As the second decade of the 21st century begins, we find ourselves at one of those relatively rare moments in history when major power shifts become visible to all. If the first decade of the century witnessed profound changes, the world of 2009 nonetheless looked at least somewhat like the world of 1999 in certain fundamental respects: the United States remained the world’s paramount military power, the dollar remained the world’s dominant currency, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization remained its foremost military alliance, to name just three.


By the end of the second decade of this century, however, our world is likely to have a genuinely different look to it. Momentous shifts in global power relations and a changing of the imperial guard, just now becoming apparent, will be far more pronounced by 2020 as new actors, new trends, new concerns, and new institutions dominate the global space. Nonetheless, all of this is the norm of history, no matter how dramatic it may seem to us.

Less normal – and so the wild card of the second decade (and beyond) – is intervention by the planet itself. Blowback, which we think of as a political phenomenon, will by 2020 have gained a natural component. Nature is poised to strike back in unpredictable ways whose effects could be unnerving and possibly devastating.

What, then, will be the dominant characteristics of the second decade of the 21st century? Prediction of this sort is, of course, inherently risky, but extrapolating from current trends, four key aspects of second-decade life can be discerned: the rise of China; the (relative) decline of the US; the expanding role of the global South; and finally, possibly most dramatically, the increasing impact of a roiling environment and growing resource scarcity.

Let’s start with human history and then make our way into the unknown future history of the planet itself.

The ascendant Dragon
That China has become a leading world power is no longer a matter of dispute. That country’s newfound strength was on full display at the climate summit in Copenhagen in December, where it became clear that no meaningful progress was possible on the issue of global warming without Beijing’s assent. Its growing prominence was also evident in the way it responded to the Great Recession, as it poured multi-billions of dollars into domestic recovery projects, thereby averting a significant slowdown in its economy. It spent many tens of billions more on raw materials and fresh investments in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, helping to ignite recovery in those regions, too.

If China is an economic giant today, it will be a powerhouse in 2020. According to the US Department of Energy (DoE), that country’s gross domestic product (GDP) will jump from an estimated US$3.3 trillion in 2010 to $7.1 trillion in 2020 (in constant 2005 dollars), at which time its economy will exceed all others save that of the US. In fact, its GDP then should exceed those of all the nations in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East combined. As the decade proceeds, China is expected to move steadily up the ladder of technological enhancement, producing ever more sophisticated products, including advanced green energy and transportation systems that will prove essential to future post-carbon economies. These gains, in turn, will give it increasing clout in international affairs.

China will undoubtedly also use its growing wealth and technological prowess to enhance its military power. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China is already the world’s second largest military spender, although the $85 billion it invested in its armed forces in 2008 was a pale shadow of the $607 billion allocated by the US. In addition, its forces remain technologically unsophisticated and its weapons are no match for the most modern US, Japanese, and European equipment. However, this gap will narrow significantly in the century’s second decade as China devotes more resources to military modernization.

The critical question is: how will China use its added power to achieve its objectives?

Until now, China’s leaders have wielded its growing strength cautiously, avoiding behavior that would arouse fear or suspicion on the part of neighbors and economic partners. It has instead employed the power of the purse and “soft power” – vigorous diplomacy, development aid, and cultural ties – to cultivate friends and allies. But will China continue to follow this “harmonious”, non-threatening approach as the risks of forcefully pursuing its national interests diminish? This appears unlikely.

A more assertive China that showed what the Washington Post called “swagger” was already evident in the final months of 2009 at the summit meetings between presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao in Beijing and Copenhagen. In neither case did the Chinese side seek a “harmonious” outcome: in Beijing, it restricted Obama’s access to the media and refused to give any ground on Tibet or tougher sanctions on key energy-trading partner Iran. At a crucial moment in Copenhagen, it actually sent low-ranking officials to negotiate with Obama – an unmistakable slight – and forced a compromise that absolved China of binding restraints on carbon emissions.

If these summits are any indication, Chinese leaders are prepared to play global hardball, insisting on compliance with their core demands and giving up little even on matters of secondary importance. China will find itself ever more capable of acting this way because the economic fortunes of so many countries are now tied to its consumption and investment patterns – a pivotal global role once played by the US – and because its size and location gives it a commanding position in the planet’s most dynamic region. In addition, in the first decade of the 21st century Chinese leaders proved especially adept at nurturing ties with the leaders of large and small countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that will play an ever more important role in energy and other world affairs.

To what ends will China wield its growing power? For the top leadership in Beijing, three goals will undoubtedly be paramount: to ensure the continued political monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), to sustain the fast-paced economic growth which justifies its dominance, and to restore the country’s historic greatness. All three are, in fact, related: the CCP will remain in power, senior leaders believe, only so long as it orchestrates continuing economic expansion and satisfies the nationalist aspirations of the public as well as the high command of the People’s Liberation Army. Everything Beijing does, domestically and internationally, is geared to these objectives. As the country grows stronger, it will use its enhanced powers to shape the global environment to its advantage just as the US has done for so long. In China’s case, this will mean a world wide-open to imports of Chinese goods and to investments that allow Chinese firms to devour global resources, while placing ever less reliance on the US dollar as the medium of international exchange.

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The question that remains unanswered: will China begin flexing its growing military muscle? Certainly, Beijing will do so in at least an indirect manner. By supplying arms and military advisers to its growing network of allies abroad, it will establish a military presence in ever more areas. My suspicion is that China will continue to avoid the use of force in any situation that might lead to a confrontation with major Western powers, but may not hesitate to bring its military to bear in any clash of national wills involving neighboring countries. Such a situation could arise, for example, in a maritime dispute over control of the energy-rich South China Sea or in Central Asia, if one of the former Soviet republics became a haven for Uyghur militants seeking to undermine Chinese control over Xinjiang province.

The Eagle comes in for a landing
Just as the rise of China is now taken for granted, so, too, is the decline of the US. Much has been written about America’s inevitable loss of primacy as this country suffers the consequences of economic mismanagement and imperial overstretch. This perspective was present in Global Trends 2025, a strategic assessment of the coming decades prepared for the incoming Obama administration by the National Intelligence Council (NIC), an affiliate of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Although the United States is likely to remain the single most powerful actor [in 2025],” the NIC predicted, “the United States’ relative strength – even in the military realm – will decline and US leverage will become more constrained.”

Some unforeseen catastrophe aside, however, the US is not likely to be poorer in 2020 or more backward technologically. In fact, according to the most recent Department of Energy (DoE) projections, America’s GDP in 2020 will be approximately $17.5 trillion (in 2005 dollars), nearly one-third greater than today. Moreover, some of the initiatives already launched by President Obama to stimulate the development of advanced energy systems are likely to begin bearing fruit, possibly giving the US an edge in certain green technologies. And don’t forget, the US will remain the globe’s preeminent military power, with China lagging well behind, and no other potential rival able to mobilize even Chinese-level resources to challenge US military advantages.

What will change is America’s position relative to China and other nations – and so, of course, its ability to dominate the global economy and the world political agenda. Again using DoE projections, we find that in 2005, America’s GDP of $12.4 trillion exceeded that of all the nations of Asia and South America combined, including Brazil, China, India, and Japan. By 2020, the combined GDP of Asia and South America will be about 40% greater than that of the US, and growing at a much faster rate. By then, the US will be deeply indebted to more solvent foreign nations, especially China, for the funds needed to pay for continuing budget deficits occasioned by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon budget, the federal stimulus package, and the absorption of “toxic assets” from troubled banks and corporations.

Count on this, though: in an increasingly competitive world economy in which US firms enjoy ever diminishing advantages, the prospects for ordinary Americans will be distinctly dimmer. Some sectors of the economy, and some parts of the country, will certainly continue to thrive, but others will surely suffer Detroit’s fate, becoming economically hollowed out and experiencing wholesale impoverishment. For many – perhaps most – Americans, the world of 2020 may still provide a standard of living far superior to that enjoyed by a majority of the world; but the perks and advantages that most middle-class folks once took for granted – college education, relatively accessible (and affordable) medical care, meals out, foreign travel – will prove significantly harder to come by.

Even America’s military advantage will be much eroded. The colossal costs of the disastrous Iraq and Afghan wars will set limits on the nation’s ability to undertake significant military missions abroad. Keep in mind that, in the wars of the first decade of the 21st century, a significant proportion of the basic combat equipment of the Army and Marine Corps has been damaged or destroyed, while the fighting units themselves have been badly battered by multiple tours of duty. Repairing this damage would require at least a decade of relative quiescence, which is nowhere in sight. 

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