The strategic landscape of the 21st century has finally come into focus. The great global project is no longer to stop communism, counter terrorists, or promote a superficial notion of freedom. Rather, the world must accommodate 3 billion additional middle-class aspirants in two short decades -- without provoking resource wars, insurgencies, and the devastation of our planet's ecosystem. For this we need a strategy.
The status quo is untenable. In the United States, the country's economic engine is misaligned to the threats and opportunities of the 21st century. Designed explicitly to exploit postwar demand for suburban housing, consumer goods, and reconstruction materials for Europe and Japan, the conditions that allowed it to succeed expired by the early 1970s. Its shelf life has since been extended by accommodative monetary policy and the accumulation of household, corporate, and federal debt. But with Federal Reserve interest rates effectively zero, Americans' debt exceeding their income, and storms lashing U.S. cities, the country is at the end of the road.
Abroad, Washington's post-Cold War pattern of episodic adventurism and incremental crisis management only creates further uncertainty, and rising powers will not lead. Other major economies have little appetite for altering the global order and hence are doubling down on the old system, exacerbating trade imbalances and driving record resource extraction. As commodity prices rise, global powers are hedging ever more aggressively -- stockpiling resources and increasingly becoming entangled in conflicts in resource-rich areas. As the global economy falters, unrest rises and the great unresolved conflicts of the 20th century -- the Middle East, South Asia, North Korea, Taiwan -- grow increasingly enmeshed in the power dynamics of this new era.
Simply put, the current U.S. and international order is unsustainable, and myriad disruptions signal that it is now in a process of collapse. Until the United States implements a new grand strategy, the country will face even more rapid degradation of domestic and global conditions.
This is not an over-the-horizon danger. The interplay of four strategic antagonists is causing Americans daily harm.
The ranks of the world's nouveaux riches are swelling. The planet is on track to welcome 3 billion new members of the global middle class in the next 20 years. For those fortunate enough to climb out of poverty, advancement translates into a 300 percent increase in income and resource consumption.
That's great for each individual, but as a whole, it will strain our planet to the breaking point. We are not ready to meet the needs of this new middle class: Over the last 20 years, the world absorbed just 1 billion new consumers. Commodity prices, which have risen more than 300 percent over the last decade, are poised for further gains -- and we know that when the prices of strategic commodities rise sufficiently, markets do not adapt so much as states intervene to gain or preserve access to them, whether energy, water, food, or strategic minerals.
Human activity has disrupted the equilibrium of the Earth's planetary systems. We are emitting too much carbon, we are changing the chemistry of both freshwater and saltwater bodies, and we are overconsuming the natural capital we rely on to produce life-giving ecosystem services.
We are straining our planet to the breaking point, risking abrupt changes to the ecosystem. Climate change is the most pressing: Hurricane Sandy; droughts in the American Midwest, India, China, and Russia; accelerated Arctic melting; and record temperatures are just this past year's headlines. With no further change in policy, we will see 6-degree Celsius warming by the end of the century. Well before 2050, we will face widespread food insecurity, economic disruption, mass human migration, and regional war as these critical systems degrade further.