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January 19, 2012

Engaging the Rising Rest

by Mike M

If you haven’t yet seen HSBC’s new World in 2050 report, take a look.  It’s yet another in a long line of projections into the future using various assumptions that may or may not turn out to be true, models that may or may not be right, built on underlying worldviews that may or may not be openly revealed.  And it is fascinating for a bunch of reasons, but primarily this one:  It raises a critical question about the focus of U.S. strategic attention.

Arguably the central message of the report is that, by 2050, the world’s power base will no longer be centered on Europe, Japan, Russia, China, and America.  It won’t shift completely, but it will be both different and more diffused.  By 2050, according to the report, the dynamic points of economic, cultural and social power are China, Brazil, Malaysia, Thailand, Mexico, Colombia, India, Venezuela, Turkey, Egypt, and Indonesia.  The United States remains at the head of the list in terms of sheer economic bulk; countries like Germany, Japan, Canada, France and Italy remain in the top fifteen, but many of them are on the way down, not up, for demographic and possibly long-term economic reasons (though choices between now and then will help answer that question).

So, in a sense, another argument for “the rise of the rest,” though in somewhat more quantified and expanded terms than one usually sees.  The report confirms a thoughtful piece that emerged a while back in Foreign Policy:  Jack Goldstone’s argument that the BRIC (Brazil/Russia/India/China) formulation was passé, and that a better acronym to reflect emerging economies would be TIMBI—Turkey, India, Mexico, Brazil, and Indonesia.  Even more than China, he argued, which will shortly enter the first stages of its own Europe-style demographic slowdown, these countries represent the catalysts of the future world economy.

To this list we could add perhaps a few other rising powers with particular cultural, economic, or other forms of regional or global influence likely to be major geopolitical players.  I’d put South Korea and Vietnam on that list, for example.

If the world strategic map over the coming three decades is gradually coming to be dominated by a set of 15 or 20 countries, and we map that list over, say, the topics of interagency deputies’ meetings or international visits by the secretary of state or defense, what might we find?  We’ll discover, of course, that the vast number of actual days spent abroad by senior U.S. officials were of necessity  devoted to urgent problems—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq; consulting with Gulf Arab states about Iran; shuttling to NATO and back about Libya.  NSC meetings, much the same.  Then, too, the United States already has ties with all these countries; it’s not as if they just dropped in off the moon.

But there is a difference between routine diplomacy and serious, personal relationships; between the day-to-day stuff of foreign policy and a rigorous effort to cultivate special, lasting friendships with a couple of dozen countries likely to play a key role in running the world.  One appeal of such an approach, in fact, is that it offers an alternative to the China-centrism running amok in Washington today; this model says, Sure, China is big, but many others are accelerating ahead, too, and by rates of growth may overtake China in decades to come, so U.S. geostrategy should be multipolar, not myopic.

So the question that this report poses:  Could we develop such a strategy?  What would it look like?

Read more from Foreign Policy

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