The CIA's Stormy Crystal Ball

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Globalization? A pirated T-shirt combines Nike's logo with a Bin Laden slogan

Optimism, as dissident Czech writer Milan Kundera once opined, is an opiate. And its most practiced traffickers, of course, are politicians. But optimism is an indulgence military and intelligence professionals can scarcely allow themselves. And that makes the U.S. intelligence community's new report on our world 15 years from now, "Global Trends 2015," a cold-water corrective to some of the sunny nonsense about globalization that passes for conventional wisdom in Washington.

Bill Clinton has spent the past eight years enthusing about the almost unlimited business opportunities for America, Inc., that continue to expand as market economics and democracy spreads throughout the former communist empire, accelerated by the liberating power of information technology. He's even parroted the Reagan-era notion of "trickle-down" economics to insist that the rising tide of globalization will lift all boats. And there's no reason to expect any different from the Bush administration. These politicians have been egged on over the past decade by globalization's most enthusiastic champions in the media, the most relentless and prolific of whom is undoubtedly New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman. Friedman's globalization is a fast-filling cup that will lift humanity out of the clutches of authoritarianism, tribalism and war, if only some of the more backward tribal warriors would simply fess up that what they really want is to be like Michael Jordan.

The bad news

But Friedman has a journalistic alter ego, Atlantic Monthly correspondent and author Robert Kaplan, who saw only gathering gloom and doom as the harvest of the West's Cold War triumph. His influential 1994 essay "The Coming Anarchy" described a world in which the prosperity and stability of the industrialized world is subsumed by mounting anarchy as the collapse of nation states (and their replacement by a combination of transnational corporations and tribal militia), the scarcity of resources, and the globalization of disease and crime accelerate in the vacuum created by the Cold War's end. And where the political class were patting themselves on the back for spreading democracy into hitherto authoritarian climes, Kaplan was prepared to question democracy's significance in understanding the global dynamic. Indeed, Kaplan sees the anarchy of sub-Saharan Africa as but a preview of the fate that awaits the industrialized world.

While it avoids Kaplan's epic pessimism, "Global Trends 2015" still shares more common ground with his gloomy worldview than with the sunny optimism of Tom Friedman or the wishful spin of President Clinton.

What's good for the goose is good for the gangster

The next 15 years of globalization, according to the intelligence community, even in its best-case scenario, produces a world considerably more dangerous than the unhappy one we already know. The last decade's unrestricted and accelerated traffic of information, capital, goods, services and people across national borders has been good for business and for innovation and for political freedom, but it has also been good for gangsters and terrorists and pathogens.

The same information technology that allows George Soros to move billions of dollars in and out of emerging markets at a keystroke also allows Osama Bin Laden, from the dusty mountains of Afghanistan, to maintain a global terror network whose members are as likely to be in New Jersey as in Yemen or the Philippines.

China's water torture

Technology may open up doors, but it has no answer for some problems. China is already waist-deep in this global economy and may be about to make the final plunge, but that won't necessarily help it resolve such basic challenges as providing clean drinking water to its population a decade from now, let alone maintaining social order. And the intelligence community is under no illusion that all that China needs to stave off chaos is democracy — after all, the combination of democracy and a frog march to a market economy turned Russia into a gangster's paradise, while the majority of its people suffer worse material deprivations than they had endured under communism. (Incidentally, the report sees little chance of Russia's pulling out of its precipitous dive.) One of the most dangerous scenarios for U.S. interests in Asia, Global Trends warns, is the disintegration of the Chinese state. Read between the lines on that one, and you'll know that democracy is unlikely to be the predominant concern of U.S.-Chinese relations over the next two decades, no matter which party occupies the White House.

Water, water, but not everywhere

China's water problem is far from unique. Drinking water, in fact, is shaping up to be the single most contested resource on the planet. While "Global Trends 2015" is confident that sufficient food and energy resources will be in place to meet humanity's needs (perhaps because we're already easily able to produce enough food to feed the planet; the reason people still starve today are primarily economic, not agricultural), it notes that almost half of the world's population will live in "water-stressed" societies. And that's going to drive a number of regional conflicts in the coming years. Water was right up there along with Jerusalem, refugees and the future of West Bank settlements in the "final status" issues that remain to be resolved between Israel and the Palestinians, and it's also a key element of Israel's reluctance to surrender all of the Golan Heights in order to get a peace agreement with Syria. Syria has come close to hostilities with Turkey, too, over the latter country's plan to build a dam that may restrict Syria's water supply. And similar conflicts are likely to expand.

Economics, demographics imperil Mideast peace

And while we're in the Middle East, the intelligence community isn't about to get sentimental about the prospects for peace. At best, the region can hope for a cold peace whose stability is constantly threatened by political, economic and demographic shifts in the Arab world. An ingredient is the continuing population explosion among Muslims. The planet's population is due to increase by more than a billion people by 2015, most of the net gain being in the cities of the Third World where they're unlikely to feel much of the "trickle down" benefit of globalization. In addition, the report notes frankly that most oil-producing states in the Arab world are unlikely to spend much of their wealth on the needs of their poor citizens — ironically, an issue receiving more attention from anti-Western demagogues such as Libya's Muammar Ghaddafi and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez than among such pro-Western OPEC pillars as the Saudi and Kuwaiti royal families. And the declining social conditions in countries such as Saudi Arabia create a fertile pool of recruits for the likes of Osama Bin Laden. The demographic and economic projections noted in the report threaten to turn some of the Arab world's cities into impossibly overpopulated hubs of discontent, dramatically under-serviced by such basic infrastructure as drinking water and sewage. Their population is likely to be young, hungry, sick, disillusioned and very, very angry. And that's going to create enormous pressure on some of today's more moderate Arab regimes, and on any peace agreements they may reach with Israel.

Stateless geopolitics

But the problem of managing global affairs is made much more difficult by the diminishing power of the state. The Cold War, artificially, managed to organize almost every regional conflict in the world into a global system of conflict, which was managed at the top by two states that had an overarching interest in avoiding instability that could drag them into a very dangerous confrontation. After it ended, many of the states of the old Soviet empire began to collapse, accelerating crime, lawlessness, tribal violence and terrorism. And the problem acknowledged in "Global Trends 2015" is that governments don't have very sophisticated mechanisms for dealing with "non-state actors."

Osama Bin Laden is the perfect example. His global network of jihadeers is not dependent on any state, and is able to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by globalization to move money and men around the world, and also — more ominously — to go in search of the weapons of mass destruction that would dramatically increase their ability to hurt their foes. Bin Laden has managed to operate precisely by taking advantage of the limits of central authority in such failed or failing states as Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan. The United Nations Security Council this week, under U.S. urging, imposed new sanctions against Afghanistan in order to press them to surrender Bin Laden. But sanctions were a more effective weapon in an earlier era, when terrorist networks were ultimately dependent on sponsorship by states such as Libya and Syria. Afghanistan is a collapsed state run by an Islamic fundamentalist militia, for whom surrendering Bin Laden — who remains a hero to the angry youth of much of the Islamic world, his image reproduced on pirated Nike T-shirts sold throughout south Asia — might feel like an act of political hari-kiri.

Not your father's 'New World Order'

To put it mildly, the conventional levers of foreign policy don't really apply to Bin Laden's world. And last year's cruise missile attacks on his tent camps in Afghanistan only served to boost Bin Laden's image in the Islamic world. Figuring out ways of responding to these unconventional threats is highlighted in "Global Trends 2015" as one of the primary challenges of the next 15 years.

"Global Trends 2015" sees the declining authority of the state as a general worldwide phenomenon in the age of globalization. States remain the main actors on the international stage, but their ability to control the movement of everything from capital and commodities to guns, diseases and people is being diminished. And dealing with such a world requires that the U.S. adapt its own government structures and make them more interdisciplinary than at present.

Even where state authority remains intact, geopolitical dynamics are changing. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the world with only one superpower, but a decade later the absence of a counterweight is pressing a growing number of diverse actors to engage in alliances of convenience to counter what they perceive as U.S. "hegemony." Russia, China and India, for example, may be at each other's throats most of the time, but all share an interest in curbing U.S. influence in Asia and are making that perspective part of their foreign policy. Washington's NATO partners in Europe are increasingly staking out their own turf, from engaging in trade warfare with the U.S. to attempting to build a defense umbrella parallel to NATO. Europe, of course, won't break the NATO alliance, but it will be increasingly ready to challenge U.S. influence where positions diverge — such as in current interventions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on the question of sanctions against Iraq. Washington may encounter a similar growing "friendly" challenge in Latin America.

The world economy, stupid

"Global Trends" is also a little less bullish on economic prospects than the politicians to whom the intelligence community reports. The report predicts continued acceleration of globalization, with the unrestricted flow of information, capital, goods, services, culture and ideas fueling economic growth. But the benefits of such growth or are far from universal, and the process expands the volatility of the international financial system. The authors take care to warn of new financial crises ahead, and express the hope that those can be resolved as rapidly as the 1998 Asian meltdown was. They also warn that a sustained downturn in the U.S. economy (made possible by its massive deficit and limited savings) could also deal a body blow to global growth. Even in the best-case scenario, the report warns, there are going to be billions of people left out of the party, and they're going to be terribly, quite possibly violently, unhappy about that.

That much is already evident in Africa, where only the downsides of globalization are evident, and the specter of AIDS threatens whatever positive signals are still emanating. But there's little in the report to suggest that the intelligence community is likely to recommend anything other than clucking sympathetically from a safe distance.

Challenging market orthodoxy

While the law of the free market has become incontrovertible in post–Cold War Washington, the intelligence community is still prepared to throw out some observations that don't exactly parrot market orthodoxy. For one thing, they explicitly bemoan the loss of one of the key policy levers of the Cold War era — the targeted projection of U.S. economic power. If it weren't for the Marshall Plan, most of Western Europe would have gone communist at the end of World War II — at the ballot box. Plowing billions of dollars of aid and investment into Europe also created the domestic demand that boosted the U.S. economy into its golden age of postwar growth. But the idea of targeting aid and investment in pursuit of foreign policy goals is anathema to today's political and business community. No Marshall Plan would pass this Congress. And that leaves Washington with a lot less to back up its claim to global leadership.

The intelligence wonks also warn that in order to maintain its competitive edge in the world economy, the U.S. government needs to develop "national priorities," which include sustained investment in technology and in public education. Try telling that to a White House and Congress that believe these things are not, a priori, the province of government. Then again, intelligence professionals can afford to speak frankly, because they don't have to get reelected.

Being the work of a category of people whose very livelihood depends on the American way of life being constantly under threat, "Global Trends 2015" was never going to be sanguine about the prospects for peace and prosperity in the years to come. (Hey, these guys have a budget too.) Still, their assessment is sobering. To be sure, even if they're only half-right, the one thing there'll be no worldwide shortage of over the next 15 years is bad news.

Next: Wars of the Future