Toward a new US-led, rules-based world order

Toward a new US-led, rules-based world order
© Getty Images

Every few years, the U.S. National Intelligence Council publishes its forecast of what the world will look like two decades in the future. The most recent iteration, Global Trends 2040, was released in April. While generally painting a depressing picture of the future two decades hence, it holds out hope — at least for those invested in preserving some semblance of a U.S.-led, rules-based order. 

The report begins with an overview of the deep structural forces – demographic, environmental, economic and technological – that will reshape the world over the next two decades. It then discusses how these structural forces – in combination with human responses – are transforming societies, states and the international system. The report concludes, as many exercises in futurology do, by envisioning a number of plausible future scenarios. Key themes such as “fragmentation,” “disequilibrium” and “contestation” appear across all three sections.

While Global Trends 2040 covers a wide range of structural changes and emerging trends, perhaps the most important insights have to do with the way that these are transforming the international system. The report’s core argument in this regard is simple:


“In the international system, no single state is likely to be positioned to dominate across all regions or domains, and a broader range of actors will compete to shape the international system and achieve narrower goals. Accelerating shifts in military power, demographics, economic growth, environmental conditions, and technology, as well as hardening divisions over governance models, are likely to further ratchet up competition between China and a Western coalition led by the United States.

Rival powers will jockey to shape global norms, rules, and institutions, while regional powers and nonstate actors may exert more influence and lead on issues left unattended by the major powers. These highly varied interactions are likely to produce a more conflict-prone and volatile geopolitical environment, undermine global multilateralism, and broaden the mismatch between transnational challenges and institutional arrangements to tackle them.

Put slightly differently, Global Trends 2040 concludes that accelerating changes in the nature, sources and distribution of geopolitical power are placing the rules-based order that has been in place since the end of WWII under increasingly insupportable stress.

That order, it will be recalled, was built by the victorious United States in the 1940s with the goal of both securing America’s narrow national interests and realizing the broader vision of a peaceful and prosperous world. It took the form of an essentially liberal set rules, norms and institutions intended to promote peace and prosperity through the spread of liberal democracy, the promotion of free trade, and the creation of global multilateral organization designed to facilitate cooperation. It was predicated on U.S. primacy and held together by a United States willing to invest the blood and treasure necessary to make it work. And most fundamentally, it was built on a set of social, economic and technological foundations specific to the mid-20th century.

Global Trends 2040 argues that deep structural changes and emerging trends are eroding these foundations in ways that make it unlikely that the international order built in the immediate postwar era will survive to see its centenary. And while the report makes much of the role of human choice in shaping the way that emerging dynamics will reshape the world over the next two decades, it offers little hope that the U.S. will be able to produce some sort of strategic fix that will rescue the rules-based order from its fated demise. The rules-based order as we have known it is simply passing from the scene, the report concludes, and there is nothing that the United States or any other actor can do to save it.


In its final section, Global Trends 2040 lays out five future scenarios, each of which it portrays as a plausible successor to the current international order. The first of these envisions the European Union and China trying to pick up the pieces of international order in the aftermath of a devastating global environmental crisis.

The next three – “A World Adrift,” “Competitive Coexistence” and “Separate Silos” – are, to varying degrees, dystopian nightmares of conflict, contestation and collapse. And the final scenario, “Renaissance of Democracies,” envisions a restoration of the liberal, rules-based international order, centered on a community of “open democracies.”

While the report does not explicitly come out in favor of any of these future worlds, it is clear where its preferences lie. Global Trends 2040 is more than just a fascinating glimpse into the world (or worlds) that might materialize two decades hence. It is also a cautionary tale, painting a grim picture of the various dystopias that might arise out of the wreckage of the postwar international order.

But perhaps even more significantly, Global Trends 2040 is a call to arms. In making its case the way its authors do, there can be little doubt that they favor the “Renaissance of Democracies” scenario. Nor do they leave much doubt as to how this renaissance is to be achieved. As in 1945, the world’s democracies, with the U.S. in the lead, must rally to create a new rules-based international order — one that embodies the spirit of liberal internationalism, even as it is attuned to the realities of the mid-21st century rather than those of the mid-20th.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.