As the world's dominant power, the United States enjoys many benefits. But it also incurs many burdens, not the least of which is the widespread impression of American omnipotence.
When I speak in Asia, I like to tell a story: A businessman in Pakistan wakes up one morning and goes into the bathroom to take a shower. But, when he turns on the faucet, there's no hot water. "Ah," he says, "Obama and the CIA, again." For some, every problem in the world is an American problem.
The reality, of course, is that the United States' ability to control events in the world is limited. Many pundits and analysts, citing that reality, see the country in decline. I disagree. Though it may not be able to control events, the United States does have unequalled power to influence them. And, in the coming decades, that power will grow, not wane.
Still, as the world's population increases, as the size and influence of China and India grow, as political turmoil rises, the United States will face many new challenges in deciding how to deploy its political, economic, and military power.
But even in the face of these misperceptions and challenges, the United States can and must remain engaged in seeking peace in the Middle East.
Shaping a new world order
It took 1,800 years after the birth of Christ for the earth's population to reach 1 billion. The most recent billion — the 7th — was added in 13 years. The United Nations projects that by 2050, the world population will reach about 9.5 billion people. It will later peak around 10 billion, then level off and begin to decline. Most of the growth will be in Asia and Africa.
Of the current population, one in five is Muslim, about 1.2 billion. Fifty years from now, one in three will be Muslim, or about 3.5 billion. To put that figure into perspective, that was the total population of the world as recently as 1970.
Although we should be skeptical of all human predictions (including population projections), the overwhelming military dominance achieved by the United States makes it unlikely that there will be a major war among large nation-states in the foreseeable future. In that sense, the world is a safer place today than it was in the 20th century when more than 75 million people died in two world wars in countries where the population was much smaller than it is today.
But serious threats to stability remain. In the coming decades, the upheavals we now regard as extraordinary will be the norm. Across a wide swath of the globe, from the western portions of Asia through the Middle East as well as throughout Africa, growing populations will mean rising demand for natural resources, for jobs, for political and economic power. Many millions more will be displaced from their homes to become refugees, within or outside of their countries.
The huge strain now placed on receiving nations in Europe, North America, and Australia will increase dramatically as millions seek an alternative to violence, poverty, and a profound lack of opportunity. These problems are and will continue to be aggravated by poor governance and widespread corruption.
In the Muslim world, these challenges will be exacerbated by internal conflicts. One such tension, the division between Sunnis and Shiites, began at Islam's founding nearly 1,400 years ago, in the political competition to succeed the Prophet Mohammed. That strain, in the centuries since, has seen alternating periods of expansion and remission. Today, however, the division is violent and intensifying, as has been witnessed in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
Moreover, many Arab nations have faced other similar hurdles: unstable governments (both military and secular); the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates (in Egypt and the Palestinian territories); monarchs' fear of Islamist extremists within their borders (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates); and, throughout the region, between fundamentalists who want theocratic states and moderates who favor a more tolerant form of Islam.
The Islamic State, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood are but a few of the modern manifestations of a history of groups in the Middle East using religion-fueled violence to advance their objectives. Such groups will continue to emerge for the foreseeable future.
How the United States and its Western allies deal with this turbulence will be one of the major factors shaping the geopolitics of the next half century. There will undoubtedly be occasions on which US military action will be justified; the public murder of Americans will not go unanswered.
But these should be limited actions of last resort. We must be careful not to be drawn decisively into the Sunni-Shiite quarrel, and we should not assume a wider "clash of civilizations." Rather the United States should seek out, encourage, and support those actors who want to build open and tolerant societies of their own, even as we acknowledge the difficulties which we and they face.
It is inevitable that the media focus is on the sensational and the negative. An unfortunate consequence is that when many Americans think of Muslims, they think of people who are different and dangerous "others," prone to extremism and violence. There are, of course, many such people in Muslim societies, including the Islamic State fanatics now spreading murder and mayhem across northern Iraq as well as Boko Haram in Nigeria.
But these groups are not representative of all Muslims. The grand mufti, the highest ranking religious leader in Saudi Arabia, recently called the Islamic State and Al Qaeda Islam's number-one enemy. In my experience, most members of Muslim societies want the same things that most Americans want in their lives: a decent, safe, and stable environment in which men and women can find productive work, be part of a community, and, most important, give their children a good start in life. Their concept of the relationship between government and religion may be different, their language and dress may be different, but their humanity is not different.
Unfortunately, it is often the case that the most strident voices and violent actors gain attention and authority.
I believe that US power, already great, will continue to grow along with our population. Both the United Nations and the American government estimate the country's population at about 440 million in 2050. Our neighbors, Mexico and Canada, are friendly and are likely to remain so. We are well on the way to energy independence, and our society remains a haven for innovation and entrepreneurship. The United States is on the brink of a sustained period of renewed economic growth that will extend and expand our dominance far into the future.
Assessing Russia, India, and China
Power is, of course, relative. That means, in addition to power plays in the Middle East, we must consider other major powers.
Fifty-five percent of the Russian government's revenues come from taxes on oil and gas. The break-even point for its national budget requires oil be priced at about $110 per barrel. Few experts expect the price to remain at or above that level in the foreseeable future, unless the conflicts in the Middle East expand dramatically. So Russia faces a severe financial crisis.
In addition, Russia's population will continue to decline. And, its composition will change, as the number of Slavs decrease while the number of Muslims increases.
When he first took office President Vladimir Putin said he was concerned that for the first time in centuries Russia faced the possibility of slipping into the second or third rank of nations. His concern was justified. He may succeed in reestablishing dominance in parts of what he calls "New Russia," but it will be a costly and fleeting victory. And neither he nor any future Russian leader will be able to recreate the Soviet empire.
In contrast, China and India will grow in economic strength and influence, but they too will face daunting problems.
In 1985, just after Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power, I was one of a small group of US senators who met with him in the Kremlin. The subject was the reduction of nuclear weapons, but the discussion was wide-ranging. I asked him whether the Soviet Union could give its citizens free choice in economic affairs while denying it to them in political affairs. He said he believed the Communist Party could be reformed from within. Boris Yeltsin knew better. Although he was not Gorbachev's equal in intellect, he had a better sense of Russian politics. He knew that Communism had to be swept away, and a new order created. Is there now a Yeltsin in China? Can the Chinese do what the Russians could not? No one can know the answers to those questions.
But I do know that, despite its enormous capacity and potential, China faces major obstacles. The rule of law and an independent judiciary — so critical to individual freedom and to business investment — have not been firmly established. Corruption is an ongoing issue, one that the country's new leader has gone to extraordinary lengths to try to deal with but that requires a fundamental shift in culture to overcome fully. The demand for energy continues to rise, fueling more pollution and more protests, which can contribute to destabilization. The Chinese are an energetic and talented people, but, even with their many strengths, the country faces a long road to becoming the world's dominant power.
India already is the world's largest democracy. It soon will become the world's largest country population-wise. By the middle of this century there will be 1.8 billion Indians — a full 500 million more people than in China. But India, too, faces staggering problems, including a large and slow-moving bureaucracy; endemic corruption; a huge number of under-educated and unskilled rural residents, most of whom live in poverty and lack opportunity; and the continuing threat of internal religious strife. India is and will be important precisely because it is the world's largest democracy. But it is also unlikely to become the dominant world power.
Preparing the United States for the future
I believe that, as far into the future as human beings can see, the United States will be strong and dominant. That, of course, doesn't mean we don't face our own challenges. I will mention just a few.
First, we must never lose sight of the reality that military power and world influence are grounded in economic strength. It is the foundation upon which all else is built. We must somehow find the way to get our political and financial houses in order. It would take a separate and long article to give this issue the attention it deserves; but we all know it's an urgent need.
Second, we must stand true to our principles. Our democratic ideals distinguished our nation from the very beginning, and they have always appealed to people all around the world. They still do.
Our economic strength and our military power are necessary and important. But our ideals have been and are the primary basis of American influence in the world. They're not easily summarized, but surely they include: The sovereignty of the people; the primacy of individual liberty; opportunity for every member of society; an independent judiciary; and the rule of law, applied equally to all citizens and to the government itself.
We must never forget that the United States was a great nation long before it was a great economic or military power.
Third, in the turbulence of the 21st century, the United States will often be asked to intervene militarily in other lands to resolve complex disputes. We will undoubtedly, and appropriately, respond to some. But we must be careful in deciding when and where to do so. As large and strong as our nation is, we do not have the capacity to solve every problem in the world. Many of the requests will be heart-wrenching and persuasive. But all must be carefully measured through the prism of our national interest.
There are, of course, many tools other than military force we can and should use to help our friends and protect our interests; among them are diplomatic, economic, financial, technological, and covert actions. It's easy to say these words. It will be extraordinarily difficult to apply them to real-life situations, especially those we cannot now foresee. That will be a great challenge for American leadership in the coming decades.
Finally, we must work to realize the aspiration of opportunity for all in our society. Before I entered the Senate, I had the privilege of serving as a federal judge. My favorite part was when I presided over what are called naturalization ceremonies — that is, welcoming new American citizens.
A group of people, who'd come from all over the world and who'd gone through all of the required procedures, gathered before me in a federal courtroom in Maine. There I administered to them the oath of allegiance to the United States, and I made them Americans. It was always very emotional for me because my mother was an immigrant, my father the orphan son of immigrants. They had no education. My mother could not read or write English. She worked the night shift at a textile mill. My father was a janitor. But, because of their efforts, and because of the openness of American society, I, their son, got the education they never had and went on to become the majority leader of the US Senate.
After every ceremony, I made it a point to speak personally with each new citizen, individually or in a family group. I asked them how they came, why they came. Most of us are Americans by an accident of birth. Most of them are Americans by an act of free will, often at great risk to themselves and their families. Although their answers were as different as their countries of origin, there were common themes, best summarized by a young Asian man. When I asked why he came, he replied, in slow and halting English, "I came because here in America everybody has a chance."
Think about the fact that a young man who'd been an American for just a few minutes, who could barely speak English, was able to sum up the meaning of our country in a single sentence. America is freedom and opportunity, a society in which no one should be guaranteed success but everyone should have a fair chance to succeed.
To achieve that outcome, it is essential that there be opportunity for all. From the experience of daily life Americans know that remains an aspiration; it is not yet a reality. As a nation, we face the great challenge of making it a reality, of creating and sustaining a society which encourages striving and success, which is conducive to innovation, which enables us to benefit from the talent, energy, and skill of every American. That means every child in America should have the care, early development, and education to enable them to rise as high and as far as their talent and their willingness to work and to take risk will take them.
Too much of our national discourse today is negative and focused on the past. That's not how we became the world's leader. It was, rather, looking forward with optimism and hope and acting with energy and boldness. Of course we've made mistakes, big mistakes, lots of them. But no society has been more willing to confront and correct its errors, or has demonstrated greater resilience in rebounding from failure. We've had a great history. I believe an even greater future lies ahead.
But it lies in a world of increasing trade, communication, and global connections — all of which make isolationism obsolete. We cannot abandon our role as world leader, even as we continually reshape it to meet ever-changing circumstances. We cannot withdraw from the Middle East without risking that the problems of the Middle East will find their way to our homeland. For all these reasons, we also must respond to the challenge of helping Israel and the Palestinians end their conflict and make peace.
George J. Mitchell is the former US special envoy to the Middle East and US Senate majority leader. He now serves as the chairman emeritus of the international law firm DLA Piper.