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The current information revolution is putting transnational issues like financial stability, climate change, terrorism, cybercrime, and pandemics on the global agenda – at the same time as it tends to weaken the ability of all governments to respond. Complexity is growing. One model for the future is great power conflict or concert, but a second model involves “information entropy.” In that world, the answer to the question “Who’s next?” is “No one.”
While this answer is too simple, it does indicate important trends that will affect the place of the U.S. and others in the world. World politics will not be the sole province of governments, as individuals and private organizations – ranging from WikiLeaks to corporations to NGOs to terrorists to spontaneous societal movements – are all empowered to play direct roles in world politics. The spread of information means that power will be more widely distributed and informal networks will undercut the monopoly of traditional bureaucracy. As of 2018, there are about 20 billion devices connected to the internet, and most are autonomous.
Even if the U.S. remains the largest power, it cannot achieve many of its international goals acting alone. That means the case for providing leadership in multilateral institutions remains stronger than ever. In some areas of military and economic goods, unilateral American leadership can provide a large part of the answer. But on the new transnational issues, while American leadership will be important, success will require the multilateral cooperation of others: International financial stability is vital to the prosperity of Americans, but the United States needs the cooperation of others to ensure it. Regardless of potential setbacks to economic globalization, environmental globalization will increase. Climate change and rising sea levels will affect quality of life for everyone, but Americans cannot manage the problem alone. And in a world where borders are becoming more porous to everything from drugs to infectious diseases to terrorism, nations must use soft power to develop networks and build institutions to address shared threats and challenges.
In this sense, power becomes a positive-sum game. It will not be enough to think in terms of American power over others. One must also think in terms of power to accomplish joint goals, which involves power with others. The United States benefits if China improves its energy efficiency and emits less carbon dioxide. In this world, networks and connectedness become an important source of relevant power, and the most connected states are the most powerful.
The Need and the Threat
If the key to a multilateral world order is developing cooperation and valuing “power with” as well as “power over,” the opening years of the Trump administration are not encouraging. Every country puts its interests first, but the important question is how broadly or narrowly those interests are defined. Trump has shown an inclination toward narrow, zero-sum interpretations. At the same time, while Trump won the 2016 election, he did not win the popular vote, and in recent polls by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a large majority of Americans say globalization is mostly good for the U.S. and they continue to support multilateral engagement.
At mid-term in 2018, on the four major strands of the post-1945 liberal order – security, economics, global commons, and values such as human rights and democracy – the record is mixed. Thus far, while the Trump administration has weakened American alliances, it has not destroyed them. The security regimes for restraining proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are challenged, but remain in place. The damage to economic institutions, particularly those related to trade, appears to be greater than to the monetary order (where the dollar still dominates).
On global commons issues, the Trump administration has withdrawn U.S. participation in the Paris climate accord, but the substitution of natural gas for coal continues. As for values, Trump has shown less interest in human rights than his predecessors, and has often embraced authoritarian leaders. Some defenders argue that his unorthodox style and willingness to break institutions will produce major gains, but as The Economist argues, the institutional costs of using a wrecking-ball approach may reduce American power to deal with the new transnational issues that we face.
The terms “liberal international order” and “Pax Americana” have become obsolete as descriptions of world order, but the need remains for the largest countries to organize multilateralism for public goods. Leadership is not the same as domination. There have always been degrees of leadership and degrees of influence during the seven decades of American preeminence after World War II. Now with less preponderance and in a more complex world, American provision of global public goods, in cooperation with others, may be threatened more by the rise of populist nationalism at home than the rise of new powers abroad.
Joseph S. Nye (@Joe_Nye) is university distinguished service professor and former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He has published 14 academic books, including Soft Power, The Future of Power, and Is the American Century Over?