As the decade dawns, the world system is moving toward a more "normal" state of affairs, a return neither to the bipolar blocs of the Cold War nor to the brief hegemonic interlude that followed. Rather, we see a return to a world with several competing poles of power, both large and small, with less defined and more fluid alliances and partnerships. Over the decade, the United States and China — buoyed by their economic, political, military and social power — will be the most significant poles, with Russia and Europe each playing important, albeit less powerful, roles. Numerous smaller alliances and alignments will emerge, regionally or topically focused, seeking to use their shared interests and pooled resources to better maneuver among the larger powers.
The United States will remain the single largest power in holistic terms through the decade, but its comparative share of power is waning. China will continue to expand its global role, but domestic issues will limit its overall attention and power. Russia faces increasingly severe demographic and economic challenges, and by the end of the decade, the Russian-Chinese relationship will likely undergo significant strain as the power balance tips in Beijing's favor. Europe, meanwhile, will struggle to forge a new identity as it grows more apparent that the dream of a pan-national Europe does not match the reality of the differing social, economic and political models spread across the Continent.
The travails of the European Union, in plain view since the global financial crisis, are a precursor of the future across much of the world. The challenges posed by the spread of technologies, the revival of economic nationalism and stresses over economic expectations will likely lead to an increase in localized and regional conflict. With neither a global hegemon nor a bipolar system to try to force stability, the globe's shifting allegiances and alliances, changing trade arrangements and flows, and increasing social and political instability will produce a more fluid and contentious world over this decade.
Amid that volatility, pockets of economic opportunity and growth will emerge. Southeast Asia, East Africa and South America are but some the areas where expanding populations, rising urbanization, infrastructure development and growing social expectations will provide those opportunities. If they are able to capitalize on technology trends, and not be bypassed, these areas are poised to be engines of global growth. They stand in contrast to the global north, where populations are graying and stagnating, or even declining, slowing the rate of consumption and available capital. The demographic dichotomy will invigorate nationalist sentiments, even as migration may be the very thing needed to ease the social burdens in both the north and the south.
It is a decade where resistance to the ideals of extreme globalization will be even more manifest and where the assertion of national and local self-interest will clash with trends of regionalism and globalism. Amid demographic and economic challenges, the tendency will be to think local and act local, despite the identification of global problems.