More Limited Military Superiority
In 2025, the US will still retain unique military capabilities, especially its ability to project military power globally, that other nations will continue to envy and rely on to secure a safer world. The United States’ ability to protect the
“global commons” and ensure the free flow of energy could gain greater prominence as concerns over energy security grow. The US also will continue to be viewed as the security partner of choice by many states confronted with the rise of potential hostile nuclear powers. Although the emergence of new nuclear-weapon states may constrain US freedom of action, US military superiority in both conventional and nuclear weapons and missile defense capabilities will be a critical element in deterring openly aggressive behavior on the part of any new nuclear states. The US will also be expected to play a significant role in using its military power to counter global terrorism.
“Anticipated developments in the security environment leading to 2025 may raise questions about traditional US advantages in conventional military power.”
However, potential US adversaries will continue to try to level the playing field by pursuing asymmetrical strategies designed to exploit perceived US military and political vulnerabilities. In the future, advanced states might engage in counterspace trikes, network attacks, and information warfare to disrupt US military operations on the eve of a conflict. Cyber and sabotage attacks on critical US economic, energy, and transportation infrastructures might be viewed by some adversaries as a way to circumvent US strengths on the battlefield and attack directly US interests at home. In addition, the continued proliferation of long-range missile systems, anti-access capabilities, and nuclear weapons and other forms of WMD might be perceived by potential adversaries and US allies alike as increasingly constraining US freedom of action in time of crisis despite US conventional military superiority.
˙ Traditional US allies, particularly Israel and Japan, could come to feel less secure in 2025 than they do today as a result of emerging unfavorable demographic trends within their respective countries, resource scarcities, and more intensive military competitions in the Middle East and East Asia, especially if there is also doubt about the vitality of US security guarantees.
Surprises and Unintended Consequences
As we have made clear throughout this volume, the next 15-20 years contain more contingencies than certainties. All actors—not just the United States—will be affected by unforeseen “shocks.” For various reasons the US appears better able than most to absorb those shocks, but US fortunes also ride on the strength and resiliency of the entire international system, which we judge to be more fragile and less prepared for the implications of obvious trends like energy security, climate change, and increased conflict, let alone surprises. While, by their nature, surprises are not easily anticipated, we have tried through the scenarios to lay out possible alternative futures and each is suggestive of possible changes in the US role.
A World Without the West.
In this scenario the US withdraws and its role is diminished. In dealing with unstable parts of the world in its neighborhood like Afghanistan, China, and India, the Central Asians must form or bolster other partnerships—in this case the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The fragmentation and breakdown of the global order into regional and other blocs—while not on the scale of US-Soviet bipolar split—probably would usher in an era of slower economic growth and globalization, less effective action on transnational issues like climate change and energy security, and the potential for increased political instability.
The lack of effective management of the tradeoffs among globalization, economic growth, and environmental damage is shared widely among more players than the US. Implicit in the scenario is the need for better US leadership and stronger multilateral institutions if the world is to avoid even more devastating crises. The results of miscalculation on the part of others—such as the Chinese—have significant political costs, which probably would make it more difficult for the US and others to put together a plan for more sustainable economic development, including conflicts among the major powers.
In this scenario, growing great power rivalries and increasing energy insecurity lead to a military confrontation between India and China. The US is perceived by Beijing as favoring India to China’s detriment. Great power war is averted, but the protagonists must rely on a third party—in this case Brazil—to help reconstitute the international fabric. Given the BRICs’ disarray, the United States’ power
is greatly enhanced, but the international system is in for a bumpy ride as the militaryclash leads to internal upheavals increasing nationalist fervor.
Politics Is Not Always Local.
On some issues, such as the environment, a seismic shift in government versus onstate actor authorities has occurred. For the first time, a coalition of nonstate actors is seen by a large number of electorates as better representing “planetary” interests and, in this scenario, governments must heed their advice or face serious political costs. This may not always be the case since on other more traditional national security issues, national, ethnic, class and other differences are likely to re-emerge, undercutting the clout of transnational political movements. The US, like other governments, must adapt to the changing political landscape.
Leadership Will Be Key
As we indicated at the beginning of the study, human actions are likely to be the crucial determinant of the outcomes. Historically, as we have pointed out, leaders and their ideas—positive and negative—were among the 99 biggest game-changers during the last century. Individually and collectively over the next 15-20 years, leaders are likely to be crucial to how developments turn out, particularly in terms of ensuring a more positive outcome. As we have emphasized, today’s trends appear to be heading toward a potentially more fragmented and conflicted world over the next 15-20 years, but bad outcomes are not inevitable. International leadership and cooperation will be necessary to solve the global challenges and to understand the complexities surrounding them. This study is meant as an aid in that process: by laying out some of the alternative possibilities we hope to help policymakers steer us toward positive solutions.