A Chastened US Peers into the Crystal Ball

Predictions are often more useful for what they say about the predictor’s present state of mind than for what they tell you about the future. That’s certainly the case with the US National Intelligence Council’s latest peer into the crystal ball, Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, neatly timed to coincide with President-elect Barack Obama’s transition to the White House.

The report, the fourth in a five-yearly series, has a decidedly chastened tone as it sets out in broad strokes the US intelligence community’s latest consensus on what the world will look like 16 years hence.

The previous edition spoke confidently of the US “remaining the single most powerful actor, economically, technologically, militarily” in 2020. Doubt has now crept in: American will be “less dominant” in 2025, with the likely implication that “shrinking economic and military capabilities may force the US into a difficult set of tradeoffs between domestic versus foreign policy priorities”.

That the “unprecedented shift in relative wealth and economic power… from West to East now underway will continue” is seen as a “relative certainty”. That the dollar will lose its special status as the global reserve currency is also considered a decent bet, causing economic discomfort for the American public and reducing its appetite for global leadership.

American “freedom of action” stands to be curtailed by “US financial dependence on external powers for fiscal stability” – read, in particular, China, which is effectively being asked to finance the stimulus needed to stave off a possible depression and “which is poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country.”

The bursting of America’s credit and housing bubbles, and the resultant havoc on global markets, is seen as strengthening the appeal of “state capitalism” as practiced in varying degrees by China, Russia and India, and potentially slowing the trend towards greater democracy. “Ironically, the major enhancement of the role of the state in Western economies now under way as a result of the financial crisis may reinforce the emerging countries’ preference for state control.”

The world in 2025 will be markedly more “multipolar”, much to satisfaction of countries like South Africa. Disparities in national power, computed on the basis of GDP, defense spending, population and technology, will narrow between developed and developing countries. “Non-state actors” – businesses, religious organizations, groups mobilized along ethnic lines and criminal networks — will also see their influence grow.

The prospect does not overjoy the prognosticators – too many cooks. There is a huge array of transnational challenges to be dealt with, from climate change to economic coordination to combating terrorism. “Efforts at greater inclusiveness to reflect the emergence of the newer powers” will likely “limit the kinds of solutions that can be attempted”.

Strikingly absent from the report is much mention of Africa. A lot of space is devoted to the BRICs – Brazil, India and China. Indonesia, Turkey and Iran are cited as “up and coming powers”. South Africa does not make that list.

The prognosis for sub-Saharan Africa overall is decidedly mixed. The continent will continue to be an important source of oil, gas and metals and thus of interest to China and India (assuming that next two decades don’t see a shift from petroleum-based energy, not ruled out). However, income from these commodities is not seen as translating into economic gains for most Africans. “Poor economic policies – rooted in patrimonial interests and incomplete economic reform – will likely exacerbate ethnic and religious divides as well as crime and corruption in many countries.” Poverty and inequality are expected to deepen.

By 2025, Africa’s water supplies will be under stress from climate change. Over half its population will be under 24, with Nigeria and other countries experiencing a “youth bulge” that correlates with instability. And while Africans are increasingly shouldering the burden of peacekeeping in their own backyard, what with “fragmented militaries” and borders porous to criminals and insurgents, the region would remain highly vulnerable to conflict.

On the bright side, “in contrast to other regions of the world, African attitudes towards the US will remain positive.” Not if Africa continues to get this sort of shrift, they won’t.

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