We are in a new era of world history, but no one has noticed.
As pundits lament a world in which nation-states’ relative power is in flux, they’ve missed the new set of actors on the global stage: individuals. The popular protests that have inflamed the Middle East since 2011 are spreading across the globe, albeit in different forms, to places such as Venezuela, Thailand and elsewhere. Pundits and US government officials still see the nation-state system that was birthed by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. They are wrong.
We now are in a new era in which nation-states are joined on the global stage by powerful individuals, groups and others who can and are taking actions that are disrupting the traditional world order. While these actors have operated for some time, their ability to effect decisive global and regional change is about to grow exponentially. We now can call this a “Westphalian-Plus” world.
If the United States does not begin to recognize this new global reality and change its strategy accordingly, the dangers that we already see multiplying across the world will grow far graver.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has emphasized “stability” in key regions of the world as the foremost goal of our national strategy. That was appropriate for most of the post-WWII period, but it is no longer the case.
The changes that are afoot, the protests driven by many in every region across the globe who seek dignity, jobs and freedoms; the ongoing shale energy revolution that is positioning the United States as a major energy supplier to the world; and a wide range of disruptive technologies, like biotech and 3D printing, are the new normal.
Rather than seeking stability, the US government should look to harness the ongoing global changes to its national advantage. The United States should be supporting those who seek dignity and rule of law, not ignoring them; it should be intensively removing all barriers to exporting its new energy bounty, not moving incrementally; it should be working with the private sector on a sustained basis to harness the disruptive technologies under development, not perpetuating the distance between Silicon Valley and Washington.
In short, the United States needs to significantly rebalance its strategic portfolio between stability and dynamic change.
Look, for example, at the popular protest movements in the Middle East, Venezuela and elsewhere. Because of the Internet and social media, anyone anywhere can now see what’s going on anywhere else. This awareness is making many want what they see others have: dignity, freedom, rule of law and prosperity.
People now can organize much more easily than in the past to demand such things from their governments, most of which lack the capacity to offer them. And it only gets worse for those governments. By 2030, for the first time in history, five-eighths of the global population will live in the middle class. That means the world’s majority will demand these resources, creating new tensions between the government and the governed, further eroding state power.
The proliferation of disruptive technologies, such as 3D and 4D printing, a biotechnology explosion, robotics, algorithms, big data and later, quantum computing, will produce a plethora of new threats and unprecedented opportunities. In warfare as in health care, these technologies will be used for good, nefarious and ambiguous purposes. They also can be harnessed for personal use, giving individuals more power and capabilities at their disposal than some militaries have today.
It is this nexus of greater individual autonomy and more powerful and personalized capabilities that defines the coming era of people power. So when thinking about our world today and the value the United States places on regional stability, it becomes clear that this strategy is no longer viable. Washington needs a dynamic framework to deal with a dynamic world.
The Westphalian-Plus global landscape offers enormous opportunities to strengthen American prosperity and security if we identify and monitor the most important changes that are underway; develop approaches to seize the opportunities and face the challenges; and systematically and comprehensively realign our resources and institutions to do so.
Such a new national strategy — call it a “dynamic security” strategy — would require much more active and agile US leadership in the world than we have seen since the Cold War. Continuing to pursue the current American approach of restraint and maintenance will lead both to interstate conflict in East and Southwest Asia, to intrastate turmoil, and to new insecurity in the US itself.
The United States has a chance to lead in this new global era; if not seized upon, dangers will multiply. ■
Barry Pavel is Atlantic Council vice president and director of its Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.