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America’s Subversive Soft Power

One other area where the draft GT 2030 could go into greater depth is in analyzing the effect of ideas — the isms that can be motivators of collective action and accelerants to global change.  America’s global role is inextricably linked to the influence of ideas.  America’s global influence turns on its soft power as well as its hard power.

The United States does not confront an ideological enemy with the resources and global appeal that Communism enjoyed at the height of the Cold War, but there are contending isms ranging from militant islamism to authoritarian crony-capitalism (or whatever label one would assign to the middle way approach China and Russia appear to be trying to forge).

The past decade of kinetic war has been directed at the threat from militant islamism, and it is striking how optimistic GT 2030 is about how that contest will unfold in the coming decades.  I think GT 2030 may be too optimistic, perhaps reflecting the difficulty the Intelligence Community has grappling with religious-based movements.

But I agree that the U.S. has the ideological advantage in the long run. Many aspects of American/Western ideology seem destined to subvert the appeal of militant islamism, such as feminism or respect for individual liberty.

Yet I would single out for special consideration religious toleration.  It took the West a long time, too long, to figure this out but after centuries of bloody warfare the West (and especially the United States) has done it.  We have figured out how to be both religiously fervent AND tolerant of other religiously fervent people (provided they are not using coercive means against others). Tolerance does not require abandoning religious, even exclusive religious convictions.  Religious toleration implies believing your religious position to be superior to others — you are right, they are wrong — but it does so in a way that lets them be “wrong.”  It preserves space for proselytizing — there cannot be true toleration if you deny faiths the opportunity to “compete” by trying to persuade/convert others.  But it is proselytizing through the marketplace of ideas, not through the barrel of a gun.

This form of religious toleration is anathema to militant islamists and yet should have a wide appeal for most everyone else.  It is thus quite subversive to others and props up U.S. power.

Perhaps that topic is too delicate for the IC to touch, but with religious revivals spreading across much of sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America, and East Asia, it seems too important to ignore.

Joseph Nye has said security is like oxygen: everyone enjoys it when it is present and few fully appreciate it until it is absent, at which point regaining it becomes an all-consuming obsession.

At a recent workshop on grand strategy, one of my colleagues observed that American power may be like gravity: it is hard to evaluate its reach and impact until it is gone, at which point we are likely to miss it acutely.

He is on to something that policymakers have recognized but have struggled to articulate in a way that won’t get mocked by academics (cf. “indispensable power”).  Certainly the United States has not always wielded its power perfectly, and there are doubtless instances when some (perhaps many) other international actors would have preferred “less United States involvement.” But the United States has been a critical provider of global public goods, especially global public goods in the security sphere and a world where the United States is both unwilling and incapable of providing those public goods is likely to be a world far less congenial for many global actors — including, ironically, many who have made a cottage industry of blaming America first for the world’s problems.

Perhaps the question is best put this way: what global problem will be easier to solve if the United States is weaker relative to other countries and, feeling that weakness, is less-willing to engage globally?

How will the world look in 2030?  It depends on how the United States looks in 2030.

 

That may be the most important takeaway of the current draft of Global Trends 2030.  Of course, the analytic team has identified many key drivers that will shape global affairs over the next two decades, but perhaps the most important change from previous installments of this quadrennial exercise is the addition of a section devoted to “the role of the United States.”

 

Previous Global Trends efforts followed too closely the Intelligence Community mandate to look outward rather than inward.  The mandate is a sensible reaction to Cold War abuses when the IC conducted covert collection operations against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.  But when the task is forecasting global affairs into the future, it is absurd to fence off consideration of the most pivotal factor shaping the future – the trajectory of the sole superpower.

 

GT 2030 sensibly includes the United States in its analytical purview and does so without crossing any red-lines that would alarm civil libertarians.  But nor does it stretch the analytical envelope to consider radical departures from the current trends.

 

It assesses two broad scenarios:

  • An “optimistic” future in which the United States polity “would address its structural weaknesses” while other powers likewise get their fiscal houses in order.  The result is a graceful relative decline in U.S. power, but one in which the United States is still primus inter pares and doing very well, thank you very much.

 

  • A “pessimistic” scenario in which the U.S. economy does not rebound, resulting in a U.S. that is neither inclined nor capable of leading.  No actor with global reach steps into the power vacuum, but regional hegemons (China) do and the result is a world split into hostile alliances, a la the 1930’s.

 

GT 2030 hedges, but seems to bet on the optimistic future.  This is not the straight-line inertial path of the last several months, but it is fully in keeping with the old maxim that those who have bet on U.S. collapse have, in the long run, tended to lose their shirts.

 

But what if the outcomes we get are further in the tails of the distribution?  For instance, what if the United States rebounds, but Europe and the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) implode?  It is not too hard to make U.S. problems pale in comparison to the challenges faced by the Eurozone and the BRICs (and to this artificial grouping, I would add the other medium-sized powers competing for regional influence but all facing domestic hurdles at least as daunting as the ones faced in Washington: Turkey, Nigeria, South Africa, Japan, and perhaps Indonesia).  Of course, if all of the other parts of the global economy suffer, the U.S. economy will suffer, too.  But isn’t at least theoretically possible that the relative power gap between the U.S. and the rest might actually widen over the next 15 years?  What would that world look like?

 

Or what about an outcome in the tail on the opposite side: the U.S. collapses, but an actor with global reach (presumably China, but perhaps a Europe arising phoenix-like out of its current fiscal/monetary crisis)?  Or what if the actor with global reach is, in fact, some sort of global governance scheme that supersedes national sovereignty? None of these variants seems nearly as likely as the others, but it would be worth pondering their impact.

 

Previous Global Trends products tended to guess correctly at the trajectory of global affairs while underestimating the speed with which we would move in that direction.  That would be good news for us in this case, since GT 2030 seems to predict a U.S. role that most Americans could accept.  What if this time they have missed the trajectory, and we are heading in a very different direction?