It is easy to project a world of discord in the decades ahead. Both China and Russia have numerous internal problems and their leaderships are working hard to suppress any dissent. They are both becoming increasingly authoritarian and justifying this internally by the need to have a strong government in the face of external challenges, particularly from the United States. China is putting significant resources into military expansion and seems to be developing a strong capability to challenge US naval presence in the South China Sea. As internal problems worsen, the simplest way to maintain legitimacy is to stoke patriotism by denouncing an external enemy, stressing contention rather than cooperation.
The Committee to Destroy the World - the tongue-in-cheek title awarded by Foreign Policy magazine to the collective of heads of failed states - flourishes, driving their populations into poverty while building their own personal fortunes. A main reason that these states can continue operating is the support they get from China and Russia. China, in particular, resolutely refuses to judge the actions of other sovereign rulers. Partly this allows China to lock in favorable long-term resource contracts with countries that most industrial nations avoid dealing with. But more importantly, it allows China to reject efforts by other nations to critique its own internal practices, including suppression of minorities and human rights violations. Russia's approach is similar, though its acceptance of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union included vague commitments to democracy and human rights. Overall, the support by China and Russia to repressive regimes enables them to survive and destabilize the parts of the world they belong to.
The US ability to respond to external crises has been steadily reduced. Its economic problems exacerbate the decline in military capabilities brought on by the war in Iraq. The continuing war in Afghanistan may leave it militarily exhausted while facing new Russian and Chinese challenges. Certainly the US ability and readiness to intervene militarily is being steadily reduced. Europe meanwhile is involved in fiscal squabbles, including a possible collapse of the Greek economy, and its relationship with Turkey steadily declines. Islamic radicals, emboldened by their ability to counter US efforts in Afghanistan, continue to disrupt and destabilize Iraq and other Islamic states, including nuclear-armed Pakistan, now in the middle of severe flooding challenges. Closer to home, some Latin American countries continue to oppose US policies and Mexico sees entire regions virtually taken over by drug cartels.
Against the background of this challenging international situation, US politics is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. Partisan politics bring out widespread anger and bitter polarization, but little constructive discourse. Religious revival becomes more popular as political revival becomes less likely. Intractable problems worsen: growing economic division; the largest per capita prison population in the world; fragmented and conflicting immigration policies; and domestic drug and gang challenges. While globalization undermines US economic strength, unemployment and housing crises have produced a large number of desperate people. State and local governments reduce essential services, while Federal oversight seems to fail at every turn: financial crises, an oil well disaster, egg and medicine contamination. The Federal government is now moving to address widespread infrastructure problems, though strategic prioritization is unlikely.
Overall, in the years immediately ahead, the United States can become a nation adrift, internally fractured, externally overwhelmed, rejected by allies and friends, challenged by major rivals, and undermined by amorphous challenges of globalization. It is already on this road; such a dismal situation lies along the main line of future projections. Something like this is a (most?) likely outcome within a decade or so.
And then things could get bad. Population pressures, poor governance, and growing inequalities can only intensify civil and international conflict. The Committee to Destroy the World will be in a position to live up to its name as failed states become increasingly common and the United States lacks the wherewithal, or even a rational program, to address them. Global warming will further worsen the situation. Even now shifting agricultural patterns, water shortages, desertification and new disease patterns are challenging already stressed societies. Modest sea level rises and more powerful storms might well produce widespread devastation in some areas. And this presumes that there are no major catastrophies, such as a virulent epidemic ravaging the world; a nuclear war unsettling global climate; a drastic reduction in global food output; resource wars over oil or other critical commodities; or major sea level rises inundating coastal cities worldwide.
So it is easy to envision by mid-century a world of turmoil, with widespread conflict as militarized societies vie for increasingly scarce resources. Russia and China could both revert to stern autocracies heavily militarized, challenging each other and the United States. Rogue nuclear states would make the world increasingly perilous. Prosperity would be out of the question; survival would be the main objective. Such a projection lies along the main line of current trends.
Avoiding such a global meltdown is the core challenge of the XXI Century. There is no military path. In fact, Eisenhower's warning that, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger," becomes more pressing as hunger and poverty become more likely sources of global conflict. But Eisenhower also recognized that the military establishment is a vital element in keeping the peace; significant military reductions are only reasonable in a context of mutual agreements. Absent this, it is almost certain that the world in general and the United States in particular will be unable to address the underlying economic, social and environmental challenges. Continued major military expenditures worldwide will simply drain away the needed resources.
Against the background of the trends referenced above and the impact of economic globalization, prosperity is no longer divisible. The United States can remain prosperous only in a prosperous world. This is not possible without a focused, coordinated effort by the entire global community. A significant reduction in military expenditures is imperative and is only attainable in a more cooperative world.
United States is the only nation in a position to provide the necessary leadership for such an effort, bringing nations together to work at a common goal: global prosperity. Unfortunately, the United States has tarnished image to address. Allies and friends see it as nation inclined to rash and unilateral actions. Much of the Muslim world sees it as a crusading nation intent on attacking Islam. The nation has to work to reclaim its former position as a respected leader of progressive and democratic forces. An essential foundation for this is fixing America. The United States cannot aspire to a mantle of global leadership without demonstrating its own ability to create a prosperous, equitable and democratic society.
Democracy is important, but democracies without traditions of compromise and cooperation easily become dysfunctional or even repressive. Competent government is more important. Promoting Global Good Governance requires real leadership, building consensus (as the United States did well in the run-up to the First Gulf War) rather than unilateral or coerced actions. It requires hundreds of coordinated actions by nations, commercial groups and other organizations worldwide.
A contentious relationship with China or Russia would stifle such cooperative global efforts. Yet deteriorating conditions in either country can easily reinforce autocratic trends, promote confrontation, and undermine efforts to rebuild failed states. So developing positive, cooperative relationships with both these nations is an essential element in addressing the global challenges of the XXI Century. The United States must convince the Chinese and Russian leaderships that they can reinforce their own positions better with cooperation and development than with confrontation and repression. Without concerted joint actions from these two critical nations, it will not be possible to adequately address what Defense Secretary Gates identified as "the most likely and lethal threats - an American city poisoned or reduced to rubble - will likely emanate from fractured or failing states." Disbanding the Committee to Destroy the World is essential to global harmony.
Addressing this challenge requires a fundamental realignment of US national security efforts from a focus on protecting against enemies to a focus on building up friends, steadily reducing the need for military capabilities both at home and abroad. Resources for global development are scarce enough without draining off significant amounts for military expenditures and preoccupying national leaders with confrontational efforts rather than cooperative ones. This is the task ahead.