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November 21, 2008

Intelligence Analysts See Multi-Polar, Risky World By 2025

by Jim Lobe

While the United States will remain the world's single most powerful country in 2025, it will be less dominant and more constrained in its freedom of action – even in the military sphere – than it is now, according to a major new report released here Thursday by the government's National Intelligence council (NIC).

Instead, "a global multipolar system" will likely have emerged, one marked especially by the rise of the so-called BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – among others. The "relative power of non-state actors – businesses, tribes, religious organizations, and even criminal networks" will also have increased, according to the 110-page report, entitled "Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World."

India and China, however, are still likely to be more preoccupied with their internal development than in changing the international system, according to the report, which also concluded that none of the BRIC powers is likely to challenge the status quo in the ways that Germany and Japan did in the 19th and 20th centuries and that led to world wars. Less cataclysmic challenges, however, could take place as emerging powers seek to protect their own interests, and power itself will have become more dispersed.

Still, competition for strategic resources, particularly energy, food and water, could also make for a more turbulent world; indeed, in one of four possible – albeit not necessarily likely – scenarios depicted in the report, Chinese suspicion of efforts by others to threaten its energy supplies could lead to a clash with India in which the conflict escalates into a global conflagration.

But much is unpredictable at this point, according to the report, which stressed that the world has entered a period of historic changes, including an unprecedented transfer of "global wealth and economic power...roughly from West to East" which will likely continue.

Indeed, the BRIC countries alone are likely to collectively match the original Group of Seven (G7) – the US, Canada, Japan, and the European Union – in global (Gross Domestic Product) by 2040-2050. By 2025, China will have the world's second largest economy behind the US and will be a "leading military power".

"The international system – as constructed following the Second World War – will be almost unrecognizable by 2025," according to the report. "Indeed, 'international system' is a misnomer as it is likely to be more ramshackle than orderly, its composition hybrid and heterogeneous as befits a transition that will still be a work in progress in 2025," according to the report.

The report, the fourth quadrennial series that began in 1992, is designed primarily to give policymakers – particularly those who may be preparing to take key roles in new administration – and the public some longer-range of views (about 18 years) of where the world may be heading and the key drivers that are taking it there. The report's authors have stressed that the study should not be seen as a prediction, particularly given the large numbers of major uncertainties that could have profound implications depending on how they turn out.

The 2004 edition, in which, as with the new one, many non-US analysts participated, made quite a sensation both here and abroad, particularly in its use of fictional future scenarios to illustrate the possible results of existing trends.

The latest edition notes that several key assumptions of its 2004 report, which addressed the likely world of 2020, have been substantially modified, or even discarded.

The 2020 report, for example, projected a world in which US would be dominant, so dominant that most major powers would have given up the idea of balancing or challenging it. In contrast, the 2025 report depicts a multi-polar world in which "the US will find itself as one of a number of important actors on the world stage, albeit still the most powerful one."

In another major difference, the 2020 report assumed that fossil fuels would remain dominant as sources of energy and that existing energy supplies "in the ground" would be "sufficient to meet global demand". The new report, however, sees the world of 2025 as one in which energy scarcity has become a "driving factor in geopolitics" and a time of "inevitable" transition to cleaner fuels that could wreak havoc in major oil and gas exporters like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

And while the 2004 report projects probable strong economic growth fueled by the BRIC nations, the latest report was more uncertain, assessing "the likelihood of major discontinuities, to be high" and the next 20 years of transition toward a new international system to be "fraught with risks, such as a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and possible interstate conflicts over resources."

Aside from the relative decline in US power and the emergence of a multi-polar system, the study lists as "relative certainties" continued rapid population growth – and resulting "youth bulges" – Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Yemen, among other states. Unless employment conditions in those countries improve dramatically, it said, these nations will "remain ripe for continued instability and state failure."

The study suggests an increase in the potential for conflict and terrorism in the greater Middle East, particularly given the likely proliferation of weapons and the technology (such as chemical, biological, and, "less likely," nuclear) to increase their lethality, but the threat could be reduced by economic growth, the stabilization of Iraq, and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In any event, the "need for the US to act as regional balancer in the Middle East will increase, although other outside powers – Russia, China and India – will play greater roles than today," according to the report, which noted that it will also be expected to play a balancing role in Asia.

Key uncertainties with major geopolitical and geoeconomic implications include whether and how quickly an energy transition toward cleaner fuels and away from oil and gas can be achieved; how quickly climate change occurs and where its impacts are greatest; "whether mercantilism stages a comeback and global markets recede" in which case the chances of conflict over resource competition are likely to increase; and whether "global powers work with multilateral institutions to adapt their performance to the transformed geopolitical landscape."

Sub-Saharan Africa, which will remain the region most vulnerable to economic disruption, civil conflict, and political instability, and much of Latin America – especially those countries that adopt populist policies – will lag further behind in terms of economic competitiveness.

The report depicts the US as the preeminent military power in 2004 but notes that "advances by others in science and technology, expanded adoption of irregular warfare tactics by both state and nonstate actors, proliferation of long-range precision weapons, and growing use of cyber warfare attacks increasingly will constrict (its) freedom of action."

"At the same time, the multiplicity of influential actors and distrust of vast power means less room for the US to call the shots without the support of strong partnerships," it added.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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