In 2008, as the Obama administration prepared to take control in Washington, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey offered a list of bold predictions for the coming five years. Some of them bore out: The economy performed well globally despite the Great Recession, relations with Russia became more hostile without devolving into outright dysfunction, and the United States withdrew from Iraq right at the 36-month mark, which McCaffrey specified. Other predictions, such as a North Korean collapse, improved prospects for success in Afghanistan following a massive commitment of resources, and a nuclear breakout for Iran, never occurred.
A year later, geopolitical analyst George Friedman published the widely read “The Next 100 Years.” Like McCaffrey, Friedman correctly predicted a new cold war between the United States and Russia, but he also foresaw the emergence of Turkey as a major regional power, the consequences of demographic change in Europe and North America, and tensions between the United States and Mexico as instability in Latin America threatens to generate a crisis on the southern border. Friedman got some things wrong, to be sure, but the number of things he got right is fascinating.
Making accurate predictions is no easy feat, leading some to take the “wait and see” approach. However, I offer six predictions, in no particular order, that will have serious implications for American national security and foreign policy in the 2020s.
1. Russia Will Lose Great Power Status
The American left, along with its compatriots in the media, have thrown everything toward fashioning Russia as a geopolitical menace that must be defeated at all costs, lest it conquer all of Europe and facilitate the electoral victory of the “wrong” presidential candidate once again. This is quite a departure from earlier this decade, when the prevailing wisdom was that the 1980s wanted its foreign policy back.
Russia no doubt possesses geopolitical clout, a large economy, and a strong military. But Russia is a dying country. Its aging population is wracked by poor health, combined with minuscule growth following decades of decline. Most, if not all, projections show considerable population loss for Russia by mid-century.
Russia’s dependence on oil and natural gas also belies the size of its economy. Extreme sensitivity to the price of oil equals prolonged periods of economic instability, leading to greater poverty and domestic discontent, forcing Russia to scale back its global role. Despite its instrumental role in saving the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, history may well look back on Russian foreign policy in the 2010s as an aberration, as realities on the home front mean the bear may soon go into hibernation indefinitely.
2. China Will Double Down on Authoritarianism
Inspiring as the Hong Kong protests have been to lovers of democracy and freedom all over, it’s a movement destined for failure. Without direct intervention from the outside, the protesters will never overcome the sheer might and violence the Communist Party of China can bring to bear. The protests will eventually fizzle out, or Beijing will decide, as it did in Tiananmen Square three decades ago, to end the uprising once and for all.
When Beijing doubles down, the world will be unable to do little differently than it does now: offer platitudes of support for the freedom-fighters, enact limited sanctions, and harshly condemn the socialist state. Beyond that, however, not a single country, the United States included, is willing to risk a confrontation with a nuclear-armed power that’s also the world’s second-largest economy over the fate of Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, the People’s Republic will continue its campaign of terror against its own citizens, most notably the Uyghurs of Xinjiang Province, to ensure total obedience of its population to the Communist Party and the rule of President Xi Jinping and, as some reports suggest, to ethnically cleanse the Uyghurs from China. With time, this same strategy will be applied to China’s other ethnic and religious minorities. When its economy eventually declines, expect to see a level of totalitarianism unseen since the days of Mao Zedong.
3. Japan Will Rise as Asia’s Powerhouse
“Japan was, is, and will be the major power in Asia, not China,” says retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor. “China is a large, lumbering brontosaurus with an insatiable appetite for food and energy. Japan is analogous to a pack of [velociraptors].”
To be sure, Japan faces substantial obstacles, not the least of which its aging population and economic stagnation. As Macgregor observes, however, Japan is blessed with features that set it aside from other countries facing similar challenges: “Japan and Germany were alike in that both states emerged as very homogenous populations with a strong, cohesive society supported by an effective culture. Germany now confronts serious internal weaknesses, while Japan has avoided that outcome and, as a result, is in a very strong position for the future.”
The inevitable Chinese decline will create a power vacuum, which Tokyo may ably fill. Murmurings of a shift in Japan’s foreign policy will become more real as Beijing continues to pose a regional security threat, combined with the ongoing nuclear crisis in Korea. The already firm U.S.-Japanese alliance will become even stronger and more important, reinforcing Japan’s emergence as Asia’s top power and guaranteeing America’s access to the economies and markets of the region.
Speaking of Germany:
4. Germany Will Flirt with the Idea of Leaving the EU
Brexit may be all the rage now, but all eyes will be on Germany in the 2020s. Arguably the leading continental power and the linchpin of the EU, Berlin will be forced to confront myriad challenges that will define its fate and that of Europe for decades to come. These include a demographic crisis, the migrant influx that refuses to abate, and the pressure that accompanies being the one country responsible for sustaining the EU experiment.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens after 2021, when Angela Merkel is expected to step down as chancellor. If the 2017 federal election was any signal, significant percentages of German voters are no longer buying what the more establishment, centrist parties are selling. Germany may well follow the United Kingdom and United States in a more nationalist, populist direction, especially with trouble lurking on the economic horizon.
By the end of the 2020s, all the crises and the pressure will add up to create enough enthusiasm for a departure from the EU, which will then experience an existential crisis. It’s difficult to say whether Germany would actually leave, given the difficulties Britain is enduring in its own attempt. But history makes this much certain: Where Germany goes, continental Europe follows.
5. Latin America Will Become America’s No.1 National Security Challenge
If the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border isn’t yet a crisis, it’ll become one in the 2020s. Mexico, which saw nearly 30,000 killed in 2019 due to the drug war, will continue to be consumed by the inferno. Nor is the problem limited to Mexico. Extraordinary levels of violence, corruption, and instability in Central America are the primary movers of northerly migration.
Even relatively stable South America isn’t quite so these days. Venezuela teeters on the brink following its disastrous two-decade experiment with socialism, creating a brand-new migrant crisis. Crime, an economic crisis, and corruption embroil Brazil, once considered an emerging great power. The long-term forecast for Latin America is gloomy.
In fact, by the mid-2020s, the United States will feel a noticeable political shift as the left reaches a breaking point over its support for illegal immigration, similar to its breaking point over homelessness. It’ll be impossible to ignore the glaring contradiction of promoting de facto open borders while decrying increasing levels of poverty, overcrowding, and declining quality of life, coupled with ever-increasing levels of violence. Likewise, the inability of any nation to sustain an influx of low-skill migrants who ultimately depend more on state and society than the reverse will become more apparent.
This is hardly a comprehensive list of predictions. Missing are those pertaining to the endless wars in the Greater Middle East, the enduring threat Islamist militants pose, the conflict with Iran that’ll soon enter its fourth decade, and the lingering question of North Korea disarmament. The futures I’ve offered here, however, if they come to pass, will have the most lasting effects upon America in the 2020s and beyond. May the 2020s prove more peaceful and prosperous than the decade we leave behind.