People say we’re about to enter the “Asian century.” That would be true if the world still did centuries. But it doesn’t; change driven by technological advancements now comes so rapidly and with such force that it’s challenging to know what the next year of geopolitics will look like, let alone the next 50.
That said, we are undeniably embarking on an “Asian decade” (maybe even two)—a period that largely coincides with our current G-Zero era of world politics, which is defined principally by its lack of global leadership. What that means in practice is that there is no country (or group of countries) leading global responses to global problems such as climate change or the next pandemic. So, as advanced industrial economies continue to struggle to balance democracy’s dynamism with the toll globalization has taken on large segments of their societies, China’s state-capitalist approach looks set to continue barreling on.
To really understand what the world will look like in 2069, the first question we need to ask is what the United States will do in the next five to 10 years as the world continues moving away from the Pax Americana chapter of world history to whatever comes next.
To really understand what the world will look like in 2069, we need to ask what the United States will do in the next five to 10 years.
Will the United States take a proactive role in helping to shape the next world order, working in concert with other key geopolitical players to ensure that the world remains (relatively) peaceful and that trade, people, and ideas continue to flow across borders? Or will the United States take a more defensive tack, pulling away from the global community and opting to use its continued economic and military heft primarily to protect its own interests, sometimes by force when necessary?
Thus far, the United States is leaning toward the latter approach, but nothing has been set in stone yet.
That’s only part of the story. The other part has to do with the structural change that’s coming to the global state system as we know it today. Over the past few hundred years, people have grown used to the idea that nation-states have the final say on geopolitical power, given that they control the most devastating weapons of destruction the world has ever devised. But in the 21st century, technology has empowered a whole new set of geopolitical players, for better and worse.
The world will have more and more stakeholders capable of driving geopolitical developments.
We saw glimpses of this already with 9/11, where a handful of terrorists were able to change the course of world history by hijacking and crashing planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. In the roughly 20 years since then, technology has given hackers and rogue actors unprecedented power by giving them more advanced tools and billions more targets as the smartphone age takes hold.
At the same time, technology has also empowered individuals, companies, and local governments to tackle problems that national governments won’t or can’t deal with, like climate change.
The point is that as technology continues to progress, the world will have more and more stakeholders capable of driving geopolitical developments, and many won’t be national governments. That doesn’t mean nations as we know them today will fall apart, but it does mean they will have a lot more competition.
Put another way: If you think the geopolitics of 2019 will be chaotic, just wait for 2069.