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In the early 21st century, Americans wondered if their country was in free fall while other nations grew -- politically, culturally and militarily. By 2050, they may not have to wonder.
Halfway through the century, the economies of China and India will likely continue to outpace the United States, and the Gulf States and European Union -- notwithstanding its financial crises -- will be forces to be reckoned with, both economically and diplomatically. And what of the United States? Well, read on.
China Takes the Economic Lead
The United States developed the world’s largest economy by the end of the 19th century. But by 2020, China is expected to hold that title. Its neighbors -- Japan, South Korea and Australia -- already consider China their most important trading partner.
And so do many U.S. retailers and manufacturers.
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By 2050, American research universities will likely remain the envy of the world, in terms of research output and awards such as the Nobel Prize and Fields Medal. But in the late twenty-teens, U.S. colleges could price themselves out of the domestic market. The Journal of International and Intercultural Communication recently released a study citing record numbers of Chinese and Saudi students enrolling in U.S. universities. Despite the funds these students bring into university coffers, the volume of young U.S. graduates is already in decline.
America once led the world in college graduation: More than 41 percent of Americans aged 55 to 64 have college degrees, the highest percentage in the world for that age group. But this number has not increased recently, and other nations have begun to pull ahead. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, the U.S. rates 15th behind such countries as Belgium, Denmark, South Korea and Luxembourg.
In the international billionaire charts, the United States recently regained the top slot as Bill Gates’ net worth topped $72 billion. But Gates has been trailing Mexican magnate Carlos Slim Helu for five years. Helu only lost the top slot after suffering a $3 billion slip in net worth, after Mexico deregulated one of its more profitable industries. A slice of the bureaucratic guillotine is less likely to happen in emerging economies like those in China and India.
Still, the United States has between five and six of the wealthiest people in the world, and also the greatest volume of dollar billionaires in the world (425). Its nearest rivals, China and Russia, have only 122 and 110 respectively, but the rate of growth in the most vibrant emerging economies outstrips the United States more than fourfold. They have a long way to go to catch up, but they’re coming up fast. By mid-century, the countries with the largest economies could also be home to the most affluent.
In 2050, America is likely still No. 1 ... in debt. According to the Department of Commerce, public and private debt at the end of the first quarter of 2013 is nearly $26 trillion. Unless you account for the Eurozone as a single nation, that’s the greatest national debt on the planet. Of course, as Alexander Hamilton observed, national debt is not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, America has a shortfall of international assets to back up their debt. As a nation, the United States has about $22 trillion in international assets. The difference between those figures, negative $4.3 trillion, is called the net international investment position, and the gap has been getting wider for years.
As long as Treasury bills remain an attractive investment for foreign investors, this trend can only continue -- especially if every quarter, U.S. investors take $19 billion out of their international portfolios. And as Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute observed a decade ago, “The United States damages future living standards by borrowing itself into a deceptively deep hole.”
As tension over territories in the East and South China Seas grows, China is expected to ramp up its navy, backed up by space-based spy satellites and a technological team of cyber-warriors to hold back any perceived threat. Unfortunately, some of the perceived threat comes from the presence of the U.S. Navy in those waters.
“Rather than building 500 fighter planes to intercept every American fighter plane, (the Chinese) would try to take out our satellite navigation system,” says “Age of the Unthinkable” author Joshua Cooper Ramo. “Frankly, I don't think the U.S. is prepared to deal with the way the Chinese are developing their military.”
Since the United States dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the spectre of nuclear destruction has hung over the world. When two rival superpowers later held the bomb, the threat of mutually assured destruction maintained an uneasy peace.
But with smaller rival nations in possession of nuclear weapons -- nine nations are believed to currently have the bomb -- a cluster of cold wars could begin to develop with tangles of mutually assured destruction keeping the uneasiest peace of all.
"They are managed by imperfect, normal human beings,” says Scott Sagan, co-author of "The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed" and they are difficult to contain.
When Pakistan was being bombarded by U.S. drones, 20 other nations could have done the same, including China, Taiwan, Israel, Mexico, North Korea and India. And Pakistan could have retaliated with its own drones.
By 2050, drones may be, more often than not, autonomous. A human will be able to overrule the computer, but in most cases, the machine will likely be capable of making lethal decisions on its own.
And by replacing pilots with semi-autonomous drones, wars become easier to wage ... and easier to start.
As the attempts by the United States and Russia to broker a peace accord in Syria foundered in 2013, an attempt by the Gulf States and the European Union began to gain traction. Could this mean the beginning of the end of America’s influence in world affairs?
Experts say diplomacy is one area where America will remain a potent force.
"The American role remains -- in the oft-used word -- indispensable," argues Robert J. Lieber, a professor at Georgetown University and author of "Why the United States Is Not Destined to Decline." "With its hard-power resources, it is the ultimate guarantor against aggressive and nihilistic movements and regimes."