Magazine | October 6, 2014, Issue

Mapping Tomorrow’s World

The Future, Declassified: Megatrends That Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action, by Mathew Burrows (Palgrave Macmillan, 288 pp., $27)

Mathew Burrows arrived at the CIA in the mid 1980s with a Ph.D. in history. He retired last year as the principal U.S. intelligence analyst of long-term trends. In this book, a study of the forces that will shape the world and the relative power of nations 15 to 20 years hence, he approaches his task as a historian would. He focuses on long-term, fundamental trends but has an appreciation for contingency and agency: a recognition that things can change quickly, and not for the better. Burrows devotes considerable attention to subjects such as demographics, which by nature can be projected out 15 to 20 years with fairly high confidence. Yet he highlights the potentially disruptive impact, for good or ill, of new technologies and other factors, and the fact that the possible outcomes over the next two decades for the world and for individual countries vary widely.

The result is humbling, at times startling, and useful. The Future, Declassified is a sobering picture of the challenges that America will face in the world and a warning that to meet them it must prioritize and make policy choices now that will end up paying dividends.

We are in a “pivotal historic moment,” Burrows argues, not unlike 1789, 1815, 1945, or 1989, with “profound structural changes” under way. Global power and wealth are shifting rapidly as a result of unprecedented economic growth in the developing world. China will soon become the world’s largest economy. By 2025, it is projected to contribute one-third of global growth, far more than any other nation. The increase in China’s share of world GDP per decade from 2000 to 2020 will likely be considerably greater than was America’s in the first half of the 20th century, the United Kingdom’s in the 19th, or Japan’s after World War II.

While China looms particularly large, other rising economies — especially India, but including burgeoning regional powers Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Turkey, and South Africa — are also shifting global power dynamics, and quickly. Burrows argues compellingly that even as some of them falter or hit roadblocks to growth, the overall trend will persist: While the U.S. economy will continue to grow and benefit from globalization, the economic might of the United States and most of its traditional allies will decline relative to that of rising powers.

Yet China and the other rising powers face substantial pitfalls and challenges. China’s economic-growth rate will slow substantially. Burrows notes that China might find itself in the “middle-income trap,” struggling to satisfy demands from its new middle class for ever-rising standards of living that still lag far behind the West’s.

Burrows forecasts constant reordering of the landscape of wealth and power. Brazil’s economy will overtake both the United Kingdom’s and Germany’s within a few years, he estimates, but eventually the U.K. may also surpass Germany, because of Germany’s acute demographic challenges. And by the 2030s, India, in part because of more advantageous long-term demographics than China, could experience the kind of economic growth rates that China has had over the last few decades — especially if it pursues a path of reform and cracks down on corruption.

Global security challenges will abound, in Burrows’s view. He is gloomy about the Middle East, forecasting that the sectarian rivalries there could deepen, with an increasingly dangerous standoff between Iran and Arab Gulf states and the potential for the violence that has wracked Syria and Iraq to threaten Jordan, Lebanon, and others. And he sees continued dangers in South Asia, where Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is growing and might be increasingly dispersed, the U.S. departure from Afghanistan could open a vacuum, and the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan are maintaining exceptionally high birthrates even while facing an economic future that is uncertain at best.

The dynamics in East Asia are and will continue to be fraught, as China, the United States and its traditional allies, and various swing states struggle to adapt to ongoing shifts in economic and military power. Burrows maintains that a growing and strong China is in America’s economic interests. He is wary of China’s recent assertiveness in the region, which ironically has had the effect of causing America’s allies and the swing states alike to look increasingly to America and to one another, but he judges that the potential for conflict between major powers in the region is actually low. Much will depend, he argues, on skillful diplomacy on all sides.

#page#On the effects of potential advances in technology, Burrows is largely optimistic. He focuses on biotech, IT, nanotech, 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, and robotics, arguing that together they could contribute to substantial reductions in disease and hunger while empowering individuals and improving quality of life. Yet he points to potentially enormous downsides. His description of the dangers that could be posed by synthetic biology — combining DNA manipulation, IT, and bioprinting — at the disposal of unscrupulous states or individuals is harrowing.

Whither America? Burrows contends that it will likely remain the single most powerful nation, even as its overall economic and military power, and that of its traditional allies, decline relatively. Yet he points to three trends eroding the domestic sources of American power over the long term: America’s unsustainable fiscal trajectory; primary and secondary education — without “large-scale improvements” in them, the middle class and poor could be battered by global competition and technological change; and reductions in funding for basic research.

No one who reads this book will agree with all of Burrows’s analysis, and no one who finishes it will feel comfortable. In part for those reasons, his attempt to analyze the fundamental shifts under way globally and what they mean for America’s position in the world is a public service.

If anything, Burrows underestimates the extent to which the challenges America faces are exacerbated by vulnerabilities that are largely self-created. At the same time as America’s relative economic power is being reduced with the rise of emerging economies, and as the dangers of a world without strong U.S. leadership grow, current policy in Washington will sharply limit future U.S. competitiveness and freedom of action. Burrows touches on the gravity of America’s fiscal situation, and the hard numbers are instructive: Total federal debt currently held by the public, which includes foreign creditors, is approximately $13 trillion; as a percentage of GDP the debt is the highest it has ever been except for a brief period during and after World War II, and the drivers of the debt are entitlement programs that will impose crushing costs indefinitely. By 2043, the Congressional Budget Office estimates, federal spending on entitlements and interest on the debt will consume all federal revenue — every dollar the United States spends on defense or anything else will be borrowed — and the debt will far exceed U.S. GDP. Unwillingness to choose a sustainable fiscal path is undermining America’s power. Recent attempts to deal with the fiscal problem have resulted in fiasco, with cuts to discretionary spending, especially defense, and most spending for entitlements untouched. At the same time, America is allocating its defense spending less strategically; by one estimate, nearly half of the U.S. defense budget by 2021 will be devoted to personnel compensation rather than research and development, procurement, or training.

For the United States to compete and lead effectively abroad, it must confront its self-inflicted weaknesses. That means addressing its debt and deficits by reforming entitlements, prioritizing defense spending on technological superiority, and addressing areas, such as education and infrastructure, that were once comparative advantages but now loom as relative vulnerabilities. It also means exploiting strengths, including its boom in oil and gas production thanks to the development and deployment of horizontal drilling and fracking, and its continuing ability to attract skilled and creative individuals from around the world.

Amid all the potentially negative long-term trends it will face, the United States still retains the greatest freedom of any major power to determine its own future, mostly because many of its problems are within its ability to address. America must shore up the domestic sources of its strength and, at the same time, exercise active, credible, sustained leadership abroad. In the next few years, both parties will seek to find their footing on foreign policy. Contemplating how to meet those twin challenges simultaneously would be a good place to start.

– Mr. Lettow was the senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff from 2007 to 2009, and is the author of Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Paul Lettow — Paul Lettow, the author of Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, served as the senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff from 2007 to 2009.

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