Tuesday, January 18, 2005


The Counterterrorism blog discusses the The NIC 2020 report.  NIC stands for National Intelligence Council, an organization affiliated with the CIA tasked with providing a semi-independent assessment of events. Their self-described mission is to: "provide policymakers with the best, unvarnished, and unbiased information -- regardless of whether analytic judgments conform to US policy." It is a long horizon piece aimed at identifying the main trends in the world over the next few years. Its key findings are reproduced verbatim in the matrix below.

Relative Certainties

Key Uncertainties

Globalization largely irreversible, likely to become less Westernized. Whether globalization will pull in lagging economies; degree to which Asian countries set new “rules of the game.”
World economy substantially larger. Extent of gaps between “haves” and “have-nots”; backsliding by fragile democracies; managing or containing financial crises.
Increasing number of global firms facilitate spread of new technologies. Extent to which connectivity challenges governments.
Rise of Asia and advent of possible new economic middle-weights. Whether rise of China/India occurs smoothly.
Aging populations in established powers Ability of EU and Japan to adapt work forces, welfare systems, and integrate migrant populations; whether EU becomes a superpower.
Energy supplies “in the ground” sufficient to meet global demand. Political instability in producer countries; supply disruptions
Growing power of nonstate actors. Willingness and ability of states and international institutions to accommodate these actors.
Political Islam remains a potent force. Impact of religiosity on unity of states and potential for conflict; growth of jihadist ideology.
Improved WMD capabilities of some states. More or fewer nuclear powers; ability of terrorists to acquire biological, chemical, radiological, or nuclear weapons.
Arc of instability spanning Middle East, Asia, Africa. Precipitating events leading to overthrow of regimes.
Great power conflict escalating into total war unlikely. Ability to manage flashpoints and competition for resources.
Environmental and ethical issues even more to the fore. Extent to which new technologies create or resolve ethical dilemmas.
US will remain single most powerful actor economically, technologically, militarily. Whether other countries will more openly challenge Washington; whether US loses S&T edge.

This assessment implies that the Global War on Terror would have happened eventually with or without September 11 as a result of certain long term and unavoidable trends emerging in the world. In particular, the weakening of Great Power rivalry has been accompanied by a corresponding rise in technological proliferation and the sophistication of nonstate actors, a trend which the report considers 'relatively certain' to continue over the coming years. The magnitude of the role of Europe and the 'middle powers' will play in the first decades of this century are still 'key uncertainties'. What is fairly certain is that the United States will shape the global response for the next 20 years or so.

That central fact means the fate of the world will be effectively decided by Americans in the near term. This further implies that divisions within American polity -- the debate over the response to terrorism -- or the lack thereof -- will assume an inordinate importance, magnified by its position in the fulcrum of power. Just as the fate of the planet was effectively decided in Europe during the 19th century, many of the main trends in the world will be settled within the boundaries of the fifty states over the coming years. For good or ill, America will become a cockpit into which global conflicts will converge. For men of hope and the merchants of evil; for visionaries and as well as terrorists, nothing --  not even the minarets of Mecca -- will beckon more naturally than the alabaster cities of the New World.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
-- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities