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Five Roads to the Future -- Whose Century Will This Be?

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Early in 1941, Henry Robinson Luce, the founder of Life magazine, spoke in Tulsa, Oklahoma at a dinner hosted by an association of oilmen. Europe was already at war and Japan's attack on America at Pearl Harbor was nearly a year away. Luce, though, had a vision of America's global destiny in a world that seemed bent on destruction. "Ours is the power, ours is the opportunity -- and ours will be the responsibility whether we like it or not," he declared. In February, these remarks became the basis of "The American Century," a still-famous five-page editorial in the pages of Life, in which Luce, as one biographer noted, "equated a happy future with American hegemony."

The American Century, always an inflated notion, can now officially be declared over. Its demise is partly a result of American folly -- like the war in Iraq, which cost the U.S. its credibility with allies all over the world, and the financial crisis, which tarnished the American model of unfettered free-market capitalism and has left the country mired in debt. But even without such missteps, it was never in the cards for America to reign in perpetuity -- while the Chinas and Indias of the world stayed on their knees.

There are five roads to the future. The first is Chaos -- which could be a temporary state of affairs, as often occurs in global interregnums, or something more enduring. America could be the planet's last Big Daddy -- the last of the Empires to bestride the world, in a new era defined by the retreat of the State and the triumph of personal-empowerment technologies enabling global citizens to forge their own links to each other. Although chaos sounds scary, technology offers the prospect, at least the hope, of an epoch that bears proof of the libertarian idea that small is beautiful, that diversity and dispersion is a good thing, and that it is the control freaks of the world, whether in the form of an autocratic parent or a hegemonic global power, that accounts for the greatest miseries on earth.

The second road is a Multipolar World defined by a traditional order built around major nation-states. Nationalism once again exerts itself as a primal force in global affairs, with America and the West challenged by a rising Russia, Iran, India, Turkey and Brazil. This new multipolar arrangement would be global in scope and make for the empowerment of states long regarded by the West as barely capable of organizing themselves. New and improbable-sounding alliances would form -- between Russia and Turkey, and between Brazil and Iran, say. National 'spheres of influence' might have to be recognized, making life unhappy for the small nations of the planet. Should Europe recover its lost will to power, it could be a major player in such a world -- otherwise it risks being dominated by the others. As in the 19th century, peace in a multipolar world would hinge on a balance of power maintained by the biggest players at the point of a gun.

The third road is a Chinese Century. This would be proof of the proposition that the world, after all, does need a dominant player, a global rule maker, to ensure stability. If debt-ridden, imperially over-extended America can't do the job, then China, destined to become the world's largest economy, might have to step in. The world's clocks would be set on Beijing time; the yuan would supplant the dollar as the globe's reserve currency. America would be humbled but not necessarily miserable. The pragmatic Chinese aim mainly to enrich themselves, which augurs for the preservation of a global trading system in which the U.S. can participate. A far worse fate (and a much less probable one) would be an Islamic Century and imposition of a global Shariah law. In the meantime, the envies and animosities that America attracted as the hegemon would gravitate to China, which would discover anew the eternal lesson that is it cold and very lonely at the mountaintop.

The fourth road is an era defined by global city-states. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the chaos of the medieval European world yielded not, in the first instance, to the nation-state but to the smaller and more manageable unit of the city-state. The city, not the tribe, became the primary unit of allegiance -- and many cities, like Florence and Venice, became spectacularly inventive centers of culture. In the 21st century, this pattern could play out on a global scale, with the world's economy and culture dominated by its most dynamic metropolitan centers, North, South, East and West, from Sao Paolo to Mumbai and Hong Kong. American global cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles would be big players, along with European ones like London and Vienna. One of the new 'invented' cities of the Middle East, like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, could join the pack. A hunkered-down Israel might reemerge as the city-state of Tel Aviv. In time, the new global cities, like those of old, could develop their own 'foreign policies' and maintain, in effect, their own armies or militias.

The fifth road is a universal civilization leading to global government. The journey would be a creepy-crawl of an organic kind. The globalization of finance, already an economic reality, might lead naturally to a global financial sheriff. The globalization of ecological problems, like the warming of the planet, might lead to a global environmental regulator. A universal legal system might evolve to address matters like intellectual property rights. The new rulers of the world would be a global cosmopolitan elite -- the 'superclass' that now exists in embryonic form, gathering in places like Davos. Global government would be an invitation for utopian thinkers to impose their ideas on the planet -- but the superclass is actually a diverse one of contrasting ideologies. There might be two main parties -- a party of the grand planners, but also a party of market-oriented libertarian types, reflecting the division that now exists among globalists.

Whichever road ends up defining the future, Americans have to start making some rather large cognitive adjustments. We need a new vocabulary -- a new way of talking about our place in the world. And we must take care to avoid nostalgia for a time that has past -- for nostalgia, which takes its nourishment from illusion and resentment, is political and cultural poison.

Paul Starobin is the author of the newly-published Five Roads to the Future: Power in the Next Global Age (Penguin) and a staff correspondent for the National Journal and a contributing editor to The Atlantic.