Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 02/2009

Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World

November 2008

Atlantic Council


Historically, emerging multipolar systems have been more unstable than bipolar or unipolar ones. Despite the recent financial volatility-which could end up accelerating many ongoing trends-we do not believe that we are headed towards a complete breakdown of the international system-as occurred in 1914-1918 when an earlier phase of globalization came to a halt. But, the next 20 years of transition to a new system are fraught with risks. Strategic rivalries are most likely to revolve around trade, investments, and technological innovation and acquisition, but we cannot rule out a 19th century-like scenario of arms races, territorial expansion, and military rivalries.

This is a story with no clear outcome, as illustrated by a series of vignettes we use to map out divergent futures. Although the United States is likely to remain the single most powerful actor, the United States' relative strength-even in the military realm-will decline and US leverage will become more constrained. At the same time, the extent to which other actors-both state and nonstate-will be willing or able to shoulder increased burdens is unclear. Policymakers and publics will have to cope with a growing demand for multilateral cooperation when the international system will be stressed by the incomplete transition from the old to a still forming new order.