The international order is in the midst of profound change: at no time since the formation of the Western alliance system in 1949 have the shape and nature of international alignments been in such a state of flux as they have during the past decade. As a result, the world of 2020 will differ markedly from the world of 2004, and in the intervening years the United States will face major international challenges that differ significantly from those we face today. The very magnitude and speed of change resulting from a globalizing world—regardless of its precise character—will be a defining feature of the world out to 2020. Other significant characteristics include:
As with previous upheavals, the seeds of major change have been laid in the trends apparent today. Underlying the broad characteristics listed above are a number of specific trends that overlap and play off each other:
As we survey the next 15 years, the role of the United States will be an important variable in how the world is shaped, influencing the path that states and nonstate actors choose to follow. In addition to the pivotal role of the United States, international bodies including international organizations, multinational corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and others can mitigate distinctly negative trends, such as greater insecurity, and advance positive trends.
How we mentally map the world will be different in 2020. Traditional geographic groupings will increasingly lose salience in international relations. Since the end of the Cold War, scholars have questioned the utility of the East vs. West concept that emerged in the late 1940s as an intellectual justification for American engagement in Europe. Eurasia as a concept supplanting the former Soviet Union seems irrelevant as many former Soviet members go their own way and the prospect of Moscow reasserting control seems improbable. The usefulness of the West as a concept has been questioned by the growing philosophic divisions between the US and Western Europe over sovereignty and multilateralism and the increasing power on the world scene of traditionally non-Western powers.
As with the East-West divide, the traditional North-South faultline may not be a meaningful concept for the world in 2020 owing to globalization and the expected rise of China and India, which have been considered part of the “South” because of their level of development. Traditional issues of North-South inequalities, trade, and assistance will certainly keep coming to the fore, but some high-growth developing countries, especially China and India, probably will be among the economic heavy-weights or “haves.” They will not be “Western” in the traditional sense but also may not be seen as representative of the underdeveloped or still developing countries. China, in particular, may see itself as having been restored as a great power after several centuries of decline.
Divisions other than economic may also shape how we view the world. We anticipate that religion will play an increasing role in how many people define their identity. For many societies, divisions between and within religious groups may become boundaries as significant as national borders. We particularly see Christian-Muslim divides in Southeast Asia, splits within the Muslim world between Shia and Sunni communities, and islands of potential religious or ethnic disaffection in Europe, Russia, and China as figuring prominently in the 2020 geographic outlook.
One current concept that may still hold true in 2020 is that of an increasing arc of instability ranging from Southeast Asia, where the possibility exists of growing radical Islam and terrorism, to Central Asia, where we see the possibility of “failed,” non-democratic states. The arc includes many Middle Eastern and African countries, some of whom may have fallen further behind or have only just begun to connect with the global economy. Globalization above all will have replaced the former divide among the industrialized West; Communist East; and the developing, non-aligned, or Third World. New alignments instead will be between those countries, or even parts of countries or hubs, that are integrating into a global community and those that are not integrating for economic, political or social reasons. For those mega-cities or hubs that are the engine behind globalization, the financial and telecommunications links they forge with each other may matter as much or more than national boundaries.