Analysis | America’s future(s)

Casimir Yost

In this piece, Casimir Yost, a senior fellow at ISD, summarizes his new paper looking at potential future paths for the United States.

Read the full paper here.

A fork in the road (Image: James Wheeler/Pexels)

A distinguished former intelligence official, Thomas Fingar, described the role of analysis as “reducing uncertainty” for policymakers.[i] That is a pretty good mantra for the analyst, recognizing that prediction about the future is rarely productive, absent sound grounding in analysis and weighing of evidence. Analysts have any number of ways to reduce uncertainty about the future. This paper utilizes three — identifying historical analogies, mapping the borders of systemic risk, and identifying alternative scenarios for how the future could unfold over the next two years.

Policymakers habitually look to historical precedents to help inform their thinking in addressing contemporary challenges, though of course history will not repeat itself exactly. We are, for example, hearing a good deal about the Thucydides Trap, when we consider how to respond to the challenges posed by Xi Jinping’s China — a “rising” power confronting an “established” power.”[ii] The Covid-19 pandemic naturally recalls the 1918 Flu Pandemic, and the current economic crisis brings echoes of the Great Depression (when another Republican president stood aside while America collapsed.) The focus in this paper is on 1968 and 1942, two pivotal years when uncertainty about the future challenged public discourse and government decision making. In 1968, the American people were deeply divided and poorly led in confronting multiple crises — from racial unrest, to assassinations, to a deeply divisive war — all occurring during a presidential election year. By contrast, in 1942 the sitting president mobilized the nation to confront tyrannical and expansionistic regimes across two oceans. The American people responded magnificently to the demands placed on them.

Mapping systemic risk essentially asks the question: “as bad as things are today, how could they get worse going forward?” Systemic risk is all about how one dangerous event can trigger other shocks and force policymakers to shift their focus or priorities. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, in 1914 led directly to World War I.

Current policymakers are focused on Covid-19, the economy and, more recently, on the challenges posed by continuing racism in America. Of course, all three of these mega-challenges are set against the backdrop of the 2020 elections. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s untimely death has further roiled an already chaotic political season in America. Wildfires in California and Oregon and hurricanes in Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida are all contributing to a period of cascading risk, with large numbers of Americans forced to make tough choices between sheltering from fires and storms and avoiding infections from Covid-19.

The world will not stop while the American people address these issues and vote in November. Russia, China, and Iran are all disruptive forces in their respective regions. These well recognized challengers can contribute to cascading effects, surprising policymakers with under-appreciated challenges. Ukraine remains vulnerable to Russia, Taiwan to China, and the Persian Gulf states to Iran. The risks of an unintentional conflict are growing as Greece and Turkey confront each other in the Eastern Mediterranean and China and India skirmish in the Himalayas.

Finally, scenarios can help explore alternative and plausible futures. There is no predetermined future for the United States. With better leadership we could make better choices, as we did after Roosevelt replaced Hoover in 1933. Today, a great deal depends on whether or not an effective vaccine is produced and broadly distributed. Scenarios help policymakers consider, monitor and, prepare for alternative “futures.” This paper lays out four such possibilities for the United States:

  • Best of Times: Covid-19 is conquered and good government returns. The sine qua non for this future will be the successful defeat of the coronavirus. This will be a necessary but not sufficient precondition for the United States to regain its footing at home and abroad. It also requires the complete repudiation of the Republican Party, which has shown that it cannot be a responsible governing party for all Americans. Nonetheless, the challenges facing a Biden administration would be virtually unprecedented — a deeply divided country, state governments in fiscal crisis, and an international environment increasingly inhospitable to U.S. interests. Chinese and Russian hostility are unlikely to moderate with a change of administration in Washington, and alliance ties have been seriously frayed by four years of Donald Trump’s disdain for America’s traditional friends. Nonetheless, a Biden administration will have the opportunity to build on America’s natural strengths with a prudent selection of its priorities.
  • Worst of Times: Covid-19 endures and government fails. The worst “future” for the United States would be a continuation of the same dysfunctional government that has dominated decision making for the last four years. Covid-19, in this telling, endures, victim to the continuing lethality of the virus and the faltering response in Washington. None of America’s major challenges — health care, racial justice, immigration reform, and climate change, among others — are addressed by the Trump administration. Moreover, it remains unclear what a re-elected and emboldened Donald Trump would do with four more years — close U.S. borders to all immigration, attack Iran, or withdraw from NATO are possibilities.
  • Age of Wisdom: Covid-19 endures, but government succeeds. This “future” posits that America’s renewal will come not from Washington but from bottom-up activities of a new generation of Americans seared by the sheer incompetence of the existing power structure. New leadership will emerge from America’s grassroots — civil society, the business community, and state and local governments. That new leadership will genuinely reform Washington. Covid-19 in this telling is the driver of national renewal.
  • Age of Foolishness: COV-19 is defeated, but the major political parties fail to heed its lessons for restoring good government. This is an optimistic future because COVID-19 is beaten back but ultimately discouraging, with the failure of the two major political parties to learn lessons from the wrenching COVID-19 experience. This means that Democrats and Republicans would not confront the serious issues of governance that the chaos of the 2020 elections is exposing, would not build in processes to anticipate future threats, and would not construct the essential resilience to meet the health, climate, racial, and infrastructure challenges that loom over the United States.

Casimir Yost is a Senior Fellow in the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and Director Emeritus of the Institute. He teaches a graduate seminar in the School of Foreign Service, entitled “U.S. and China: Decisions on War and Peace” and an undergraduate seminar, “War and Presidential Decision Making.” From 2009 to 2013, Mr. Yost served on the National Intelligence Council, where he directed the Strategic Futures Group and its predecessor, the Long Range Analysis Unit.

[i] Thomas Fingar, Reducing Uncertainty, Stanford University Press, 2005.

[ii] Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed to War?The Atlantic, September 24, 2015.

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