2 July 2019

The Global Balance of Power in 2039: A Look 20 Years into the Future

In the field of geopolitics, projecting the global balance of power at some distant point in the future is a favorite exercise for many who work in this field.  Over the years, many geopolitical experts have made or broken their reputation on their predictions for the balance of power in the years to come. We too have made many predictions on the global balance of power since the beginning of this century, and, so far, many of them have come true.  In this case, we are going to look at the potential balance of power in the not too distant future, in fact, just 20 years into the future to be exact.  

To do so, we are first going to look back 20 years to assess how the global balance of power has evolved since 1999. Back then, the United States was still in the midst of its post-Cold-War unipolar moment when it stood alone as the sole superpower surrounded by a number of significantly weaker middle powers. However, it was already becoming apparent in 1999 that the US’ complete dominance of nearly all forms of power (economic, political, military, etc.) was likely to come to an end in the following decades.  By 1999, China had rebounded from the political unrest of ten years earlier and was almost two-thirds of the way through its 30-year period of 10%-per-year economic growth.  In Europe, the European Union was launching the euro and seeking some way to regain some of that continent’s lost strategic independence.  Around the world, emerging markets, some of them with very large populations and territories, were becoming enmeshed in the global economy and were beginning to have aspirations of greater power for themselves.

The balance of power in 2019 would not be too unfamiliar to someone from 1999 looking at the world today, with a few notable exceptions.  The United States still remains the world’s leading power by most measures of power, and its lead over its primary rivals for power throughout the previous century has, for the most part, expanded.  However, a new rival to the US’ longer-term position atop the global balance of power has emerged, China.  In fact, China’s overall level of power now dwarves that of nearly all other countries around world, apart from the United States.  In fact, from the unipolar moment that existed in 1999, the world today appears increasingly like a bipolar world, dominated by two giant superpowers.  

Outside of the US and China, the balance of power among the world’s middle powers is also shifting.  Europe has struggled over the past 20 years, both in terms of its economic stagnation and its struggle to unify the region in a bid to allow it to play a greater role in global affairs.  In contrast, India has made great strides over the past 20 years, but due to its poverty and internal divisions, is a long way from challenging the US and China.  Russia has rebounded from a decade of dissolution and chaos during the 1990s to once again play a major political and military role in world affairs, but its economic and demographic weaknesses have prevented Russia from effectively challenging the two leading powers.  Finally, emerging markets outside of Asia such as Brazil and Mexico had hoped to play a larger role in the global balance of power, but have been thwarted by their economic troubles in recent years.

As we look ahead to the global balance of power in twenty years’ time, there are some key trends that we need to watch due to their potential impact on the world’s leading powers.  One of these key trends is the outlook for economic growth, as apart from Asia, economic growth rates have been trending downwards over the past few decades.  If China and India can maintain higher rates of economic growth than the US and other powers, their relative power to the US and others will continue to rise.  If not, the US may be able to hold on to its leading position well into the latter part of the 21stcentury.  Another factor to watch is the shift in economic and technological power to Asia. Since the late 18thcentury, economic and technological power has been centered in the West, first in Europe and then, for the past century or more, in North America.  By 2039, Asia’s combined economic output will be significantly larger than that of the West, while more and more technological advances are likely to spring from that region.

One trend that should be watched over the next decades is the fraying of the ties that link the individual countries of the West together, allowing the West to continue to play a dominant role in many important fields.  This includes the gradual drifting apart of the United States and Europe, as well as growing internal divisions within Europe (and to a lesser degree within North America).  An increasingly fragmented West would allow China and other non-Western states to enhance their position within the global balance of power in the coming years.  Another factor to watch is demographics, as we are in the midst of a dramatic rebalancing of global demographic power. As birth rates plunge in the West, East Asia and in many other parts of the world, many of the leading world powers 20 years from now will have to deal with dramatic declines in their working-age populations, as well as having much older populations than they have today. In contrast, populations will continue to soar in many of the poorest parts of the world, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the population will rise by more than 600 million people over the next 20 years.

In 20 years, it is likely that we will be living in a world dominated by two superpowers, with a number of second-tier powers either aligning themselves with one of the superpowers or vying to compete with both of these larger powers.  One of these superpowers will be the United States. In 20 years, the US is all but certain to retain either the first or the second position in nearly all of the factors that make up a state’s power.  While it may no longer be the largest economy in the world in 2039, it will certainly retain the strongest military and will likely remain the world’s technological and cultural leader.  Furthermore, it will almost certainly be the wealthiest large economy by a significant margin.

The other superpower of the year 2039 will be China.  By some measures, China can already be considered a superpower today, but in 20 years’ time, its rise to this status will not be disputed.  Not only is China likely to have the largest economy in world at that point, but its military power will far exceed that of all other countries apart from the United States.  Moreover, China’s position as the dominant power in Asia, the world’s most important region in the year 2039, will have been enhanced by 20 years of economic, military and technological growth and development.  In fact, depending upon how the US-China relationship develops over the next 20 years, we could see a serious strategic rivalry between the world’s two most-powerful countries, one that is much more intense than today’s stand-off between the US and China.

While the United States and China will be the world’s dominant powers in the coming decades, there are a number of other countries and entities that will also play a significant role in the world in 2039.  India is one, as by the year 2039, India’s population is forecast to be more than 1.6 billion, allowing India to surpass China as the world’s most-populous country. However, even if the Indian economy averages 7% annual GDP growth over the next 20 years, its economic output will still be dwarfed by that of China and the US.  Russia is another country that is likely to retain global ambitions in 20 years’ time.  However, without a dramatic reversal of Russia’s demographic and economic decline, overall Russian power will be severely diminished by the year 2039, while its military power will fall further behind that of the US, while also being left in the dust by China.  The European Union is another entity that has ambitions of playing a global role in the coming decades.  By 2039, its economic output will be larger than all countries apart from China and the United States, and it will remain a relatively wealthy region.  However, internal divisions and the specter of economic and demographic decline will likely limit the EU’s ability to play a leading role in global affairs.  Meanwhile, other powers such as Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, Saudi Arabia and others will all maintain ambitions of playing a larger role in global affairs, but will struggle to exert much influence outside of their home regions as their overall levels of power will be far smaller than that of the United States and China.

While it is relatively easy to forecast the future balance of power in 20 years’ time based on the trends of the past 20 years, it is also certain that there will be unknown or unforeseen events that can dramatically shake up global affairs over the next two decades. This is clear just by looking at the surprising events of the past 20 years.  For example, the 9/11 attacks in New York City greatly distracted the United States at the height of its unipolar moment and resulted in the US finding itself stuck in the quagmire of the turbulent Middle East.  Likewise, the global financial crisis dealt a massive blow to developed economies, accelerating the shift of the balance of global economic power towards emerging markets.  Afterwards, the rise of trade barriers and changes in economic and monetary policies in the US and elsewhere were huge blows to many emerging markets, particularly those outside of Asia.  Given the number of momentous unforeseen events over the past 20 years, we can say with a high degree of certainty that more such events will take place in the coming years, events that could alter the structure of the global balance of power dramatically.  These events could range from a global trade war to a conflict involving one or more of the world’s leading powers.

Overall, a trend-based forecasting for the world over the next 20 years is a relatively easy exercise and one that is likely to bring us close to the eventual balance of power in the world in 2039. For example, barring a truly earth-shattering series of events, there will be two leading powers in the world in 20 years’ time, the United States and China.  What will be interesting to watch will be the rise and fall of the next tier of global powers, as their trendlines have changed dramatically in recent years.  Will some of these powers rise to challenge the leading position of the US and China, or will their power continue to wane, leaving them increasingly at the mercy of the world’s two superpowers?  Meanwhile, will the rivalry between the United States and China lead to a world in 2039 that looks a lot like that of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, or will these two great powers learn to work together to tackle the world’s leading challenges?  If trends such as the increasing support for nationalism and protectionism continue, the outlook for US-Chinese relations are likely to be grim.  However, if support for globalization recovers, there is still a chance that the world in 20 years will be one of peaceful cohabitation between the world’s leading powers.  These are the factors that will determine what type of world we will inhabit over the next two decades, and which global powers are driving that world in the year 2039.