06.02 Future Review

Gloomy with a Glimpse of Sunshine: US global leadership, Middle East settlement, the end of the Putin era, the diminishing likelihood of conflict over Taiwan and the challenges of the third nuclear era

By 2034, the United States will remain the global leader, Israel will normalise diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, Vladimir Putin will have left the political stage, and Ukraine is likely to have returned the territories occupied in 2022 and joined the EU and NATO — this is the future outlined by the results of a large-scale expert survey conducted by the Atlantic Council. Although most experts share pessimism about the prospects of the global order, their forecasts at the beginning of this year have been more optimistic than they were a year ago. Particularly notable is the sharp decrease, from 70% to 50%, in the proportion of those expecting China to attempt to capture Taiwan. At the same time, the mood of the experts in the nuclear sphere appears considerably more worrisome than last year. The world is entering the 'third nuclear era.' Although about 60% still believe that nuclear weapons will not be used in the next 10 years, in the eyes of experts, the threat of their uncontrolled proliferation and use looks much more multifaceted. In addition to the traditional 'Russian threat',concerns have grown regarding nuclear aggression from North Korea, as well as the use of nuclear weapons by some non-state terrorist organisations. Just like last year, Russia tops the list of major countries that could end up as failed states over the next decade, i.e. experiencing a full-scale political and social crisis or even collapse. Experts believe that the Putin system will not survive the departure of its leader.

Imagine a world where scattered centres of power vie for influence, Russia enters a period of uncertainty in the post-Putin era, Iran gains access to nuclear weapons, and the UN ultimately admits its inability to fulfil its core functions — this is roughly how the Atlantic Council summarises the results of another survey of approximately 300 prominent experts from different countries (although 60% of them are based in the US) on the shape the modern world will take over the next decade, to 2034. Although almost 60% of those surveyed share a pessimistic view of the prospects for the global order, the forecasts were more optimistic on a number of points compared to a similar survey conducted last year. Of course, these surveys do not reveal the future, but they do show changes in current agendas and concerns.

When it comes to Russia, experts' assessments have also become somewhat less alarmist, which is obviously due to the more stable situation on the frontline in Ukraine and the limited effect of international sanctions thus far. At the same time, Russia still leads the list of potentially failed states, but far fewer experts now consider this a likely scenario, 11% compared to 21% last year. Expectations of Russia's collapse (as a result of revolution, civil war or other events) have also slightly decreased, from 40% to 35%.

Nevertheless, the prevailing scenario for Russia’s development over the next decade, according to experts, is a crisis. Few doubt that Vladimir Putin will 'win' this year's presidential election, but an overwhelming majority (71%) are confident that he will not be able to hold on to power for another decade. Only 7% entertain the possibility that Putin will still rule Russia in 2034. At the same time, experts have high confidence in the likelihood of maintaining the current political regime over the next decade in China (86%), North Korea (59%), and Iran (51%). Post-Putin Russia, in contrast, seems to be an area of turbulence. In other words, while acknowledging Putin's ability to control the situation to a certain extent, experts consider his regime institutionally unstable against the backdrop of war and sanctions.

At the same time, experts expecting the collapse of Russia tend to assess the risks associated with Moscow's aggressive behaviour higher: 38% believe that a war between Russia and NATO will begin in the next decade (25% on average across the sample), and 20% predict Russia's use of nuclear weapons during the same period. Just over 60% of the experts surveyed, like the previous year, believe that the war in Ukraine will not escalate into a direct conflict between Russia and NATO, while the absolute majority are confident that Ukraine will be able to defend its sovereignty and foreign policy goals over the next decade.

54% of respondents see Ukraine as a member of the European Union in 2034, which seems relatively low considering that the commencement of negotiations on this matter has already been approved. As for NATO membership, 44% see Ukraine as a member, which, on the contrary, appears relatively high given the numerous obstacles to such a scenario. As for restoration of territorial integrity and return of territories occupied by Russia, only 12% of respondents predict that Ukraine will control its territory within the 1991 borders in the next ten years, but almost half (48%) are confident that it will return the territories occupied by Russia in 2022.

A more optimistic view of the prospects for the world order is evident in the fact that experts this year are more confident that the US will retain global leadership and consider an armed conflict over Taiwan much less likely. The proportion of those who expect China to attempt to seize the island in the next decade has fallen from 70% to 50%. At the same time, 44% believe it is likely that in ten years the global world order will resemble a confrontation between two blocs formed around the US and China, and 33% believe that the alliance between Russia and China will acquire formal legal status.

Despite the growing threat of Donald Trump's return to the White House and contention over foreign policy issues in the US establishment, 81% believe that the US will retain its leadership in the military sphere (up from 71% a year ago). The proportion of those believing that leadership can be maintained in the economic sphere has significantly increased (from 33% last year to 52% this year), as well as in the field of technology. Experts believe that Washington will be able to maintain a network of alliances and partnerships in security in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East (79%). Conversely, only 32% believe it is likely that Europe will be able to achieve 'strategic autonomy' in terms of its security, which is much talked about by European politicians. 

At the same time, much like last year, experts tend to see US dominance as leadership rather than hegemony. Thus, 73% of respondents still believe that in 2034 the world will be multipolar. However, if we exclude American experts (who form the majority of the sample), the picture of American leadership becomes much more contradictory: while an even larger share of respondents are convinced that the US will maintain its military superiority, a minority of respondents believe that America will be able to preserve its leadership in the economic and technological spheres.

The increased optimism among experts regarding the global geopolitical architecture partly extends to other acute international issues. The Atlantic Council survey was conducted after the terrorist attack by Hamas and in the midst of Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip, which seemed to create insurmountable obstacles to the conclusion of the historic agreement on normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Despite this, roughly 60% of experts expect Israel to normalise its diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia by 2034, as fundamental factors of mutual interest regarding this remain (hints of this are now being heard from diplomatic sources as well).

There is, however, an area in which the mood of experts this year has been considerably more worrisome than in the past — the nuclear sphere. There is less and less doubt that we are entering a third nuclear era, according to the experts surveyed by the Atlantic Council. The first era was characterised by the Cold War standoff; the second since the late 1980s was defined by the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The new era will be characterised by both the increased availability of nuclear weapons and the rivalry of key nuclear powers. Both factors will undermine the effectiveness of efforts to preserve the non-proliferation regime.

Today, 84% of the experts surveyed believe that at least one of the countries that do not currently have nuclear weapons will have them by 2034. Experts consider Iran (73%) to be the most likely contender, followed closely by Saudi Arabia (40%), South Korea (25%) and Japan (19%). These results echo those of last year, but a year ago respondents believed that 1.4 new players would have nuclear weapons within a decade, while in the latest survey this figure rose to 1.7. 

Although, as in last year’s survey, some 60% believe nuclear weapons will not be used in the next 10 years, the threat of their use now seems much more multifaceted. Last year, 14% feared nuclear weapons would be used by Russia, 10% feared they would be used by the DPRK, and 5% feared it would be another state or non-state actor. This year, the top response was 'some terrorist group' (19%), followed by North Korea (15%) and Russia (14%). It can be said that the inability to maintain the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the prospect of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of a non-state actor are becoming one of the key threats to global security over the coming decade.