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5 Very Important Things About the World Nobody Knows

The future will be determined by a handful of big questions that don’t yet have answers.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at the Great Hall of the People on March 17, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Feng Li/Getty Images)
Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at the Great Hall of the People on March 17, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

I spent much of last week in Toronto at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association. For those of you outside academia, this conference is an increasingly diverse gathering of scholars from around the world—mostly political scientists but also historians, sociologists, legal scholars, economists, and a few others—presenting papers or commentary on a wide variety of international, global, transnational, and other topics. There are a breathtaking range of subjects being studied, and the accumulated knowledge that participants display is impressive.

But as I read the program, attended panels, and toured the publishers’ displays, I found myself thinking about questions that didn’t get answered (at least, not in the sessions I attended). And not for the first time, I began reflecting about some important issues where I feel uncomfortably ignorant.

Which brings me to my top five things I’d really like to know.

China’s future trajectory. There are few subjects of greater importance to the state of the world than China’s future course. Whether China keeps rising rapidly, slows, stalls, or retreats will have far-reaching effects on the global balance of power, on relations throughout Eurasia, the rate and extent of climate change, and a host of other issues. Yet this is a question on which experts do not agree, and I can’t figure out who to believe.

Is China still much weaker than the United States and unlikely to catch up, as Michael Beckley and the Gilli brothers have recently asserted? Or is China an unstoppable juggernaut that is destined to blow past the United States and establish itself as the world’s leading power, as Xi Jinping seems to hope and as some China watchers predict? Is its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative a bold stroke that will cement Chinese influence around the world or an incoherent, wasteful, and politically fraught mélange of policies undertaken as much for domestic as international reasons? Will China get mired in the middle-income trap or continue to increase its total factor productivity and thus rise above it?

I don’t know. What’s troubling to a generalist like me, however, is that the community of people who study China for a living don’t know either. And the range of forecasts is pretty wide. This wouldn’t be a big problem if the implications were not so momentous. If those who believe China is unlikely to match the United States are right, then the United States can take a fairly relaxed attitude toward competition with China and should be especially wary of an overreaction that would damage both countries. By contrast, if China does continue its impressive rise—even if at somewhat slower rate—it will almost inevitably become the main object of U.S. foreign policy. (Indeed, that trend is already underway.) Because I’d really like to know the answer to this question (or at least better understand the range of plausible outcomes), I’d love to see more sustained and focused discussion of this question by academic scholars and informed people in the policy world.

How good are America’s cybercapabilities? We’ve all become accustomed to reading alarmist tales about the threats that confront us in the cyber-realm. In addition to the well-known problems of viruses, cybercrime, ransomware, etc., we also face dangers from distributed denial of service attacks, commercial espionage, and all sorts of other more far-out scenarios. Or consider all the hoopla about Russia’s alleged hacking of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or the possibility that Huawei’s networking equipment might be a Trojan horse that has allowed the Chinese government easy access to users’ equipment. And so forth.

These are all important issues and should be taken seriously, even if they are often overhyped. But what I’d like to know is the flip side: Just how good are America’s own cybercapabilities? We’ve read many accounts of what other states have done, are doing, and might do to the country—but we know far less about what the National Security Agency (NSA) and other U.S. agencies might be doing to them.

It’s not like we are totally ignorant, of course. The United States has been a world leader in signals intelligence (including digital penetration) for a long time, so there’s every reason to believe it is still very, very good at it. We know about Stuxnet, the alleged hacking of Angela Merkel’s cell phone, and a number of other incidents. And we know the Trump administration has given Cyber Command greater latitude to conduct offensive operations against U.S. adversaries. But publicly available information on the full extent of U.S. capabilities and activities is quite limited—for obvious national security reasons.

I understand why this information is tightly held, but public ignorance has consequences. If we don’t know about what the United States is doing to others (who may not announce it either), then foreign cyberattacks on it will appear to be unprovoked when in fact they are just part of a broader process of tit for tat. Not knowing what the United States is up to also makes it hard to evaluate the veracity of claims made by intelligence agencies, such as the claim that Russia did in fact hack the DNC. Though widely accepted, the evidential basis for this assertion has never been publicly revealed. (I happen to believe the claim is true largely for circumstantial reasons, but I confess I don’t know for certain.) I’d really like to know a lot more about this topic, but unless I go back to school for a degree in computer science and then go work for the NSA, I suspect I’ll remain uncomfortably ignorant.

What’s going to happen to the EU? The European Union is a big deal. It has 28 member states (at least until Britain gets over its national nervous breakdown and decides what it wants to do), and it provides the overall economic and regulatory framework for a combined economy in excess of $18 trillion. It manages a common currency for some of its members (but not all), and it sets standards for human rights and other key practices throughout Europe. Although it has not been solely responsible for peace and stability in Europe over the past 60-plus years, it has been a key part of the continent’s post-World War II successes.

But as I’ve noted before, it’s hard to be upbeat about the EU’s future. Britain is staggering toward the exit (although both the chaos of the Brexit process and its likely consequences could give the rest of the union a temporary burst of renewed enthusiasm), and the prolonged eurozone crisis is still not fully behind it. Illiberal regimes in Hungary and Poland are challenging some of the EU’s core principles, and the nationalism that union was supposed to gradually transcend has come back with a vengeance across the continent. Add to this the shortsighted hostility of the Trump administration, and you have a recipe for continued trouble.

Deeply entrenched institutions have a way of muddling through, so I don’t anticipate dissolution anytime soon. But I wish I had a clearer sense of where the EU is going to be in five or 10 or 20 years’ time. Nobody could have predicted its current malaise back in 1995, which makes it even harder to make confident forecasts now.

How many states will go nuclear in the next 20 years? A familiar justification for maintaining America’s array of global military commitments is the claim that even modest retrenchment will lead a bunch of states to pursue nuclear weapons, with supposedly destabilizing consequences. If the United States is no longer seen as a reliable guarantor of various allies’ security, so the argument runs, countries such as Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and maybe a few more will rush down the nuclear path. If you care about preventing proliferation, therefore, you should favor keeping Uncle Sam on patrol around the world.

This argument should not be dismissed lightly. States sometimes seek a nuclear deterrent when they are worried about their security and do not see other ways to enhance it. It is entirely possible, therefore, that some states that have been reliant on Uncle Sam’s protection would seek a nuclear arsenal of their own if that protection were withdrawn. Indeed, some U.S. allies occasionally hint at this possibility, as a not-so-subtle way to convince U.S. leaders to keep protecting them.

But this discouraging conclusion is far from certain, and the policy implications are not clear-cut. Acquiring nuclear weapons and maintaining a credible deterrent capability is an expensive proposition, and it creates risks as well as benefits. Having a nuclear arsenal alarms neighbors, makes it more likely that they will try to follow suit, and increases the chances that you’ll end up on some other nuclear power’s target list. These considerations help explain why past forecasts about nuclear proliferation have repeatedly overstated the number of states that were going to cross the nuclear threshold: Dozens of states have the technological capacity to build the bomb, but only a handful have ever tried to do so, and even fewer have succeeded.

For these reasons, it is equally plausible to imagine that many would-be proliferators would decide to forgo a nuclear option even if U.S. protection were removed or reduced and would seek to enhance their security through other means. And it is also worth remembering that America’s expansive military presence and incessant muscle flexing are some of the main reasons that countries like North Korea got the bomb and countries like Iran have thought seriously about it and went to great lengths to get close.

My point, in short, is that we don’t know how many more states are going to get nuclear weapons in the next few decades, and we don’t even know which U.S. policies would make the spread of nuclear weapons more or less likely. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could figure this one out?

Who will win the debate on U.S. grand strategy? As Stephen Wertheim has recently chronicled, a long-overdue debate on America’s role in the world is underway. It would have been nice to have had this discussion back when the Cold War ended, but as the saying goes, “America always does the right thing, after first trying all the alternatives.”

Given the disheartening results of the past 25 years, it is hardly surprising that a more wide-ranging discussion has commenced. And when all the announced Democratic candidates for president decide to skip the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual propaganda festival, you know that some of the tectonic plates may be shifting.

All of a sudden, you have serious people seriously advocating a radical reduction in America’s military commitments. Or you have people like John Mearsheimer and me who think we should gradually liquidate some U.S. overseas military commitments but by no means all of them. Or you have those who want to preserve the status quo but find new ways to convince the public that it really is working. And then you have the Trumpians, whose “America First” rhetoric suggests they give priority to the national interest but who in practice either kowtow to unsavory allies, get rolled by adversaries, or squander important positions of influence through boorishness or incompetence.

Who’s going to win this debate? I wish I knew. There are powerful structural forces pushing toward a more restrained foreign policy, including the perceived need to focus more on China (see #1 above), the growing desire to escape the various Middle East quagmires, and the expanding divide between the United States and Europe, but there’s going to be lots of pushback, too. Defenders of liberal hegemony are still well-placed and well-funded in Washington, and there’s no shortage of pundits and politicos who are eager to defend the mantra of the “indispensable nation.” And because the United States is still wealthy and basically secure, it can sustain an ambitious but unsuccessful foreign policy for a long time. Relying on the all-volunteer force and funding it via ever larger deficits just makes it easier, which is another reason why the short-term outcome of this new debate is uncertain.

Needless to say, this list does not exhaust the number of topics I wish I knew more about. I don’t know about you, but I’d also like to read special counsel Robert Mueller’s report in its entirety, along with those tax returns that Donald Trump repeatedly promised he would make public. But I suspect we’ll all be kept in the dark about them, too.

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

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