Peering into a Multipolar World in 2030

By Couloumbis, Ahlstrom & Weaver

During the Cold War, "red teams" challenged conventional wisdom in foreign and defense policy and intelligence analysis. The objective was to jolt perceptions, discredit premature consensus, force broader views and develop alternate outcomes. "Red teaming" has since become a technique used widely, including in business, to drive innovative thinking and action.

"Global Trends 2030," the latest in a series of analyses from the National Intelligence Council, stands in that tradition, “intended to stimulate thinking about this rapid, vast array of geopolitical, economic and technological changes transforming our world today and their potential trajectories over the next 15-20 years.”

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While the report sketches four alternate scenarios, its most vibrant discussions are organized around what it calls megatrends and major variables.

The megatrends are: “individual empowerment, the diffusion of power … aging populations and exploding middle classes and natural resource challenges.”

The major variables are: "the global economy, national and global governance, the nature of conflict, regional (conflict) spillover, advancing technologies and the United States’ role in the international arena."

Two themes in Global Trends are especially interesting. First, an emphasis on interacting forces, dynamics, conditions and multiple actors that create far more complexity in the international system than was the case during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. Second, the parallel theme of broad diffusion of power. Together, these mean that no single power can act hegemonically, and that power is "multifaceted" and "contextual," requiring different means and different partners to be effective in specific situations. 

Complexity now flows from truly global issues, such as economic crises, climate change, air and water pollution, mass immigration, poverty and pandemics that require coordinated international action on an unprecedented scale.

Power is also shifting regionally, with the rise of new centers of economic, political and, in some cases, military influence in East Asia and Latin America. And non-state actors -- whether they be NGOs, global enterprises or networks of like-minded people -- are already playing roles unimagined just a few short decades ago, enabled by new communications technologies.

In this more complicated and nuanced world, leadership depends on both hard and soft power, but also on perceived legitimacy, persuasion, broad coalitions, willingness to listen and modify plans and actions to secure wider support or at least acquiescence. But it also means that wild-card events will be both frustrating and even more potentially dangerous and destabilizing, as no one power will be able to dictate or dominate the response. Examples include the relatively quick collapse of Gaddafi’s Libya; the agonizingly slow demise of Assad’s Syria; the complex dynamics of post-Mubarak Egypt; orchestration of progressively tighter sanctions on Iran, and the continued festering sore of Israel-Palestine.

An informal concert of powers arrangement has been developing in the last decade, as international institutions have been pressed by the financial crisis, authoritarian collapses in Libya, Egypt and now Syria, and continued development of Iranian nuclear capability -- short, so far, of weaponization. In fits and starts, the G-20 superseded the G-8 as the major economic coordinating body. The UN Security Council supported American and European-led sanctions on Iran. And China and the U.S. have broadened and deepened their dialogues to ensure continued focus on shared interests, such as security of the sea lanes, even as their geopolitical conflicts remain.

Each of these demonstrates the need for clear situational analysis and realistic application of variable, appropriate means to deal with unique issues. 

In such complex times, Americans may yearn for the more clear-cut "good vs. evil" characterizations of the past. And in straitened economic times, they may yearn for a more modest U.S. role in maintaining international stability.

It is realistic to expect, therefore, that domestic consensus -- or lack thereof -- will increasingly drive the American international role. The internationalist perspective that drove American leadership in creating the post-World War II international system and its institutions has dissipated; its replacement is not yet in place. But it will have to recognize the limitations of American resources, the need to rebuild American infrastructure and support science, technology and education as key elements of U.S. power and influence. And that will mean relying more on painstaking processes of orchestration, coalition building and burden sharing internationally.

The early stages of transition are apparent in the Obama administration's foreign policy. But the transition will extend over many years or even decades, as the new dynamics interact, and U.S. military and technological predominance only gradually abates. 

Theodore Couloumbis is vice president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy and professor emeritus at the University of Athens, Greece; Bill Ahlstrom is an executive at a U.S. multinational; Gary Weaver is professor at American University’s School of International Service; these views are their own.

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