Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

World Politics in the Future

What will world politics look like in the future? That’s been a topic of much discussion among scholars, analysts and talking heads who currently see a world in flux and wonder what this change and fluidity will lead to. Below is my stab at it. Given that it’s impossible to give due justice to a topic so big and important in a blog post, or even two or three of them, I’m focusing on just a very small slice of what a more complete answer would entail. In particular, this post centers on what world power and leadership will, in my view, look and operate like in the future.

So let’s start with power. I define power in a Waltzian sense, in that power is defined by state (mostly material) capabilities. With this in mind, the short-term picture, buoyed by a very good 2014, looks decent for the US. The US is the number one military power in the world and possesses a relative abundance of soft power, especially relative to its main great power rivals, Russia and China. And those things don’t look to change anytime soon.

But it’s the US economy that’s noteworthy nowadays. Yes, inequality is still an issue, and political polarization threatens to hamper America’s ability to keep its fiscal house in order; however, don’t let those things distract from other, including larger, good factors. Oil prices are down, US production of oil is up, unemployment is down and jobs are on the rise, wages are up, more Americans are reducing their household debt, overall economic growth, measured in GDP, is gaining strength, and consumer confidence is rebounding.

But the picture isn’t entirely rosy for the US. As we know, China, the number two world power, is catching up fast. China’s annual economic growth, while slowing a bit, far outpaces that of America. It’s the number one trade partner of a growing number countries, often supplanting the US. Although not the best indicator of economic size, still, in terms of PPP China has surpassed the US in 2014, and in terms of GDP, it is projected to trump the US in the next 10-15 years. China also has second-largest defense budget in the world, and has embarked on a large-scale program to modernize and expand its military and power projection capabilities, especially its naval ones, and refine its military doctrines.

And China isn’t the only one on the rise; several regional and aspiring regional powers are also on the upswing. India, Brazil and Indonesia, as examples, are doing well currently and are projected to continue to rise going forward. In particular, these three countries are trying to tap into and unlock their potential, namely, by cutting bureaucratic red tape, politically and economically empowering their citizens, and allocating and using resources more efficiently. This is why investors are looking to these three as possessing economies to bet on in the future.  

Adding another layer complexity to the above power dynamics is the presence of a host of other formidable powers, such as Germany, France, Britain, Japan, and Russia. At the moment, these five countries are second tier great powers, and most of them will continue to possess considerable strength in the future, though it’s possible that one or two of the fast risers mentioned above will surpass them in the global rankings this century. After all, all five second tier great powers have experienced sluggish economic growth over the past decade, with few prospects of a big rebound, and Russia, in particular, is a big mess, as the combination of sanctions and low oil prices have hit its economy awfully hard.  

All of this points to a future world characterized by diffuse power. Yes, for the foreseeable future, the US will still be strong. It’s economy, in all likelihood, will rank as the second strongest, while it will maintain the biggest and baddest military, one that’s able to project power faster, farther, and more effectively than any other country. Yet, at the same time, there will be multiple spheres of power rising throughout the world. The only question is whether there will be a few or several spheres in existence. We’re likely moving toward an eventual multipolar world, the kind described by Samuel Huntington years ago—a uni-multipolar system, in which the US is the clear lead power over two or three other great powers of the first rank.

Next, let’s look at leadership. In the context of world politics, leadership refers to the willingness and capacity of a country or a group of countries to tackle various global problems and issues. The trajectory of world politics points to a gloomy outlook regarding international leadership.

The US is still capable of but increasingly less willing to assert itself in the world. Oh sure, there are Americans, on both the right and left, who embrace the idea of the US as an activist nation—whether via hard, soft or smart power means—but those views are primarily held by Washington elites. Unsurprisingly, after more than a decade of bloody and costly warfare and a traumatic economic collapse, American citizens have turned against US activism, and there’s now a growing sense of bipartisan isolationism percolating within the US. One could argue that America’s reticence to lead internationally is something confined to the Obama era, a product of Obama’s risk averse personality. Perhaps, though I suspect it’s something we’ll much more of in US foreign policy in the future, as a cost and casualty conscious citizenry force American presidents to be picky in when and where the US executes in power.

Meantime, while China is on the rise, it hasn’t demonstrated much in the way of global leadership. Sure, just in the past year, China watchers will note, it has gotten involved in the fight against Ebola, the mission to locate the missing Malaysian airliner, and even UN peacekeeping. That said, there are host of extremely important issues and problems in which China has either refused to involve itself or actually made worse, like international terrorism, the civil war in Syria, Putin’s escapades in Ukraine, tensions in the South and East China Seas, North Korea’s belligerence, and so on.

At bottom, China is a self-interested and inward-looking power; it’s not much interested in being a being a global problem solver if there’s no direct impact on Chinese national interests. Robert Zoellick’s 2005 critique of China—that, if Beijing wants great power status and respect, it must be a responsible stakeholder in global issues and problems—still applies today and will likely persist for decades, if for no other reason that it will take decades for China to internally micromanage, on a host of fronts, its global rise.

What about the rest of the world? Well, as a whole, Europe is increasingly stagnant politically and economically, is beset by homegrown terrorism, and lacks unity on foreign policy issues. The prognosis for Europe’s institutions isn’t much better. NATO will still be relevant because it’s backed by US power, though likely less meaningful as time goes on if Washington does indeed turn inward. The EU is a home to a large economic base, and so that makes the EU an important economic player. The downsides, of course, are that the EU is steadily losing ground—to countries like China and India—and that the EU is riven by internal divisions, many of which are the result of overexpansion. And although Europe’s two major powers, France and Germany, try to be helpful on global issues, especially climate change, they have too much on their plate—the EU, terrorism, Putin, internal political pressures—to be counted on consistently. So overall, don’t expect much global leadership from Europe.

The same bad news goes for the Middle East and Africa: both regions are home to unstable states, poor economies, widespread extremism and violence; plus, the Middle East remains bedeviled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which shows little sign of abating anytime soon. The big picture, in short, is of two regions in which most countries are bogged down with political, economic, and security troubles either in their own backyard or their own neighborhood. These aren't favorable conditions for any country in either region to exercise much leadership on a global level.

On top of all this, a number of regional players are more confident than ever, more willing to act on their interests and more willing to buck what the superpowers say. This is certainly applicable to countries like India and Indonesia—two countries that want good ties with China and the US, but are unwilling to cave into their demands, because of cultural and political pressures. Additionally, tiny Qatar, Russia, Turkey, among others, have their own regional dreams and ambitions and are determined to go their own way, even if it means they butt heads with the US and cause regional and international trouble.

In this international environment, it’s hard to get big things done, to solve global problems. Essentially, this is the G-Zero dilemma that Ian Bremmer and others have pointed out and expressed concern about. But whereas Bremmer sees a G-Zero as a temporary phase, lasting 5-10 years, I see it as something more permanent, likely enduring until some shock occurs in the international system, which could take decades to manifest itself.

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