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    PAGE 3  

A Forecast for the
Mid-twenty-first Century

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REDICTIONS ABOUT THE international scene fifty years into the future are of dubious value given the acceleration of change and technological innovation in our times. The best we can manage are some educated guesses. Of interest for this essay is whether the United States is likely still to be the world’s dominant power, how international issues may evolve, and how Americans will relate to and communicate with other peoples.

Although what has been called “the American century” is now behind us, there is reason to believe that the United States will still be a superpower in 2050, but not the only one. Europe, and probably China — assuming transition to an acceptable form of democracy can be achieved without protracted disruption — will have attained comparable status. India, by then with much the world’s largest population, will be a significant factor. However, national governments, including the “superpowers,” will have less capacity to determine events in an environment altered by the march of globalization, and much will hinge upon what proportion of mankind is not yet a part of that global society.

A discussion of trends apparent at the end of the twentieth century may suggest some directions of the future:
  • The United States is not only the largest economy at present, it is the most dynamic and most productive, the clear leader in defense technology as well as information/communication technology (the dominant sector in the age of globalization); the United States is well situated to maintain its strong position.
  • Population projections3 for the year 2050 place the United States at 394 million, the European Union (current members only) at 291 million, China at 1,322 million and India at 1,707 million. Japan is expected to decline to 101 million and Russia to 122 million, probably not levels from which either could project influence globally.
  • Building a united Europe has proved a gradual process (the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957), hindered by strong nationalist sentiment and a somewhat confusing overlap with NATO. It has thus far included little coalescence in foreign policy, but the process goes forward. The advent of a common currency in 1999 should provide a major and, within a few years, probably a decisive stimulus to political unity.
  • As stressed earlier in this paper, much of the new international agenda will not respond to military or economic power, but only to communication, persuasion, and shared commitment among nations. Now, however, when the United States, as the lone superpower, exerts its influence for a cause it believes to be in the common interest, it may be criticized for arrogance and resisted for behaving like a hegemon.
  • Thus, it is becoming more difficult for the United States to shape events (even when it does engage fully); smaller powers or entities can threaten the global power with terrorism or by developing weapons of mass destruction, or can frustrate it by refusing to cooperate (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Indian and Pakistani nuclear capability, the Arab/Israeli peace process, wars in Central Africa, narcotics production and trade, global warming); terrorism is a pointed example — at the end of 1998 the United States, confounded by serial bomb threats, felt constrained with increasing frequency to close various overseas embassies temporarily.
  • Professor Francis Fukuyama, formerly a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, wrote4 nine years ago that the great ideological debates which had marked mankind were at an end as the entire world was moving toward liberal democracy. Fukuyama may have been premature (as well as melodramatic) but he had the direction right. At the close of the twentieth century, there are major holdouts — the Islamic countries generally, China, some other parts of Asia, and most of Africa — but the weight of history does seem clearly on the side of democracy and the open market economy.
  • Globalization — the term no longer requires quotation marks — and the headway of technology will vastly change the world in the first half of the twenty-first century: the routine operation of large corporations across borders and continents, the increasingly interdependent global financial system, personal (and portable) telecommunication capability, the expansion of the internet and of transnational communication links among individuals and groups with common interests, the growth of multinational non-governmental organizations pursuing defined political, social, or economic objectives, more rapid and cheaper transportation, the increasing international mobility of labor as well as capital, perhaps also the dissemination of English as the world language. This evolution will make it more and more difficult to sustain authoritarian regimes insulated from the relatively open world system; globalization will also challenge and almost certainly diminish the authority of governments and could reduce the likelihood of war between developed nations.
  • The gap between rich and poor countries is widening and the poor countries lag behind in sharing the benefits of the global economy; despite the scourge of AIDS in Africa, the population of the third world continues to expand rapidly while that of the industrialized world contracts;5 extreme poverty and overcrowding will inevitably generate suffering, instability and conflict; the resulting demand for humanitarian aid and peacekeeping deployments will be costly: this underlines the myopia of America’s niggardliness toward development assistance and aid for family planning.
  • Outer space, and medical/biological technology are outside the scope of this paper. However, genetic engineering in particular, and the cloning of human beings (which appears to be imminent), could have vast and unpredictable consequences for international relations, as it will for human society altogether.
  • A final and daunting trend must be cited. The United States — through its scientists, military and intelligence officers, and diplomats — will continue to lead a concerted international effort to contain the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This operation has been surprisingly successful for fifty years, but it becomes more and more difficult. Most of the advances of modern technology are generally available. Sooner or later, probably well before the year 2050, terrorists, international criminals or rogue states—perhaps all three— will be in a position credibly to threaten the use of these weapons, and to use them in fact.


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