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