This article begins with projections about the global future, first the near term (five years), then a much longer term (twenty years). The trends of that twenty-year look frame three scenarios. Those are not predictions; they are intended to be suggestive of future possibilities if the trends play out or combine in particular ways, and are meant to stretch thought. Against that backdrop, the concluding section comments on US policy in the Trump administration, with emphasis on what it might mean for poorer countries.
By Gregory F. Treverton
NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.
Looking Out Five Years
The five-year reach is dominated by two major uncertainties and three relative certainties, though with one of them embedding a major uncertainty. The two uncertainties:
China. For China, the bumps in the road ahead are sooner and steeper than many analysts assess. The debt crisis is bleeding into a larger economic crisis, and then into politics. President Xi is sincere in the anti-corruption campaign, but that campaign has first turned loose a backlash in its own terms from “princelings” and others threatened or hurt by it. We have long known that the Chinese leaders were terrified of their people in general; now, there are signs that they fear for their physical safety. Second, the campaign has paralyzed economic reform: officials fear to act lest they become prominent and then, perhaps, targets of the anti-corruption campaign.
It has always seemed to me that skepticism is warranted about the familiar theory that authoritarian leaders whose sources of legitimacy at home are eroding will turn to nationalism or foreign adventure. Alas, however, that seems the case for Xi and his colleagues. They plainly know that unleashing—even promoting—nationalist sentiment is dangerous, for it can easily acquire a life of its own, but they also fear not drawing on the legitimacy nationalism can confer. As a result, my best bet would be that as China’s internal troubles deepen, they will be more, not less, committed to strong stances on, perhaps most visibly in the South China Sea but also in their approach to international institutions or engagements. All will be colored by geopolitics.
In Africa, my reading of the record is that China has done some good (and also wasted a lot of money), while not actually locking up much access to raw materials. Its major projects have been welcomed, if not the fact that they have not produced many jobs for locals. Moreover, along the way China has taken the hard lesson that the world is more complicated than economics, that it is cannot remain aloof from political controversies in the countries where it operates. China’s interest in Sudan’s oil, for instance, makes it all but impossible to stay aloof from north-south conflict there. More generally, its “One Belt, One Road” initiative seems a mix of an effort to secure resources, to find ways to usefully engage excess industrial capacity and to cultivate geopolitical advantage.
United States. Perhaps not surprisingly, the two biggest uncertainties in the future of international politics attach to the two biggest powers in those politics—China and the United States. The specifics of the Trump administration are explored more in the final section. For here, suffice to pose the long-term issue: months before Trump was elected, a colleague asked me, “shouldn’t we take seriously the ‘red-blue divide’”—the increasing polarization that has left the coasts and most big cities solidly Democratic, while the center of the country and rural areas are just as solidly Republican? I said I thought we had. He said, no, very seriously. In a twenty-year time horizon, shouldn’t we take seriously the possibility that the United States might physically come apart. I hardly think that likely but it has become my watchword, especially now that my home, California, has a fledgling “CalExit” movement.
The three relative certainties:
Europe and Russia. The certainty is Europe, the embedded uncertainty, Russia. Europe will remain preoccupied with challenges for which its institutions, especially the European Union (EU), are totally mismatched. Those institutions were constructed on economic federation and open borders. Now, though, Europe is confronted by security challenges from both south and north—immigration and Russia—all in the context of a euro crisis that is not over and continuing temptations for states to leave the Union. Beyond Brexit, which was virtually entirely driven by (mis)perceptions of refugees, immigration has not led to the worst outcomes imagined—France, for example, elected as president an internationalist from the center-right, not Marine Le Pen, a right-wing populist tinged with the xenophobia of the Alt Right. But the refugee flow will continue—imagine if Turkey became a jilted and less cooperative partner—and so will the nativist reactions in European politics. In any case, from an American perspective, Europe will become an even less able and reliable partner—assuming America wants one!—than its declining relative power would indicate as global power continues to shift toward Asia.
Russia is the wild card. Putin presides over a failing state, and his actions are accelerating the failure. However, he has played a weak hand very cagily—from Ukraine to Syria to the US elections. He is also the big uncertainty. He seems a much better tactician that strategist—his tactics in Ukraine have slowed its integration with the West but left him with a basket case in return. He is so isolated, surrounded by younger men who owe their places entirely to him. And so, again from an American perspective, the most dangerous event on the horizon would be a Putin miscalculation—in a Baltic state, for example—that took NATO to an Article 5 crisis. Suppose, for instance, that Russian speakers in Latvia began to protest their status, and Putin came to their aid—with words, money and perhaps even “little green men” (Russian operatives disguised or labeled by Russia as locals).
Slower Economic Growth. A second certainty, alas, is that global economic growth will be slower in the next years than in the twenty before 2008. The structural change in the global economy is real. Slower growth will make all problems harder. It will slow the convergence between rich countries and poor. And it means that inequality, within countries and across them, will increase. For all those countries that enriched themselves during the commodity boom, it will mean that the commodity bust will continue, subject to some particulars explored in the last section.
Middle East and Terrorism. The violence in the greater Middle East will continue. All of the trends there—from economics to demographics, to sectarian conflict and access to weapons—are going in the wrong direction. To be sure, ISIL is on the wane, rather predictably so, for its imperative of controlling territory, the caliphate, always was a liability. So, too, was its killing of innocent Muslims, though that brutality at first seemed like a recruiting poster. If the good news is that it is on the wane, the bad is that just as it grew out of earlier terrorism, it will morph into something else. The critical issue is how much the Middle East’s violence will spill beyond the region. On that score, the auguries are mixed.
Consider the role of the United States. For reasons that are perhaps understandable if not easy to parse, US politics dramatically overreacts to the terrorist threat. Since 9/11, the average number of Americans killed yearly in the United States by terrorists has been nine. Contrast that with upwards of 40,000 dying on the highways or almost 60,000 drug overdoses. After significant attacks, like those in Orlando or San Bernardino, polls show that numbers of Americans believe they are at personal risk—percentages that are orders of magnitude greater than the actuarial threat. That means that the United States is likely to react—perhaps overreact—to terrorist threats wherever they arise. The lesson of 9/11 has perhaps been learned too well: get them “over there” before they come here. To be sure, that impulse competes with Trump’s wariness of foreign adventures. So far, as a result, any escalation in the war against ISIL has been mostly rhetorical and symbolic—the super-sized bomb dropped in Syria, for instance. However, the administration will continue to send small units of special operators where terrorists become active, including in Africa.
Imagining Twenty Years
Most of the trends that will dominate the next twenty years are already with us. What is harder to foresee is how they will play out and what wildcards will ensue. That task is the purpose of the scenarios. First the trends:
Empowered Individuals and Small Groups. This is hardly new but is increasingly dramatic. Single individuals, like terrorists, can create major mayhem. So can wayward French bankers. Or, perhaps also a single Indian-born family in South Africa. On the positive side, though, the Gates Foundation now spends more on health in Africa than the World Health Organization. The possibilities are exciting. But so too are the obstacles. Organizing collection action to deal with major threats to the global commons will become more complicated in the presence of more actors and more vetoes. Cooperation will be easier where the threat is truly shared and visible, like pandemics. It will harder when the costs and benefits are more complicated, as for climate change.
For poorer countries, too, the emergence of empowered individuals will be both boon and bane. On one hand, it will mean more wealth to draw on. On the other, whatever their faults, national governments and international institutions were at least familiar partners for those countries and their development efforts. The future is likely to compound the problems of the present with too many well-meaning donors but too little coordination and too short time horizons. So, too, the evolution of initiatives mixing business and philanthropy will at least sometimes be hard to negotiate.
Increasing Disconnect between Governments and Their People. This takes different forms in different countries, and so far, has been mostly confined to Europe and the America. It is often labeled “populism,” on both the right and the left. It has economic roots, as suggested vividly by Branko Milanovic’s famous elephant curve, below. The world has done a decent job of pulling people out of poverty and a spectacular job of making the very rich richer but a terrible job at improving the lot of the middle class in the richer countries (point B on the curve). For “Brexit” yes voters and for Trump’s angry followers, economic stagnation played into identity, a harkening toward a past that never existed, with “the other,” especially immigrants, as the scapegoat.
Relative Gain in Real Per Capita Income by Global Income Level, 1988–2008
It is hard to see ameliorating forces for the disconnect. To the extent the roots are economic—increasing inequality and the loss of those “good middle class jobs” for less skilled workers—the situation will only get worse with advancing technology. And while globalization may be railed at, with sand thrown in its gears from time to time, it is not going away.
Advancing Technology: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Biotech. AI has long seemed the technological equivalent of the line about Brazil—the country of the future that always would be, always promising but never delivering. But now AI is coming true. For all the hand-wringing about robots taking over humans, the more immediate effects will be much more prosaic but no less important for it: as computers learn how to do more and more tasks previously accomplished by humans, job markets around the world will be disrupted on a scale we haven’t seen. One British study suggested that half of American jobs could be automated in part or entirely over the next two decades. And many of those jobs are ones we think of as professional: for better or worse, it is easier to help a robot learn to do accounting or drive a truck than to give a good massage.
CRISPR Cas 9, the latest advance in gene editing makes the point: bio is poised for stunning advances. The promise is editing “out” hereditary diseases and, more controversially, editing “in” life-enhancing qualities. Gene editing has been with us but has been pretty imprecise. And, to be sure, the kind of gene editing that a graduate student can be taught to do with CRISPR in an afternoon is still pretty crude. But the possibilities are limitless. Imagine, for comparison, that the very first web page was sent in 1991, just twenty-five years ago. Increases in the length and quality of life will come soon, and wondrous as they will be, these will also increase inequality. The wonders of enhanced biology will come first to rich people in rich countries, only later to poor people in poor countries. And on the dark side of the bio revolution, it is possible to imagine biological weapons targeted on ethnic groups or even single individuals.
Conflicting Values. ISIL presents the starkest clash of values. Americans believe in, deeply and often unconsciously, what might be called the “prosperity presumption”: prosperity makes all things better, people happier, more democratic, and less like to go to war. Then we confront ISIL, which believes in that presumption not at all. The clash of values with China is less stark but at least as important. For China, existing international institutions embody “made in America” values, and it seeks to reshape, or supplant, those institutions and practices: witness the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the much-ballyhooed One Belt, One Road initiative, a development framework meant to connect China with the rest of Eurasia but thus far more plan than project. This conflict of values will be the backdrop for all international issues, from how to protect intellectual property to how to organize the internet, to how to build UN peacekeeping.
Changing Nature of War. Certainly, the human species is no stranger to brutality, but ISIL’s butchery is notable nonetheless. Its form of terror completely erases the line between soldiers and citizens, a line that had been blurring for decades. In some ways, warfare has reverted to the primitive, with any person a potential target. Perhaps the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is a gloomy harbinger—crude but lethal weapons, with people used as human shields. Moreover, technology that, for instance, the United States acquires—from drones and miniaturization to machine-enhanced soldiers—will soon after be available to its enemies. In the process, a second line will continue to blur: physical reality and virtual reality are not separate but rather seamless. When societies are the targets, not armies, sometimes cyber instruments will be the weapons of choice, and virtually all physical wars will have a cyber dimension.
In that sense, all conflicts will be “hybrid war.” What is new seems to be the digital or cyber realm, which dramatically lowers the entry cost: planting a story in a newspaper was relatively difficult and expensive by comparison to posts on the web. What also may be new is relative speed with which what would have been called propaganda campaigns can be mounted, again especially digitally. And while most of the methods have been seen before—from proxy war, to unattributed war, to little green men—the combinations of methods sometimes have less precedents.
Imagining Possible Futures: Three Illustrative Scenarios
Imagine the year is 2028. A nuclear weapon just exploded in South Asia, unleashing chaos in a globe where nationalist movements and artificial intelligence have changed the dynamic of war. It is then, as the former US national security adviser reflects four years later in her memoir, that the world was awoken to a harsh reality:
It took a mushroom cloud in a desert in South Asia to shake us from our complacency. I remember how the crisis between India and Pakistan started: The Second Indus Waters Treaty was abandoned by both sides, followed shortly by a series of explosions in New Delhi that the Indian government quickly attributed to Pakistan-based extremist groups. Islamabad denied involvement, but both sides began mobilizing their military forces. After a few confusing days of cyberattacks that disrupted the ability of both sides to understand what was happening, the situation escalated quickly. According to a subsequent investigation, artificial intelligence systems supporting the military decision makers made the crisis worse by misinterpreting signals meant to deter instead as signs of aggressive intent. The result was the first use of a nuclear weapon in a conflict since 1945.
With China’s help, the United States quickly moved to defuse the crisis—we were lucky. The conflict barely missed escalating to a full nuclear exchange. President Smith shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the president of China that year.
This is from one of the scenarios, called “Orbits,” in the Global Trends assessment cited earlier. It is not meant as a prediction but rather as a “what might be” given how critical trends and choices might intersect to create different paths to the future. In many ways, “Orbits” seems to describe the track the world seems to be on right now, with nationalism and domestic insecurity on the rise. In the second, “Islands,” nations turn inward. And the third, “Communities,” foresees dramatic new partnerships across the public-private divide.
The three scenarios explore the future from different perspectives, with the purpose of understanding how current patterns―the reemergence of geopolitics, especially as China and Russia turn to external adventures to shore up internal legitimacy; economic growth slowing or stagnating; individuals and small groups becoming more and more empowered; technology progressing at a dizzying and unequal pace across the globe; conflicts over values; and people becoming more and more disconnected from their governments―could unfold in the decades ahead. The scenarios illustrate what could ensue if one or several trends predominated, or if they interacted in particular ways.
In “Orbits,” nationalist movements have taken hold around the world, and militaries build up amid increasing conflict over values and new technological possibilities. Global Trends eerily foreshadows Donald Trump’s “America First” approach, even though it was done in draft well before his election. It portrays an America that is politically polarized and fiscally constrained, and thus much less active in international affairs. While the US retrenches, China reaps windfalls; almost anything it does—from climate change to global trade—looks statesmanlike compared to the US.
In all the scenarios, Russia is the near-term wild card. The trends, especially economic and demographic, are running against it. Even now, Putin has done nothing to modernize the economy away from its dependence on fossil fuels. But in the next few years, Russia will have both the capability and the incentive to set in motions major crises—by acting ostensibly in support of threatened Russian speakers in the Baltic states, for example. Beyond that, Russia will be tempted to turn to the levers of power it will retain—cyber and nuclear. And that nuclear explosion in South Asia is a reminder that there are other geopolitical clashes out there, and they are also driven by ambition and animated by domestic insecurity.
If geopolitics in the context of economics drives “Orbits,” economics drives a second scenario, called “Islands.” The subtitle of “Global Trends” is “The Paradox of Progress.” The two decades before the economic crisis of 2008 were indeed a time of global progress without precedent: the combined forces of globalization and information technology lifted a billion people out of poverty.
But “Islands” imagines a world two decades from now that is still coping with the paradoxes of both trends. The IT revolution created wonderful tools for connecting people but so far has been most visible in separating them into echo chambers that only reinforce the existing opinions and prejudices. Meanwhile, slow growth, aging populations and increasing inequality impels governments that are struggling to keep up with the demands of their citizens to turn inward. The backlash against globalization continues, and China and India remain mired in the middle-income trap. Artificial intelligence and automation turn out to disrupt global job markets more than most economists expected. A global pandemic in 2023 required global cooperation but also sharpened the sense that nations need to focus on domestic issues first. The risk here is not war but a return to “beggar thy neighbor” economics that leaves all countries worse off.
The diminishing ability of national governments to meet the demands of their citizens compels some to simply give up in the third scenario, “Communities.” Some governments resort to rampant privatization—including some American cities that simply tear up paved roads when they are too potholed, inviting citizens to live with gravel roads or pay for repaving.
The empowerment of individuals and small group runs through all the scenarios. The negatives dominate in “Orbits”—small groups of terrorists can create major mayhem, and collective action on major threats like climate change has become increasingly difficult. But the positives are also apparent in this future scenario—with enormous private wealth available for public purposes.
“Communities” imagines a messy outcome, one in which different forms of government emerge by trial and error. Enabled by continuing advances in information technology, agile states innovate in dramatic ways to meet the demands of their citizens. Power devolves in partnerships between cities, regions, and communities that cross national borders. The change is so dramatic that a generation hence, it seems likely that many important issues today—like the distinction between “public” and “private”—will seem quaint.
US Policy under Trump
Global Trends drives home the fact that the choices made by America and Americans right now will matter. The US is still the biggest kid on the block, by far. Will the country turn inward, giving prominence to domestic issues over engagement in the world? Or will it engage abroad actively and creatively to protect its interests? Will it alter the way it governs, even dramatically, to take advantage of multiplying private stakeholders? The answer is hardly foreordained but it is very consequential.
Continuing Turmoil. In the short run, there is little to suggest that the turmoil within the Trump administration will settle down. The internal infighting, as manifested in leaking, if not unprecedented, is surely striking. And nothing suggests that Trump himself will stop playing the Tweeting disrupter. Therefore, the pattern we have seen is likely to continue: Trump’s cabinet secretaries will tug policy in more familiar directions, only to have the latest Tweet disrupt—blasting Germany for trade surpluses or torpedoing climate change. In those circumstances, I find it hard to imagine that personnel turnover will not be high, as senior officials have to walk the loyalty plank only to have it cut from beneath them. Not to mention the President’s own hypersensitivity to any sign of disagreement. I also find it hard to imagine, for example, that the current secretary of state will remain in office a year from now.
Money and Domestic Politics. Taken at face value, Trump’s budget is bad news, especially for poorer countries in Africa and Asia. It aims to slash the State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID) budgets by close to 30 percent, while eliminating several executive agencies, including the US African Development Foundation, which funds grassroots development projects in 30 African countries. The cuts are supposed to partially offset a $54 billion increase in defense spending.
Currently, Africa gets more US foreign aid than any other continent, the largest share of US global health and disaster relief spending, and it hosts nine out of the world’s 16 UN peacekeeping operations—and four out of the five most expensive ones. Sub-Saharan Africa is grappling with record levels of displacement and hunger due to conflict and drought, but Trump is proposing “deep cuts to foreign aid” that would hit this continent the hardest. According to the UN, more than 20 million people are on the edge of starvation in just four countries, three of which are in Africa: South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria.
Yet that budget has been pronounced dead on arrival by Senate Republicans, not to mention Democrats. It is certain that some of the cuts, especially in domestic programs but also in foreign affairs, will be reversed or at least diminished. Yet, as always, it will be easier to cut abroad than at home: polls always show that most Americans think US foreign aid is twenty times what it is. And so poor countries, and not just them, would be ill-advised to expect all the cuts to be reversed.
Among the uncertainties is that Trump is no traditional Reaganite conservative—one wedded to small government, deregulation and hostility to (many) autocrats. To be sure, for him, it is a matter of immediate gratification rather than well-pondered ideology. How that plays out will become clearer in the budget process. His core base—poorer, older whites—don’t like government but depend on it; he’s already declared Social Security and Medicare sacred. But the dependence runs to healthcare and food stamps and beyond. In interviews, for example, many of those constituents hated Obama and Obamacare but liked their new healthcare—oblivious, apparently, to the fact their new health was Obamacare. Having already ditched the Reaganite opposition to autocrats, it is conceivable that Trump might throw overboard small government in the interest of protecting the goodies on which his core depends. That would leave deregulation as his main nod to the Reaganite legacy.
That would further divide the Republican Party, for the House of Representatives, at least, is dominated by Paul Ryan and the Tea Party, who are deficit hawks. And so the outcome, like so much of American policy at this point, is uncertain. Ryan and company may turn out to be hawks only when the deficits are legislated by Democrats. If so, it is possible to imagine a US budget that is stimulative (when the economy needs no stimulus) but at the price of bigger deficits. That, in turn, would prompt the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates to keep inflation in check. That sequence would be good for poor countries that depend on exports of precious metals and other commodities, bad to the extent that higher interest rates made debt harder to service.
People and Priorities. The circle of people around Trump is richer, much richer, but in other respects they are like his core—older, white men. There are no Susan Rices or Condoleeza Rices in the inner circle, and very few women at all. Meanwhile, the world continues to become more diverse, and younger people are taking power—President Macron in France, for example, in his late 30s, not his early 70s. Perhaps it is no surprise that Trump and his colleagues find the new world bewildering and cling to an “America first” view long out of date.
Counterterrorism. The preoccupation with counterterrorism will continue. That preoccupation, for example, plus the creation of AFRICOM in 2007, led to dramatic increases in US soldiers in Africa, though from a very small base. In 2006, just one percent of all US commandos deployed overseas were in Africa. In 2010, it was three percent. By 2016, that number had jumped to more than 17 percent. The United States has small bases in Burkina Faso and Uganda, for counterterrorism surveillance and a major installation in Djibouti, plus small deployments in Mali, Nigeria, Congo, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and South Sudan. In the future as in the recent past, these deployments will be driven by counterterrorism mission, along with what the Pentagon calls “building partner capacity”—improving local militaries to be better partners in peacekeeping and other joint operations. To the extent that AFRICOM militarizes the US approach to Africa and other poor countries, that is probably perceived as a negative by them. On the other hand, the military is the dominant force in US external policy, so AFRICOM and the presence of small units in Africa does ensure that the military pays attention to Africa. It creates a powerful stakeholder.
In summary, the global future the world confronts is shapeless, with new threats appearing to arise almost at random. America’s attentions in the Trump administration will, for better or worse, mostly be directed to crises outside the poorer countries—the Middle East, China, Russia, North Korea. It will be open to partnering with poorer countries, on counterterrorism first, then on economics and trade. But its approach will continue be that of “America first,” with careful attention lest the country give much more than it receives in return.
 NATO Article 5: an attack on one is an attack on all NATO members—the core NATO commitment which Trump declined to reaffirm during his trip to NATO, despite the fact that the Article has been invoked only one, for the United States after 9/11.