The international system—as constructed following the Second World War—will be almost unrecognizable by 2025.
Indeed, “international system” is a misnomer as it is likely to be more ramshackle than orderly, its composition hybrid and heterogeneous as befits a transition that will still be a work in progress in 2025. The transformation is being fueled by a globalizing economy, marked by an historic shift of relative wealth and economic power from West to East, and by the increasing weight of new players— especially China and India. The US will remain the single most important actor but will be less dominant. As was true of the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, China and India will at times be reticent and at other times impatient to assume larger roles on the world stage. In 2025, both will still be more concerned about their own internal development than changing the international system.
Concurrent with the shift in power among nation-states, the relative power of various nonstate actors—including businesses, tribes, religious organizations, and even criminal networks—will continue to increase. Several countries could even be “taken over” and run by criminal networks. In areas of Africa or South Asia, states as we know them might wither away, owing to the inability of governments to provide for basic needs, including security. By 2025, the international community will be composed of many actors in addition to nation-states and will lack an overarching approach to global governance. The “system” will be multipolar with many clusters of both state and nonstate actors. Multipolar international systems—like the Concert of Europe—have existed in the past, but the one that is emerging is unprecedented because it is global and encompasses a mix of state and nonstate actors that are not grouped into rival camps of roughly equal weight. The most salient characteristics of the “new order” will be the shift from a unipolar world dominated by the United States to a relatively unstructured hierarchy of old powers and rising nations, and the diffusion of power from state to nonstate actors.
“…we do not believe that we are headed toward a complete breakdown [of the international system]…However, the next 5 years of transition toward a new international system are fraught with risks…” OFFICE of the DIRECTOR of NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE USA
History tells us that rapid change brings many dangers. Despite the recent financial volatility, which could end up accelerating many ongoing trends, we do not believe that we are headed toward a complete breakdown—as occurred in 1914-1918 when an earlier phase of globalization came to a halt. However, the next 20 years of transition toward a new international system are fraught with risks—more than we envisaged when we published Mapping the Global Future in 2004.
These risks include the growing prospect of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and possible interstate conflicts over resources. The breadth of transnational issues requiring attention also is increasing to include issues connected with resource constraints in energy, food, and water; and worries about climate change. Global institutions that could help the world deal with these transnational issues and, more generally, mitigate the risks of rapid change currently appear incapable of rising to the challenges without concerted efforts by their leaders.
More Change than Continuity.
The rapidly changing international order at a time of growing geopolitical challenges increases the likelihood of discontinuities, shocks, and surprises.
No single outcome seems preordained: the Western model of economic liberalism, democracy, and secularism, for example, which many assumed to be inevitable, may lose its luster—at least in the medium term. In some cases, the surprise element is only a matter of timing: an energy transition, for example, is inevitable; the only questions are when and how abruptly or smoothly such a transition occurs. Other discontinuities are less predictable. Recognizing that what may seem implausible today could become feasible or even likely by 2025, we have looked at a number of single development “shocks.” Examples include the global impact of a nuclear arms exchange, a rapid replacement for fossil fuels, and a “democratic” China.
New technologies could provide solutions, such as viable alternatives to fossil fuel or means to overcome food and water constraints.
A critical uncertainty is whether new technologies will be developed and commercialized in time to avert a significant slowdown in economic growth owing to resource constraints. Such a slowdown would jeopardize the rise of new powers and deal a serious blow to the aspirations of those countries not yet fully in the globalization
game. A world in which shortages predominate could trigger behaviors different from one in which scarcities are overcome through technology or other means.
This study is organized into seven sections that examine:
- The Globalizing Economy.
- Demographics of Discord.
- The New Players.
- Scarcity in the Midst of Plenty.
- Growing Potential for Conflict.
- Will the International System Be Up to
- Power-Sharing in a Multipolar World.
As with our previous works, we will describe possible alternative futures that could result from the trends we discuss.
We see the next 05-10 years as one of those great historical turning points where multiple factors are likely to be in play. How such factors intersect with one another and the role of leadership will be crucial to the outcome.