The Regionalization of the Liberal World Order

By Brendan Cooley


The United States soundly defeated the ideological challenges of communism and fascism in the 20th century. The U.S.-led liberal order has streamlined global ideology and provided distributed security and economic growth. But a new, more nuanced challenge now operates within that liberal global order: state capitalism.


State capitalist societies, namely China, skirt global norms in many ways, but can plausibly claim to adhere to the general principles promulgated by the UN, WTO, IMF, and World Bank. But in leveraging the full power of their economies to advance the interests of the state, China and others subtly undermine those institutions, whose longevity is essential if the 2030 world is to be prosperous and secure. These states “cheat” in the liberal system, but remain dependent on the integration and stability it provides.


This paradox is at the center of the emerging global institutional architecture. Global Trends 2030 spends a lot of time talking about global order, but it really only poses the possibility of (sometimes dramatic) changes to the liberal order, rather than a total usurpation of that order. And because the challenge of state capitalism is acute and the liberal international system is strong, GT 2030 wisely ignores the potential for a drastically different system. So the question becomes: will China and other state capitalist states gradually alter some tenets of the liberal order, or will the system alter them?


If the world does become multipolar, as GT 2030 predicts, regional powers like China will have the opportunity to shape their local environment independent of large-scale U.S. influence. But as their economic interests spread and U.S. influence wanes, these states need become providers of public goods and order rather than free riders on U.S.-led order.


China has already begun to entangle itself in a multitude of regional institutions, but very few of these present overt challenges to the liberal order. China has been at the forefront of the proliferation of free trade agreements in East and Southeast Asia and has pushed for regional economic integration over protectionism (although this may change with the composition of China’s economy). In this area, China is ironically better at being “liberal” than the United States.


China’s foreign aid and investment policies do not adhere to the same standards as equivalent Western aid policies and China’s support of rogue regimes continues to frustrate the West. But these deviations from Western standards are relatively minor when one considers the degree of integration between China, its neighbors, and the West.


So while U.S. academics and strategists fret about the potential for a hegemonic challenge from China, Chinese ascendency might not severely alter global norms. The world will become more regionalized and will struggle to come to agreements on emerging challenges like intellectual property rights, climate change, and resource sharing. But the fundamental openness and agreed-upon rules of the liberal system will not change. China and other emerging powers will derive more benefit from playing by the system’s rules and enforcing them in their sphere of influence than overturning them. And the U.S., as the architect of this remarkable system, will continue to play a disproportionate role in the shaping of its future trajectory across regions.


Brendan Cooley is a rising junior majoring in Peace, War & Defense and Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

By ionutcpopescu Posted in GT2030

Looking Ahead: America’s Role in the Middle East

By Daniel Krcmaric

As the United States winds down its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and implements a “strategic pivot” from the Middle East to Asia, it seems appropriate to take stock of America’s future role in the Middle East.


The logic underlying the strategic pivot is that the dominant foreign policy issues of the coming decades—in particular, the rise of China’s economic and military power—will occur in Asia.  Since the pivot is occurring in an era of defense spending cuts, the U.S. will need to reduce significantly its commitments in the Middle East if it wants to make a true strategic pivot toward Asia.  While the pivot makes sense given the current and anticipated future power projection capabilities of China (and several other states in the Asia-Pacific region), it is not clear that pivoting away from the Middle East is feasible.


Why not? Oil. Simply put, the health of the American economy depends in part on the stable flow of affordable oil, thus making the Middle East a strategically important region.  While much of the rhetoric surrounding the pivot correctly notes that vital U.S. interests were not at stake in Iraq or Afghanistan, it obscures the fact that America’s commitment to maintaining a strong military presence in the Middle East predates these recent conflicts. Indeed, the U.S. has long sought to prevent the rise of a regional power and/or the intervention of a hostile foreign power that could potentially control the region’s oil wealth.  This is especially true in the years since the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, during which oil-rich states in the Middle East have consumed an extensive share of America’s time and resources.  Looking ahead, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran that could potentially threaten to cut off the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz suggests continued U.S. involvement in the region is likely.  Moreover, China currently depends—and will rely even more heavily in the future—on oil imports from the Middle East. As a result, it is reasonable to expect that at least part of the coming geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China will occur in the Middle East.


Given this, is the U.S. doomed to remain bogged down in the Middle East? Not necessarily.  Revolutionary technological advances in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and massive new discoveries of natural gas—along with improved fuel economy standards—mean America’s energy dependence on the Middle East will decrease in the following years. The magnitude of that decrease, however, is open to debate.  Talk of American energy independence is popular within some circles, although more prudent analysts warn against over-optimism.  While we can’t predict the future of developments in American energy, one thing seems clear:  a true strategic pivot from the Middle East to Asia is possible only to the extent that the United States reduces its dependence on Middle Eastern oil.


Daniel Krcmaric is a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Duke University.

Why we shouldn’t assume the future will be all Counterinsurgency (COIN)

By Charles Miller


Imagine this same exercise had been carried out by British strategists in 1930 and they had been asked what the majority of wars would look like in the coming thirty years. Many of them would have answered that they would be ‘North West Frontier’ type campaigns, or what we today would call COIN. And they would have been right. The majority of the wars the British Army fought between 1930 and 1960 were indeed COIN, but one of the two sole wars which were not COIN – World War Two – had an impact which was far greater than any of the rest, bankrupting the country, almost leading to the extinction of national independence and costing over half a million dead.

Conventional wars are a low probability, high impact event – a ‘Black Swan’ as Naseem Nicholas Taleb would have it. Contrary to the beliefs of some, they have always been rare relative to other types of conflict. Conventional war has been getting somewhat rarer over the last few decades, but there have been decades in the past, as measured by the Correlates of War project, in which they have been even rarer, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of all wars. Moreover, in terms of human and financial cost they dwarf non-conventional wars and so prudent decision making would suggest the United States should not neglect conventional war fighting capabilities in order to beef up its COIN capacities.

Proponents of the view that the future should be all about COIN make two arguments. First, they project the immediate past into the future and claim that because most recent wars have been COIN, most future wars will be too. This is not only a great way to end up fighting the last war rather than the next one, but it also could be an example of the ‘availability heuristic’ – a cognitive shortcut which leads us to overestimate the probability of a given event occurring in the future simply because we personally have experienced and can recall it. The second point is that the United States’ overwhelming conventional superiority means that enemy actors will have no choice but to resort to unconventional means to fight it.

This argument is very attractive, however it ignores two points. The first is that America’s conventional superiority may not be as overwhelming in future as it has been in the past, with the rise of other potential great powers. The second is that unconventional warfare is in fact quite difficult to pull off – it requires a very high degree of trust in one’s subordinates to allow them to discard their uniforms and blend into the civilian population where you can no longer monitor whether they are actually fighting or not. This degree of trust eluded Saddam Hussein and could very well also elude Assad or Kim Jong-Un also. In fact, there are surprisingly few examples in history of weaker states foreswearing conventional resistance altogether and opting to fight via unconventional methods immediately.

None of this should be taken as suggesting that a future large scale conventional war is likely, or that significant defense cuts are not necessary. It is simply to remind us all that it would have to be almost certainly extinct for us to stop devoting some part of our capacity to thinking about and preparing for it. We have not reached that point yet and may very well not in the near future.

Mr. Miller is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Duke University.

Is America’s Decline Really Inevitable?

One of the two “unlikely but possible” scenarios suggested by Peter Feaver in his post below is that of a resurgent United States combined with an implosion of Europe and/or the BRICs. Such an option is not discussed in GT2030, but I would argue that a scenario that challenges the quasi-conventional wisdom in some circles that “the United States’ (and the West’s) relative decline vis-à-vis the rising states is inevitable” (p.82) is well worth discussing in more detail. In this post, I will address some of the factors that might make such a scenario more more probable than the many would expect, and I’ll particularly focus on the US decline side of the equation rather than the possible implosion of the EU or the BRICs.

Several contributors to this blog already highlighted some of the key advantages that the US will continue to have in 2030 relative to China and other emerging powers, and called into serious question the narrative of “decline.”    

Among the strategic trends favoring the US, the most often-quoted ones are:


1. Demographic trends, where a combination of higher fertility relative to other potential world powers and immigration continues to give the US an advantage over its potential global competitors


2. Technological trends, where US advantages in nanotechnology and what The Economist recently called a “Third Industrial Revolution” brought about by digital manufacturing is likely to bring the high-tech manufacturing jobs of the future back to developed countries from developing ones


3. Innovation trends, where the uniquely safe and opportunity-rich entrepreneurial environment of the United States continues to remain the breeding ground for the next Apple, Google, or Facebook. Even though China for example invests large amounts of money in R&D, their return on this investment in terms of innovation is questionable. As the consulting firm Booz&Co documented in a series of reports examining the world’s top 1000 biggest R&D spenders,

 “Money doesn’t buy results: There is no relationship between R&D spending and the primary measures of economic or corporate success, such as growth, enterprise profitability, and shareholder return.

The comparison of R&D investment with economic performance provides a lens through which we can judge the innovation effectiveness of the Global Innovation 1000. Despite significant variation in innovation investment levels, the sheer magnitude of these companies’ spending leaves little doubt that they are committed to innovation. But the disconnect between R&D investment and performance levels demonstrates that commitment is no guarantee of success”

On the other side of the ledger, how about the worrisome trends referenced by the experts who predict a relative decline? First and foremost, there is the economic argument that China’s overall GDP will surpass the US GDP at some point in the next few decades, perhaps even before 2030, at least at PPP values.  There is a large literature dedicated to speculation about whether the Chinese government will be able to maintain healthy levels of growth while addressing the many political, social and environmental problems it faces, and serious skepticism is in order. Moreover, the PPP (purchasing power parity) measure is only one way to look at GDP, and from a geopolitical vantage point it’s very unclear it is the best one. When measured at market values, the Chinese economy even in the best of circumstances will not catch up for a longer period of time. The same is true for the GDP/capita measure, which could be a proxy for how much Beijing could divert money to foreign affairs as opposed to the domestic concerns of providing for their very large population. After all, as Robert Kagan argues, the relationship between economic growth and geopolitical influence is not nearly as straightforward as we sometimes assume: for example, “It is not clear that a richer India today wields greater influence on the global stage than a poorer India did in the 1950s under Nehru, when it was the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, or that Turkey, for all the independence and flash of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, really wields more influence than it did a decade ago.”

Another worrisome trend mentioned by GT 2030 is the state of the US education system: the report echoes a common theme of the national dialogue on this topic: “without large-scale improvements in primary and secondary education, future US workers – which have benefited from the world’s highest wages – will increasingly bring only mediocre skills to the workplace.” From business leaders to the Gates Foundation to countless task force reports, there is overwhelming concern about the poor performance of US K-12 students on standardized scores compared to their foreign peers, particularly in math and sciences. While I share some of this concern, I do so to a much lesser extent than the GT2030 authors. First of all, this is not a new concern: as even some advocates of the importance of improving K-12 education admit, the US has always been an outlier of sorts in this area: “The United States has never done well on international assessments of student achievement. Instead, its level of cognitive skills is only about average among the developed countries. Yet the country’s GDP growth rate has been higher than average over the past century.” One possible explanation for this is the superior quality of America’s higher education system: as the same study notices, “By most evaluations, U.S. colleges and universities rank at the very top in the world.” Another reason has more to do with other strengths of US economic system not related to education performance, such as less government regulation, openness to free trade, and perhaps most relevant for this debate, high levels of skilled immigration.

Something that is missing from this debate is an acknowledgement that, even though American students in K-12 may not do very well at math and sciences, the US economy as a whole traditionally addressed that problem in a two-pronged approach: allowing American students to “catch up” and develop in college the skills needed to go ahead and become successful when they enter the workforce, and also allowing large numbers of international students to study, and then stay over, in the US to work as scientists and engineers. Therefore, one of the easiest and least costly ways to maintain US dominance in science and technology is to make it easier for international students in these fields to remain in the United States and work for US companies without having to go through the onerous visa process currently in place. 

One last note on this supposed lack of educational achievement in math and sciences. American students, while perhaps not as capable of solving abstract problems as well as some of their peers abroad, still have some intangible advantages in terms of transferring their skills to solving real-world problems and inventing new products and services to a degree unmatched around the world. After all, had  conducted such tests been conducted during the Cold War, it is likely that the Soviet block states, with their education systems heavily focused on test-taking and abstract problem solving, would have outscored the US and the Western world in general. Yet of course the US remained the hub of technological innovation and led the way in the information revolution in the 1990s and 2000s, as it continues to do today in the era of social networks, cloud computing, and, well, iPhone apps.  

Lastly, there is the thorny issue of rising healthcare costs and, by virtue of how Medicare and Medicaid programs are currently set up, of so-called “entitlements.” (The third leg of this problem, Social Security, is much more readily “fixable” in economic terms and it represents less of a long-term concern than medical costs.) It is true that high levels of government spending, if continued at the present trend, will hurt the overall prospects for economic growth by contributing to large fiscal deficits, and, incidentally, also make it more difficult to fund national defense.  However, the recent political trends in Washington point to a serious bipartisan concern about this matter, and while one’s enthusiasm for “bipartisan efforts to achieve a grand bargain” should always be firmly under control, it is not entirely unrealistic to assume that the US will find its way out of the current fiscal morass sooner than we may think.

 I welcome your comments on any one of these trends, and suggestions for other areas of inquiry on the issue of the “inevitability” of US relative decline.