The  Global Trends 2030 report offers four starkly different alternative world systems a generation hence. US policy decisions in the next four years will greatly influence which of these comes to pass.

The report’s authors outline four “Alternative Worlds”:

Stalled Engines: In the most plausible worst-case scenario, the risks of interstate conflict increase. The US draws inward and globalization stalls.

Fusion: In the most plausible best-case outcome, China and the US collaborate on a range of issues, leading to broader global cooperation.

Gini-Out-of-the-Bottle: Inequalities explode as some countries become big winners and others fail. Inequalities within countries increase social tensions. Without completely disengaging, the US is no longer the “global policeman.”

Nonstate World: Driven by new technologies, nonstate actors take the lead in confronting global challenges.

These are what social scientists refer to as “ideal types,” artificial models designed to illuminate contrasts. In reality, the report tells us, “None of these alternative worlds is inevitable. In reality, the future probably will consist of elements from all the scenarios.”

As I noted four years ago, when Global Trends 2025 was released, attempts at long-term strategic forecasting as “in one sense, an exercise in futility” because there are so many unforeseen variables at work, it’s nonetheless  “absolutely vital to think strategically about the long term. While we can’t know with any certainly which present trends will continue, it takes so long to develop and acquire systems, train personnel, and otherwise transform government that decision-makers need the best possible guidance for planning.”

Further, the point of attempting to spot trends isn’t to prepare for specific, inevitable outcomes but rather as information to help policymakers shape the future to maximize US interests and values. If policymakers in Washington and Beijing agree that a world in which the United States and China “collaborate on a range of issues, leading to broader global cooperation” is preferable to the alternatives, then perhaps they will be more motivated to work to bring that world into being.

Alas, the NIC is an agency of the United States intelligence community and quite rightly outside the partisan political fray. Indeed, while it issues a Global Trends report to coincide with the quadrennial presidential transition period, it scrupulously avoids making outright policy recommendations.  The Atlantic Council, while non-partisan, has no such limitations. Its companion report, Envisioning 2030: US Strategy for a Post-Western World, “outlines a US leadership strategy for the period ahead and offers policy approaches in key subject areas to ensure a more positive outcome.”

As principal author Robert Manning rightly puts it, “it will be human agency–how key actors, and most importantly the United States–adapt and respond to dynamic global trends that will determine whether we can avoid the worst and achieve the best.”

The report looks at several specific policy issues, some of which will be the subject of future posts in this series. But the overarching challenge is “how to preserve the successful operating principles of the international system” that has brought so much global advancement over the last seven decades “while revising the status quo to reflect new economic and political realities, new concerns about the efficacy of the system, new actors with divergent views, and new global pressures.”

Manning and his colleagues offer “six fundamental principles” for making that come to fruition:

1. Act strategically in a second term, recognizing that actions taken now will have generational consequences.

2. Continue “nation building at home” while considering the global context.

3. Actively shape dynamic international trends, or be unfavorably shaped by them.

4. Provide collaborative leadership by deepening traditional alliances while forging new partnerships with both state and non-state actors. Above all, the United States should seek to reinvigorate its transatlantic economic and security relations through NATO, the EU, and bilateral ties.

5. Deepen collaboration with China to 2030, the most important strategic priority of the next two decades.

6. Act more creatively in addressing the turmoil in the greatest spoiler to a better future–the greater Middle East.

It’s hard to have much confidence that a governing body that may well be about to drive over a “fiscal cliff” of its own making will muster the discipline to make hard choices that won’t pay off for decades. But the alternative is a future that’s much more bleak. 

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

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