Whither the US Over the Next 5 Years?
Isolation, Intervention and Diminished American Expectations
The future of the US has perhaps never been harder to predict. On the one hand, the American economy remains strong, with low unemployment, low inflation, and very reasonable growth. The US continues to attract the lion’s share of global foreign direct investment, innovators still thrive in various fields, and American research universities continue to lead in global rankings. Despite the continued possibility of terrorist attacks on US soil and tensions – some acute – with various states in Northeast Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Latin America, the US remains one of the only states in the world that is largely ‘secure’ in terms of its general invulnerability to territorial occupation. It arguably still has no peer competitor in this regard – not even China, despite its manifest military and economic rise.
On the other hand, the US shows signs of rapid decline and growing domestic dislocation and disruption. American society has become one of the most stratified in the Western world, with sharp income inequalities that often ensure wealth to those born wealthy and reproduce poverty for those born in poverty. One can now, in principle, predict the future income of young American children by their parents’ earnings and education. That was not the case throughout most of American history.
Stratification is reducing economic and social dynamism in the US, as those with advantages seek to protect what they have against innovation and reform. The present political revolt against immigration and free trade – two cornerstones of US policy since at least 1965 – is an effort, quite literally, to build walls that preserve wealth for those who already have it, while keeping competitors out. In the US, these walls have clear racial and ethnic implications.
We must add guns to the story too. In the US, there are now more privately owned guns, including handguns and automatic rifles, than people. The majority of gun owners are white men. They have been the perpetrators of most domestic terrorist incidents in the US – including mass killings in Oklahoma City, Newtown, Charleston and, among many others, the recent massacres in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs. White male gun owners inclined to take the law into their own hands are generally too scattered to constitute an insurrectionary force. However, American vigilantes are today too zealous and heavily armed to be ignored, even in the context of increasingly sophisticated policing. The prospects for increased racial, political and other manifestations of domestic violence in the US are therefore very strong.
It is hard to know how long Donald Trump can last as president, and how long the prestige and legitimacy of the modern presidency can last with him in office. He is rapidly mobilizing resistance to the White House in Congress, the courts, the states, the press and, perhaps especially, many foreign countries and populations. He continues to make new enemies – often in his own party – and to neglect key parts of the job, including the appointment of high-level diplomats and other officials. The findings from Robert Mueller’s investigation and the results of the 2018 congressional elections could shift American politics decisively against Trump, and perhaps even bring about his impeachment. Then again, Trump has defied the odds many times before, and the conflicted nature of contemporary American society plays to his strategy of distraction, attack and bombast. Major consolidation moves are not to be excluded in the context of the crises to come.
So where is the US going? What will the country look like in five years? Answer: There are three most likely scenarios for the year 2022. Elements of all three will take shape, but none of the scenarios will emerge fully formed. Instead, we are likely to see a mix of three different Americas, with the third scenario described below the most evident in five years’ time.
Scenario 1: Fortress America
The US has a long history of rejecting the rest of the world. From its founding, Americans have thought of themselves as somehow chosen by God to build a ‘city on a hill,’ separate from a degenerate world. The most important first statement of US foreign policy, George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796, counselled against alliances of all kinds, recommending a steady neutrality in all foreign conflicts. John Quincy Adams elaborated on this point a quarter century later, when he explained that the US does not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” As secretary of state, Adams wrote the language for what became known as the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted a separate region of influence for the US in the Western Hemisphere.
President Franklin Roosevelt had to fight against these powerful isolationist impulses in the late 1930s. He contended with an American public and Congress that resisted any American intervention against the fascist forces that overran France, and soon most of the European continent. The military isolationism of Americans was accompanied by economic nationalism. The US maintained some of the highest trading tariffs in the world before 1945. They protected national industries and provided revenue for the federal government.
The period after WW2 is historically anomalous because, during this half-century, the US embraced globalism as never before. Beginning with efforts to reconstruct Europe and Japan, followed by the formation of permanent alliances in both regions, the US abandoned its isolationist traditions to prevent both the spread of communism and another worldwide economic collapse. This meant bringing trade tariffs to historical lows, which opened the vast American market to foreign competitors – many of them former adversaries. It involved creating the largest peacetime military in American history, with permanent bases on all continents. Most significantly, post-war globalism redefined the US as a multicultural society, accepting more immigrants, opening higher education to them and to various American-born minorities, and instituting new protections for civil rights. Global America was more open, diverse and inclusive than ever before.
That inclusive and open half-century was not normal in American history. Now it might be history. Fortress America has deep roots in the country’s experience. Supporters of the recent presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, as well as Donald Trump, in many cases argued that the experiment with globalism hurt too many citizens by allowing increased competition from foreign workers, students and entrepreneurs. According to these voters, foreign wars – particularly in Afghanistan since 2001, and Iraq since 2003 – sapped American resources from needs at home. Millions believed that foreign aid was a waste, while international institutions, like the UN, only constrained the country’s independence.
Even if a more traditional president replaces Donald Trump, Fortress America remains a strong future possibility. Millions of Americans will continue to demand ‘protections’ for their businesses and jobs. They will argue that the nation’s universities and other institutions should be reserved for them. And they will insist on an end to costly American commitments abroad. Immigrants will not, as a general instinct and perhaps even rule, be welcome. Protections for minorities will remain, but their enforcement will lag as police powers grow to protect ‘law and order’ – that is, to ensure wealth and control for those who already have it. The rhetoric and culture of the country will be hyper-nationalist, emphasizing a resurgent ‘White America.’
Fortress America will be less engaged in the world. The US will continue to trade and citizens will continue to travel, but the American economy and society will look primarily inward. Although these activities will reduce economic growth and curtail innovation, the decline of the country will encourage more separation and nationalism, not less. Blaming others for deprivations that are self-induced, the country will enter a spiral of isolation – first raising tariffs and limiting immigration, then abandoning major alliances, and finally, refusing to pay foreign creditors.
The rest of the world will not remain idle before such a scenario. Fortress America will be met with hostility from former allies and long-time adversaries alike. America’s retrenchment will encourage others to work together. The EU and China (and also Russia and China) will expand their emerging partnership, increasing their mutual trade and closing access for US companies on their soil. The same will happen in India, Japan and other regions. Free-trade zones and regional security frameworks that largely exclude the US will emerge in Asia (West and East Asia alike), Africa and Latin America. Even Canada and Mexico may find ways to redesign post-NAFTA continental trade for their continued benefit, and for containment of American influence.
Fortress America will avoid war, but it will face a world of more vigorous competitors and more determined adversaries. That will make Americans feel less secure. It will also make American democracy less vibrant. Every transaction or project that crosses outside US territory will be slower and more costly. Many presumptions of foreign ‘love’ for things American will dissipate. The president will no longer be a world leader, but rather the leader of a big country.
Scenario 2: Interventionist America
The twin to America’s longstanding isolationist instincts is an equally strong interventionist tradition. When its self-imposed isolation is challenged, and particularly when it feels attacked, the US frequently turns to the projection of its formidable military qualities against perceived adversaries. The history of US foreign policy is filled with rapidly alternating cycles of stubborn isolation and aggressive intervention.
This was, of course, the pattern that George W. Bush followed during his presidency. Originally elected on a promise to focus the country’s resources on American security and wealth, while avoiding foreign nation-building, the trauma of the 9/11 attacks motivated the president to reverse himself and undertake massive nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. If ‘failed states’ nurtured enemies of the US, Bush reasoned, then the US had to build functioning democracies, on the American model, far away. “Ending tyranny in our world,” the president explained, was the only way to secure American freedom at home.
The effort to protect America’s separation from the ‘evils’ of the rest of the world motivated a boundless ‘global war on terror’ that brought thousands of American soldiers and trillions of American dollars to parts of the world that most Americans disdained and few could find on a map just a few years earlier. The curious desire to change societies without understanding them (American leaders remain profoundly ignorant of most foreign cultures, traditions and languages) reflected this intervention born of isolation. The US entered a decade and a half of continuous war to destroy threats.
The shock of another major terrorist incident on US territory or a foreign government’s attack on American citizens will convert isolationists into born-again interventionists, as happened, with disproportionate intensity, for Bush and others after 9/11.
We can expect the US to pursue a similar path in a world where isolationist-minded citizens confront a proliferating range of potentially threatening actors, including North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, ISIS and others. Even if the US, as mentioned, remains generally secure, each of these adversaries has the capability to bring direct harm to American citizens and territory (and certainly to US interests, assets and citizens abroad). Each of them has been emboldened by the retreat of America’s presence overseas and the ever-growing divisions that are debilitating policy-making within the US.
The shock of another major terrorist incident on US territory or a foreign government’s attack on American citizens will convert isolationists into born-again interventionists, as happened, with disproportionate intensity, for Bush and others after 9/11. President Trump has already shown this urge in his language about North Korea, Iran, ISIS and even Venezuela.
We can expect more unilateral American warfare in the coming years. Emboldened adversaries in East and West Asia, as well as in the former Soviet space, will expand their military challenges in the face of receding American power. Local allies will not be willing to assist American efforts due to negligent alliance management from Washington. When North Korea, China, Iran or Russia takes forward action against exposed American positions, the president will feel pressured to act decisively. With diminished international power, however, American retaliation will trigger a broader regional war that the US will be poorly prepared to manage. American military forces will find themselves fighting as the weaker regional force, possibly suffering defeat.
Simultaneously with a violent regional conflict, the US could suffer another major foreign terrorist attack on American soil, or a military base maintained by the US abroad. Various terrorist groups are planning another big strike, and a more nativist and self-interested US arguably invites efforts to hurt Americans. As the president struggles to show strength in a regional war, he will also feel compelled to take strong military action against any terrorists (and their supporters or sponsors) who attack Americans. Increased drone strikes and a second major deployment of American soldiers will occur. Anti-terrorist retaliation may, in turn, open a second regional war for an overstretched and unprepared American military, and a startled American electorate.
The public focus on war, and the sense of righteous anger, encouraged by political leaders, will erode democratic freedoms inside the US. The White House will exert pressure on the press to avoid reporting critical information. Courts will allow increased domestic surveillance. The federal government will use the precedent of enemy combatants in the global war on terror to begin incarcerating and deporting minority residents – and even some citizens – with familial connections to enemy nations. The US will have become a much more fearful and less free country.
The interventionism that follows American isolation will be militaristic, poorly strategized and harmful to American values. It will be more destructive than the wars after 9/11, and likely more permanent in its international and domestic damage to American national interests. In this context, an interventionist US will find itself fighting costly, losing wars.
American leaders will plod forward in reaction to a wide range of challenges at home and abroad. Their reactions will produce no major victories, advances for US national interests, or enhancements to American democracy.
Scenario 3: Plodding America
Scenarios one and two – Fortress America and Interventionist America – both undermine long-term American strength, prosperity and prestige. Of course, neither scenario is inevitable, and there are forces pushing against each – especially from the majority of Americans who oppose Trump’s presidency. The most likely circumstances for the US in the next five years are much more mixed, confused and contradictory. American leaders will plod forward in reaction to a wide range of challenges at home and abroad. Their reactions will produce no major victories, advances for US national interests, or enhancements to American democracy. As a whole, American security will decline and the US will become less prosperous. However, the accumulated wealth and predominance of the US will allow it to weather the storm, to carry on, and to remain the most powerful country in the world.
Still, American power will be far less internationally dominant than at any time since 1945. And American democracy will be far less stable than at any time since before the Great Depression. The very real prospect of scenarios one and two will contribute to continued uncertainty, anxiety and division within American society.
The president in 2022 will act to lower American expectations. He will speak less often of American ideals, and act less frequently as an international agenda-setter. He will not be able to assume near-automatic European, Japanese and Canadian support for key initiatives. Americans will not look forward to more growth and opportunity, but instead the difficult preservation of what they have. In this sense, the US of 2022 will be a pessimistic and restrained nation, rather than an optimistic and activist power.
Reacting inconsistently to international crises and curtailing its own democracy, the US will approximate an empire in slow decline, echoing in some respects the UK of the 20th century. There will be no obvious replacement for the US on the world stage (China, Russia and the EU will all have their own major internal and external problems). And there is no obvious substitute for American democratic institutions at home (authoritarian alternatives will prove insufficiently attractive and, given the size and diversity of the US, administratively ineffectual). The US will draw on its accumulated resources and beneficial geopolitical position to slow its decline, avoiding catastrophic disruptions.
In contrast to the ideological and partisan American politics of the last two decades, the debates inside the US will become less severe. With diminished prospects and many looming dangers, American leaders will become increasingly managerial and risk-averse. Technocrats and centrists will reassert themselves, promising to bring stability and relief. Longstanding American social welfare programmes, including President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, will remain broadly in place, but with fewer supporting resources and more modest goals. Major long-term challenges, including income inequality and environmental sustainability, will get attention only in their most immediate manifestations. American leaders will have little political capital or creativity for long-term transformational reforms. US policy changes will be incremental, reactive and crisis-driven.
The year 2022 will mark a new and unprecedented American era of diminished expectations. If, after the Cold War, Americans argued over how to use their unmatched power and political legitimacy, they will now contend with having to conserve their power and re-establish political legitimacy. This will not be easy, and the country will suffer repeated setbacks and humiliations. Citizens will not experience the economic growth that they expect.
To be sure, American isolationism and interventionism will still be in place and on display, as will American hubris. These historical tendencies will decline as American power recedes and democratic institutions become less secure. But the point is that the conspicuous limits on the US will be of growing consequence to allies, adversaries and Americans themselves. And the year 2022 will be one of uncertain adjustment to this fact. Even enemies will come to miss American power, and also the international order that it enforced in the ‘American Century’ – now history.
Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. His new book is The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.