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Prediction and the Elusive Elements of Power Decline

BY Megan Reiss, LBJ School Ph.D. student
This article originally appeared in National Intelligence Council's blog "Global Trends 2030" on July 26, 2012.

The implications of US power decline are great. In the Global Trends 2030 report, three scenarios about the way the world could look in 2030 are introduced. The first is a reverse engines scenario, whereby the US becomes fairly isolationist, current conflicts erupt, the world economy slows and even technology flatlines. In a fragmentation scenario, the lack of will to fix the current political, social, economic and governance problems leads to a world with greater risk of conflict, but without the dire predictions of the reversed engines. Finally, the utopian-like projections of the fusion scenario portray an environment where political will to solve problems leads to a prosperous, cooperative world. Of these three scenarios, the report argues that the fragmentation scenario is the most likely to come to fruition, based on the current trends.

These futuristic predictions beg us to ask, will the US have the ability to manage or even shape scenarios, or will American power decline so managing outcomes is no longer feasible? I can imagine an interplay of will and power may determine which scenario will result. The US may have power but no political will. Though it may be tragic from an American perspective to waste the ability to lead the world community, latent power would allow the US to muster up the will in the future. Power means that even if political will is initially absent, when a sufficient shock occurs or a window opens, the US could then muster the will to work to fix the economy, ease conflicts, solve governance problems. But if the US loses power, even with strong political will, there may be little means of affecting change.

Is the power of the US declining in the world? This question seems like it should be fairly simple to answer by projecting trends into the future, as was done in various graphs in the Global Trends 2030 study, especially those on the Aggregate Power of Developing States. One graph measures power based on GDP, population size, military spending and technology. China and the US have equal power by the year 2030. By 2050, China overtakes the US in power by roughly 6 percentage points. But when the team adds health, education and governance to the mix, suddenly China’s power is behind the US by four or five percentage points in 2030 and is only a couple percentage points ahead in power by 2050. By adding only a few additional elements, the estimated future of US power begins to look a bit rosier.

We could break the elements of these projections down even more to try to get to the roots of actual power. Data on the average age of the population, the social programs the population are guaranteed, the congruence of domestic opinion, the harmony of regional and distant State relationships, the epicenters of industrial booms, the salience of international organizations, and even the influence of nuclear weapons would mean the neat and tidy graphs would only get more complicated. Yet intuitively, each of these should factor in to power projections. Try to then picture accurately predicting the likelihood of innovation in fields we have yet to stumble upon and the power projections on a graph seem incomplete.

Predictions of power decline repeat across history. In the 50’s, the US prepared for nuclear war and predicted that the Soviets would threaten US power to such a great extent that the dominos would fall and many of our allies could succumb to communism. The 60’s saw the US at the brink of a nuclear conflict and saw a massive escalation of manpower in conflicts over communism in developing countries. Domestic turmoil and a renewed arms race defined the 70’s. The 80’s brought a series of conflicts in developing countries and another terrifying arms r