It is 2053. The United States is no longer a superpower.

How did it get here?

Phase 1: 2023-2034

The crisis began when a small, white mouse in Dresden failed to die. It took some time for anyone to notice: The median lifespan of a lab mouse is about 20 months, but 30 months is not unheard of, and not dying is not a singular event. It was only when a newly hired graduate student at the Max Planck Institute conducted an inventory of the mice retired from previous experiments that she realized something extraordinary had occurred.

Word spread that researchers investigating a treatment for late-stage Alzheimer’s had mistakenly injected several mice with an improperly formulated drug cocktail. The error had been caught before the paper was submitted and the trial had been rerun with disappointing results. Four years later, however, one of the subjects from the original experiment was still living contentedly in her cage, free of degenerative diseases and any symptoms of advanced age.

Subsequent studies soon confirmed the safety and efficacy of similar drug cocktails as a longevity treatment for humans. Pharmaceutical giants raced to file patents in the global north; bootleg manufactories began fabricating the drugs on an industrial scale in the global south. Almost overnight, the gray wave of aging populations that had been lurking on the horizon became an onrushing tsunami.

In Western Europe, decades of declining birthrates had left the social democracies vulnerable to the demographic shift yet had also given them time to prepare. The brief surge in defense spending that followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine was quietly reversed to reallocate resources for medical care. Retirement ages were lifted while the workweek was reduced, spreading the labor supply across extended lifespans. Pundits warned, however, of the coming Verknöcherung, the ossification of the body politic as older generations failed to pass the torch to the next.

In China, this freezing of the power structure took a more immediate form as President Xi was elected to unprecedented fourth and fifth terms by the National Congress in 2027 and 2032. To maintain their increasingly aggressive military stance and keep their economy booming, the Chinese Communist Party fully embraced a series of pro-natalist policies.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the social welfare structure teetered on its foundations. A hard-fought hike in the payroll tax had recently bolstered the Medicare and Social Security trust funds, but now they were once again slated to be insolvent within the decade. As generational warfare loomed, political gridlock and rising interest rates conspired to hollow out the federal budget, with the axe falling hardest on national defense, foreign aid, and research investment programs.

No one knows just how far these new longevity treatments will extend human life. Some say they could add 20 years. Some say they could double human lifespans—or even more. As 2033 draws to a close, a forest of cameras now attend an unassuming cage in a Dresden laboratory, broadcasting for all the world to see. Inside, one small, white mouse is still very much alive.

Phase 2: 2034-2043

They called it meth.

It was short for what scientists called the “Methuselah Treatment,” but those who coined the term claimed that, for societies, it was just as addicting and destructive as the original meth.

Like any addict, wealthy societies were spending all their money on the source of their addiction. Budgets for defense, aid, and research were halved and halved again as wealthy states in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific were forced to spend billions to support healthcare for their aging populations. And as populations aged, political support for meth—and all its healthcare costs—grew rapidly. After all, no one wanted to be the politician that makes their elderly voters live for centuries but asks that their children drop dead at 77.

Meth’s universal approval turned these wealthy states into gerontocracies: ruled by the old, and for the old. The average age of a U.S. senator grew from 65 in 2023 to 82 in 2043. Vladimir Putin entered his fourth decade as president while a silver haired Xi Jinping—whose pro-natalist policies never took off—continued to serve three more terms. In Germany, Angela Merkel was elected chancellor again in a stunning political comeback while the British joked that Prince William would have to wait longer than King Charles III did to become king.

It may have been called meth, but another metaphor for the treatment’s effects came from a writer at The Economist in a retrospective twenty years after the treatment’s creation. “Meth turned a small mouse immortal and wealthy societies into rhinos,” they wrote. “Grey, wrinkly, blind, top heavy, and nearly extinct.”

But as wealthy states in the Global North aged and declined, the poorer states in the Global South kept growing. Despite the manufacturing of bootleg meth across the Global South, few in the poorer states of Africa, Asia, and Latin America could actually afford the drugs. By avoiding the “rhinoization” of their societies, these still-young societies were able to attract investment while increasing their spending on defense, aid, and research. After decades of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and neo-neo-colonialism, the Global South was realizing that the balance of power was finally changing in their favor.

In 2041 the Global North was shocked when a coalition led by Ghana and India moved to rewrite the UN charter and oust the five permanent members of the Security Council. Despite the vetoes of all five permanent members, the southern coalition successfully argued that any vetoes could be ignored and overruled by a large enough majority. “International law must flexible—unlike their joints!” laughed a Nigerian diplomat.

But a greater crisis was brewing in the Philippines. Incumbent president Paolo Duterte was looking to prove the power of his young and growing homeland constantly living in the shadow of geezers like China and the United States. “These two has-beens have bickered over island chains for decades,” he proclaimed to the newly reformed UN. “Now we are going to decide who controls the South China Sea once and for all….”

Phase 3: 2044-2053

Excerpt from “Reflections 100 Years after the Collapse of American Primacy,” Luna Times, July 4, 2153, Henry Kissinger, Minister for Earth Affairs, Lunar Mega-Colony 1.

“…which brings me to why I left my adopted home of the United States in 2053 for the safety of the first lunar colony. The United States that I had known was collapsing before my eyes. I no longer recognized my home. It became less and less the America I loved all because that damn mouse wouldn’t die!

U.S. officials were caught flat-footed by the shocking and unprecedented reforms in the United Nations in 2041, and while the other ousted P5 members begrudgingly adopted their new reduced role, Washington left the organization and kicked the UN out of New York by 2045. As UN Secretary-General Modi closed the doors of the headquarters for the final time, he quipped, “America just locked itself out of relevance for the final time.”

America grew old and ornery as new superpowers emerged. A true telltale sign of this cultural and geopolitical shift was the opening of new Disney World parks in Lagos, São Paulo, and Mumbai and the shuttering of the Orlando and Anaheim parks. Another mouse, not named Mickey, kept Americans’ attention.

The events that truly ended American primacy began in 2051 when Vietnam and the Philippines moved to right the historic wrongs done by the then-People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea. The global security architecture created by Washington in the aftermath of World War II—underpinned by alliances and strategic partnerships—shattered seemingly in an instant.

The two Southeast Asian states secretly agreed to push Chinese military forces out and share the reclaimed resources. They finally had the strength, and Beijing was as irrelevant as Washington at this point.

How did a small Asian conflict that lasted 13 days, with no U.S. casualties, seal the end of America’s role in the world?
It’s quite simple: We did not show up. When Manila invoked the Mutual Defense Treaty almost exactly 100 years after the treaty was signed, Washington did nothing but shrug. The Philippine invocation, I believe, was intentionally done to expose American weakness and to demonstrate the true rise of the new global order.

The U.S. Navy was a rusted flotilla that could perhaps have mustered a few destroyers if we had the sailors. The carrier fleet was decimated in defense cuts. Our once shining fleet could not leave port.

Our oldest ally toppled American dominance to reclaim a few islands in the South China Sea. For years, I raised the alarm to get American leaders to change course, but our fate as a rhino was sealed. Our military extinct. Our leaders blinded by hubris and cataracts.

We were replaced by younger and more dynamic countries who bided their time and knew exactly how to show the world that America was no longer relevant. America was not conquered or destroyed; it simply became a bystander.

Updates

Call for Submissions | 08/14/23

Chain-Writing Phase 3 Submissions Open through August 27

Build off the winning entry in phase 2 and submit the final link in the chain.