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July 17, 2005

Top 10 Questions About the Long-Term Future of U.S. Foreign Policy
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

This is a pretty indulgent one - - but, hey, its mid-summer and apart from the London investigation, the smoldering of Iraq and Plamegate, things seem a tad slow.  The big event at our house is that this week my son Leo turns one.   I always thought it cheesy when politicians advocated various policies as being in the interests of "our children."   But motherhood has changed all that.  With Leo growing longer in years, my thoughts turn to the foreign policy issues that concern me most in terms of his future.  Here are 10 of the questions that most concern me in terms of the world we'll hand to Leo and his generation sometime in 2040 or s0:

1.    Will nuclear weapons still be a threat -  I grew up in the era of "The Day After" and the enduring threat of nuclear conflict between the U.S. and the USSR.  Though that threat has changed radically it hasn't disappeared and is in now in many ways harder to manage and control.  The real question, though almost to frightening to raise, is whether nukes will be used in my son's lifetime.   At the going rate, without only halting progress on non-proliferation and control of loose nukes, the answer could well be yes.

2.   Will the U.S. still be the only superpower - My hope is yes, my fear is no.  I suspect that 35 years from now the U.S. will share political, economic and military dominance with China.  If that comes true, can a polarized duality be avoided, and is there a scenario where the two countries collaborate to solve global problems?  I find it difficult to predict and will be fascinated to see how this plays out.

3.  Will terrorism be a major feature of U.S. life - There will undoubtedly still be terrorism 35 years from now, but will the terrorist threat against the U.S. be a permanent feature of life in the 21st century?  Will future attacks on U.S. soil lead us to become more like Israel - a security state where issues of life-and-death surface amid the most workaday activities like eating pizza or shopping in a mall?  My hope is that a combination of settling the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and slow but steady liberalization and economic development in the Middle East dampen Islamic terrorism to a point where its occasional flare-ups are out-of-the-ordinary enough not to impact daily life in the U.S.  This is very optimistic.

4.  Will we have faced environmental disaster - Environmental issues are not my area of expertise, and are questions we probably don't spend enough time on on this blog.   But I do worry that global warming may really catch up with us sometime in the next generation, and that we will have only ourselves (and President Bush) to blame for failing to act when we could have.

5.  Will the U.S. still be the center of economic opportunity - While I could do without some of his polemics, I do worry about Thomas Friedman's thesis in The World is Flat about eroding American competitiveness in education, innovation and technology.  Where I part ways with Friedman is his implicit notion that the competition from India and elsewhere is to be feared:  I think we ought to just be energized by the idea that the game is being played harder and faster than ever before, and work on positioning the U.S. to win.   I do worry that we're underinvesting right now in tools like broadband and wide-scale internet access and literacy that we will need to keep up.  I hope we soon have leadership that changes that.

6.  Will we still allow genocide to occur - Leo is the great-grandson of Holocaust escapees, and the great-great-grandson (and grand-nephew, etc.) of Holocaust victims.  When he grows up, will we still have Rwandas, Bosnias and Darfurs?  If so, will we still wring our hands over how something must be done - or will we have faced up to the fact that, a century after Hitler, the protection of innocent civilians doesn't rank particularly high as a policy objective for the U.S. or for anyone?  My fear is that we will have found an easy way out by ceasing to use the term genocide, having reconciled to our own unwillingness to address its impications.

7.  Will there be peace between Israel and the Palestinians - Growing up with close family and friends in Israel, I am hoping Leo feels as strong a tie to the place as I do.  For my entire life Israel has been under threats to its existence, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has dominated headlines.  Personally I think there will be a major breakthrough in the next 5 years:  I believe the key elements are all there -- relatively responsible leadership on both sides; popular will for peace; international support; and general acceptance of the basic parameters of a negotiated settlement.  I am hoping the adult Leo comes to know thriving states in both Israel and Palestine. 

8.  Will global poverty be substantially less than it is now - There's considerable focus right now on the problems of under-development and global poverty.  The UN set a highly ambitious program of Millennium Development Goals it is trying to achieve by 2015 and 2020.  But this seems to come in waves, with money and interest waxing and waning, and sustainable progress occurring only in pockets.   My guess is that some significant progress is made, but that we hit another plateau that leaves millions still going without basic health care, education and economic security.

9.   What will be the state of human rights and democracy around the world - Massive strides for the rule of law, freedom and human rights have been made in my lifetime so far.  Will the momentum continue so that eventually even the most repressive regimes will have been cracked open 35 years from now.  Or will forces that we either don't see or that we underestimate - religion, nationalism, economic insecurity, perhaps - rise up to turn back the tide?

10.  What are the things we cannot anticipate - The global AIDS crisis and 9/11 were both inconceivable until they occurred.   So was the impact of the Internet, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the peaceful downfall of apartheid.  What will be Leo's unimaginables?  a communicable disease epidemic, a method to make energy from ocean water, a horrifying nuclear accident, the democratization of China, bio-warfare, the African economic miracle, the dissolution of Europe, war among our traditional allies, total economic unification of the Americas . . .will these things seem as extraordinary to Leo as they would to me?


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I drove across the US shortly after 9/11 and wondered, looking at the vastness all around me, what they were trying to do by knocking down a few buildings, horrible though the act was. I feel the same way about attacks on America's economic viability. We're vital in so many respects, and in this for the long haul. We've been a "deep" republic for two centuries; that adds true resiliency when it counts. We don't need to feel threatened when, say, the Chinese start to enjoy some of the fruits of the modern world. We have the profound basis for true confidence as a nation, despite the complainers among us.

First off, some good food for thought.

Another one I might have added to the list- will there be another major war?

One point I would like to raise- shouldn't the blame for the possible environmental disaster lie not with President Bush but with the Senators who voted against the amendment you linked to? Or with the Congress that almost unanimously rejected Kyoto? I can't claim to be an expert on environmental matters either but it seems to me that there isn't scientific concensus on the role of humans in global warming. Perhaps the best path is the one the administration is on now- refusing to cause vast damage to the economy and industries themselves investing in new "cleaner" technologies, rather than rushing out half-cocked. It could be that even if a complete "do nothing" approach was advocated, the pace of technological development would keep pace with any problems we might face. According to scientists from decades ago, wasn't the world supposed to be standing room only now with no possible way to feed us all?

For a look at the "other side" why not go and check out Greenie Watch-

As for some of the other points you raised (might be interesting to do a full post on each one?)- I can't see the two-state position working in Israel. Hamas have already declared that they will continue their campaign of terror after the Gaza pull out and an Al Qaeda off-shoot is apparently trying to move in there too- dedicated to attacking Israel and American interests in the area. I think there is simply too much desire to see Israel wiped completely off the map for peace to ever settle there.

Here's hoping that the spread of freeom will in turn cause a spread of the reduction of poverty. The genocide question is a tricky one to answer because it rests not only with the political will of the time but also with public opinion. If the US had stepped into the Dafur mess I can only imagine the cries of "unilateralism" and "bring the troops home" and "US Imperialism" and-everyone's favourite- "quagmire". Not to mention another excuse for Islamofascists to cite when conducting terror operations.

You've raised some very interesting points and I for one would be interested in seeing a little more analysis of this.

Good questions all.

1. Will nuclear weapons still be a threat?

By 2040, strategic defenses using lightspeed weapons may render ballistic missiles obsolete. But more countries could have the ability to produce warheads and the danger of suitcase nukes could be greater.

2. Will the U.S. still be the only superpower?

Almost certainly not. America, Europe, Russia, China, India, Japan, and other large countries will be vying for control of outer space, access to natural resources on earth, and dominance in their particular regions. The situation could be very unstable.

3. Will terrorism be a major feature of U.S. life?

No more so than violent crime, as long as the weapons of terror are limited in scale. The danger is that by 2040 terrorists will have easier access to nuclear warheads or that terrorists in basements will be able to concoct viruses capable of killing millions. The war on terror is really a global counterinsurgency campaign in which the key objective isn't military; it is to win over the civilian populations that either support terrorism or look the other way.

4. Will we have faced environmental disaster?

It may be too soon to tell, or too late to prevent, really big changes. What is easier to foresee are local disasters, such as further loss of arable land and water table in China. Some of the smaller U.N. members will be underwater by 2040 if present trends continue.

5. Will the U.S. still be the center of economic opportunity?

Certainly a major center, if immigration is a measure. But there are two warning signs. One is that young people from abroad are going elsewhere to school, not just because of the visa situation but because they sense that America is becoming a less tolerant culture. If American culture becomes narrower, there could also be a reverse migration of talented young people from America to more tolerant societies elsewhere. The other is that as demographic changes reduce the American white population to minority status, disparities in the social condition of non-white groups may be harder to overcome if they persist.

6. Will we still allow genocide to occur?

Only in cases where genocidal regimes can deter outside intervention.

7. Will there be peace between Israel and the Palestinians?

Only when religious and ethnic pluralism are a way of life in the larger Middle East.

8. Will global poverty be substantially less than it is now?

If we can balance energy demands with environmental needs, poverty will continue to decline.

9. What will be the state of human rights and democracy around the world?

Illiberal states have only three options in the long run: go to war, decay from within, or change. My guess is that human rights and democracy will improve in the long run. But the next half century could be a very difficult time and we could end up repeating the twentieth century (2020-2044 = 1890-1914) if multipolarity isn't managed better than it was a century ago.

10. What are the things we cannot anticipate?

A useful way to approach this question is to examine past attempts to predict the future and see how they went right or wrong. The most interesting to me was Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener, The Year 2000 (1967).

For my own thoughts in outline form, see here:

It seems as though the answer to many of your other questions will hinge on the answer to #2. Whether the US remains at the center of a unipolar world or whether any type of multipolar world emerges will inlfuence norms (and practical options) on nuclear weapons, intervention, human rights, trade, and much more.

As for cooperation vs. conflict with China, I would just say that it depends on how they develop politically. Plus, I woud be more cautious before proclaiming them the next superpower. They must sustain economic growth and political and economic stability while undergoing drastic social change. And for all the hype about their military "rise", the still cannot project power in any global, or even regional, sense (aside from across the straits).

According to scientists from decades ago, wasn't the world supposed to be standing room only now with no possible way to feed us all?

Nice to see I'm not the only one who remembers the Club of Rome. The amazing thing is that the group is still around today...

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