What will be the polarity of the international system in 2100?


In this essay I will argue that the polarity of the global system is heading toward a stable end-state. We are closing in on the end-game of a contest that has lasted for centuries, if not millennia. Within the lifetime of a person born today, the question of who will be the arbiter of world affairs will be settled once and for all.

France, England, Prussia, Austria, Russia, the Ottoman empire, Portugal, Spain, Holland, Sweden, and Poland all appear on the roster of great powers in the European balance of power between the Peace of Westphalia and Waterloo. Portugal, Spain, Holland, Sweden, and Poland were already eclipsed by the end of the eighteenth century. The Austrian and Ottoman empires no longer counted for much after the rise of Germany. After 1871, only the combined strength of Britain, France, and Russia could balance Germany. At the turn of the century, Europe’s monopoly on the global balance of power was permanently broken as strong states arose outside the continent. Of the six top ranked powers in 1914—Germany, Russia, Britain, France, Japan, and the United States—all but two had been eliminated by 1945. Henceforth, only continental superstates with enormous war potential could compete at the global level. With the capitulation of the Soviet Union in 1990, the world became unipolar.

America cannot prevent the emergence of strategic rivals; nor can it do much to thwart their rise. All potential great powers—Japan, China, India, Russia, the EU—can easily acquire a second-strike capability. The US can try to economically strangulate emerging powers. But that will not work where it is most needed: against the strongest of the rivals. Against China, it can do nothing but hope that it will be able to balance the colossus.

The United States may not be strongest state in the system in 2040, but it will be a polar state—at least half as strong as the strongest state in the system. Not all of the five potential rivals will be polar states. China will; India, Japan, Germany, and Russia won’t. If the Europeans can get their act together, the EU would immediately join the top ranks of global power.

America’s GDP in 2014 was about $17 trillion. If it continues to grow at the neoliberal-era rate of 2.5%, its GDP in 2040 will be $32 trillion; if it grows at the New Deal-era rate of 3.5%, it will be $42 trillion. If China grows slowly, say, at 5%, its GDP in 2040 will be $32 trillion; if it grows moderately fast, say, at 6%, it will be $42 trillion; if it grows at a rapid clip, say, at 7.5%, it will be $55 trillion. Thus, US GDP will likely be between two-thirds and at par with China’s in 2040.

India cannot catch up. Even if India grows at the rate of 9% over the next quarter century—an achievement surpassing those of Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and China—the size of India’s economy would still be only $18 trillion; if it grows by 8% it will be $14 trillion; at 7%, $11 trillion. Even the second scenario may be too rosy. In the rosiest scenario, with India growing twice as fast as China, India will be barely half the size of China in 2040. In the worst case scenario, it’ll be a fifth as big. Neither of these two extremes is likely to obtain. By 2040, India’s economic size will probably be between a third and a fourth that of China. Of course, India could potentially keep growing much more rapidly than China through 2100. But that is a scenario that is orders of magnitude less likely than a 9% growth rate for 25 years.

Germany, Japan, and Russia are likely to grow even more slowly. Productivity growth cannot stem their long-term decline which is overdetermined by an outright shrinking of their populace. Although dramatic demographic changes may yet yield a surprise, they are extremely unlikely to be polar states. Regional powers like Indonesia, Iran, Turkey, South Africa, and Brazil are extremely unlikely to emerge as first-rank powers do to inherent limits on their war potential. Therefore, the most likely exit from unipolarity is bipolarity.

By 2030, China will certainly be in a position to balance the US in Asia. But it is unlikely to be as strong as the US at that early date. By 2040, it is likely to have greater power resources and be in a position to deal with the United States as an equal. Indeed, it may even be stronger than the US. China’s rise may unleash a major confrontation with the United States; perhaps even a hegemonic war. Once China can negotiate from a position of strength, it will demand a rewriting of the international order in its favour. It will certainly force America to surrender naval supremacy in Asian waters. It will likely challenge American military preponderance in the Middle East. No state can secure a co-equal global position without unimpeded military access to both the gulf’s energy resources and the circumferential maritime highway along the Eurasian coastline that connects Europe and Asia.

Note that in a hegemonic war between two colossi, either both or neither will be eliminated from the top ranks of global power. Their nuclear deterrents will ensure either that both of their continental homelands will survive with their war potential intact, or that the homelands of both will be obliterated in a global thermonuclear war. The collective-suicide scenario is extremely unlikely for obvious reasons. Later in the twenty-first century, we thus are extremely likely to find both the United States and China as first-rank powers.

In the hegemonic war scenario, Europeans will likely play kingmakers. Europe is extremely unlikely to fight in a polar war; at least until the outcome is clear, when it may wish to join the victor in proclaiming a ‘new world order.’ The key thing to realize is this: There may or may not be a hegemonic war. But in either case, the world is likely to be tripolar in the long run. Indeed, this is the deep structure of the world. If sooner or later all people can learn to effectively mobilize power, then the real long-term determinant of global power is simply war potential. Most of the war potential of the world—arable land, population, water resources, energy, and industrial raw materials—is concentrated in the northern temperate zone. Had the distribution of land on the globe been symmetric about the equator, the southern temperate zone would’ve sported a comparable amount of war potential. This is not the case: 80% of the world’s landmass and 90% of the world’s population is in the northern hemisphere.

More specifically, at least three-quarters of the world’s war potential is located in America and the eastern and western extremities of Eurasia. Furthermore, the distribution of war potential between these three natural poles is uniform: the three polar states are likely to be nearly equally strong. As we have seen before, a tripolar configuration is the least stable system structure. And a uniform tripolar world is especially unstable. The problem for every polar state is that an offensive alliance between its rivals is a virtual death sentence. One therefore expects tripolar systems to be extremely unstable. In 1940, the world was tripolar. The war was over when America entered the war alongside the Soviet Union to eliminate Germany.

But what does ‘a virtual death sentence’ mean in a nuclear world? Let’s say the year is 2070 and the scenario I am predicting obtains. We have three polar states of similar strength; all other states are too weak to count in the global balance of power. Suppose Europe and China enter into an offensive alliance against America. They cannot launch a strategic attack on the US homeland because of America’s second-strike capability. But that means that the United States cannot be eliminated as a polar state. What these upstarts can do is to destroy America’s capacity to project its power across the oceans. Therefore, just like the penultimate hegemonic war that establishes China as a global power of first rank, the final showdown will be over control over the global commons.

America’s position on the world stage, like Britain’s before it, is based on its ‘command of the global commons’—unassailable military dominance over air, sea, and space. Just as America and China cannot share ‘command of the global commons,’ if Europe and China collaborate to kick America out of Eurasia, they will not be able to agree on the division of the spoils of war. Who will protect the sea lanes, orbital space, and airspace? Who will be preponderant in the Middle East? Who will control access to the vast energy resources of the gulf? There is a reason why these responsibilities have never been shared between two states. The closest that comes to mind in the inter-war period. Even during the twenties and thirties however, Britain alone protected the entire plumbing of Eurasian communication—the American and Japanese fleets were deployed in the Pacific where Britain had already surrendered naval primacy in 1901.

Since they each have secure access to the resources of a whole continent, none of these superstates will lose the capacity to project power across oceans in the long run. A change of alliance partners between polar states upends the international order. For instance, since it is so far away, China does not threaten Europe. An ‘Atlantic Alliance’ could be thus easily undermined by the Europeans at any second, bringing any Cold War-style containment of China to an end right quick. Were America to be kept out of the global game by a ‘Eurasian Alliance,’ the Chinese would be tempted to defect to the Americans to gain to upper hand against the Europeans. Similarly, in a ‘Pacific Alliance’ both partners would be constantly tempted to cheat with the Europeans. Alliances of containment cannot stabilize a tripolar world with any degree of permanence.

The inability to crush any of the three colossi out of existence means that a stable end-state must feature either a permanent domination of eurasia by a single power or a permanent tripolar structure. Eurasia is the seat of a world state. It contains a two-thirds of the world’s war potential. If it comes under the dominion of a single power, that power will be the arbiter of world affairs in perpetuity. But we have argued that conquest of polar states is impossible in light of their nuclear arsenals. We are therefore left with the seemingly impossible: a permanently tripolar world. This is the globe’s end-state polarity.

While a two-party alliance will not yield stable hegemony, a recognition of the limits of alliance politics might nudge the rivals into a ‘Grand Alliance.’ World affairs will be settled by tripartite negotiations. Each polar state will have its own sphere of influence. China will be preponderant in the Indo-Pacific and Central Asia, America in the Western Hemisphere, and Europe left to handle the mess in the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. This long-term prediction is the very opposite of Buzan’s, who believes that superpowers are going extinct. They are going nowhere. The question of global power is going to be settled in favour of a permanent oligopoly of three superstates. At least one thing is guaranteed. Owing to the inherent instability of the configuration, a tripolar world will be much more interesting than a unipolar one.

The globe’s end-state polarity is built on the firmest possible foundations: the nuclear stalemate guarantees that the polar states cannot be eliminated and the distribution of war potential on the planet assures us that there will be no additions to the ranks of polar states. Nothing short of a technological revolution that upends the nuclear stalemate or redefines war potential can undermine this conclusion.


2 thoughts on “What will be the polarity of the international system in 2100?

  1. This article is interesting, but in my opinion, deeply flawed.
    You have only taken tradition arbiters of power into account, such as resources, infrastructure, military ability and potential. By the measure of these you have arrived at an oversimplified idea. A complexity would almost have to arise to distort a process as linear as this one, as German power distorted Tocqueville’s bipolarism.
    This complexity is climate change, which while of little interest to today’s strategist,
    will be crucial to those of the time period you have tried to understand.
    Crop failures, water shortages and vast migrations from the increasingly barren
    south northwards will twist your calculations beyond recognition. For example, it’s projected 1.3 billion extra people will live in a much hotter Africa by 2050. Their will be more people living in Nigeria than Europe. Unless the EU can create a wall of
    stable North African countries to soak up a reasonable portion of the migrants,
    it will face a refugee crisis dwarfing that of today. That would cripple its great-power status for decades, and possibly splinter it, as states to the North ignore quotas and leave Southern Europe to rot.
    Their are countless other problems that climate change will cause, none of which can be comfortably sorted into a tripolar world. The future cannot be judged on the present’s criteria.

    1. Why stop at crop failures, water shortages, and vast migrations? Any or all of the three polar powers may also be undermined by pandemics, asteroid strikes, supermassive earthquakes, ultraviolent volcanic eruptions, catastrophic climate shifts like a new ice age, mass revolution and upheaval, or a super AI take-over bid. Such destabilizing shocks may also change the polarity of the world over a shorter time-horizon, say, the next twenty years. Does that mean that the exit from unipolarity is unpredictable? More generally, all forecasts, predictions, and prognoses are inherently uncertain. That doesn’t mean that we should not undertake them at all. Indeed, we have little choice but to try to project the future to the best of our knowledge, if for no other reason than to prepare ourselves for what is to come.

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