Today’s  Global Trends 2030 report by the National Intelligence Council predicts that, “By 2030, no country—whether the US, China, or any other large country—will be a hegemonic power.” Considering that this has already been true for quite some time, it’s a safe bet.

It’s true that, with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991-92, the United States became the only global superpower. It has, far and away, the world’s most powerful military. Further, it’s easily the dominant economy; not only does it possess by far the largest GDP but its currency is the international benchmark. But, by Robert Dahl’s classic definition of power— “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something B would not otherwise do”—the United States is hardly hegemonic now.

It’s been powerless to stop nuclear proliferation in Pakistan and North Korea and, even with substantial global cooperation, will likely not stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, either.

Despite the ability to topple despotic regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya without breaking a sweat, the United States has had little success in shaping the follow-on governments to its liking.

Relatedly, the United States has routinely had its will thwarted by non-state actors ranging from Latin American drug cartels, Islamic terrorist groups, and ragtag insurgencies. To be sure, there has been tremendous tactical success against the leadership of these groups. Strategic success, however, has been elusive.

The NIC sees these trends growing.

They forecast that “Individual empowerment will accelerate substantially during the next 15-20 years owing to poverty reduction and a huge growth of the global middle class, greater educational attainment, and better health care. The growth of the global middle class constitutes a tectonic shift: for the first time, a majority of the world’s population will not be impoverished.” While that sounds like cause for celebration—and it is—the potential downside is worrisome: “individuals and small groups will have greater access to lethal and disruptive technologies (particularly precision-strike capabilities, cyber instruments, and bioterror weaponry), enabling them to perpetrate large-scale violence—a capability formerly the monopoly of states.”

Meanwhile, centuries of Western dominance at the nation-state level could come to an end. The report predicts that, by 2030, “Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power, based upon GDP, population size, military spending, and technological investment.”

While that’s almost certainly true, it’s far from certain that it much matters. While GDP, population, military spending, and technological investment are indeed major levers of power they do not, as the United States has learned over the past two decades, necessarily produce the ability to “get B to do something B would not otherwise do.”

There are very good reasons to doubt that China or India will emerge as great global powers. Indeed, as the Atlantic Council’s Robert Manning puts it in his companion report, Envisioning 2030: US Strategy for a Post-Western World, “[T]he United States remains disproportionately the leading steward of the current global system. On most occasions when the world dials 9-1-1, it is the United States on the other end.”

The reasons for this are manifold but perhaps chief among them is that the United States has long wielded a substantial amount of what Harvard’s Joe Nye termed “soft power,” the ability to persuade others to follow through attraction rather than coercion. For Nye, this exists when “other countries—admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness—want to follow it. ” 

As Manning notes, the United States has, as a matter of deliberate national policy for decades, set out to lessen its own relative power in order to build a world that matched its ideals: “US strategy and policies since World War II have, in effect, been designed to foster relative rise, to encourage and enlarge a virtuous circle of economic growth, development and burgeoning middle class societies with a stake in the system.”  The Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe in the aftermath of the devastation of World War II, is the most obvious example. But three of the BRICs—Brazil, India, and China—rose at least in part because of the system of global trade norms that the United States put in place.

Manning quotes Atlantic Council International Advisory Board chairman Brent Scowcroft’s admonition that “the very nature of power is being transformed. It is not based to the same extent on how many people are under arms or the strength of the national economy, but instead on more subtle attributes and levers of influence.”

While China is on a path to become the world’s number one economy, potentially bringing the equivalent of the entire United States population out of poverty—an unalloyed good—it nonetheless faces tremendous challenges in becoming a global leader. China’s internal problems—including a rapidly aging population that makes sustaining current growth unlikely, rampant systemic corruption, and potential political instability—are well known. Perhaps more problematically, though, from the power standpoint, is that China has next to zero soft power. While others may envy China’s growth and marvel at its modern infrastructure, few, indeed, are rushing to emulate its political system.

Meanwhile, the United States and Europe, which combine for more than half of global GDP and whose economies have been intertwined for more than a century, continue, despite their own internal challenges, to have “shared democratic values and habits of military cooperation” unlikely to be rivaled any time soon by emerging powers.

Of course, none of this is preordained. Whether the United States and Europe get their own economic and political houses in order; the degree to which they cooperate to promote their shared values; and how the West and East shape global institutions to manage the coming transition will greatly influence the shape of 2030. Those will be the subject of future posts in this series.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. This is part of a New Atlanticist series exploring Global Trends 2030. 

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