Almost Jules Verne: U.S. study envisions the future

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 20, 2008 

WASHINGTON — The risks of a nuclear weapon being used and wars being fought over dwindling resources will grow during the next 20 years as diminishing U.S. power, a shift of wealth from West to East, the rise of India and China and climate change reshape the world, a new U.S. intelligence study warned Thursday.

"The international system — as constructed following the Second World War — will be almost unrecognizable by 2025 owing to the rise of emerging powers, a globalizing economy, an historic transfer of relative wealth and economic power from West to East, and the growing influence of non-state actors," the report said.

The U.S. "will remain the single most important actor but will be less dominant," in part due to its military power and also because many nations will continue looking to U.S. leadership on issues such as climate change and non-proliferation, the report said.

The current economic upheaval could hasten those trends, but it's unlikely to trigger "a complete breakdown" in the international financial and political order, said the report, entitled "Global Trends 2025: A World Transformed."

"However, the next 20 years of transition toward a new international system are fraught with risks," said the study. "The rapidly changing international order at a time of growing geopolitical challenges increases the likelihood of discontinuities, shocks and surprises. No single outcome seems pre-ordained."

"History tells us that rapid change brings many dangers," it said.

Among its optimistic notes, the report projected life-improving technological breakthroughs in energy and other areas, and the likely "diminished appeal" of Islamic extremism, with al Qaida becoming an "aging group" that could "decay into marginality." Terrorism, however, likely will remain a threat, the report said.

The report, the fourth in a series that examines the forces that are driving international developments, was written by the U.S. National Intelligence Council, which is composed of the top U.S. intelligence analysts, with input from experts around the world.

The studies, which are timed to coincide with the advent of new administrations, aim "to stimulate strategic thinking" by incoming officials about how "the places, the personalities, the developments in their areas of responsibility" affect the wider world, NIC Chairman Thomas Fingar told a news briefing.

"It is not a prediction. We don't claim a crystal ball. We are not forecasting the future," Fingar said. "If one looks the problem(s) squarely in the eye, recognizes them, recognizes their causes, think about how they interact . . . it is not beyond the minds of human beings or political systems . . . to address and alleviate, if not solve, these problems over this timespan. We could have a better world, quite frankly."

Nevertheless, the new study offers a grimmer assessment of the threat of major global shocks, such as terrorists obtaining and using a nuclear weapon, than did the last such report, published in December 2004, which considered how the world might look in 2020.

However, the 2008 study also pictures a fossil fuel-dominated world in transition to cleaner energy sources, although it questions how long that shift would take.

Both reports consider globalization such a "pervasive" influence on global developments that "it will reorder current divisions based on geography, ethnicity and religious and socio-economic status."

An unprecedented eastward shift in economic power and wealth is already under way, driven by a growing dependency on the petroleum reserves of the Middle East and Russia and cheap labor and manufacturing in China and other Asian nations, the report said.

Demands for energy, food, clean water and other resources will rise, driven by population growth that's forecast to add 1.2 billion people to the planet by 2025, and the loss of arable land, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, to climate change and urbanization.

The competition for dwindling resources will raise the risk of conflicts, with "perceptions of energy scarcity" driving "countries to take actions to assure their future access to energy supplies," the report said.

It warned that while the risk that a nuclear weapon will be used over the next 20 years remains "very low," the possibility of such an occurrence "is likely to be greater than it is today."

Access to nuclear technology will rise as more countries turn to nuclear power, nuclear-armed India and Pakistan remain at odds and the possibility of regime collapse in nuclear-armed North Korea grows, it said.

Moreover, concerns that Iran is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons could trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, fueling a regional competition for influence that raises the risk of conflict, it said.

The study considers four possible scenarios that could take place over the next 20 years, including a massive hurricane linked to global climate change that devastates New York and a war between India and China over access to vital resources.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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