Every few years, the National Intelligence Council of the United States Government publishes a study of the near future, looking ahead roughly 15-20 years. These studies are part of an effort to predict what kinds of changes the US is facing, and to prepare for these changes. The studies are an attempt to push the typically myopic American policy-formation process into a more strategic and long-term approach. The NIC’s latest study, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, prepared in 2012, looks ahead to 2030 (the next study, looking ahead to 2035, is due to be released to the President in December 2016). The intelligence specialists, and the many academic minds they tapped to game out future potentialities of various trends and changes, offer insight into the kinds of policies – foreign and domestic – which the US needs to compete and survive economically, politically, and militarily. While the authors of the study (career civil servants and academicians with no consensus on partisan interests or identity) do not promote or criticize any politician or political party, their predictions show clearly that the stances taken by the two major political parties offer drastically different worlds and potential futures for the United States. The trends show that only the Democratic Party is able and willing to bring our nation into the world of 2030; while the Republican Party offers us only an incompetent and declining nation, and an international arena of ever greater poverty, instability, terror, and war.
Changes which will shape the immediate future:
The principle immediate objective of the authors is understanding the many changes already underway in the world today, which together will transform our world of today into the world of 2030. The changes noted are mostly global in nature (although the authors also note some changes specific to the US and to other individual nations). These changes will, to some extent or other, affect all nations. Among the more decisive of changes (whose precise course the authors generally avoid predicting, preferring to speculate on the effects of various different courses) is the growth of the global middle class. In China and India especially, but in many nations throughout the world (Brazil also quite prominently), the global middle class is growing far more rapidly than is the overall population. The gentrification of the global economy is putting geometrically increasing stresses upon the world’s energy, food, and water supplies, and on other resources as well. The growing middle class also pushes the world into political change, both further democratization, and increased authoritarianism – both of which are common results of different progressions of a growing middle class.
Another change shaping our future is the decisive shift of the global economy from the northern and western world to the southern and eastern – especially to China and India. In investigating different potential courses, the authors argue that a stable and growing China is of fundamental importance to a continuing global economy and to international security and peace. The various futures in which China fails to develop both economically and politically are ugly indeed, not only for the fifth or so of the human race who live there, but for those in India, the US, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. Similarly, Indian development is also a key factor; and the possibility of instability and tension between India and China could throw the world’s entire future development off track (particularly if a breakdown leads to a war between these two massive nuclear powers).
Nuclear war is generally, however, seen as less of a general threat than is another change, the increasing availability of lethal technologies to smaller powers and to non-state actors. Store-bought drones, GPS, the commercialization of bio-engineering and DNA sequencing, computerized design applications, and other modern technologies are providing access to weaponized UAVs, bioterror capabilities, and other lethal attack options at ever lower prices to ever greater numbers of groups and individuals. Terror operations like the Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino and other attacks are the “new normal” of the 21st century, a cost of living in the modern world to which we are going to have to learn to live with – or else, we are going to have to change radically our attitudes toward freedom, and toward public access to information and other technologies. We can try to end terror by going backwards; or we can move forward and accept it as a cost for the many advantages with which we are endowed by modern technology.
Another change under way is the progressive aging of most modern states, as medicine and living conditions improve. While longer life spans are rarely seen as a negative, the economies of aging societies are stagnating as the ratio of working to non-working populations decreases. While some societies may simply conclude that longer life spans will have to mean longer working lives (at least for the lower and middle classes), other societies may seek demographic changes by attracting new, younger populations through immigration and refugee supports. Currently, the US has one of the most youthful of populations among the advanced, industrialized states (due to its immigration policies and its history of welcoming immigrants and refugees). However, Europe’s struggles over taking in refugees from Syria may, if these policies continue, also infuse Europe with younger blood and the greater productivity that comes with it. But for more insulated societies, like Japan (and Europe should the EU reject further refugees), a new dimension of class warfare may develop as these societies become unable to support their growing, aging populations.
Another demographic change is the world’s accelerating urbanization, related to the growing middle class. New technologies are creating a potential for new “smart cities” integrating individual smart devices with city services, markets, and resources, making for better and faster management of increasingly scarce resources. To a degree, the developing world actually has a “smart cities” advantage over the developed, in that smart architectures can (the authors argue) be developed and managed far more easily on a blank slate than in large cities with established bureaucracies. The middle of the century might well see higher standards of living in Brasilia, Mosul, or Lagos than in New York, London, or Tokyo as newly smart cities outpace old cities trying to mate smart technologies with large, conservative bureaucracies.
One of the few national changes which the authors consider as a global change is the growing energy independence of the US. The authors call all too unapologetically for increased natural gas and petroleum production as a key to both US economic independence and to addressing the world’s geometrically increasing demand for energy. The authors see green energy (e.g., solar and wind power) as unlikely to rival fossil fuels in keeping energy costs low before 2030 (around which time technological development may finally enable green energy to do so). Low energy costs are also vital to increasing the world’s production of food, and to conserving as much as possible our fresh water supplies. The authors see an energy-independent US as minimizing global competition, tension, and conflict for energy, food, and water (not to mention reducing America’s own impetus to fight for foreign oil supplies).
Finally, the authors (who as intelligence specialists have access to global data on climate conditions) note the definite trend of climate change. Although they diplomatically avoid predicting environmental catastrophe, they note the likelihood that current trends will continue and accelerate, impeding future food production and access to water, and forcing certain population migrations from the most sharply impacted areas of the world. They predict the likelihood that trends already long under way will foment conflict in areas like Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, areas especially vulnerable to climatic effects and to social change.
Variables which may shape the changes outlined:
There are a vast array of significant variables which will steer events and conditions as the world moves forward to 2030. These variables are subject to change by government policies, and so effective government policy can steer them toward a healthy nation and a stable world. Among the greatest of variables are the relationship between the US and Russia; the development of governance, and the related development of infrastructure; and the development of African food independence. A peaceful and productive relationship between the US and Russia is a key factor that can steer the world away from conflict and tension; from violence, and from costly military productions and adventures. On the other hand, either Russian adventurism or disproportionate US obstruction of Russian interests can steer international efforts away from harmonic economic development and relief, and into conflict and/or actual warfare – and while the authors always presume a low threat of apocalyptic nuclear wars, the possibility increases as tension between nuclear powers increases. On a lower level, we can see even today that in Syria, for example, an open US-Russian rivalry is hampering effective work on combating terror and rebuilding state structures in the war zones. Even without mushroom clouds blossoming over our cities, a new US-Russian Cold War will help no one.
Effective governance and infrastructure will be ever more vital as population demands for finite resources accelerate. The authors note specifically the stagnation of infrastructural development in the US as a potential turning point in our nation’s path. If we cease supporting schools to train our youth; building roads, bridges, ports, and communication networks to carry our commerce and data; caring for those needing medical help; or we lose faith in the role of government as a strategic manager of increasingly scarce resources, the US will quickly join the developing world as an economic and financial backwater, and (unlike many developing states moving forward) will move backward toward greater economic dependency and subordination to other powers. Our political and economic independence is itself at stake – with a key determining variable being our willingness to invest in our own success and our own strengths. Those forces on the American political map arguing against government expenditures on infrastructure and on welfare and social supports, are threatening (our own intelligence specialists tell us) to push the US off the stage of global relevance, but also away from the ability to protect our people and our way of life. The authors similarly note the global relevance of government and infrastructure. All of the developed and developing states must commit to greater education, greater infrastructure, and greater social spending, for the world of 2030 to be a healthy, peaceful, and productive one. US policy must not just build our nation here at home, but must advocate and support the development of global infrastructure.
Finally, as the global demand for food, water, and energy accelerates – and as fossil energy plateaus, and fresh water supplies become ever more strained and scarce – a key link in the global food supply will be the African agricultural sector. Africa has some of the world’s most rapidly growing populations, several of the world’s most rapidly growing middle classes (with both of these in particular expanding in Nigeria, Africa’s demographic center), and a number of the world’s most vulnerable and conflict-ridden societies. Foreign trade with, and aid to African states from the more developed states of the world has historically been exploitative and nation-centered. But if Africa does not expand its ability to feed itself without external support quickly – and dramatically – the next two decades may well see Africa become the world’s center of famine, instability, and violence. These are trends that, thanks to growing internet connections and the increasing access of poor peoples to lethal technologies, will impact directly the more advanced states as they are visited by terror at home from the desperate peoples of Africa. The increasing connections between desperate forces in Africa and the central forces behind ISIS in Syria and Iraq demonstrate just what kind of threat we are facing if Africa does not become self-sufficient in food production. The authors predict that the focus of international terrorism may shift from the Middle East to Africa – and threats to Paris, London, Tokyo, New York, Detroit, and other cities far from Africa will emerge if the world does not work together to build an effective African agriculture. On the other hand, successful work there can establish a foundation for greater economic stability not just for Africa but for the world; and will ease terror, both within Africa and beyond.
The Policies of the GOP: Deconstructing the US, Global Security, and Global Prosperity
The Global Trends study becomes more relevant in the context of the 2016 election year, as the US chooses between two major political parties, and the candidates’ mindsets about how (and where) to steer our nation forward. As we look to the changes underway, and to the authors’ nonpartisan warnings about what conditions and approaches are needed to traverse them successfully, it becomes clear that the Republican Party’s radicalization by the Tea Party has positioned the GOP to be one of the greatest threats to our nation’s security and future. The Republican mindset is so inherently flawed and out of sync with the 21st century that the only way that Republicans can bring our nation forward is by abandoning their ideology entirely, becoming Democrats in mind and spirit, and committing unswervingly to the liberal imperative of John Winthrop’s vision of the “shining City on a Hill.”
The basic failure of the Republican Party is its commitment to a 1950s vision of the world, a world now gone and transformed into something both hated and unknowable by American conservatives. Republican candidates like Trump (who has himself personally steered American jobs to China and Mexico) threaten to “punish” China and Mexico for “stealing” American jobs (shifted overseas by American corporations, enabled by a loose regulatory environment and by consumer disinterest in “product patriotism”). Republican candidates like him and Cruz clamor to reopen a new Cold War with the new Russia, bringing back (they hope) the “good old days” of a simpler, bipolar world. But Putin is not Stalin or Brezhnev; and Russia is not the Soviet Union. China is also not a new Soviet Union – being both more willing to talk, trade, and change; and more difficult to dissuade by traditional tools of diplomacy and military power. The new Republican leaders understand none of this; and they hope that a 1950s strategic mentality will bring back a 1950s world.
This hope by the GOP for making America 1950s-esque again is not limited, unfortunately, to Republicans’ strategic vision. They also envision a world shaped by white, male Americans and white, male Russians; but they ironically run away from their party’s 1950s commitment to secure our nation through an effective, nationally directed education program. As global economic, technological, and environmental change invalidates the Republicans’ 1950s mindset, they cling ever more to a long-gone vision and they reject ever more their old commitment to education. However, while American and Soviet economic and military power drove the bipolar world of the Cold War, the increasingly diverse world of the 21st century frightens and angers American conservatives. Conservatives react by rejecting public education in favor of private, for-profit charter schools and of religiously-oriented home schooling. They take money away from major educational institutions, as in Governor Scott Walker’s evisceration of the internationally competitive University of Wisconsin-Madison (while he channeled equivalent funding to new sports stadiums).
The Global Trends study demonstrates clearly that the US needs a more competitive education system. The US needs a more directed and strategic approach to education, not a more localized or religious one. The US needs to rebuild its technological edge as an area for job competitiveness and job creation. This edge is vanishing as global education improves, and as the US education system deteriorates. An independent and powerful US of 2030 will only be a reality if the US focuses on improving its education system, teaching more science, more culture, more languages, and more art (and creativity most especially). Local, state, and national commitments to education must accelerate – not be cut by Trump’s and Cruz’s mutual agreement on dismantling the Department of Education. China, India, and Russia drool at the very prospect of a Trump or Cruz presidency, and a final decimation of American education and competitiveness.
The conservatives’ lack of faith in American infrastructure is also spelling further trouble for 2030. A productive America of 2030 will need new roads and bridges. America will need a better communications network and data management system, and power distribution systems. America will need to revamp or replace its aging nuclear stations, and will need to develop green energy capabilities for the eventual replacement of fossil fuels. All of these are improvements that must be implemented now. We need a political environment of faith in the public good of clean energy, cheap transportation and communication, and fast data networking. The failure of private corporations to work toward these goals shows us that a “market solution” is not available. The power of legislation and public funding must step in to protect our nation for the future. And the Tea Party’s mission, ever more shrilly screeched at the public, is nothing other than stopping these very initiatives from ever happening. The Tea Party is an obstacle that must be cleared, flattened, and paved over if we are to move our nation forward into the future.
Another Republican problem is defense. Again, the Republicans remain wedded to a 1950s vision of tanks, fighter planes, and aircraft carriers as the key elements of a modern military. And yet even our own Joint Chiefs of Staff continue to beg the Republicans in Congress to shift military spending to the tools needed for 21st century warfare – highly educated, techno-savvy soldiers; cyberwarfare assets, language specialists, and cultural specialists; engineering assets; and special warfare assets. They complain that their tanks and fighters are facing obsolescence without most of them even seeing a day of action in the 14 years of constant warfare of our conservative and Orwellian “War is Peace” mentality. In the meantime, the assets our military does need are overwhelmed and underfunded. The US Congress must abandon its 1950s approach to warfighting – and the Republicans are the chief obstacle to making that happen and to securing our nation.
The most apparent defense problem of the Republicans, however, is not one of equipment, but of culture. Their “whites only” vision of the world continues to foment suspicion and hostility toward Muslims and others. And yet, Muslims are the central actors in the fight against ISIS, and for the battles over the Middle East. They are the principal actors in domestic counter-terror operations in the US, where the FBI constantly reports that American Muslims have been the main – sometimes only – intelligence resource for early warning against home-bred terror threats (and that threat is ISIS’s main modus operandi, unlike al-Qaeda-style, centrally trained terror-warfare specialists). Both abroad and at home, the US needs to cultivate a positive, mutually trusting relationship with Muslims and with Muslim nations. Iran is a leading combatant against ISIS and al-Qaeda; and the US hostility toward Iran is as obsolete as our “whites only” approach to society and government. Iran is also becoming a great power in its own right, a major future shaper of regional affairs, and one with much to offer the US in trade and political cooperation on other regional and international issues. The US needs to push aside a party openly suspicious of Muslims, of Iran, of foreigners, as all of these forces will be ever greater shapers of regional and global destinies in the 21st century.
Democratic Approaches – Building the City on a Hill, and Working With the New World
On the other hand, America’s other major party, the Democracy, promises a more harmonic effort to bring the United States into the future and to maintain our nation’s independence and economic vitality. The Democrats have a mindset in harmony with Winthrop’s City on a Hill, and with the changes predicted by our best intelligence experts. The Democrats offer a harmonic fusion of foreign policy and strategy, governance and infrastructure, and situational awareness of strategic realities that contrasts starkly with the Luddite mentality of Republicans and Tea Party extremists.
Hillary Clinton’s work as Secretary of State fits well into the authors’ scheme of China and Russia as major players who will help shape the future. Clinton’s and President Obama’s priorities in developing peaceful, mutually beneficial economic relations with China indicate the Democrats’ readiness to support Chinese development (a key factor in the peaceful development of Asia and of the global economy). Two problem areas noted by the authors offer opportunities for positive work between the US and China: Korea and Taiwan. In both cases, the US and China each have political and military interests in conflict with the other. However, both states also see a greater benefit in maintaining together the status quo. Both states are also wary of being unnecessarily driven by their respective clients (North Korea and Taiwan) into an undesirable greater conflict.
Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have also offered suggestions about working positively and peacefully with Russia (so long, of course, as Russia – or Putin – also sees a benefit to cooperative action). The authors note that a Russia determined to operate alone and aggressively can undermine global stability; and they subtly imply that US foreign policy must tread carefully between on the one hand allowing Russia too much opportunity for adventurism, and on the other backing Russia into a corner and forcing a proud nation to assert its exceptionalism through military posturing or even open warfare. Republican posturing about keeping a loose finger on the nuclear trigger and about keeping Russia in line threatens to undermine that balance, and trigger Russian action and a renewal of imperialism. The Democrats, however, offer cooler heads and a cooler approach in line with the Global Trends study’s recommendations for a careful and agile foreign policy. Such a foreign policy is also necessary for building a greater US-Russian partnership on counter-terror (a mutual security concern for both nations) and on both European and Asian affairs in general.
The Democrats are also the only party advocating the continuing construction of our “City on a Hill,” developing effective governance and infrastructure. The single most important element – and one which only the Democrats accept as an imperative for the future – is the development of our national education system. A drastic improvement of our education system at all levels – primary, secondary, and higher education – is necessary to producing a 21st-century labor force capable of competing with foreign workers. Unskilled labor is an economy of the past, and workers today and tomorrow need greater skills in math, science, languages, and even the arts (particularly in creative and imaginative work, the most difficult activities for machine intelligence to replicate).
Both to keep jobs at home, and to attract foreign and domestic investment to the United States (when opportunities for investment abound globally and are rapidly expanding in the developing economies), the US needs a highly skilled labor force prepared to work in a fully globalized and integrated economy, and with diverse cultures. The Republicans are interested only in ensuring that students can pray and can maintain 20th century skills like writing in cursive; in ensuring that private corporations can eke out a profit from “education”; and in ensuring that uneducated parents can override local, state, or national goals of fostering a workforce capable of actually working. The Democrats, however, are far more in sync with the needs of the labor force and of our business community, needs which drive greater educational efforts. Our nation needs to rebuild education as the public good that it was during the Cold War, when both political parties committed unflinchingly to developing an effective education system, beginning with large-scale national direction, strategic goal-setting, and federal funding and management. The obstacles of for-profit schools, charter schools, and home schooling must be overcome if the US is going to compete with the rest of an increasingly educated, literate, competent and affluent world. If we do not overcome these obstacles, and reestablish public education, the US will quickly be relegated to the status of an economic dependency or colony of greater foreign powers.
The Democrats, including Clinton and Sanders in particular, also call for more physical infrastructure – new water systems, power systems, transportation systems, and communication systems, all of which are necessary to bring the US into the 21st century. None of these can be developed solely through private enterprise; but instead the traditional American practice of mixing private contractors and employees with public funding and initiative can, as they always have before, build our nation into a greater one. American businesses will not be able to compete globally without the infrastructural support that the federal, state, and local governments have always given them. All great periods of rapid development in the US economy were built by the combined efforts of private business and public leadership and funding, building the infrastructure that business needs to survive. American wealth is not built by private enterprise alone, and never has been. American wealth is built on a combination of entrepreneurial spirit and the liberal imperatives of the City on a Hill, building public systems that enable private business to operate profitably. The Republican focus on private market initiatives is a failure to read our nation’s economic history and economic present. The Democratic focus on building public infrastructure is a commitment to protect both American capitalism and the workers who actually build our businesses and create jobs.
Finally, the Democrats show an awareness of 21st century realities that is gravely lacking in Republican posturing and simian displays of machismo and nationalism. The Democrats embrace the multicultural nature of our own nation, a nation built by immigrants, refugees, servants, and slaves. They embrace the right of peoples to come here to live, work, and found new families; and they embrace our nation’s need (demonstrated by the Global Trends study) for new, young workers as our birth rates decline with the rest of the industrialized world. We also need a regular infusion of foreign cultures and languages to help push our own businesses and local governments into responding to the needs of customers, employees, and markets in a global, non-white, diversely gendered world. Our nation needs new people to come here more than these new people need our nation – and that argument will become stronger as other options (like Brazil) for emigration become more viable and attract more immigrants.
The Democrats are also the only party willing to accept basic scientific reality, most importantly that of climate change. The threat posed by climate change to national security has been formally recognized by our best military leaders. The Republicans, though, just put their hands over ears, eyes, and mouth, and cling to a 1950s exploitative approach of using the Earth as if its bounties were infinite and free. Here, too, the GOP is not merely “another party,” but poses an actual threat to both our nation and to our world. The US can no longer afford to play with a group of people stuck in a virtual loop of stupidity and blindness. If American businesses are to survive in the 21st century, they are going to become green and sustainable, and the 1950s model of exploitative business is going to have to be a thing of the past. The survival of the US demands a political party committed to supporting the development of a green economy, with green businesses and highly trained workers. None of these are goals of the Republicans. All of these are goals expressed by the Democrats.
The Two Parties, and the Alternative Worlds They Offer
Today’s political parties offer starkly divergent plans for the nation and its future. Our nation’s best intelligence specialists, tasked with predicting the changes that the US will face in the near future, suggest alternate visions of the future which demonstrate clearly that the Democrats remain the only major party capable of and willing to protect the nation’s interests at home and abroad. While the Republicans strive for austerity measures risking our nation’s ability to compete and to keep businesses and jobs in the United States, the Democrats push for the construction of our City on a Hill in ways that offer to keep businesses here and keep them hiring Americans. Democrats are committed to improving education, social stability, and the infrastructure upon which American businesses depend for their survival. While the Republicans’ austerity measures threaten the chances American business has to compete and survive on both domestic and international markets, the Democrats’ clear promotion of infrastructure promises both economic and political stability at home, and a force to anchor the international economy and polity on a global level. While the Republicans strive to distance our nation from and alienate the very international players shaping the global economy and polity, the Democrats push for partnerships and a recognition of the basic realities of international relations. While Republicans cut off possibilities for greater governance both here and abroad, the Democrats push for greater efforts to sustain peoples of developing nations, particularly in areas of the world likely to bleed violence into the global system. While the Republicans deny climate change and refuse to enact energy reforms that will build jobs and protect the environment, the Democrats offer both these jobs and a cleaner environment through such reforms.
The authors of the Global Trends study did not themselves note any party or politicians whose ideals, vision, or policies might help or hinder the nation’s progress. But their message is all too clear nonetheless: the US can no longer afford a political party uncommitted to preserving the greatness our nation can offer, and unwilling to act responsibly to protect our people’s livelihoods, our nation’s defenses, and the world in which we live. Rarely in our nation’s history has its interests been at such great stake, or the choice so clear as to which path will take our nation – and the world – forward. There remains but one major party in the US which acts responsibly and consistently with America’s principles and legacy; and that is the Democratic Party. In the end, there really is no alternative.
Headline image from the title page of NIC’s Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, 2012.
2 thoughts on “The Global Trends of US Politics”
Great piece, as usual. If only people would take the time to dig deep into words such as yours, instead of relying on soundbites and posturing when making decisions during the election cycle. (Well, the people who actually bother to vote, that is…)
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Thanks, and indeed.
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