The forgotten issues

Oct. 31, 2008
“We‘re witnessing the growing influence of non-state actors. They can be businesses, they can be stateless terrorist groups, or they can be criminal organization. Their power is expanded, enhanced by technology change.” -Mike McConnell, Director of ...

We‘re witnessing the growing influence of non-state actors. They can be businesses, they can be stateless terrorist groups, or they can be criminal organization. Their power is expanded, enhanced by technology change.” -Mike McConnell, Director of National Intelligence

Here we sit, on the brink of about as historical a presidential election as you can get, and we as a nation continue to look inward. We‘re worried about jobs, the financial sector, if the former “Big Three” U.S. automakers can survive, the housing market, energy costs ... everything except the dangers outside our borders that - in my opinion - pose the greatest hazards to all of us in the U.S.

Mike McConnell - a former Naval officer and only the second person to hold the new position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) - gave a speech the other day about the range of geopolitical dangers facing us as a nation. And frankly his analysis - gleaned from the work of 100,000 people across 16 agencies (such as the CIA, FBI, etc.) in six different governmental departments - is downright frightening.

His lead-off quote above really strikes a nerve with me - that the enemies of civilized society as we know it can be anybody, anywhere, and have a much greater capacity to inflict harm due to technological advances - in some cases, using what we consider passive technology for deadly purposes. Remember September 11? Over three thousand people killed, the World Trade Center towers destroyed, the Pentagon itself damaged, all tied off with an economic recession - caused by a handful of terrorists using fully fueled commercial jet airliners as weapons of massed destruction.

Then there‘s the larger geopolitical shift now taking place - a shift that‘s only been accelerated by the global financial meltdown.

“The international system we have known since the mid-‘40s, the one we all grew up with, is being fundamentally transformed ... by the rise of emerging powers, an increasingly globalized - means shrinking globe - and the historic transfer of relative wealth and economic power from West to East,” McConnell said in a speech at the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation GEOINT 2008 Symposium in Nashville, TN, this week.

“Let me repeat that last part just for emphasis: the transfer of economic power and wealth from West to East, something that we haven‘t experienced in our lifetimes, not in your parents‘ lifetimes, or even your grandparents‘ lifetimes,” he stressed.

“By 2025, if not before, our intelligence community futurists believe there will be a global multipolar international system with emphasis on the multi-polar part,” McConnell continued. “We judge these sweeping changes will not trigger a complete breakdown of the current international system, but the next 20 years of transition to a new system are fraught with risks and many, many challenges.”

In terms of size, speed, and directional flow, the transfer of global wealth and economic power, now underway, as noted from West to East is without precedent in modern history, he said, and added that strategic rivalries are most likely to revolve around trade, demographics, access to natural resources, investments and technological innovation. There will also be a struggle to acquire technology advantage as the key enabler for dominance, McConnell pointed out.

Lower costs combined with foreign government policies have shifted the locus of manufacturing and even some service industries to Asia and to some extent to South America, he noted. As a result, growth projections for Brazil, Russia, China, and India (the so-called “BRIC” countries) indicate that they will collectively match the original G-7‘s share of global domestic product by 2040.

“China is poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country. If the current trends persist, by 2025, China will have the world‘s second-largest economy and be in route to becoming the world‘s largest economy,” McConnel said. “China will also start becoming a major military power by 2025. In addition, China will likely be the world‘s largest importer of natural resources and the largest contributor to pollution of the entire globe.”

Despite inflationary pressures, the DNI‘s analysis indicates India should continue to enjoy rapid economic growth - in route to becoming either the third- or the second-largest economy in the future. “India will also strive for a more multi-polar world in which New Delhi is one of the significant polls in this new world,” McConnell explained. “China and India will decide to what extent each is willing to - willing and capable of playing an increasing global role in how they will relate one to the other.”

Then there‘s Russia, which has the potential to be richer, more powerful, and more self-assured in 2025. However, to do so, Russia must invest in human capital, expand and diversify its economy, and integrate with global markets, noted McConnell, but if it does so, it could boast a gross domestic product approaching that of the United Kingdom or France by 2025.

“But to do so, they would have to become more integrated in the global economy, open up to the outside world, address their demographic trends, which are very negative, address the health issues and the lack of capital investment,” he said. “If Russia fails to do that, it will condemn them to a lesser status with nuclear weapons, a loud voice, but overall less relevance.”

The big worry in this is that, for the most part, Russia and China are not following the Western liberal model for self-development - as in democracy.

There‘s another problem too, in all of this - a growing global population facing food, water and energy shortages. The DNI‘s research indicates that roughly 1.2 billion people will be added to the current 6.7 billion people on the globe and that will put a strain on resources.

Energy - especially in the form of oil - is the big one. We‘ve seen the effects here in the U.S. as to economic havoc wild swings in the price of oil can create. The problem is that all current technologies are inadequate for replacing the traditional energy architecture on the large scale in which it‘s needed, the DNI‘s analysis shows.

“New energy technologies probably will not be commercially viable and wide spread by 2025; therefore, the pace of technology innovation will be key, but even with favorable policy and the right kind of funding and the ability to have clean fuels, biofuels, clean coal or hydrogen, the transition to these new fuels will be slow,” said McConnell.

"Most technologies historically have had an adoption lag. We looked at a recent study to just get a feel for this [and found] it takes an average of 25 years for ... a new energy technology to become widely adopted. Where does this leave us? What I‘m suggesting [is that] there‘s an increased potential for conflict,” he said. “During the period of this assessment, out to 2025, the probability for conflict between nations and within nation-state entities will be greater. Given the confluence of factors from a new global international system, increasing tension over natural resources, weapons proliferation, things of this nature, we predict an increased likelihood for conflict.”

To say this is sobering is an understatement. It indicates that now more than ever before we as a nation - regardless of our allegiances and regardless of the results on Nov. 4 - must work together. We may be $11 trillion in debt with our economy in recession, but we cannot pull back from the world stage - especially as what‘s taking shape on the world stage doesn‘t bode well for our collective future.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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