Over the next two decades, the relative power of major international actors will shift markedly. Around 2030, after nearly a century as the preeminent global economic power, the United States will be surpassed by China as the world’s largest economy. With its trade in goods expected to nearly double that of the U.S. and Europe, China’s international economic clout will reach new heights. By 2030, India will become the world’s most populous country and third-largest economy, while Brazil’s economy will rank fourth in size. India and Brazil will join China at the high table of 21st century international politics alongside the United States, even as the relative weight of Russia and Japan diminishes. The European economy will remain in the top tier, but it is not clear whether Europe will be able to act with common purpose to leverage this source of strength.
With its enhanced economic base, Beijing could rival Washington in overall military spending, even as a slowing Chinese economy and internal political conflict complicate China’s ability to lead internationally. The United States will remain primus inter pares in light of its continued advantages across the full spectrum of national power and the legacy benefits of its leadership. It will, however, be operating in a post-Western world in which the bulk of global economic power is held by countries whose per capita incomes are far below those of the traditional great powers. This reality will leave China, India, Brazil, and other players focused on internal development and domestic challenges, torn between their desire to be global powers and their interest in free-riding on Western management of the international system.
How will the rise of the rest impact the international system? The National Intelligence Council’s draftGlobal Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds maps out three broad scenarios:
Reverse Engines. Under this scenario, the international system would consist of several powerful countries — but no single state or bloc of states would have the political or economic leverage to drive the international community toward collective action. Such a world, characterized by a global vacuum of power, assumes that the United States will no longer be willing or capable of sustaining the predominant leadership role it has assumed since 1945. With no other country able to step in to replace the U.S. as a global leader, the resulting divergence of interests would lead to fragmentation and the inability of great powers to work cooperatively to solve global issues. Mercantilism and protectionism could lead economic globalization to go into reverse, constraining technological breakthroughs required to manage scarce global resources. Conflict and disorder would follow.
Great Power Convergence. An alternative scenario is what the NIC calls a “fusion” world, in which major powers work together to adopt and enforce a set of globally accepted rules and norms. As U.S. predominance over the international system recedes, other emerging powers would step in to assume greater responsibility for the management of international affairs commensurate with their swelling economic might. Emerging powers emerge as full stakeholders in a global order that is transformed by power shifts but remains liberal and pluralistic. Great power concert (perhaps enabled by democratization in China) to meet global challenges increases the stability of the international system even as power is diffused within it. U.S. resilience enables it to create enduring partnerships with rising powers to sustain the basis of liberal order. Technological advances create new possibilities for joint management of key global challenges, rewarding positive-sum behavior by the great powers.
Multipolar Divergence—U.S. Primacy. A third scenario, one the NIC calls “fragmentation,” involves a multipolar system characterized by a divergence of views among great powers that challenges global governance. The United States would continue to maintain disproportionate global influence and leverage that influence to address global challenges by working through coalitions of like-minded states. A multispeed global economy accelerates the diffusion of power but an alternative coalition to the West does not form, with developing giants consumed by their domestic challenges – even as the global middle class explodes in ways that transform politics within the rising powers. With inclusive global institutions effectively stalemated, the United States instead turns to its old and new allies in Europe and Asia, who would continue to see Washington as their partner of choice in advancing the norms and rules of a liberal order. The risk of conflict increases with the continued rise of new powers like China and the rapid pace of technological change.
One key conclusion of the NIC study is that the future role of the United States in the international system is a decisive variable in determining what kind of “alternative world” will exist in 2030. The choices U.S. leaders make – about how to marshal (and preserve) domestic resources, how vigorously to assert U.S. military and economic leadership overseas, and how much to invest in alliances old and new – will be central to determining which of the above pathways the international system will follow over the coming 20 years. To a certain extent, the answer to the question of how the “rise of the rest” impacts the U.S.-led international system is that it is not up to them… so much as it is up to us.