For ten years now, I have had the privilege of teaching outstanding students at Johns Hopkins University, Syracuse University, and the University of Denver a course called “Who Will Rule the 21st Century?” It is a course about almost everything of geostrategic note: China’s rise, Russia’s return, democracy’s spread, authoritarianism’s resurgence, many challenges but many enduring strengths of America and NATO, warming climates and rising oceans, proliferating weapons of mass destruction, new technologies including artificial intelligence, and the planet’s likely push towards ten billion humans by mid-century. Most of those human beings are in the developing world and most of them live in cities. Additionally, as my Brookings Institution colleague, Homi Kharas, underscores, a larger fraction of those humans are living middle-class lives or better than at any time in history. We start the course by reading Paul Kennedy’s 1987 classic, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, as a retrospective on previous eras. We then read big-idea authors dealing with today’s world—Robert Kagan, John Ikenberry, Fareed Zakaria, Charlie Kupchan, Tim Snyder, Tom Wright, Bruce Jones, the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger—and do “deep dives” on subjects like China and climate. The students are mostly American, and mostly thirty-ish (many already holding full-time jobs) in age, but they come from all walks of life and many countries.
At the end of each semester—right now, for Syracuse’s summer program—we then attempt to answer the question of who will most likely rule this century. The “ruler” could be a country, an alliance, a coalition of countries, a big idea like democracy or authoritarianism, a big tragedy like nuclear war or climate catastrophe, or a set of technological and economic trends (for better or for worse). Our plan is to get together in 2050 (if I can hold out that long) for an interim assessment of who has been right to date and who has been wrong!
The reason I am describing this course in the form of an op-ed is this: in 2019, my students collectively displayed a pessimism about the future of the United States, and the world, that no previous class had exhibited—with the exception of the 2016 groups at Syracuse and Denver. I believe there is an important message in my students’ collective worries that both political parties in the United States should hear.
To be fair, only about half of my recent Syracuse students are truly pessimistic. The others, at least from an American perspective, still hold out considerable hope. Answering the question of who would rule the century, in terms of setting its main security and strategic conditions and parameters, about one-third of the group said the United States. Another couple favored democracy or some variant on that concept. But I was struck that even these optimists were guarded in their enthusiasm—often appreciating how many problems China still faces, and how disunified the European Union countries really are, and how poor India still is today despite all the progress, and so on—more than they were celebrating any great American renewal.
And then there was the other half of the group. Two students argued that that illiberalism and authoritarianism would likely overtake the forces of democracy as the century unfolds. Two of my other students thought technology would rule—with the potential for good, but also the potential for horribly bad things like desecration of the planet or nuclear war. Two more expected conflict to dominate the news—much as it ultimately did in the first half or so of the twentieth century, even after the heady days of the century’s first decade or so. Two more thought that companies and other supranational or nongovernmental organizations would rule. But they saw this as just as likely to be a bad thing as a good one. One student predicted that the African Union would rule once the major developed economies had decimated each other through war and other tragedies and, in effect, left Africa as the last continent still standing.
Perhaps this year’s group of Syracuse students just included an unusually ornery and fatalistic lot. I am joking. In fact, I found them as smart and thoughtful as any previous group. That gives me pause; I didn’t like their collective net assessment, and wish I were able to dismiss it more confidently.
Speaking of previous groups, they trended towards optimism almost every time—expecting that the United States, or NATO, or the general tide of democracy (including in places like India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Latin America), or the “liberal global order” would be the predominant force of the century. Typically, two-thirds to three-fourths of my students could be “coded” as optimists of some sort. They offered such prognostications even as the great recession left us in horrible economic straits in the early years of my course, even as Washington remained highly acrimonious throughout the Obama years, even when the Arab Spring turned to winter, even when Putin seized Crimea and ISIS seized large chunks of Iraq and Syria, even when Ebola took hold in West Africa in 2014. My students, rightly or wrongly, were able to convince themselves that America’s and the West’s strengths, and those of other emerging forward-looking power—as well as broader positive forces shaping human history—were more consequential than the crises of the day.
All that changed for a while in 2016. I taught the course at both Syracuse University and the University of Denver that year. Both courses concluded before election day, so most students probably expected Hillary to win. Although this observation is not meant as a direct attack on President Donald Trump, it is, however, a referendum of sorts on candidates Trump, Clinton, Sanders, and others. The partisanship and personal invective that characterized that year’s political campaigns, along with problems inside America that the political discourse revealed, seemed to make students wonder for the first time if America’s internal cohesion was up to the job of keeping us great in the twenty-first century. And even the non-American students wondered who could lead a stable and prosperous world if the United States would not.
Things got a bit better in 2017 and 2018; optimism returned a bit in my classes. Perhaps it was because we were collectively learning we might just, despite it all, survive the Trump presidency. Perhaps his supporters in my class were hoping he was growing into the job, while his detractors were looking forward to midterm elections as a chance to right the tables of American politics a bit. Probably the strong economy contributed a little bit to the hopefulness as well.
But this year, we fell back. I am still struggling to figure out the answer. The poor state of great-power relations, which has now lasted more than half a decade, could explain a good deal of it. However, I think the more likely principal cause is that American politics seem headed for something that will feel like 2016 all over again. Negativity is paramount. Big, hopeful, and yet realistic ideas of the type a Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan—or even a Bill Clinton, John McCain, or Barack Obama—brought to the table are few and far between. The humid Washington air through which we came to class each evening may have reminded us that the “swamp” remains pervasive.
There is still time to change this—and I look forward to what my class of 2020 will have to say on the matter. But for now, I have concluded that today’s political and policy environment has my students more worried about the fate of the country, and the Earth, than they have been at any previous time over the past ten years. I hope our political leaders and aspirants hear them.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings and adjunct professor at several universities, is the author most recently of The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War over Small Stakes.