Future proof

Deference to history will not be enough to answer the geopolitical questions of the future. New systemic forces are in play.
Central Shanghai, China's commercial centre, in low cloud cover. Credit: Xu Feng / VCG via Getty Images.
Central Shanghai, China's commercial centre, in low cloud cover. Credit: Xu Feng / VCG via Getty Images.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

To many, we are in a transition moment in world politics.  For three decades after the end of the Cold War, the international system was characterised by unipolarity: the United States, working with its Western allies, used its commanding power to build upon, expand, and create new elements of a liberal international order.  Market capitalism, open trade and finance, democratic norms, human rights, and collective security were emphasised, if not always consistently and equitably.  Some believed the attractive powers of this open, liberal order would cause it not only to be self-sustaining, but to spread around the world.  While history might not have ended, it was trending in the right direction.  

To others, this post-Cold War vision pushed against the natural tendencies of an anarchic world system, historically characterised by steep security competition, aggression, a balance of power and even great-power war.  History would return, potentially with a vengeance: the only question was when.

For those who believe the future will resemble the past, China’s meteoric rise challenges both United States primacy and this order.  Other factors, such as Russia’s troublesomeness, Europe’s stagnation, new technological and transnational ruptures, and the global decline of democratic norms, are marking the transition to a new era, or rather, a return of history. In this view, American arrogance, overreach, and ineffective grand strategy have hastened the demise of United States hegemony and its support for a liberal world order. The disrupting and tragic consequences of the global Covid-19 pandemic are an inflection point for the international system. 

A key question for thinkers on international politics is whether the recent era, marked by economic interdependence, liberal norms, and the absence of great power, reflected a permanent historical change or was an anomalous, temporary shift from the iron-clad laws of world politics. If the former, recent events may reflect backsliding, but not necessarily a return to an era marked by the dark geopolitical competition of past centuries. In this view, a more powerful China, which has benefitted from this liberal order more than any other country, may seek to influence, shape, and even dominate, but will avoid overturning or replacing it. China will compete with the US, as all states do, but continue to engage them and the West on issues of mutual benefit like trade, certain aspects of technology, and international monetary cooperation. Most importantly, it will seek to avoid a great power war.  

Others disagree. Historically, rising powers rarely accept global orders imposed upon them by declining states. Like all great powers, China will seek to put both its ideological and geopolitical stamp on the international system to increase its power and influence, even if it risks conflict. China’s ambitions directly clash with those of the US, virtually guaranteeing a dangerous showdown. If this view is correct, we will see a return to the kind of great power geopolitical competition that has marked much of modern history, at least in Europe, where the shadow of imperial conquest and war shaped everything.

There is, of course, a third possibility: that the very nature of international relations has changed.  Both geopolitical competition and the deep interdependence brought by globalisation have marked the international system for centuries, in different ways at different times. Neither factor will ever completely disappear. But new forces and influences, scarcely understood, will play a far larger role shaping the international system in the years ahead. These powerful new forces may, in the long run, generate both new opportunities and new dangers.  

It is impossible to know with any certainty which view is correct. The larger issue of where the world is going will turn on how one answers a series of critical and interrelated questions. Reflecting upon these and interrogating the assumptions behind our answers can help us better anticipate the future and shape more effective grand strategies.  

The first question is key. Are we in fact living through a reordering moment for the international system?  On the one hand, most such moments come after a great power war, such as the Napoleonic Wars in 1814/15, the First World War in 1918, and the Second World War in 1945 –  or after a sudden, massive geopolitical transformation such as the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991. Nothing remotely like these shocks has occurred. On the other hand, if you told people that a global pandemic would shut down the world economy, keep many people locked in their homes for almost a year, and kill 3.5 million people, including more Americans than died in all US wars in the twentieth and twenty-first century, you might believe it reflected a key rupture in the international system.  

There is third alternative – that deeper, longer-run structural forces are reshaping the system.  In other words, the order is changing less because of an explicit, sharp event, like a war or an imperial collapse, but more because powerful, if often hidden tectonic forces, are at play. Profound changes in digital technology, finance, demographics, and identify, beginning in the 1970s, accelerating from the 1990s, and becoming more apparent today, signal a new world far different from that of the past. 

This third alternative – profound if non-episodic change – may present the greatest challenge to navigating the future. These new tectonic forces may overwhelm national and global governing structures built to manage the problems of a different world. Governments and organisations developed in a previous era, to fight world wars and end steep recessions, often seem powerless in the face of newer threats, such as climate change and disinformation. Without a sharp, shared moment of change it may be hard to build the political will necessary to construct new ordering arrangements.  This makes the need for enlightened, forward-looking statesmanship, combined with the ability to build meaningful political coalitions both with and between states, even more important than usual.  

Secondly, what forces and factors will shape the international system? Some theorise it will be shaped by the return of great power political competition, marked by the deepening rivalry between China and the United States. Others believe newer, transnational threats, including global public health, climate change, inequality, migration, and disruptive technologies will replace traditional geopolitics as the first order concern of states. There is a third view that both are true, and that old fashioned competition will interact with new threats and challenges in uncertain ways. 

For those who believe the future will be dominated by great power rivalry, the challenge is explaining what is being competed over. Land and empire, or traditional geopolitics, hardly seems the focus. Nor is it obvious what will determine the outcome.  In other words, what counts for power in this new system? In the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, the answers to these questions were obvious. European empires spread globally and competed ruthlessly on their continent for scare land, resources, and markets to ensure the stability of their regimes and the survival (and control) of their citizens. Populations were exploding at a time when vital resources appeared limited. State power was measured almost entirely through a military lens – could you conquer others, and avoid being conquered yourself? States that possessed favourable geography, a large military-age population, and the ability to generate and harness agricultural and industrial production for offensive military capability, thrived. The ability to produce coal, electricity and steel; to harvest cotton, wheat, and corn, and unify and mobilise a population for national purpose defined success.  

Today’s world could not be more different. Building tanks and harvesting wheat seem like poor indicators of future power, and invasion and conquest seem like a loser’s bet. Wealth is produced less by land and mass than by technological innovation and financial depth, and the costs of occupation make conquest unappealing. Amongst the leading economies, populations are declining and ageing. Increased agricultural efficiency has increased food production. A existential threat like climate change both threatens the states within it (China perhaps more than most) while sinking the whole system, yet can only be tackled with the kind of superpower cooperation that would be hard to imagine if traditional security concerns, like the future of Taiwan, shaped those relationships.

Thus, a third question is what does this new moment mean for the relations between states?

Will states, and particularly leading powers, cooperate or clash in the future? The worsening relationship between China and the United States portends increasing rivalry and potential conflict.  History and prominent international relations theories suggest that rising powers often challenge the leading power. China has demonstrated increasing assertiveness and is undertaking a considerable build-up in its military capabilities. It has cracked down on dissent in Hong Kong while repressing its Uighur population, and rejects Western values as ill-suited for its own rule or East Asia more broadly. It claims Taiwan as part of its own country.  The United States and many of its allies reject these positions. Increasingly, American military and diplomatic efforts identify China as an adversary and are crafting strategies to deter and, if necessary, defeat it.

On the other hand, the economies of both countries remain deeply interdependent.  Despite tariffs and disputes, trade remains robust, monetary and central bank cooperation continues, and investment and financial interdependence grow ever deeper. Supply chains are intertwined, including on the technology front, and despite much rhetoric about decoupling, neither country would benefit from, nor appears willing to seek, a full separation. Despite ideological differences, China is not Stalin’s Russia or even Mao’s China, given it embraces the kind of bourgeois consumerism that characterises life in the West. 

The test will come over shared transnational challenges such as climate, pandemics, technological disruption, migration, and economic volatility. The lack of a coordinated, cooperative approach between states, and especially China and the United States, during the Covid-19 pandemic, does not augur well. There are examples to build upon, however. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union, in the midst of a deep ideological and geopolitical rivalry, cooperated to deal with two pressing transnational challenges: nuclear proliferation and smallpox. Working together, the superpowers negotiated and gained worldwide acceptance for the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while scientists and public health officials eradicated smallpox.  

Finally, what state or system will succeed in the future international system? China’s historically unprecedented economic rise, its relatively successful policies to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, its impressive achievements in technological development, its military buildup, and its national spirit appear to make its future prospects rosy. Political polarisation, disunity, military quagmires, and the often tepid economic performance of Western capitalist democracies seems less promising. Will China dominate while the United States and its democratic allies fall further behind?

China may continue its impressive growth. But it also has severe challenges. Its ageing and shrinking population still does not have equitable access to robust health and social security systems. Inequality has worsened, corruption continues, and environmental degradation in an increasing threat. While China succeeds in certain technologies – especially those which benefit from state direction and subsidies – it has failed to keep up in others. Its ham-handed grand strategy has guaranteed it few allies outside of North Korea and Pakistan, while inadvertently convincing its neighbours such as Japan, Australia, Vietnam, and India to find ways to work together to balance its growing strength. It has also managed to generate one of the few areas of American bipartisan agreement – that US grand strategy must focus on countering China’s rise. The United States, despite its shambolic politics, seems poised to generate profound technological innovations that may reshape energy, transportation, medicine, telecommunications, and transportation. It is finally developing policies to confront some of its domestic inadequacies ranging from race and inequality to crumbling infrastructure, all while working vigorously with its allies to renew and deepen long-term relationships and seek common purpose.  

Of course, new powers may emerge. Demographic and economic trends might place other countries – Indonesia, India, and Nigeria come to mind – in a much different position by 2050. Those same trends hint at the decreasing relevance of Russia and potentially Europe. In 1980, few would have predicted that in 40 years, not only would the Soviet Union have disappeared, but that China was primed to become the leading power in the international system.

Whether or not the world is at a reordering moment, there is little doubt that future trends in international relations are more uncertain than at any time in the past. One can tell a dark story of the return of intense geopolitical competition and the threat of great power war. One can tell another story of a world politics dominated by complex transnational challenges which overwhelm legacy governing institutions. There are also powerful, if silent, systemic forces upending the very nature of the human experience which will no doubt play a critical role in how world politics takes shape in the decades to come.  While the answers are not entirely clear, many of the questions are, and we owe it to ourselves to pursue them vigorously, innovatively, and honestly.   

Francis J. Gavin

Francis J. Gavin is an historian and Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., where he is also Director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.