The US is on the way out as a hegemonic power.
That is the primary conclusion of a new report out of the National Intelligence Council — a government organization that produces mid-term and long-range thinking for the US intelligence community.
Titled “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” this 140-page study says emphatically that the “relative decline” of the US is “inevitable,” but adds that its future role in the international system is “much harder to project,” and goes on to say that “the degree to which the US continues to dominate the international system could vary widely.”
Among the factors that could determine what the US role in global affairs might be a little less than two decades from now are whether the US dollar continues to be the world’s reserve currency, how China handles the transition from a country of poor workers and peasants to a country with a large middle-class, and whether the US “will be able to work with new partners to restructure the international system.”
The study is interesting in that it is represents a complete rejection of the notorious Project for a New American Century, which was a private Neoconservative blueprint for long-term US hegemony over the rest of the globe and which became the driving philosophy underlying the Bush-Cheney administration’s domestic and foreign policy in the first decade of this century. The PNAC called for the US to establish unchallenged global dominance and to do whatever was necessary to “prevent” any other nation from challenging that dominance going forward.
The authors of this new study take it as a given that the heyday of the US is over. As they put it, “The ‘unipolar moment’ is over and Pax Americana — the era of American ascendancy in international politics that began in 1945 — is fast winding down.” They say, optimistically, that the US is likely to remain “first among equals” at least into 2030 “because of its preeminence across a range of power dimensions and legacies of its leadership role.” But that’s a far cry from being able to dictate to the rest of the world.
The study offers four possible scenarios for the future. In what it calls the “most plausible worst-case scenario,” the US would withdraw inward, allowing globalization to “stall.” While many people in other countries would likely consider this scenario an optimistic one, not a “worst-case” one, given the hugely destructive role the US has played over the decades since its emergence at the end of World War II as the world’s dominant power, the report’s authors see such a move towards US isolationism as leading to increased conflict and instability in the world.
A second scenario they postulate, which they term “fusion” and describe as the “most plausible best-case scenario,” would see an increasingly economically dominant and militarily powerful China joining in an era of cooperation with the US. Such cooperation, they say, could lead to solutions to such global challenges as climate change and to “broader global cooperation.” Again, other countries might view such a two-state collaboration between the world’s two biggest economies and militaries as less benign.
A third scenario postulated as less likely would be a “genie-out-of-the-bottle” world in which growing inequality leads to explosions in many nations, while climate-change and population-pressure driven shortages of water, food and energy, lead to increasing international conflicts, with the US no longer able to act in the role of “international policeman.”
Finally, a fourth scenario, which seems almost science fiction, envisions a weakening of nation states, as new technologies allow non-state actors, such as mega cities and shifting coalitions of non-state actors, to become leaders in dealing with the world’s issues like climate change, explosive population growth and international conflict over scarce resources.
With regard to the Middle East, America’s continued obsession with Iran’s nuclear ambitions is on full display, with the Intelligence Council authors worrying that “If the Islamic republic maintains power…and is able to develop nuclear weapons, the Middle East will face a highly unstable future.” It is an odd apprehension, given the current degree of instability in the region — civil war in Syria and Yemen, public protests in Bahrain and Egypt, uncontrolled violence in Libya, continuing violence in Iraq, and of course war in Afghanistan–and the fact that at present only one country — Israel — has nuclear weapons, which it adamantly refuses to submit to international inspection or control — or even to acknowledge.
No one, obviously, can hope to predict with any confidence what the world will look like in 2030, particularly given the unprecedented threat posed by catastrophic climate change, which could see global temperatures even by that year rising significantly, with disastrous consequences for both coastal populations and for countries already facing droughts and water shortages. Even the US, as the intelligence analysts note, will not escape climate change unscathed, as its drier regions, notably the southwest and midwest — both important crop-growing regions — face unprecedented droughts. If other trends continue too — notably the decline of the dollar as a global reserve currency, and continued growing indebtedness of the US — America could be forced to, as the authors put it, “withdraw inward.”
The good news is that nowhere in this forward-looking study is there a scenario proposed in which the US continues on as the world’s self-designated “cop,” or as the world’s dominant power.
As we contemplate the profound challenges posed by climate change and by the world’s exploding population, that at least is one prediction in the report worth cheering about.