From the Desk Of Eugene Scherbakov

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Left to right: Dr. Alexander Dynkin and Dr. Feodor Voitolovsky, Primakov Institute; Dr. Alexander Yakovenko Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom

Grantees in this story

The Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and the Moscow-based Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) have released a joint strategic forecast report, The Global System on the Brink: Pathways toward a New Normal (condensed report here). Produced with funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York, the report identifies the global challenges of the next twenty years and considers how the international community can address those challenges today.

How will the emergence of non-western economic powers reshape the world’s geopolitical landscape? What technological innovations will disrupt foundational institutions in fragile states? Will budding great-power conflicts lead to war? While addressing these and similar issues, the report outlines a program of foreign policy objectives to support peaceful and prosperous development during a turbulent period of transition. International cooperation will be essential; global challenges require global solutions.

The report begins by noting that globalization, which defined the past twenty years, is undergoing a radical transformation as its driving force shifts from the West to the Global East and South. This shift presents several difficulties. Though the mass diffusion of wealth and economic power has already brought millions out of poverty, a new international economic and legal architecture will be required to assimilate the developing economies that increasingly drive world trade, lest global integration breaks down into regionalization based on trade patterns. Furthermore, though the wealth disparity among nations has shrunk, the wealth inequality within those nations has grown, threatening to destabilize the internal cohesion of the emergent markets that support the world economy.

The turmoil of the economic transition to a polycentric world will be compounded by demographic trends. As an aging population in the developed world threatens to limit growth and strain public finances, the populations of Africa, Oceania, and the Middle East are all projected to rise at a fast pace. The population of Africa alone will rise to 1.6 billion over the next twenty years, placing immense burdens on social infrastructure. Africa contains the world’s most uncultivated arable land, and yet is a net food importer; it is a major energy exporter, yet one in four Africans lacks electricity; and although democracy has spread, one-third of African countries are mired in civil conflicts. In Africa and elsewhere, long term developmental issues like these will require international cooperation to avert major humanitarian disasters.

Demographic challenges may be exacerbated by emerging technologies like robotics, automation, and clean energy, which, while ideally providing better quality of life, may also drastically increase wealth disparity and leave wide swaths of petroleum-dependent economies destitute. Meanwhile, the information revolution, which has empowered individuals across the globe and has already been instrumental in transforming the political landscapes of a dozen countries, will continue to exert pressure on fragile government rule. The Middle East, where the above trends will intensify sectarian conflicts and threaten weak state structures, could be completely transformed by 2035.

Technological, social, and demographic factors exist within a larger context of global cooperation and world order. The report argues that the critical task of the next twenty years will be to create a vision of international world order established to accommodate the interests of the emerging countries that will drive the world economy. As the world’s most powerful nation, the United States will face the strategic choice of attempting to remain the world’s sole superpower, or transitioning to the position of first among equals. The former would promote competition among regional and global bodies (such as the EU, the Shanghai Cooperative Organization [SCO], and the BRICs). The latter would give the international system the space to work in concert on issues like violent extremism and nuclear nonproliferation, and to articulate new legal norms governing maritime, air, cyber-space, and outer space activity.

Currently, competition is fraying the international order.  As geopolitical competition increases, incentives for disarmament weaken. In the past several months, Russia has previewed an underwater drone-delivered dirty bomb, and the United States has skirted its Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations by upgrading its nuclear delivery arsenal. If Russia and the United States cooperate, they could reduce their nuclear arsenals to around 1,000 strategic and tactical warheads. Britain and France could join the process within the next ten years. In such a cooperative framework, the international community could find the necessary support to bring about the entry-into-force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and conclude the Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty. Without such proactive work on the legal restrictions of weapon development and deployment, an arms race in space is likely to occur, new biological weapons to proliferate, and disruptive technology like additive manufacturing to allow more states or non-state actors to build nuclear bombs.

At the heart of all these issues is the relationship between the United States and Russia. The ultimate scenarios for 2035 envisioned in the report all depend upon Russia and the United States coming together to work for an inclusive world order. Otherwise, if current hostilities continue, the foreign policy of the next U.S. administration remains devoted to democracy promotion, and the Kremlin doubles down on protecting its regional interests, a conflict along the post-Soviet rim of countries like Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia (all countries with conditions very similar to pre-Maidan Ukraine) may well develop into a full-blown war. If the sanctions regime imposed in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea remains in place indefinitely, Russia may choose to abandon Europe as a reliable trade partner and look to Eurasia, consolidating the SCO as an adversary of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), leading to entrenched bloc competition. Internal forces within Russia may also cause it to topple on its own, but with its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and geographic reach, a destabilized Russia could be even worse than a war along its borders.  

The development and decline of U.S.-Russian relations since the latter emerged from the Soviet Union twenty-five years ago reads as a case-study on the inherent danger of destabilization under competing world order. As the condensed summary of the report notes, “the ongoing crisis in Russia’s relations with the U.S. and the European Union starting in 2013-15 shows that economic interests and cooperation in international security can be sacrificed for the sake of political, geopolitical, and ideological ambition.” Alternatively, if diplomacy and cooperation prevail over the coming years, it should be possible for Russia and America to meet in a Helsinki-type format to agree upon the new rules governing world order in the 21st century. In this scenario, the problems of a disjointed world economy, climate change, the creation and spread of WMD, and the ballooning demographic challenges in the developing world, may be addressed in concert and ultimately averted. The urgency of the task is clear. The challenge was summarized succinctly at the launch of the report: “We are facing a race between cooperation and catastrophe.”