Choose Your Own Adventure: The Future of the World

It’s not just the U.S. presidential platforms that will shape global politics in the years ahead -- it’s Americans’ theories of how the world works.

FORT WORTH, TX - FEBRUARY 26:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Fort Worth Convention Center on February 26, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. Trump is campaigning in Texas, days ahead of the Super Tuesday primary.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
FORT WORTH, TX - FEBRUARY 26: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Fort Worth Convention Center on February 26, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. Trump is campaigning in Texas, days ahead of the Super Tuesday primary. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

However tempting it is to keep writing about Donald Trump, I’m going to move on to less bizarre topics. Last week I participated in a panel at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the implications of the Brexit vote (along with Leslie Vinjamuri of the University of London and Barry Posen and Francis Gavin of MIT). Their comments got me thinking— and not for the first time — about where the world is headed these days.

It’s easy to understand why people think the current world order is rapidly unraveling. Despite steady reductions in global poverty, the continued absence of great power war, and mind-boggling advances in science and technology, world politics doesn’t look nearly as promising as it did a couple of decades ago. It’s still possible to offer an upbeat view of the foreign policy agenda — as Joe Biden recently did — but the vice president is not exactly the most objective judge. He thinks the next president will be able to build on the Obama administration’s successes, but a more candid evaluation would conclude that the next president — whoever it might be — is going to face some serious challenges.

Because none of us can predict the future, both our expectations about it and the policy choices we would recommend today depend in good part on our core beliefs about the basic nature of global politics, the identity of the key actors, and the most important factors that shape their behavior. In other words, they depend first and foremost on our theoretical beliefs — on our basic worldview of what matters most in shaping political, economic, and social behavior around the world. And in that spirit (and with apologies to Robert Gilpin), I offer here Three Models of the Future.

Model No. 1: realism redux 

The first model is drawn from realism, of course, which portrays world politics largely in terms of recurring patterns and continuities. Realists think states are the key actors and that relations among them are hard-wired for recurring conflict (and sometimes war). Why? Because the absence of effective world government forces states to worry about what others might do and inclines them to protect themselves by competing for power and advantage. Interstate competition can also fuel the rise of nonstate actors (e.g., al Qaeda, the Islamic State, etc.) who are motivated by opposition to what certain powerful states are doing and may also receive assistance from rival states that are trying to hurt someone else.

From this perspective, the past 70 years — and especially among the Western democracies — have been a glorious, miraculous aberration. During the Cold War, the combination of bipolarity and nuclear deterrence discouraged the United States and Soviet Union from escalating their competition to all-out war, and the division of Europe and the superpowers’ military presence there made war in Europe effectively impossible. Democracy, economic interdependence, greater equality, and ethnic homogeneity all contributed to peace in Europe and the growth and expansion of the European Union, but these benign developments occurred under the shadow of the “American pacifier” (and, to be honest, its Soviet counterpart).

Alas, no good thing lasts forever. The erosion of this liberal order may not be inevitable, but realists aren’t surprised that it is fraying today. There’s no Soviet Union to unite against, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a declining power that just isn’t scary enough to replace it. Indeed, a recent set of Pew Research Center surveys suggests that European publics aren’t willing to fight to defend one another anymore, which is why they keep hoping Uncle Sam will do it for them. Moreover, the Euro crisis, the refugee issue, and all sorts of other difficulties have put the future of the entire EU project in some doubt. From this perspective, the recent Brexit vote is just the latest and most prominent symptom of broader centrifugal forces, as at least one realist anticipated 26 years ago.

But hold on a second: Maybe this view is too gloomy. Historical patterns sometimes repeat themselves, but never in quite the same way. Maybe the period 1945-2000 wasn’t just an aberration, but also a turning point. If so, maybe a completely different model could provide a more reliable guide to the future.

Model No. 2: liberal resilience

Liberal optimism hit its zenith in the 1990s, when we had supposedly reached the “end of history” and could concentrate on getting rich in a grand new globalized world. Washington was enjoying its “unipolar moment” but the EU seemed to be on a roll as well: expanding eastward, spreading democracy, debating Turkey’s entry, and creating a new currency to further bind the continent together (or so it was believed). U.S. policymakers were “engaging and enlarging” the sphere of democratic rule, and plenty of smart people believed Russia, China, and eventually even the Middle East would gradually be incorporated into the liberal, rules-based order, all under the benevolent but watchful eye of the United States.

That optimistic vision isn’t looking so good right now, with the number of democracies in retreat and with authoritarian tendencies returning even within states that remain formally democratic. According to a recent Freedom House report, 105 states experienced declines in democracy over the past 10 years, while only 61 reported a net improvement.

So how in Kant’s name could “liberal optimism” be a model for the future?

Simple: Just take a long-term perspective. Democracy and human rights have been expanding steadily over more than two centuries, but there have been significant ebbs and flows over time. Political scientists have written about successive “waves” of democratization.” While there was some backsliding afterward, each successive wave has been larger than the previous one and the net effect has been to take the world from a small handful of stable democracies to dozens.

A liberal optimist might say the same thing about the European Union. The development of the EU has largely been one of “two steps forward, one back,” but the result has been to both expand and deepen European unity and to make it increasingly difficult to unwind. The Euro crisis and the recent Brexit decision are serious bumps in the road, but the case for unity remains strong and collective responses will be needed on a wide range of issues, such as control over Europe’s borders.

That view receives additional support when one considers generational effects. The Leave campaign in Britain would have been resoundingly defeated had the vote been limited to British citizens under the age of 60 (i.e., to those with the greatest long-term stake in the outcome). Older people in Europe may cling to traditional identities, but younger generations in much of Europe like the freedom to move and identify with a broader European identity.

In the end, a liberal vision for the future rests on the belief (first expressed by Theodore Parker and later by Martin Luther King Jr.) that “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” This vision assumes there are powerful secular forces inclining the world toward liberal ideals and institutions, among them the growth of literacy, greater economic development and interdependence, and the overall superior economic performance of representative governments. In this view, therefore, today’s problems are a serious but temporary bump in the road, and there is no reason to expect the liberal order created after World War II to descend back into 19th-century power politics.

Model No. 3: radical uncertainty 

In their own ways, Models No. 1 and 2 see world politics as driven by powerful structural forces that will shape and shove different societies in particular ways, and limit what individual political leaders are able to do over time. But there is a third and much less deterministic way of thinking about the future, which sees it as far more conditional, more contingent, and vulnerable to leadership choices, the vagaries of human attitudes, and the inevitable play of unintended consequences and random events.

In this view, our future will be shaped not by anarchy or by enduring liberal values, but by whether a coup succeeds or fails, whether a leader wins a key election, or whether a random act of terror sets in motion a chain of events that transforms the political landscape. Consider how different the world would be today had the 9/11 hijackers been apprehended before they boarded their fateful flights: There might have been no Iraq war, no U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, no Islamic State, and no civil war in Syria. Or imagine what might have happened had the weather been sunny and clear on the day of the Brexit vote in Britain, making it more likely that complacent “No” voters in London actually went to the polls. Or what if a few Wall Street bankers and key government regulators had been a bit less sanguine about the possibility of a financial meltdown back in 2005?

If you buy Model No. 3, then the future world is what we make of it. The range of possible futures is vast and almost impossible to anticipate, because we can never be sure how events will unfold or when new ideologies or practices will suddenly catch fire. If the right leaders get picked, if events take a favorable turn, and if dangerous “black swans” (e.g., a global pandemic, ruinous climate event, nuclear detonation, etc.) don’t occur, then perhaps the next few decades will be relatively benign in most of the world (though of course not everywhere). But if hotheads and extremists gain power in some key area, if millions of people succumb to the politics of passion rather than reason, and if enough black swans fly, then it is easy to imagine a darker and more dystopian future. To offer a concrete example: If Chinese and American leaders are consistently sensible, restrained, prudent, and farsighted, a future Sino-American rivalry will occur but will stay within reasonable bounds. But if rash, impetuous, thin-skinned, or ignorant leaders come to power in either Beijing or Washington, the risks of trouble would increase dramatically.

Model No. 3, in short, reminds us that political choices do matter and can easily shift societies off one path and onto another. One obvious implication: What U.S. voters decide to do in November is really, really important.

Oh, damn. I guess I ended up writing about Trump after all.

Photo credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images 

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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