powers, an active US commitment to the Council could well lead to a backlash from states seeking greater voice at the highest tables.

In this context, stasis will likely lead to an ever shrinking role for the Security Council by 2030. The Council would, of course, continue to meet and would, presumably, carry on a relatively robust agenda. But, the weight of its resolutions would decline and the Council’s ability o deliver on its promises would wither. Under the stasis scenario, by 2030, we would likely see a Security Council that is little more than a “talking shop” in New York, ever-more disconnected from political realities and certainly not the source of solutions to collective global challenges.

Reform and Reinvigoration
Today’s Security Council is, obviously, a product of the 1945 world order. With the Council’s membership and authorities embedded in the UN Charter itself, change is difficult—some might even say impossible. Amendment of the Charter presents a rather extraordinary political and legal challenge. For every state with a claim to a permanent seat on the Council, there is another with equal, if not stronger, opposition. Notwithstanding President Obama’s statements in India and Brazil over the past two years, supporting both countries’ claims to a permanent seat on the Council, there is a dearth of global political leadership driving Council reform forward. Moreover, even if an international agreement on Council reform were reached, the domestic politics of ratification of such an amendment (particularly, though not exclusively, in the United States) make reform all the more unlikely.

Setting aside clear and, perhaps, overwhelming challenges (a subsequent post will consider a possible political path toward reform), lets assume for a moment that reform were possible. What would the shape of such a reformed Council look like? Presumably, the Council would include as permanent members Brazil, China, India, Japan, Russia, the US, one or more European states, and one or more African states. Various formulations have been put forward for the exact allocation of those seats, the status of the veto, and changes to the Council’s non-permanent members. Whichever such formulation is ultimately adopted, the inclusion of these new rising powers will be essential to the Council’s effectiveness.

The inclusion of rising (or, by 2030, fully risen) powers as permanent members of the Council may not, however, be sufficient to preserve or reinvigorate the Council’s legitimacy. With political and economic power continuing to become more diffuse, an ever-greater number of states—far more than could reasonably be accommodated even in an enlarged Council—will demand (and likely have a valid claim to) global voice. The processes of non-permanent membership in the Council will have to come to reflect that diffusion of power.

Perhaps even more critical will be the inclusion of global voice beyond the nation state. As showcased in the Global Trends 2030 report, power and influence will continue to reach above and below the nation state by 2030. And while the UN is, and presumably will remain, the exclusive domain of states, reform will have to include new ways of reaching out to and partnering with a growing array of non-state actors—individuals, NGOs, INGOs, regional organizations, and cooprations. Their inclusion, not as members of the Council themselves, but as key partners in its work can go far to addressing the democratic deficit so well documented in the Global Trends report and to enhancing the Council’s effectiveness as its work within states, rather than just between them, continues to grow.

Ultimately, for the Council to ensure its long-term survival as the primary institution of global political governance, new states – beyond the US and Europe – will need to turn to it in times of need and as their roles in collective problem solving expand. Similarly, it will have to develop new-tools, likely rooted in partnerships beyond just with states, to respond to global threats and challenges. Such reinvigoration is only possible with a reformed Council that reflects new power distributions among and beyond states.

Crisis and [Reform or] Collapse
A third possibility for the Security Council by 2030 is crisis followed by collapse or, perhaps, reform. Should a crisis of extraordinary magnitude come to the Council and the Council fails to address it, the UN may face a true test of its legitimacy and effectiveness. As we saw so evidently in 2008 and 2009 when the global financial crisis gave rise to the G-20 as the preeminent forum for international economic cooperation, such moments present opportunities for institutional reform, but can also serve as the death-blow to institutions whose ineffectiveness is exposed for all to see. Given the challenges of Security Council reform, it is likely that a crisis of extraordinary magnitude may be necessary to galvanize the political will to actually drive Council reform forward.

Yet, while in the most optimistic scenario, such a crisis could be the catalyst for reform, the Council’s failure to respond to such a crisis or, equally likely, the unwillingness of states to follow the Council’s decisions in such a crisis, could well lead to its collapse. With limited legitimacy from emerging powers and other states excluded from the Council and only relatively weak or imperfect tools available to it, a crisis which truly exposed the Council’s lack of representativeness or limited effectiveness could well spark a broader and potentially rapid turn away from the Security Council as an meaningful institution for global political governance. In short, the Council could wither away quickly as both its legitimacy and effectiveness were called into question in the wake of crisis and failed response.

Looking Ahead
There is, unfortunately, little reason for optimism as to the Council’s shape in 2030. Given the challenges of reform and in light of the trends outlined in the Global Trends 2030 Report, Stasis seems the most likely outcome. Yet such stasis will likely involve a gradual withering of the Council with an ever more diminished role – and hence expanding governance gap – by 2030. Perhaps the best hope for the Council’s future lies in a crisis that prompts reform, rather than collapse. While waiting for such crisis and hoping for an outcome of reform is a high-risk gamble, it appears most unlikely that the political will can be found to take a more activist approach to Council reform without the imperative and urgency a true crisis could create.