By Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
An intelligence forecast being prepared for the next president on future global risks envisions a steady decline in U.S. dominance in the coming decades, as the world is reshaped by globalization, battered by climate change, and destabilized by regional upheavals over shortages of food, water and energy.
The report, previewed in a speech by Thomas Fingar, the U.S. intelligence community's top analyst, also concludes that the one key area of continued U.S. superiority -- military power -- will "be the least significant" asset in the increasingly competitive world of the future, because "nobody is going to attack us with massive conventional force."
Fingar's remarks last week were based on a partially completed "Global Trends 2025" report that assesses how international events could affect the United States in the next 15 to 17 years. Speaking at a conference of intelligence professionals in Orlando, Fingar gave an overview of key findings that he said will be presented to the next occupant of the White House early in the new year.
"The U.S. will remain the preeminent power, but that American dominance will be much diminished," Fingar said, according to a transcript of the Thursday speech. He saw U.S. leadership eroding "at an accelerating pace" in "political, economic and arguably, cultural arenas."
The 2025 report will lay out what Fingar called the "dynamics, the dimensions, the drivers" that will shape the world for the next administration and beyond. In advance of its completion, intelligence officials have begun briefing the major presidential candidates on the security threats that they would be likely to face in office. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) received an initial briefing Sept. 2, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) expected to receive one in the coming days, intelligence officials said.
As described by Fingar, the intelligence community's long-term outlook has darkened somewhat since the last report in 2004, which also focused on the impact of globalization but was more upbeat about its consequences for the United States. The new view is in line with that of prominent economists and other global thinkers who have argued that America's influence is shrinking as economic powerhouses such as China assert themselves on the global stage. The trend is described in the new book "The Post-American World," in which author Fareed Zakaria writes that the shift is not about the "decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else."
In the new intelligence forecast, it is not just the United States that loses clout. Fingar predicts plummeting influence for the United Nations, the World Bank and a host of other international organizations that have helped maintain political and economic stability since World War II. It is unclear what new institutions can fill the void, he said.
In the years ahead, Washington will no longer be in a position to dictate what new global structures will look like. Nor will any other country, Fingar said. "There is no nobody in a position . . . to take the lead and institute the changes that almost certainly must be made in the international system," he said.
The predicted shift toward a less U.S.-centric world will come at a time when the planet is facing a growing environmental crisis, caused largely by climate change, Fingar said. By 2025, droughts, food shortages and scarcity of fresh water will plague large swaths of the globe, from northern China to the Horn of Africa.
For poorer countries, climate change "could be the straw that breaks the camel's back," Fingar said, while the United States will face "Dust Bowl" conditions in the parched Southwest. He said U.S. intelligence agencies accepted the consensual scientific view of global warming, including the conclusion that it is too late to avert significant disruption over the next two decades. The conclusions are in line with an intelligence assessment produced this summer that characterized global warming as a serious security threat for the coming decades.
Floods and droughts will trigger mass migrations and political upheaval in many parts of the developing world. But among industrialized states, declining birthrates will create new economic stresses as populations become grayer. In China, Japan and Europe, the ratio of working adults to seniors "begins to approach one to three," he said.
The United States will fare better than many other industrial powers, in part because it is relatively more open to immigration. Newcomers will inject into the U.S. economy a vitality that will be absent in much of Europe and Japan -- countries that are "on a good day, highly chauvinistic," he said.
"We are just about alone in terms of the highly developed countries that will continue to have demographic growth sufficient to ensure continued economic growth," Fingar said.
Energy security will also become a major issue as India, China and other countries join the United States in seeking oil, gas and other sources for electricity. The Chinese get a good portion of their oil from Iran, as do many U.S. allies in Europe, limiting U.S. options on Iran. "So the turn-the-spigot-off kind of thing -- even if we could do it -- would be counterproductive."
Nearly absent from Fingar's survey was the topic of terrorism. Since the last such report, the intelligence community has projected a declining role for al-Qaeda, which was deemed likely to become "increasingly decentralized, evolving into an eclectic array of groups, cells, and individuals." Inspired by al-Qaeda, "regionally based groups, and individuals labeled simply as jihadists -- united by a common hatred of moderate regimes and the West -- are likely to conduct terrorist attacks," the 2004 document said.
The new assessment saw a continued threat from Iran, however. Fingar predicted steady progress in the Islamic republic's attempts to create enriched uranium, the essential fuel used in nuclear weapons and commercial power reactors. For now, however, there is no evidence that Iran has resumed work on building a weapon, Fingar said, echoing last year's landmark National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which concluded that warhead-design work had halted in 2003.
He said Iran's ultimate decision on whether to build nuclear weapons depended on how its leaders viewed their "security requirement" -- whether they thought their government sufficiently safe in a region surrounded by traditional enemies.
Iranians are "more scared of their neighbors than many think they ought to be," Fingar said. But he noted that the United States had eliminated two of Iran's biggest enemies: Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
"The United States took care of Iran's principal security threats," he said, "except for us, which the Iranians consider a mortal threat."