U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the United States is likely to lose its dominant global position in the coming years, with economic and political power shifting to countries such as China and India.
That assessment, outlined in the "Global Trends 2025" report by the National Intelligence Council, contrasts sharply with the conclusions of a similar study released by the same agencies just four years ago. The earlier report projected "continued U.S. dominance" through the year 2020.
The new study, titled "A Transformed World," projects a "multipolar" global landscape, where the United States is merely "one of a number of actors on the world stage" and where the U.S. dollar will only be "first among equals" in a basket of international currencies.
"We're thinking of it as the rise of the rest, rather than as the decline of the United States," said Thomas Fingar, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, as he introduced the report Thursday.
Still, the assessment is largely sobering. The intelligence analysts who prepared the global outlook foresee increased international conflict over food, water, energy, and other scarce resources. International institutions, from the International Monetary Fund to the United Nations, will become less effective, owing to the multiplicity of global players. "Non-state actors," including tribal groups, religious organizations, private corporations and even organized criminal networks, will play more important roles.
Among the more startling conclusions in the global trends report is a judgment that an unnamed government in Eastern or Central Europe "could effectively be taken over and run by organized crime." The report also speculates that some states in Africa or South Asia could "wither away" as a result of the failure of their governments to provide basic services to the population.
By 2025, according to the analysts who prepared the report, China and India will be leading economic players, with Turkey, Indonesia and Iran in the "up and coming" category. The economic model that has largely prevailed since World War II — Western democratic capitalism — may no longer be favored. Instead, "state capitalism" such as that practiced in Russia and China could be ascendant.
In presenting the report Thursday at the Atlantic Council, Fingar said some countries that were recently persuaded to follow the Western economic model, such as those in the former Soviet bloc, have since become disillusioned.
"Much of the world that became democratic in the last 15 years has gone through more pain than gain," Fingar said. "They've made adjustments away from populist regimes, away from socialist regimes, away from one-party dominated systems, and they are still waiting for the payoff. ... Now they have an alternative model."
Fingar said the economic stress in these countries will be "exacerbated" by the current international financial crisis.
The intelligence analysts paid particular attention to major demographic factors that could contribute to global instability, especially in the Middle East. Fingar said countries in that region will face a burgeoning youth population in the coming years.
"That's a lot of raging hormones," Fingar said, "a lot of young people with the normal healthy disrespect for authority, informed of what their cohorts, perhaps in the big cities, across the border, across the sea, have that they don't have. [They are] a group that would be potentially mobilized for all kinds of things."
One positive development highlighted in the global trends report is the "waning" influence of terrorism, particularly as practiced by al-Qaida. Such a development, Fingar said, would be explained by the group's killing of fellow Muslims or its lack of a positive political program. "It's opposed to modernity," Fingar said. "It's opposed to democracy. It's opposed to a lot of things that the youthful population clearly wants. So the environment will become less hospitable."
One encouraging prediction: The intelligence analysts who prepared the global trends report suggest that a "worldwide shift" to a new energy technology that can replace oil "will be under way or accomplished by 2025." The problem: Energy supply won't match demand, meaning the potential for geopolitical conflict over energy resources could be severe.