Imagining 2030 is a serie in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time.
Expectations that the processes of globalization were knitting the nations of the world into a more coherent and stable international community were dashed by a series of shocks in the late 2010s and the 2020s. Fragile “just in time” supply chains for raw materials and finished goods experienced major disruptions due to a resurgence of terrorist activity and piracy which targeted vulnerable points of infrastructure and key “choke points” in the global commons. New pandemics and migrant flows caused many countries to restore barriers to free movement or to attempt to cut out or quarantine parts of the world from the international economic system. At the same time, the lowering of costs for producing energy from non-traditional sources as well as continued improvements in 3-D printing helped to push economies away from dependence on long-distance sources of supply. Faced with growing costs, the United States during this time backed away from its commitment to maintain the openness of the global commons, starting with the sea-lanes, in favor of prioritizing those areas which were seen as direct importance to American security. These trends have pushed major countries to find ways to consolidate their economic needs, whenever possible, within more contiguous and defensible regional blocs.
The American partial withdrawal from the world was compounded by the partial dissolution of the expanded European Union. A British exit from the EU (mitigated, however, by the readmission of the constituent parts of the former United Kingdom into European institutions), the collapse of the common currency and the end of the Schengen zone propelled the EU to de-evolve into a largely free trade institution, while smaller cores within the EU voluntarily chose to continue with greater integration. A series of new blocs within Europe was compounded by the process of consolidation on the territory of the former Soviet Union, where an expanded Russian Federation which has integrated ethnic Russian areas outside its 1991 borders has also created a larger Eurasian Federation encompasses the non-Russian states. This new Russian entity survives because of its role in balancing European needs—with Russia guaranteeing supply of raw materials to the European economic core—with the interests of the greater Chinese bloc. By 2030, China has peacefully reunified with Taiwan, and the Korean peninsula has been reunited under the leader of the Seoul government, in return for accepting neutral status. The United States has retreated to being an offshore balancer in the Asia-Pacific region, maintaining alliances with the Philippines and Japan, while ASEAN—in partnership with India and Australia—has achieved a degree of balance with China. Latin America has consolidated into an expanded North American bloc which has absorbed the Caribbean and Central America, with South America functioning as a common market and defense zone. The Middle East and Africa are convulsed by the after-effects of state collapse as the old colonial boundaries have been swept away and new entities seek to emerge based on ethnic and religious criteria—while also bearing the brunt of shifts in the climate that have made life much more difficult in the temperate zones of the world.
The U.S. decision to redefine its interests in an economic and security zone that focuses on the Western Hemisphere, the Atlantic coasts of Western Europe and northwestern Africa, and the outer islands of the Western Pacific reopens competitions for influence in other parts of the world. It has also fueled the growth in military spending as other countries can no longer rely on earlier security guarantees that were provided by Washington. As in the Cold War, the continued reliance on nuclear deterrence by the major powers and their blocs—including the acquisition of nuclear capabilities by other rising powers as well as the refurbishment of nuclear arsenals by existing holders (heralding the complete failure of the agenda outlined by President Barack Obama in Prague in 2009 to move towards a nuclear-free world) imposes a rough discipline on world affairs, limiting the extent to which conflicts can spread. Clashes along the frontiers, in parts of the maritime and space domains, and in the “unsettled” parts of the world, however, are common and contribute to a sense of insecurity.
With new barriers in place to secure the different blocs of the world from attack (and the threats posed by migration and disease), the old permeable global system can no longer survive intact. This, however, gives a new importance to so-called “keystone” states—defined as those countries “located at the seams of the global system and serve as critical mediators between different major powers, acting as gateways between different blocs of states, regional associations, and civilizational groupings.” These countries become focal points for that portion of world trade which remains indispensable and increasingly are seen as important neutrals separating different major powers and reducing points of direct clash between them. The policies of engagement and non-alignment trail-blazed by countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in the early 2000s have been embraced by emerging keystone powers like a united Korea, a reformulated Ukraine, a reunified Cyprus and a stabilized Afghanistan—which have positioned themselves as the interconnectors between different blocs and also as essential steam valves to vent pressure from flaring into major conflict.
Dismissive comments made by U.S. statesmen in the 2010s that we lived in the world of the 21st century—a world that was to be characterized by the triumph of a Western liberal order writ large, not the power politics era of the 19th, have given way to recognition that the current period increasingly resembles the post-Napoleonic order in Europe—applied on a global scale. Smaller states exist within the shadow of major powers, or must group themselves together into confederations to benefit from economies of scale, or find status as neutral powers whose position is upheld by the major actors who reap the benefits of stable keystones in place. As with Europe in the 19th century, great power rivalries can flare into conflict, or can be mitigated through compromises. Whether those balances can be maintained throughout the 2030s will depend on whether the great powers are reasonably satisfied with the compromises they have been forced to make (for Western powers, backing away from promoting universal human rights, for the Eurasian powers, accepting limits on their ambitions) and whether the mix of populist-authoritarian governments which define most of the politics of the world’s nations can continue to satisfy the demands and wishes of their populaces.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a professor of National Security Studies at the US Naval War College. He is also a member of PS21’s International Advisory Group.
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