Will we do better in the 2020s than we did in the last decade?

Will we do better in the 2020s than we did in the last decade?
© Greg Nash

The difficulty of predicting key developments in this new decade can be brought into better focus by understanding how some of the more widely shared expectations about the last one turned out. Many of the surprising and important developments in that period foreshadow some of the challenges and changes we are likely to face in the 2020s. 

Most Americans entered the 2010s assuming U.S. leadership of the liberal global economic and political order, and of post-war Western-centered alliances and international institutions, would continue — though less robustly than in the past — with domestic support or, at least, broad political acquiescence. 

Observers generally took for granted that increasing globalization was a fait accompli. It was, after all, a powerful source for economic growth; it dramatically increased international sales of many U.S. industries and farmers, increased availability of low-cost consumer goods and components for Americans, and sharply boosted living standards around the world through trade and investment. Economists asserted globalization would create “a rising tide” that lifted many, if not all, “boats.” New forms of global cooperation were emerging to address climate change; the U.S. and China were narrowing their differences, and an international action plan was soon to be adopted.

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But that order also faced considerable stress. More and more communities, workers, businesses and political leaders saw it as a source of disruption. The world still struggled to lift itself out of a global financial crisis, and Europe shakily tried to overcome internal threats to its financial and currency systems. The World Trade Organization stalled in efforts to update dispute-settlement procedures and address new types of trade issues related to e-trade, government support for state enterprises and protection of trade secrets. China already was offering alternative international institutions.

Politically, there was a general assumption that Russia was a growing problem, evidenced by its annexation of Crimea, incursion into eastern Ukraine and “frozen wars” on its other borders. Yet few expected it would pose serious internal challenges to U.S. and other Western democratic institutions or play a major strategic role elsewhere. China was a rapidly rising political, military and economic power, but hardly considered a formidable technological competitor to the U.S., nor was it seen as a political challenger globally — although a strong one regionally. America’s biggest security threats appeared to emanate from the Middle East, and ISIS in particular. 

New technologies and emerging social media were widely recognized as central to our economic future. Most observers assumed they would be dominated by American companies, drive the democratization of information, and draw the world and societies closer. Their political and security implications received little high-level attention; those of cyber espionage, election interference and terrorism received virtually none. 

The decade ended somewhat differently than expected. On a  positive note, the U.S. experienced a robust recovery from recession. The European economy did not collapse and the eurozone did not fracture, despite Brexit. Many emerging economies experienced strong growth and the global economic system proved resilient. 

But the uneven recovery benefitted some sectors of society far more than others. It thus raised doubts about the fairness of the capitalist market system and the consequences of rapid globalization.

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Populist forces and authoritarian-minded leaders fed on the discontent. They capitalized on growing feelings of national identities lost to global forces such as immigration. This fed support for nationalist policies that rejected the more traditionally centrist political and economic leadership. Political leaders and powerful factions in many countries — notably the United States — espoused strong xenophobic policies. But support for such policies also arose in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Brazil and Poland. In numerous cases, the U.S. supported these more extreme forces and their leaders against established liberal, democratic ones generally supportive of U.S. interests and values.

The country that had shaped and led the global order pulled back. At times it seemed determined to undermine alliances, values and institutions that constituted its main pillars and served the U.S. well for 70 years. Threats or actual measures to withdraw from alliances, treaties and agreements badly weakened the global order and confidence in its leader. And there appeared to be no broad strategy to address serious global challenges and changes.  

America’s pullback, divisions and confusion left the playing field increasingly open to countries seeking to influence or alter that order. Russia fomented political divisions in the U.S and other Western democracies and sought to undermine NATO, emboldened by some Western leaders who did little or nothing to oppose it; the weapon of choice often was social media. Russia also boldly inserted itself in the Middle East.   

China proved much more adept at projecting its influence globally than most had anticipated, not by following the American model of building alliances but by the magnetic pull of its formidable economic strength and the appeal to numerous nations of a strong government led by a strong leader, competing head-to-head with the world’s greatest military power and largest market economy. China aimed to shape global institutions and rules to conform more closely to Chinese interests.  

China has used its economic power to strengthen political and security ties with a wide range of countries, on all continents. Most of America’s closest allies now trade more with China than with the U.S. They depend on China’s market and incorporate its advanced technologies. Increasingly, countries find themselves wanting to maintain close military ties with the U.S. but also to strengthen political, trade and investment links with China, and fear being pressed by one country to reject ties with the other.  

Some of the vaunted technologies that advanced at breathtaking speed and benefitted billions of people in the 2010s now evoke controversy. In the wrong hands, they have been mobilized to disrupt or influence Western elections, and many have significant security implications — cyber terrorism, cyber financial crime and cyber espionage — that can penetrate democratic foundations through manipulation of information and voting systems.

All told, the 2010s, despite considerable economic positives and transformational technological advances, might be summarized from a Western prospective as a decade characterized by a weakening of collective wellbeing and common values because of excessive focus on short-term political and nationalistic considerations, and a weakening of American and Western leadership, social cohesion and resiliency — all with profound foreign policy and national security implications.

Foreign trust in the U.S. has deteriorated. Our alliance system has been weakened and its ability to coalesce in a crisis is more problematic. Global economic institutions are weaker and Washington’s advocacy of “America first” raises doubts about whether its leadership can be counted on. The climate crisis grows worse. America’s domestic debt has dramatically increased, constraining the availability of resources to respond to foreign policy or military crises, the health and retirement needs of an aging population — potentially fueling social divisions.

And in a more competitive world, America has not met the rise of China with a U.S. strategy to accelerate training of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians, or to attract and retain the best and brightest from around the world, increase government support for cutting-edge research, or rebuild decaying infrastructure. 

Threats to our democratic institutions from within our own country, and a generalized global perception that we may have lost confidence in them and don’t much care about the need to defend others who share our values, are one of the decade’s saddest legacies — and pose a danger that requires major attention in the 2020s.

Robert D. Hormats, vice chairman of Kissinger Associates, was undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment, 2009-13; assistant secretary of State, 1981-82; and a former ambassador and deputy U.S. trade representative, 1979-81. As senior economics adviser to three White House national security advisers from 1969 to 1977, he helped to oversee the U.S. opening to China. He is a former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs (International). Follow him on Twitter @BobHormats.