From a Unipolar World to a Multi-Polar One
Much has been made in the last decade regarding “America’s decline.” And given the current Washington gridlock, to say nothing of the shrill predictions of some pundits, one would think the United States is about to become a third-world power. It has become a debate that, while poorly-informed, makes up for it in passion.
Beyond the shrill voices and often-unbridled passion, well-nuanced and informed studies have poured out of think tanks and elsewhere over the past several years offering prescriptions for ways the United States can and should remain the dominant world power. Other studies have predicted decline, some others have predicted ascendency, and others have left it to the reader. What most of these studies do agree on is that the world will no longer – and likely will never again be – a unipolar one the way it was immediately after the end of World War II or again decades later after the Soviet Union imploded. In both cases, the United States was the unipolar power.
What does Global Trends 2030 Suggest?
Rather than “predict” the strength, or weakness, of the United States in the ensuing decades, Global Trends 2030 suggests that it is most important to focus on what role the United States chooses to play in the world years hence. And while other factors will certainly affect how this role is shaped, Global Trends 2030 makes the point that how the United States interacts with the rest of the world will be largely determined by choices this nation makes.
This study’s bottom line up front is this: How the United States’ international role evolves during the next 15-20 years – a big uncertainty – and whether the U.S. will be able to work with new partners to reinvent the international system will be among the most important variables in the future shape of the global order.
Global Trends 2030 notes that although the United States’ relative decline vis-a-vis the rising states is inevitable, its future role in the international system is much harder to project: the degree to which the United States continues to dominate the international system could vary widely based on choices the United States is making today and will make in the next few years.
The multifaceted nature of U.S. power suggests that even as its economic weight is overtaken by China – perhaps as early as the 2020s based on several forecasts – the U.S. most likely will remain “first among equals” alongside the other great powers in 2030.
Global Trends 2030 suggests that the United States most likely will remain “first among equals” among the other great powers in 2030 because of its preeminence across a range of power dimensions and legacies of its leadership role over the past several decades. More important than just its economic weight, the United States’ dominant role in international politics has derived from its preponderance across the board in both hard and soft power. Nevertheless, with the rapid rise of other countries, Global Trends 2030 makes the point that the “unipolar moment” is over and Pax Americana – the era of American ascendancy in international politics that began in 1945 – is fast winding down.
Global Trends 2030 shows us that what we will see in the future is that the context in which the United States global power will operate will change dramatically.
Most of Washington’s historic Western partners have also suffered relative economic declines. The post-World-War-II-era was characterized by the G-7 countries leading both economically and politically. Thus, GT2030 points out, the United States’ projection of power was empowered by its strong alliances with other strong nations. Global Trends 2030 points out that this is a thing of the past.
Global Trends 2030 also suggests that during the next 15-20 years, power will become more multifaceted – reflecting the diversity of issues – and more contextual – certain actors and power instruments will be germane to particular issues. The United States’ technological assets – including its leadership in social networking and rapid communications – give it a strong advantage. In most cases, U.S. power will need to be enhanced through relevant outside networks, friends, and affiliates that can coalesce on any particular issue. GT2030 notes that leadership will be a function of a plethora of factors, some of them which are still emerging.
The United States’ position in the world also will be determined by how successful it is in helping to manage international crises – typically the role of great powers and, since 1945, the international community’s expectation of the United States. Should Asia replicate Europe’s past, the United States will be called upon to be a balancer, ensuring regional stability. In contrast, the fall of the dollar as the global reserve currency and substitution by another or a basket of currencies would be one of the sharpest indications of a loss of United States global economic position, strongly undermining Washington’s political influence too.
Global Trends 2030 suggests that replacement of the United States by another global power and erection of a new international order seems the least likely outcome. No other power would be likely to achieve the same degree of power in this timeframe under any plausible scenario. The emerging powers are eager to take their place at the top table of key multilateral institutions such as United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, among others, but they do not espouse any competing vision.
Although ambivalent and even resentful of the U.S.-led international order, these other powers have benefited from it and are more interested in continuing their economic development and political consolidation than contesting United States leadership.
In addition, the emerging powers are not a bloc; thus they do not have any unitary alternative vision. Their perspectives – even China’s – are more keyed to shaping regional structures. A collapse or sudden retreat of United States’ power would most likely result in an extended period of global anarchy.
The Role of the United States – What We Can Count On
To repeat GT2030’s bottom line up front: How the United States evolves over the next 15-20 years – a big uncertainty – will be among the most important variables in the future shape of the international order. But the United States has an enviable “pole position” in assuming a positive and engaged role in shaping the world order we will experience in 2030.
Importantly, the United States remains among the world’s most open and innovative countries. Despite being home to less than five percent of the world’s population, the United States accounted for 28 percent of global patent applications in 2008 and is home to nearly 40 percent of the world’s best universities. United States demographic trends are favorable compared to other advanced and some developing countries. U.S. strength also derives from high immigrant inflows and the United States’ unusual ability to integrate migrants, something other nations, particularly some European nations, have struggled with. The United States’ relative economic decline vis-à-vis the rising states is inevitable and already occurring, but its future role in the international system is much harder to assess.
The extent of United States power in the system is important – in the short run because of the need for systemic public goods, especially security, and in the longer run out to 2030 because of the growing uncertainties associated with rapid geopolitical change. Even in 2030, the transition to a multipolar world will not be complete; the world’s ultimate shape is far from being predetermined. The United States is making many important choices today that will impact what kind of world we will inhabit in 2030.