From China’s population to NATO’s irrelevance, we actually know more about the future of the world’s power dynamics than we might think.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Former baseball player (and eminent public intellectual) Yogi Berra famously warned, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Yet trying to anticipate the future is a big part of foreign policymaking: leaders (and pundits) must try to interpret trends and anticipate events, so that they can devise policies that will avert disaster and maybe even make things better.
But Berra is still right: predicting the future ain’t easy. In a recent class at the Kennedy School, I reminded my first year students about some key features of the world of 1978, which was my first year in grad school. In 1978, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact were still intact and formidable. The white apartheid government ruled South Africa and the Shah of Iran still sat on the Peacock Throne. People could smoke on airplanes, in restaurants, and in most public places. There was no Euro, no worldwide web, no email, no cellphones, no digital streaming services, and even the compact disc was still unknown. Japan’s economy was going like gangbusters, and China’s per capita income was a mere $165 per annum. How many of us could have foreseen that each of these conditions — and many others — would be dramatically transformed over the next few decades?
But to say that predicting the future is hard is not to say it is impossible. In fact, we can anticipate some features of the future with a high degree of confidence.
If asked to describe the world of 2050, for example, I’d argue that there are some important elements that are easy to forecast — with a suitable margin for error — and other areas where it is nearly impossible.
At the “more certain” end of the spectrum is population. Although fertility and death rates do fluctuate over time (and not always predictably), demographic models can take these shifts into account and we can be pretty confident about the size of world’s population in 2050 and the populations of individual countries. Barring unlikely “black swan” events (a huge pandemic, large-scale nuclear war, etc.), we know that China and India will have at least a billion people apiece, and we know the U.S. population will be around 400 million. We also know the populations in Germany, Russia, and Japan are going to be smaller, and that the median ages of these populations will rise significantly. Pronatalist policies could alter these numbers a bit, but population growth is hard to change quickly and this is one area where our beliefs about 2050 are likely to be pretty accurate.
What else can we know with high confidence? Well, in 2050 the world will still be divided into territorial states and the number of states will be higher than it is today. We’ve gone from roughly 50 states in 1945 to nearly 200 today, and pressures for self-determination show little sign of decreasing. By contrast, there doesn’t seem to be much pressure for merging or combining states or constructing new multi-national empires, and occasional steps in that direction (such as the union of North and South Yemen) haven’t fared well in recent years. The EU is probably the most important example of a nascent political union, but it is still largely an association of proud national states and is experiencing serious centrifugal forces these days.
To say that states will remain central and that their number is likely to rise is not to say that every one of these states will be around in 2050. It’s easy to imagine a different set of states emerging from the current turmoil in the Middle East, for example, my point is simply that we aren’t likely to see a significant reduction in the overall number.
The economic weight of different countries is pretty predictable too, at least over a span of a few decades. China’s dramatic rise is a partial exception to this rule, but most of the major economic powers in today’s world are the same countries that have been major economic players for a long time. GNP is not as easy to predict as demography, because some states do take off and others run into trouble, but we still know an awful lot about the international economic landscape of 2050.
To be specific, it is highly likely (if not quite certain) that the United States, China, Japan, India, Brazil, Russia, and the EU will be major economic players in 2050, and the states that have high per capita incomes at present will almost certainly have high per capita incomes 35 years from now. Similarly, although a few emerging economies will do well in the decades ahead, most of today’s poorer countries will still be relatively poor in 2050 (even if they are a lot better off than they are today). We know that Outer Mongolia or Burundi are not going to become Singapore by 2050, and Singapore isn’t going to turn into Somalia. States whose wealth is based entirely on natural resources such as oil and gas are something of a special case (i.e., their fortunes could decline rapidly if their particular commodity falls in price), but we still know a lot about who the key economic players are likely to be in the middle of this century. Short answer: the same states that are key players today.
Other features of 2050 are much harder to forecast, however, because they reflect explicit policy decisions and could shift quickly in response to events. For example, the alliances forged during the long Cold War have been around a long time and have proven to be remarkably durable, but can we really be confident NATO or America’s Asian alliances will still be around and still be meaningful thirty-five years down the road? If Russian power continues to decline and the United States focuses more and more attention on Asia, NATO will be increasingly irrelevant. And I’ve suggested before, it’s hard to imagine NATO playing an active role in a future U.S. effort to balance China.
Alliance dynamics in Asia will be increasingly complicated and hard to predict, so one can hardly rule out some pretty dramatic shifts there too. I’d bet on a balancing coalition to address China’s rising power, but its emergence and cohesion are far from certain. And if Chinese power continues to rise, can one entirely rule out the formation of closer security ties between Beijing and some countries in the — dare we say it? — Western hemisphere? I don’t think so. Nor is hard to imagine significant realignments in the Middle East, especially if Iran eventually gets out of the penalty box and becomes a more active and accepted player. I’m not saying that any or all of these things will occur, of course; my point is that international alignments are subject to change and it is harder to know what diplomatic constellations will exist in 2050 than it is to predict either population or economic clout.
What about the level of violence? Global violence has been declining since World War II, leading scholars such as Steven Pinker, John Mueller, and Joshua Goldstein to describe war as increasingly rare and even “obsolescent.” It would be nice if that trend continued until 2050, but the past few years have seen a sharp uptick in the number and virulence of global conflicts and a future Sino-American security competition might fuel any number of other tensions. I’d keep my fingers crossed hoping Pinker and Co. are right, but I’d keep my powder dry too.
Another area we cannot easily forecast is the normative and ideological environment that will exist 35 years hence. Thirty-five years ago, Marxism-Leninism still commanded loyalty and respect among millions of people. Twenty-plus years ago, the “Washington Consensus” was supposedly sweeping the globe. Since then, various forms of Islamic extremism have become powerful currents within a number of societies. Global norms on privacy, human rights, corporate social responsibility, the role of women, assassination, the death penalty, and a number of other topics are all in flux as well, and it is hard to predict which side will win these debates or to anticipate what new movements may unexpectedly emerge. I mean: who would have predicted the gay marriage movement 30 years ago?
What is least certain about the world of 2050? As we cast our gaze forward, the greatest uncertainties lie in the realm of science and technology. The advance of scientific and technical knowledge has accelerated steadily over the past several centuries, and we simply have no idea exactly what sorts of things we will be able to do just a few decades from now. Driverless cars? Customized fetal DNA? Gene therapy to eliminate disease? Digital devices enabled not by moving a mouse or a touch screen but simply by thinking? Growing new organs in a lab and then transplanting them? We can predict some technological developments with a degree of confidence (e.g., computers will be faster and cheaper, energy usage will be more efficient, some diseases will be cured, etc.) but future discoveries (or serendipitous combinations of them) will create possibilities no one is even imagining today. At the same time, some developments predicted decades ago never materialized (like everyone else, I’ve given up hoping for my flying car). If one is trying to envision the world of 2050, it is the technological frontier where our crystal ball is cloudiest.
And let’s not forget the “black swans”: those seemingly random natural or man-made events that could shift the course of world politics in unexpected directions. A mass pandemic, a nuclear terrorist incident, an even bigger financial panic, or a catastrophic drought might have profound effects in many places, alter global discourse in key ways, and make many of our other forecasts look silly. And by their very nature, such events are hard to anticipate even if we know what their baseline probabilities might be.
The bottom line is that there’s a lot we do know about the world of 2050, and a lot that we don’t. Unfortunately, one other thing we know is that the human beings that will have to grapple with that world will still be deeply flawed and the political and social institutions that will be wrestling with these changes will still fall rather short of perfection. Our descendants will have plenty to do, and they may even look back on the current troubled state of world affairs with a certain degree of nostalgia, thinking that their forebears had it pretty good, even if we didn’t have flying cars.
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