By Stephen M. Walt Harvard Kennedy School
On the occasion of the participation at GLOBSEC 2017 Bratislava Forum

The American baseball player Yogi Berra once remarked: “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
In fact, we already know a great deal about the future world order. It will be multipolar, but the United States will remain the world’s most powerful country by a wide margin. Existing national and global institutions will continue to wrestle with a series of familiar threats, often with only partial success.

What We Know

The world of 2030 or even 2050 will still be made up of independent nation-states, whose number is likely to grow. These states will continue to cooperate and compete with each other and will sometimes fight. Global governance will remain weak and nationalism and other forms of local identity will remain a powerful force in world affairs. Political disagreements within states will sometimes lead to violent extremism, secession movements, or civil wars.

Barring catastrophic events, the world’s population profile in 2050 is also easy to predict. China and India will have a billion or so people (including large elderly populations), the U.S. population will exceed 400 million (and be younger than the other major powers), and the populations of Germany, Russia, and Japan will be significantly smaller and older. States such as Nigeria, Uganda, and Ethiopia will have dramatically larger populations by 2050, and these developments will have major effects on economic productivity and migration patterns.

“It is also easy to forecast who will be rich and who will be poor. Some states will grow rapidly and others will decline somewhat, but most G20 members today will still be there in 2050. Burundi will not become Singapore, and France will not turn into Honduras. Global inequality will continue to decline, but inequality within states will probably increase.”

Taking into account all the elements of power, the future world will be one of unbalanced multipolarity. Because it has the largest stock of accumulated wealth and military capability, as well as very favorable geography and demography, the United States will still be the world’s most powerful state. China will be in 2nd place, and the other major powers—Russia, Japan, Germany, India, the United Kingdom, France, and possibly Brazil—will be substantially weaker than these two.

What We Don’t Know

Other elements of the future world order are harder to foresee. Alliance ties have been remarkably constant for sixtyplus years, but significant realignments may occur in the decades ahead. Political norms and ideologies are also harder to predict: Marxism once commanded the loyalty of millions but is now largely abandoned, and liberalism seemed to dominant in the 1990s but is now under siege in many places. Norms on privacy, human rights, sovereignty, the role of women and many other issues are also in flux, and it is harder to forecast how those debates will turn out. Finally, the pace of scientific and technological change has repeatedly confounded expert opinion, and human life in 2050 will be shaped by technologies that have not even been imagined yet.

What Should We Worry About?

It is easy to list potential dangers – cyber attacks, North Korea, a new global recession. the rise of China, WMD proliferation, a global pandemic, climate change, violent extremism in the Middle East, etc.—but a broader and more salient trend is the growing inability of existing states and institutions to formulate effective responses to these problems. The challenges facing Europe keep multiplying, the political order that has been in place in the Middle East since World War I is collapsing, and China’s rise is reordering relations in Asia. Even successful states are finding it harder to address these problems effectively.

“It is easy to list potential dangers (…) but a broader and more salient trend is the growing inability of existing states and institutions to formulate effective responses to these problems.”

Twenty-five years ago, many people were confident liberal democracy was the inevitable end-point of history. The EU was doing well, democracy was spreading, globalization was accelerating, and U.S. leaders felt omnipotent. Today, by contrast, democracy is in retreat world-wide and trust in government is at historic lows in the United States and Europe. Populist anger at ruling elites is intense and deep, an understandable response to past blunders like the creation of the Euro, the invasion of Iraq, the mishandling of NATO expansion, and the financial crisis of 2008. Hardly anyone was held accountable for these mistakes, further reinforcing opposition to the status quo.

“The result has been a tendency for people to put their faith in “strong men” or to embrace politicians who are entertaining and who don’t sound or act like “traditional” leaders. This trend made Bernie Sanders, the Brexit campaign, and the Five Star Movement in Italy popular and it played a key role in the election of Donald Trump. Unfortunately, there is no sign that any of these developments will make their countries better off; if anything, the evidence suggests they will make things substantially worse.”

Get Ready for Phase Three

We are therefore entering the third major phase of the post-World War II period. Phase One was the Cold War: the US created and led a liberal order in North America, W. Europe and parts of Asia, the Soviet Union led a rival order in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, and the two powers competed for influence everywhere else. This phase ended when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Phase Two was the “unipolar moment” that began in 1992: the United States was unchallenged and attempted to expand the liberal order from the West to the rest of the world. NATO expanded, globalization accelerated, and the US used a variety of tools—including violent “regime change” –to remake others in its image. This attempt to create a global liberal order failed almost completely and is now in partial retreat. The third phase, which we are now entering, will be a more complicated multipolar order. The two main powers will be the US and China—although the United States will continue to be the stronger of the two—and their rivalry will cast a large shadow of events in many parts of the world. Neither the United States nor China will try to fashion a global political order. International partnerships will be more flexible and opportunistic than they were during Phase One (the Cold War) or Phase Two (the unipolar moment). Other major powers will continue to exert considerable influence in areas close to their borders, and weaker countries will try to exploit U.S. or Chinese power to advance their own interests.