By Daniel Twining

At the end of this year, the U.S. National Intelligence Council will release Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, its latest report forecasting the future of an international system being remade by the ascendance of emerging powers and the erosion of the Western liberal order.  As with most exercises in strategic forecasting after the global financial crisis, the draft report’s focus on an emergent multipolarity and the “rise of the rest” obscures the continuing strengths and staying power of American leadership in the international system.  In fact, some of the key drivers of strategic change in the period through 2030 – including demography, access to energy resources, and leadership in innovation – actually reinforce rather than undermine American resilience in a changing world.

China may have the largest economy in 2030, given a population four times larger than that of the United States.  But even if China manages the daunting economic and political transitions that lie before it, the country will still not enjoy the basket of strengths the United States will continue to possess.  In 2030, these will include:

  • A geographical position in which the United States, uniquely among the great powers, is not threatened by any serious challenger in its neighborhood;
  • An abundance of natural resources: the United States has the most arable land of any country on earth, is rich in natural resources, and promises to emerge as a largely self-sufficient energy superpower thanks to both offshore oil and shale gas deposits;
  • A domestic economy that is best understood as North American in scale, given integrated capital, labor, and energy markets, and whose prowess in innovation, manufacturing, technology, and services may prove surprisingly resilient as emerging economies bump into developmental bottlenecks;
  • An economy which is more intimately tied to the economies of Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the Persian Gulf than any of these centers of economic and financial power are to each other (taking into account not only trade but capital flows, international use of the dollar, and the role of the U.S. Treasury bond market as a haven for global savings);
  • An ethnically diverse, pluralistic society open to immigration, favorable demographics, a superior higher education system, and a culture of opportunity that should continue to attract talent from around the world in ways that maintain the United States’ innovation edge;
  • A large lead in comprehensive national power across the economic-military-technological-natural resources spectrum that will be difficult for rising powers to match, even if countries like China ultimately do surpass the United States in individual components of national power like gross domestic product or military spending;
  • A continuing ability to produce “followership”, without which there can be no leadership.  As the scholar David Kang notes, while many countries grudgingly admire China’s economic accomplishments, neither China nor any other potential U.S. rival has demonstrated the ability to produce the ranks of followers the United States takes for granted with its far-ranging set of global alliances and partnerships;
  • The central role in a liberal international order originally built around American power, interests, and beliefs, with substantial components of that order increasingly embraced by other established powers and rising powers like India. As journalist Pramit Pal Chaudhuri notes, “India wants to modify the present world order [to secure greater status within it] but never to overthrow it.”

Despite all the hype over their ascent, “the rest” are not a unified geopolitical bloc – they are riven by rivalries which will make competition among emerging powers more intense than that between the developed and developing worlds.  And even as power diffuses across the international system, it will also diffuse within societies as a middle class explosion in China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and elsewhere transforms politics within them, potentially reinforcing rather than undermining Western interests.

Finally, raw calculations of relative economic power mislead analysts to believe that the ascent of emerging powers is necessarily a zero-sum loss for the West.  In fact, the entrance of billions of new consumers into the world economy has enormously benefited the United States and Europe – through cheaper imports, growing markets for trade and investment, and a greater stake for aspiring economies in sustaining an open international economy.

Strategically, the West is arguably in a better – not worse – position as the capabilities and strategic horizons of emerging powers expand in ways that potentially empower them to help provide global public goods.  Washington certainly has high hopes for partnership with emerging giants like India and Brazil – to the point that European strategist Mark Leonard worries that the U.S. tilt toward these “post-colonial superpowers” undermines the transatlantic alliance.

In short, despite the fad for declinism, the United States is positioned to remain the pacesetter among the great powers through 2030 – if its leaders can get the country’s fiscal house in order.  America certainly has its problems.  But whose problems would Americans rather have – China’s?