Emerging from the economic havoc of the Great Depression and the violence of World War II, the United States found itself at a hinge of history moment. American leaders like President Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson believed that the United States should not only change the way it engaged with the world but assert itself to shape and lead it into a new era of international cooperation. Today, amid a global pandemic, the world faces a similar moment, with massive technological, demographic, environmental, and geopolitical shifts redefining the global order, said former Secretary of State George Shultz. “They [American leaders after World War II] said what we could say now … we are part of this world, whether we like it or not. And they set out to try to make something different.”

A small boat filled with migrants comes ashore after making the crossing from Turkey, near the village of Skala, on Lesbos island in Greece. Nov. 16, 2015. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
A small boat filled with migrants comes ashore after making the crossing from Turkey, near the village of Skala, on Lesbos island in Greece. Nov. 16, 2015. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

To plot out a course for the United States at this inflection point in history, Shultz, a decorated American statesman who was secretary of state during the waning days of the Cold War, organized the “Hinge of History: Governance in an Emerging New World” project at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. During a virtual conversation with USIP Board Chair Stephen J. Hadley, Shultz explained the genesis of the project and why he believes the United States is uniquely poised to lead the international community to ride this wave of change.

Technological Revolution

“Big changes are afoot,” said Shultz, who was also secretary of labor and the treasury in the Nixon administration. Technological developments, particularly artificial intelligence, are “changing the nature of work and the way we can look at all kinds of things.” And while this technological innovation has shown the potential to create a more prosperous world, it also presents significant economic and security challenges. 

Technology that can accomplish tasks more efficiently than humans has forced many people to change professions or learn skills more compatible with a tech-oriented future. “Nearly every worker is affected in some way,” said James Timbie, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, in a panel discussion that followed Shultz’s remarks.

The flood of new technology is also changing the global conflict landscape. “Artificial intelligence, the information revolution, and new manufacturing methods all come together to affect our national security,” added Timbie. Both Timbie and Shultz pointed to Iran’s recent missile strike on a Saudi oilfield as an example of how low-cost, lethal technology such as drones has permanently altered the nature of conflict.

Global Demographic Shifts

And while technology has scrambled the global economic and security calculus, so too has the drastic shift in demographics. “We have a group of countries that are rapidly aging with a shrinking work force and we have, on the other extreme, a group of countries that are young” and rapidly growing, said Silvia Giorguli-Saucedo, president of El Colegio de México.

This trend, combined with what Saucedo said will be a “sustained, and probably increasing migration in the years to come,” presents the international community with a massive logistical and humanitarian issue. “Migration is not good or bad by itself,” said Saucedo. But in recent years, Saucedo said the systems meant to handle migration have been marred by inefficiency and back logs: “We already have a broken system and are already behind, and now you have these new flows” of migrants. She added that even as we begin to reform our approach to migration, patience will be paramount, saying, “We won’t see the results in one, two, three years.”

However, there is a bright spot in charting demographic changes in that they are more reliable compared to other types of projections. This allows analysts to more accurately predict how the global population will shift and offers future policymakers a modicum of stability when planning for other, more unsteady issues like economic changes.

Climate Change and Biology

As we move forward into the heart of the 21st century, even the ground beneath our feet is liable to change. “The earth is not static,” said Lucy Shapiro, a professor of developmental biology at Stanford University. “The rate of change of the earth’s ecosystem is extremely rapid … and it has deep consequences for ongoing global stability.”

Climate change is already driving drought and changes to agriculture around the world—exacerbating poverty and creating an entirely new category of migration with the advent of widespread climate refugees.

And as COVID-19 continues to touch all parts of the globe, environmental changes threaten to increase the spread and prevalence of infectious diseases—a warning that the Hinge of History project says predates the current pandemic. “This is not in the future, this is now,” says Shapiro. “We’re seeing old diseases in new places and new diseases appear.”

How to Govern Amid Upheaval

In the face of these monumental shifts, how can leaders govern effectively and harness the positive aspects of these developments while mitigating the negative?

“The institutions of governance are going to be challenged at every level,” said Chester Crocker, a professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University, adding that in Africa there are widespread demands for a different future. “I don’t think we can look at governance anymore, we have to look at whole societies” as well as determine how to distribute the benefits of advancement equally.

However, Crocker, a former USIP Board chair, was quick to praise several countries who have found meaningful success in the face of seismic changes—including Tunisia and Senegal, both of which have managed to find democratic stability despite upheaval in their respective regions.

Individuals, countries and governments can only do so much, though. As these issues increasingly become global in scale, any effective response will require a collaborative international approach. For Shapiro, fixing the disconnect between the scientific community and policymakers—as well as the state of mistrust between nations on the global stage—is a vital first step: “What we desperately need is better communication and diplomacy so these different worlds can communicate … It can’t be a patchwork quilt.”

To do so will require addressing the resurgence of global competition, most notably between the United States and China. The interests of the two nations are “now in a collision,” said Hadley, a former national security advisor under President George W. Bush. “And how that competition comes out matters if we’re going to have the right kind of international culture to deal with these problems.”

Recent events don’t paint a hopeful picture for the level of U.S.-China cooperation needed to get the international community on the right track—but as the two countries continue to face the same crises in isolation, the incentive could build for a partnership. “We have to think more and more about concerts of likeminded working together on problems,” said Crocker. “Bottom line is we need more diplomacy.”

Beyond diplomacy, these challenges require innovative thinking. “It's quite clear that we're going to have to be much more creative and broaden our lens as we think about institutions of governance … it's going to require global leadership as well, because none of these problems can be solved by individual nations acting alone,” said George Moose, USIP’s Board vice chair who moderated the discussion.

America’s Role

The United States is a markedly different country than it was at the end of World War II, said Hadley. Why is it, then, that it is positioned in 2020 to lead the world through this rapidly evolving landscape, he asked? “We’re a resilient country. We’ve handled change well over the years. We also are the most diverse country in the world” and have learned to build good governance amid that diversity, said Shultz.

These lessons will come in handy as both China and Russia attempt to export their authoritarian models of governance to places like Africa. “If we maintained our own strengths, our leading position, and technology, economy, military, and our partnership with allies and friends, we can be in a position to” counter authoritarian influence and create an environment conducive to diplomacy, said Timbie.

But why should the United States not adhere to a hidebound realism, eschewing international cooperation and only looking to advance its own interests? “There is an idea that’s been floated around that when we do something out in the world, we’re making a gift to other people. That’s not the way to look at it,” said Shultz. American leadership to build a better, more secure, more prosperous and peaceful world “is in our own interest.”

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