Report Sees Nuclear Arms, Scarce Resources as Seeds of Global Instability by 2025

By Peter Finn and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 21, 2008; 12:18 AM

The drive for dwindling resources, including energy and water, combined with the spread of nuclear weapons technology could make large swaths of the globe ripe for regional conflicts, some of them potentially devastating, according to a report released by the National Intelligence Council yesterday.

The report, Global Trends 2025, covers a range of strategic issues, including great-power rivalry, demographics, climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, energy and natural resources. It makes for sometimes grim reading in imagining a world of weak states bristling with weapons of mass destruction and unable to cope with burgeoning populations without adequate water and food.

"Those states most susceptible to conflict are in a great arc of instability stretching from Sub-Saharan Africa through North Africa, into the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and South and Central Asia, and parts of Southeast Asia," the quadrennial report says.

At the heart of its deepest pessimism is the Middle East, which it suggests could tip into a nuclear arms race if Iran goes ahead with such weapons.

"The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran spawning a nuclear arms race in the greater Middle East will bring new security challenges to an already conflict-prone region, particularly in conjunction with the proliferation of long-range missile systems," the report says. ". . . If nuclear weapons are used destructively in the next 15-20 years, the international system will be shocked as it experiences immediate humanitarian, economic, and political-military repercussions."

While the appeal of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda is likely to wane dramatically between now and 2025, the lethality of violent extremists may increase because of their ability to access biological weapons or even nuclear devices, according to the report, which is designed to give policymakers a beyond-the-horizon view of where today's events may lead. It was produced by the intelligence council, the senior analytic body within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

As the report's authors note, none, some or all of this may come to pass. A "what-if" for wonks, the report, the fourth of its kind, is an effort to stimulate the thinking of the incoming presidential administration, according to Thomas Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis.

"It is not a prediction," Fingar said. "Nothing that we have identified in this report is determinative. Nothing in it is inevitable or immutable. These are trends and developments and drivers that are subject to policy intervention and manipulation."

In the case of the Middle East and other potentially unstable regions, the report posits that economic growth could become "increasingly rooted and sustained." In that scenario, Middle Eastern leaders would "move forward with political reform that empowers moderate -- and probably Islamic -- political parties; work to settle regional conflicts; and implement security agreements that help prevent future instability."

Among the visible contours of the world in 2025 is a United States experiencing the relative decline of its economic and military power, driven both by the rise of new behemoths such as China and India and domestic constraints on its global leadership.

The United States "will have less power in a multipolar world than it has enjoyed for many decades," according to the report's authors, who consulted policy- and opinion-makers in America and abroad over the past 12 months. ". . . We believe that U.S. interest and willingness to play a leadership role also may be more constrained as the economic, military, and opportunity costs of being the world's leader are reassessed by American voters."

The authors say, however, that foreign leaders, including in Beijing, will continue to view U.S. global engagement as essential -- as long as it is not driven by unilateralism.

China is said to be "poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country." The study projects that by 2025, China will have the world's second-largest economy, behind the United States', and it "will be a leading military power."

Among the other major powers, Russia has the potential to be richer and more powerful, but only if it expands and diversifies its resources-driven economy. And the authors think that countries such as Indonesia, Turkey and a possible post-clerical Iran could play dynamic roles in their neighborhoods.

Looking into the distance at countries that are of major interest today, the study projected that Afghanistan will remain an essentially tribally centered nation facing continual conflict. The future of Iraq does not look much better. The study sees internal ethnic, sectarian and tribal rivalries continuing, so that by 2025, "the government in Baghdad could still be an object of competition among the various factions seeking foreign aid and pride of place, rather than a self-standing agent of political authority, legitimacy, and economic policy."

Pakistan is described as a "wildcard," with its northwestern territories remaining "poorly governed" and cross-border activities continuing to cause instability in nearby areas of Afghanistan.

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