The next few decades of US-China relations will be much more difficult. Robert Kaplan

Star Wars

The history of conflict is as old as the history of human civilization. Forget utopian hopes for a pacifist future – the 22nd century will still be marked by wars. But locations and actors will change.

For all of recorded history, war has been a ubiquitous part of the human condition. It is possible, but unlikely to the extreme, that the 21st century will be the first in which war is abolished. It is important to begin any discussion on the next century with thinking about those things that are permanent and consider them in the emerging context. Obviously, there are many permanent dimensions of the human condition, from economic life to the love of parents for children. All of these are significant.

However, war plays a central role in all thinking about the future because, unlike the other things, it is simultaneously catastrophically disruptive and can overwhelm and redefine the other things with a rapidity that is astounding.

We must begin by considering the most important phenomenon of the 20th century and its impact on the 21st century. This would be the decline of the European imperial system. In 1900, the Europeans dominated most of the world, ruling directly or dominating through their power. By 1970, Europe had torn itself apart in its perpetual civil war and, shattered, was occupied by the United States and Soviet Union.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, only one global power remained: the United States. Europe had neither political unity nor military power. Europe suffers from the worst of all dangers – it is rich and weak, and its perpetual divisions are re-emerging.

North America, the world’s gravitational center

North America is now the center of gravity of the international system, and for the rest of this century we can expect it to remain the dominant global power. However, the type of systemic shift that took place in 1991, using Europe as a model, allows for internal upheavals that bring new political structures and geographies to the fore. In the very long run of centuries, the European model would indicate that the United States will be supplanted in some way. The means for this has historically been war.

I do not foresee a rotation in this century. The only potential challenger to the United States would have been a completely united Europe, whose economy would have been larger than that of the United States and whose ability to construct a global military force would have challenged that of the United States. That moment was always unlikely, and now any possibility of it has passed.

The degree to which Europe will return to its prior condition of fratricide is difficult to predict. It is important to recall that in the first half of the century Europe was a slaughterhouse, and for most of the second half it was occupied, with extremely little room for political maneuver. The period in which European states had freedom of action has been extremely short, beginning only in 1991, and occurred during a time of singular prosperity. The last 20 years tell us nothing about Europe’s transcendence of its history because they are merely the blink of an eye from a historical perspective. The response to its first crisis has not been promising. Europe has had periods of relative peace in the past. They have not lasted, and there is no reason to assume that this period will.

It is equally difficult to imagine US domination without resistance. As we have seen in the last decade, American use of power is clumsy and immature, as one would expect from an empire only 20 years old. Resistance is inevitable and at the same time ineffective. Not only are coalitions required, but nations with balanced power — economic, military, and political — must emerge. As in all centuries, the ecological space is filled with new powers.

In my view three powers are in the process of emerging. The first, Japan, is already a great power. It is the third-largest economic power in the world, is socially cohesive where China is not, and has a more substantial military and technical base than China. Japan is the center of gravity in Asia, not China.

The second is Turkey. It benefits for having been excluded from the European Union, and therefore has a robust economy, and it benefits from the vacuum left by the United States when it withdrew from Iraq. Turkey is the leading power in the Islamic world and is in the process of beginning to exercise that power. It will dominate large parts of the Islamic world.

Poland will become Europe’s leading power

Finally, I expect the emergence of Poland as the leading European power. Germany, the current leader, suffers from two major defects. The first is that it is so heavily dependent on exports that it is a prisoner of its customers, with no way to reduce dependence on exports without a depression. The second is that its declining population will not sustain the productive effort needed to sustain that productive machine. While Europe in general is in decline, Poland has a relative dynamism with fewer defects and will in the course of the century supplant Germany as a leader.

These three emerging powers will challenge and limit the United States with their own coalitions and coalitions among themselves.

War is a constant and will take place in some way. Of course, war evolves. Few in 1900 would have imagined the devastation that Germany suffered from bombers – the Wright brothers first flew in that year. Technology always defeats common sense. Just as the first half of the 20th century was the introduction of air power, the first half of the 21st century will be the extension of the currently primitive state of space power. The creation of a new sphere of warfare represents historical continuity.

This, then, is my vision of the world a hundred years hence and my reasoning. It will resemble the past in all ways save two. The names and location of the competing powers will change and the sphere of warfare will expand. Economic and family life will continue, of course, interrupted and shaped only by the catastrophes of war.

Read more in this debate: Ben Scott, Tomáš Sedláček, George Bekey.

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