Even America’s own government analysts see the American Era drawing to a close.
The National Intelligence Council (NIC), a unit within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is essentially marking the potential end not just of America’s status as the world’s sole superpower, but also of the current foundation for much of that power: an open international economy, U.S. military alliances in Asia and Europe, and liberal rules and institutions—rules like human-rights protections and institutions like the World Trade Organization—that shape how countries behave and resolve their conflicts.
Trump has repeatedly expressed opposition to key elements of this international order—specifically free-trade deals, U.S. alliance arrangements, and America’s promotion of democracy abroad. But he wants to preserve U.S. dominance in the world; he wants, after all, to once more make America great. And on Tuesday, Michael Flynn, Trump’s incoming national security adviser, suggested that his boss might be more committed to the international system than assumed.
The Trump administration will “examine and potentially rebaseline our relationships around the globe,” Flynn said during an event at the U.S. Institute of Peace. But he added that “alliances are one of the great tools that we have,” that one of America’s strengths is its “unapologetic defense of liberty,” and that the United States “must and will remain a superpower” and “indispensable nation,” borrowing a phrase from the Clinton administration.
States such as China and Russia have demonstrated a willingness to engage in “‘gray zone’ aggression” that stays “below the threshold of hot war” but blurs peacetime and wartime, and brings “profound risks of miscalculation.” Over the next 20 years, the report continues:
Warring will be less and less confined to the battlefield, and more aimed at disrupting societies—using cyber weapons from afar or suicide terrorists from within. …
Future conflicts will increasingly emphasize the disruption of critical infrastructure, societal cohesion, and basic government functions in order to secure psychological and geopolitical advantages, rather than the defeat of enemy forces on the battlefield through traditional military means. Noncombatants will be increasingly targeted, sometimes to pit ethnic, religious, and political groups against one another to disrupt societal cooperation and coexistence within states. Such strategies suggest a trend toward increasingly costly, but less decisive conflicts.
Amid these dynamics, the report warns, populist authoritarian politics could threaten liberal democracy. “It will be tempting to impose order on this apparent chaos,” the authors ominously note.
In the report, Gregory Treverton, the chairman of the NIC, stresses the limits of the exercise that his team undertook. When assessing how the past will shape the future, he writes, “we can be led to confuse recent, dramatic events with the more important ones.”
The NIC’s “Global Trends 2015” report, published in 2000, only months before the 9/11 attacks, is a case in point. The study correctly foresaw several aspects of the world we know today: ambiguous new forms of state-directed cyberattacks; an authoritarian Russian government bent on reestablishing its influence in former Soviet republics; a Middle East reeling from terrorism, demographic pressures, social upheaval, and religious extremism; and more. But it incorrectly foresaw many other developments, including a new Palestinian state, a nuclear-armed Iraq, and a closely integrated European Union.
“[H]uman nature commonly expects tomorrow to be pretty much like today,” Treverton observes, “which is usually the safest bet on the future until it is not.”