Special Report

Problems Will Be Global — And Solutions Will Be, Too

A more multilateral world is just the beginning.

EIGHTFISH/Getty Images
EIGHTFISH/Getty Images

Before considering the world in 2025, 14 years from now, it is worth remembering the world 14 years ago, in 1997. Back then, the United States was the sole superpower, its immensity and dominance of the international system so evident as to trigger the resentful label of "hyperpower" from the French foreign minister. The American economy was expanding fast enough to leave the country a healthy and growing surplus by the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency three years later. The European Union, then still only four years old, had just 15 members; the euro did not exist. The wars dominating the headlines were in Europe: Bosnia, Croatia, and, soon, Kosovo. The term BRICs — the Goldman Sachs label attached to the fast-growing emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India, and China — had not yet been invented. The Internet was booming, but social media did not exist.

You get the point: A lot can change in 14 years, and rarely in ways foreseen. In the spirit of proper humility, then, here’s my take on what the landscape of global diplomacy will look like a decade and a half from now:

For starters, the world will be much more multilateral. By 2025 the U.N. Security Council will have expanded from the present 15 members to between 25 and 30 and will include, either as de jure or de facto permanent members, Brazil, India, Japan, South Africa, either Egypt or Nigeria, and either Indonesia or Turkey. At the same time, regional organizations on every continent — the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, some version of the Organization of American States — will be much stronger. Each will follow its own version of economic and political integration, inspired by the European Union, and many will include representation from smaller subregional organizations. In the Middle East, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey could provide the core of a new Middle East free trade area; alternatively the European Union could be interlocked with an emerging Mediterranean Union.

Driving this massive multilateralization is the increasingly global and regional nature of our problems, combined with an expanding number of countries splitting off from existing states. National governments will remain essential for many purposes, but managing bilateral relations and engaging in successful global negotiations with nearly 200 states will become increasingly unwieldy. So we’ll negotiate territorial disputes in the South China Sea in a regional framework and deal with crises in Ivory Coast or Guinea through the African Union or even smaller subregional forums. At the global level, the speed and flexibility necessary to resolve crises require smaller groups like the G-20, while long-term legitimacy and durability still require the representation of all countries affected by a particular issue through large standing organizations.

As for individual countries, the states that will be the strongest in 2025 will be those that have figured out how to do more with less. They will be those governments that have successfully embraced radical sustainability — maintaining vibrant economies through largely renewable energy and creative reuse of just about everything. The leader will be Japan, a great civilization that has for centuries pioneered spectacularly beautiful ways of appreciating and coexisting with nature. As China’s youth seek more of everything, Japan’s are prepared to embrace a far more sustainable path. Scandinavia, Germany, New Zealand, and possibly South Korea will also be strong; many emerging or even less developed economies have real potential, if they can tap into their indigenous habits of conservation. Embracing sustainable growth will challenge the United States; its national renewal will depend on connecting its traditions of innovation, decentralization, and liberty with a narrative of protecting America’s natural bounty. Think America the Beautiful more than the Star-Spangled Banner.

But the most dramatic changes between 2011 and 2025 won’t take place at the level of statecraft and grand strategy; they are likely to happen as new technologies continue to transform businesses, civic organizations of all kinds, universities, foundations, and churches — now able to self-organize as never before around issues they care about. The American social revolution that Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the early 19th century, of citizens joining groups of every conceivable kind, is about to go global, forever changing the relationship between citizens and their governments, and governments with each other. The Arab revolutions are but the first taste of this larger change.

These predictions may appear rosy. In fact, the enormous changes on the horizon will require major crises, even cataclysm, before they can materialize. It took World War I to generate the political will and circumstances necessary to create the League of Nations; it took World War II to create the United Nations; it took the worst economic crisis since the 1930s to force the expansion of the G-8 into the G-20. Just imagine what it will take to break the decades-old logjam of Security Council reform. And creating and changing multilateral organizations is child’s play next to the profound changes in public and private behavior required to move away from the more-is-better economic model to one which accepts that our resources are finite on a planetary scale.

Yet the sources of potential crises and disasters of a magnitude sufficient to force systemic change are all around us: Climate change is driving countries closer to the extremes of desert and jungle, droughts and floods, while a global pandemic or a nuclear terrorist attack would have a similar impact. This is not Malthusian gloom, however. As Robert Wright argues in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, catastrophe is terrible for individual human beings but beneficial for humanity as a whole. As the full consequences of genuinely global interconnectedness continue to make themselves felt, the world of both states and the societies they represent will have no choice but to adapt.

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