Security Policy Challenges and Trends in the Mid-21st Century

What will be the major challenges and trends of security policy by 2050? Based on current research and information, certain trends and processes can be forecasted. In recent years, an increasing number of papers and analyses were published on the security policy issues of the mid-century.

Although it is almost impossible to predict the future, experts attempt to make projections and forecasts about the future development of our world.  On the basis of our current knowledge we can state that the occurrence of some processes or events is quite certain, only the exact time is unknown. If we add historical experiences, we can identify certain trends, which helps us prepare for the possible outcome of the predicted events. Examining the processes of security policy is of great importance for decision-makers, since the outbreak of potential conflicts and crises will undoubtedly affect our everyday life even decades later.

The world in 2050

According to the policy outlook The World Order in 2050 by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,[1] the United States will still dominate the world in the middle of the century, but the global South, due to a shift in economic power, will have a much more prominent role in international institutions than today.


In a survey conducted by the Post-Crisis World Institute, containing the opinion of 303 economic and political experts of 63 countries, almost two-thirds of respondents think that major powers will completely redraw their spheres of influence by 2050. They expect the developing countries, primarily China and other BRICS countries, to expand their spheres of influence, weakening Western powers. The re-division of the world, however, is likely to result in a growing number of geopolitical crises in the future.[2] U.S. technological advances are likely to help the USA maintain its position as leader of the international community, but European states can only hope for regional alliances and a collective foreign policy. China and India will represent the majority of the world’s population in their preferred institutions, which is increasingly difficult for the USA to counterweigh. It is rather doubtful whether the simultaneous application of American hard and soft power (a “flexible geometrics”), by establishing new institutions and alliances, will be able to maintain the global hegemony of Washington by the late 21st century.[3]

Demographic processes, however, can adversely affect American foreign policy, since by 2060 one in three American citizens will be of Latino ethnicity, and polls show they appraise international institutions, such as the UN, much more. Transnational threats, including climate change and terrorism, and the struggle between declining and rising nations in the new international order will require a much more cautious balancing of American foreign policy.[4]

Alliances and the new international order

In his article published in Foreign policy,[5] Stephen M. Walt, a professor at Harvard University, expressed his opinion that we cannot be confident that NATO, although it has proven its relevance all through its history of several decades, will play a prominent role in maintaining global stability. If Russian power continues to decline and the United States focusses more and more attention on Asia, it is hard to imagine NATO playing an active role in the USA’s effort to balance China. The USA is expected to establish new alliances to address China’s rising power, but one should not bet on their effectiveness. In addition, it is easy to imagine that if Chinese power continues to rise, closer security ties will be formed between Beijing and some countries in the Western hemisphere. Walt claims it is conceivable that significant realignments in the Middle East will also take place, especially if Iran eventually gets out of the penalty box and becomes a more active and accepted player in the region.[6] In 2050, power will still lie with nation states, but there is little chance that multinational political entities, like the European Union, will be formed. However, some smaller states will probably emerge. The economic power of specific states can limit their international influence, and in this regard the USA, China, Russia and the EU, as well as India and Brazil, can be considered as major strategic players.[7]

The significance of the maritime power

Leadmark 2050, prepared by the Canadian Royal Navy,[8] aims at defining the potential role and the maritime strategy of the country by the mid-century. It claims that 90 per cent of global commerce travels by sea and this proportion will not change any time soon, and even expects the volume of maritime trade to double in the next 15 years.  For major powers, economic prosperity is dependent on uninterrupted maritime trade and the rule of high seas. Especially, because navies on the oceans will remain the principal guarantors of world peace and good order.[9]


The Indian and the Pacific Oceans are likely to become increasingly important in geopolitical terms.  If the USA cannot find ways to accommodate China’s rising ambitions, the development of Chinese navy and its global ambitions may entail grave instability in the region, bringing with it heightened prospects of regional inter-state conflict. India, Russia and Brazil should be considered as well. Polar ice is melting and this process is likely to result in enhancing the economic and strategic positions of the latter two countries.[10]

In developing 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy, it is recognized that the coastal waters have vast potential for wealth creation, which might be the source of considerable economic and security issues. The document mainly focusses on the threats that transnational crime, terrorism and illegal, unreported and unregulated Fishing—IUU Fishing—pose, while trying to implement a close cooperation between the countries of the continent until 2050, aiming at economic development.[11]

Defence expenditure and the future trends of military forces development

The document Global Strategic Trends — Out to 2045, prepared by the researchers of the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence[12]  presents a rather accurate picture of the expected security expenditure of major powers in the mid-21st century. The defence expenditure of the two largest powers, the USA and China are likely to rival, and together are estimated to account for 45 per cent of global defence expenditure by 2045.  India’s defence budget will be third largest, reflecting India’s growing economic strength, while Russia’s is likely to be the fourth. European countries (the United Kingdom, France, Germany) are likely to continue to spend substantial amounts on defence, although no single European country is likely to have a defence budget comparable to the major powers.  Higher defence expenditure do not necessarily lead to greater military influence, and this might be the case in India in particular.[13]


The cost of latest platforms of military equipment is increasing, suggesting that by 2045 only the USA and China would be able to afford a large and cutting-edge air force and navy.  A variety of yet unknown new weapons are likely to be available by 2045, as well as laser systems, being currently in the test phase, and sophisticated sensors.[14]

Expected conflicts

A team of researchers led by Norwegian professor Håvard Hegre studied the events of the past forty years, then obtained predictions through computer simulation. In the essay Predicting Armed Conflict, 2010–2050[15], Hegre concludes that the global incidence of conflict between governments and political organisations is likely to decrease significantly from the current level.[16] He believes about 7 per cent of the world’s countries will have internal armed conflict in 2050. The decline in the amount of conflict is driven by a combination of smaller population sizes, higher education levels and economic growth, which makes war increasingly unacceptable and cost-effective. Norwegian researchers predict conflicts akin to the Syrian one are not likely to occur in the coming decades, but forecasts imply that conflicts are likely to commence in India, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Sudan in the next forty years.[17]


However, Stephen M. Walt warns that the number of global conflicts has been showing a decreasing tendency since 1945, but we should not hope for a 2050 to be much more peaceful than the present, due to the events of the past years and tensing China-USA relations.[18] The study of the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence calls attention to the fact that the risk of the outbreak of a major state-on-state conflict cannot be ruled out, especially regarding the fact that the rivalry between two or more emerging powers have usually ended in conflict, and there are plenty flashpoints in the world now, which might explode any time until 2045.[19] 

Possible causes of conflicts

According to the collective analysis by experts of the Post-Crisis World Institute, lack of resources will be the world’s gravest problem, as the globe cannot meet the needs generated by population growth.  While in the twentieth century a geopolitical competition took place for fossil fuels, by 2050 battle for access to water will be just as decisive.[20] In addition to a water deficit, food scarcity is likely to ensue serious problems. UN has predicted the world’s population to grow at such rate that global food production must double by 2050, otherwise the number of people affected by hunger, which is more than one billion people in the world, will multiply, leading to global dissatisfaction.[21]  The way of managing conflicts is also likely to change in the future. The analysis of the Post-Crisis World Institute shows negotiations and compromises will continue to play the greatest role in resolving internal conflicts. However, due to the ineffectiveness of the UN and other international organisations, as well as the world’s becoming multipolar, the main platform will be provided by the framework of civilisation. Civilisations will create their own norms and rules based on them, thriving at decreasing the effect and intervention of the international community.[22]


Wars of the future

Military experts worldwide have come up with various theories about the equipment and methodology of warfare in the future, projecting technological development. In summer 2016, Mad Scientist Conference was held at Georgetown University Georgetown University. The main theme of the event was describing the strategic security environment in 2050. By the middle of the century, providing advanced protection for armoured vehicles will be a major challenge because of increasing costs, the participants concluded.[23]

A report prepared by the experts of the U.S. Department of Defense and national security researchers, visualising the tactical ground battlefield in the year 2050,[24] has come up with considerably bolder concepts. It concludes that robots will greatly outnumber human fighters, who will not be able to keep them under close control but play a decision-making role in the combats of robots. Human fighters will still be needed, but they, due to the fast development of genetic engineering and biotechnology, will possess capabilities that seem superhuman today. By combining the human body and technology, however, mankind will step onto an unpredictable path, along which we will not be able to control the extent of development and its effects, the report warns.[25]


[1] STANCIL, Bennett – DADUSH, Uri: The World Order in 2050. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Policy Outlook, April 2010 (2012.12.20.)

[2] Vision–2050. A New Political and Economic Map of The World, Post-Crisis World Institute, February – May 2013. 63-67. (2016.12.20.)

[3] STANCIL – DADUSH: 10-21.

[4] SULLIVAN, Kevin B: What American foreign policy will look like in 2050. In: The Week, April 21, 2015 (2016.12.20)

[5] WALT, Stephen M: What Will 2050 Look Like? In: Foreign Policy, May 12, 2015 (2016.12.20)

[6] WALT

[7] WALT

[8] LEADMARK 2050: Canada in a New Maritime World. Royal Canadian Navy, May 2016 (2016.12.19.)

[9] LEADMARK 2050: 2-6.

[10] LEADMARK 2050: 7-11.

[11] 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy (2050 AIM Strategy). African Union, Version 1.0, 2012. 7-12. (2016.12.19.)

[12] Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2045. In: Strategic Trends Programme, Development, Concepts and Doctrine

Centre, Ministry of Defence, UK (2016.12.19.)

[13] Global Strategic Trends: 93-94.

[14] Global Strategic Trends: 94-95.

[15] HEGRE, Haward – KARLSEN, Joakim – NYGARD, Haward Mokleim – STRAND, Haward – URDAL, Henrik: Predicting Armed Conflict, 2010–2050. November 21, 2011 (2016.12.19.)

[16] HEGRE: 31-32

[17] HEGRE: 26-28.

[18] WALT

[19] Global Strategic Trends: 96.

[20] Vision–2050.

[21] Food Production Must Double by 2050 to Meet Demand from World’s Growing Population, Innovative Strategies Needed to Combat Hunger, Experts Tell Second Committee, Sixty-fourth General Assembly, Second Committee, Panel Discussion (AM), United Nations, 9 October, 2009.

[22] Vision–2050. 86-87.

[23] Army’s ‘Mad Scientist’ initiative looks at future differently. SOFREP News, 08. 15. 2016. (2016.12.20.)

[24] TUCKER, Patrick: In The War of 2050, The Robots Call The Shots. Defense One, July 22, 2015 (2016.12.20.)

[25] Visualizing the Tactical Ground Battlefield in the Year 2050: Workshop Report, US Army Research Laboratory, June 2015 22-23. (2016.12.20.)





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