Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Next 100 Years: Another View

This is a repost of another item originally published on July 20, 2009, at the blog Nader Elhefnawy.

George Friedman offered his image of The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century (reviewed here).

Now I'll offer mine.

As I explained before, it is better to think in terms of a spectrum of possibility (inside of which some outcomes are more probable than others); to recognize patterns of diminishing returns, the irrationality of vested interests and simple friction impeding particular lines of development; and make clear the qualifiers up front; than insist on a single, overdetailed scenario. It was with this in mind that I prepared the following.

The Great Powers
My guess in regard to how the big powers will stack up against each other, as discussed in my review of the book, is a weaker U.S. than Friedman predicts (due to the hollowing out of its economy), and a more robust Western Europe (given its relatively strong economic foundations, and the failure of the usual metrics to fully capture its performance, as well as a tendency to exaggerate its demographic issues), while huge question marks hang over China (and India).1

Rather than dynamic contenders battling it out for supremacy, I expect we will see a more defensive game, brought on in part by ecological challenges (particularly climate change and energy shortages), as well as the continuation of the post-1973 stagnation of the world economy (even if we happen to crawl out of our current hole) I have described many a time earlier, as well as the increasing vulnerability of advanced societies to disruption.2

On the whole, I expect that Germany/Western Europe and Japan will adapt more effectively than the other players, but Europe's disunity, and Germany and Japan's relative smallness, will constrain their exploitation of any such advantages relative to bigger actors like the U.S. and China. As a result, while there will be regionally dominant actors, global dominance of the kind exercised by the U.S. in the 20th century, or Britain in the 19th, will prove elusive, and dramatic challenges like those posed by Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union, will accordingly lack an analog.

Instead, there will be muddle as they all do their best to hold on to what they have.

War in the 21st Century
As one might expect, the domestic, intrastate and interstate conflicts among poorer and weaker states will be the principal sources of political violence in the decades to come. Despite the human toll that violence will take, it will only arouse more than passing or superficial interest from the "international community" when it touches on a particular political or geopolitical interest of the larger powers (for instance, a threat to some desired resource), though this will likely happen often enough to keep those bigger powers constantly occupied. (Venezuela's Orinoco Belt, for instance, could have a geopolitical significance comparable to the Persian Gulf region if its "extra heavy crude" becomes a viable source of unconventional oil, and unconventional oil assumes an important place in the world's energy portfolio-a big "if," but nonetheless one deserving of mention here.3)

This will raise the risk of great power military conflict, but it is likely to be much lower and less global than in the twentieth century-in part because demographics, slow growth, tight finances and debt will limit what these powers can afford; because of the high cost of long-range, large-scale intervention, all the more important because of the physical distance (often across oceans, or very difficult terrain) of most of the major powers from one another (the Sino-Russian border the principal exception); because of a tendency toward smaller "footprints" in third countries by the larger powers (rather than giant bases on sovereign territory), lowering the stakes in many a situation; and because spending on the requisite conventional military capabilities will compete with rising personnel costs and the cost of the other kinds of operations they are more likely to perform ("Military Operations Other Than War"), which will absorb more resources.4 Additionally, generalized economic stagnation (and the tendency toward short-term thinking reinforced by the economic culture) will encourage cautious, conservative statesmanship, risk-averse and commitment-shy (even if governments find it politically expedient to rattle their sabers and play up the foreign menace for the benefit of domestic consumption).

When states do fight it out, outright territorial grabs will be rare, changes to state borders more likely to occur as a result of fragmentation (which may be assisted from without) than annexation, with action undertaken from behind a facade of action by internal actors (as in the First Congo War in 1996-1997, and the Kargil conflict in 1999), and control later exercised through them (again as with the regional players in the Congo conflict of the late 1990s, or Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008). Additionally, the wars will likely be fought in limited ways, full-blown marches on foreign capitals rare (again, as in the 2008 war in Georgia). The priority the belligerents give to holding down the risk of escalation will be further encouraged by the likelihood of more widely dispersed nuclear capabilities, which will not be so easily countered as enthusiasts of missile defense imagine.5

Accident, blunder or the hijack of foreign policy by fanatics inside of a key power will pose a bigger danger than any "inevitable" collision of essential state interests-and it is not to be taken lightly.

The "Developing" World
Outside the narrow club of relatively affluent countries (the established industrial states), the constraints imposed by the reality of overtaxed resource bases and institutions will be felt more sharply. Due to their poverty, the economic life of these countries will also be more susceptible to the price shocks resource scarcity will bring, with some areas (like sub-Saharan Africa and Bangladesh) especially hard hit by climate change. While the global population boom is waning, many of these states will still see significant population increases, generally those least capable of handling them (like Nigeria and Pakistan).

Given the larger political and economic framework, and the real but relatively low level of great power discord, the chances that such countries get to play big powers off against each other or seek patrons as a way to secure aid or widen their room for maneuver in resolving their problems (the way, for instance, that many East Asian countries were able to pursue heterodox economic policies to successfully develop their economies inside the context of the Cold War) or pursuing other agendas will be limited. Despite this, these regions may be the most likely scene of ideological challenges to the global status quo, though these places are also the least likely scenes of a successful challenge, given their relative vulnerability, and their distance from the core of the world-system (to use the language of dependency theory). These challenges may most frequently be rooted in ethnic or religious movements (and Islamic fundamentalism is not the only conceivable one), but as the situation in Latin America has demonstrated, a revival of socialism is also not as implausible as the proponents of the "end of history" school of thought would have us believe.

It is conceivable that falling birth rates and modest development will take some of the pressure off many of these states, but any gains coming from that direction might be overwhelmed by the worsening of other problems (like resource depletion), and few undeveloped states will succeed in joining the club of industrial heavyweights. (Eastern Europe, for instance, will likely remain the periphery to the West European core, while Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia's southern littoral generally remain in the "Third World.")

Trouble From The Bottom Up
In any case, the troubles occuring in the less-developed states (which great powers may find it steadily harder to control, or to insulate themselves against barring really extreme measures) could get serious enough to upset the games of high politics-not only in the form of conflicts that threaten to draw in great powers on opposite sides, but refugee flows, the havens they provide for criminality and the like. Indeed, the sorts of internal troubles typically associated with developing nations might be seen inside the developed ones, especially if living standards fall, government services fail, and poverty increases; and particularly if societies fragment sharply along sub-national lines. (The troubles in Greece in December 2008 could be just the beginning.)

Straddling the line between the two groups are states like the "BRIC" countries (Brazil, Russia, China and India), large, populous and playing significant roles in the global economy and international affairs, but also relatively poor, and subject to especially severe internal stresses. Potential superpowers, they are also potential scenes of global disruption (though in the event of fragmentation, pieces of them may still be capable of playing global roles, like a bloc comprised of the relatively prosperous southeast provinces of China, perhaps with Shanghai for a capital). This also applies to Mexico, particularly because of its proximity to the U.S., just as India will be vulnerable to a crisis in poor, populous and low-lying Bangladesh, perhaps triggered by rising sea levels. (Other particularly worrisome collapse risks: Nigeria, South Africa, Indonesia, Pakistan, North Korea-the latter two because of their combination of nuclear capability and proximity to one or more major powers.)

That said, much will depend on the speed with which the problems defining the century develop, the severity they attain, their interaction with other factors that may be hard to predict by their very nature (like particular political crises or disease outbreaks), as well as the technical state-of-the-art at the moment, and the quality of decisionmaking by elites. Nonetheless, a "hard crash" (think Martin Rees, think Peter Ward) is a very real possibility.

Wild Cards
Of course, "wild cards" could change fundamental aspects of the framework laid out above. The range of these is nearly endless, from the emergence of some super-virus to a massive natural disaster, like an asteroid strike or the eruption of a supervolcano. Still, two are particularly deserving of attention.

The first is technological, and while this includes the possibility of a technological disaster, there are more positive possibilities, like an easy "technological fix" to some of the major problems discussed above, as with an idiot-proof mix of carbon capture tech and renewable energy production that moves out of the lab and comes online in the next decade or so.

More radical, there is the possibility of a technological Singularity, the odds and consequences of which I will not even attempt to guess at, though we could see anything and everything come about from the fears expressed by Bill Joy to the utopia imagined by Ray Kurzweil. (Like I said, it's a wild card.)

The second wild card is that we pull off the miracle of "social ingenuity" for which optimists have for so long hoped, and something serious is done about the most pressing economic and ecological problems without the aid of an easy fix of the sort described under the heading of the first wild card. The capital and technology currently exists to blunt and in cases, even reverse, many of the difficulties described-but for the time being, only at a high premium in political will, and through an unprecedented level of international cooperation.

It may be that the exceptional challenges the world faces now will bring forth an exceptional response (to use the vocabulary of Arnold Toynbee), but if I had to bet on one of the two helping to actually bring about a brighter picture, it would be the technological fix. Of course, such a convenient outcome is not something anyone ought to count on, but between this, that and the other thing, we just might make it through the twenty-first century to see a twenty-second.

1. I suspect "labor shortages" (so commonly exaggerated for political reasons) will be less of a problem than it is fashionable to expect, precisely because unemployment/underemployment has steadily worsened in recent decades, and can be expected to go on doing so in the years to come (even if IT and robotics make only slow advances), meaning plenty of slack in labor markets, because of the numerous factors that will constrain the economic expansion that creates jobs, while economic realities will collide with neoliberal reform to keep people working longer (even without any great biotech boons). Indeed, joblessness will be the bigger problem, especially at the global level, and this fact will be reflected in immigration policy, likely to be schizophrenic: open enough but difficult enough to maintain the size of the underclass, while the anti-immigrant bandwagon remains a major political tool.
2. I refer here to my 2004 article in International Security, "Societal Complexity and Diminishing Returns in Security" (available here) in which I argued that the security of advanced societies was declining as they became more complex because of the following three points:
(1) Increasing complexity is producing diminishing marginal returns (in the form of economic growth) and eating into slack (as measured by the piling up of debt, and the more strained, rigid patterns of central government taxation and spending). (I have since extended this argument considerably in another, even more catchily titled piece published on this blog, "A Long-Term Trend Toward the Depletion of Fiscal-Macroeconomic Slack?")
(2) The increasing tendency toward tightly coupled (and scale-free) systems is producing increasing vulnerability, both by presenting more points to attack and creating a susceptibility to greater disruption as a result of such attacks.
(3) The cost of the means for providing an "acceptable" level of security is also rising disproportionately in the face of attacks based on late twentieth century tactics and technologies (a problem highlighted by the challenges of ballistic missile defense).
3. Another area which might acquire a new strategic importance is Russia, which between its declining population and warming weather, could regain something of its old importance as one of the world's granaries.
4. The irrelevance of advanced military technologies in the most common operations major powers actually undertake, such as peacekeeping; the susceptibility of many of these technologies to relatively low-cost countermeasures; and the diminished willingness of the U.S. to lead the way in this area on account of its economic troubles (and the inability of anyone else to fill those shoes) will also diminish the tempo of conventional forces development, qualitatively but also quantitatively (important, as mass will still matter far more than proponents of the Revolution in Military Affairs commonly appreciate).
5. The combination of increased use of Generation-III nuclear technology, and increased insecurity, could easily translate to a larger number of nuclear weapons states, a point I discussed in my Parameters article "The Next Wave of Nuclear Proliferation."

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