A new report by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) on the emerging strategic landscape, “Global Trends 2025,” has attracted worldwide attention because it forecasts a future environment in which the United States wields less power than it does today and must contend with a constellation of other, newly ambitious great powers. “Although the United States is likely to remain the single most important actor,” the report notes, “the United States’ relative strength — even in the military realm — will decline and U.S. leverage will become more constrained.” Of all the many revealing findings in the study, this has been the most widely quoted.
That the United States is likely to experience a decline in its strength relative to other great powers over the next 10 to 15 years is, of course, an observation bound to attract keen attention around the world, where criticism of U.S. foreign policy — over the Iraq War, the handling of the war on terror, our failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change — remains strong. The fact that “Global Trends 2025” emanated from a U.S. government agency — the NIC is part of the “national intelligence community” and reports to the Director of National Intelligence — lends additional weight to its findings. Still, when all is said and done, it’s hardly surprising that professional analysts would come to this conclusion, given the enormous toll on America’s military and economic resources taken by five-and-half years of fighting in Iraq and the accompanying loss to our influence, prestige, and goodwill abroad.
Climate and Competition
Far more striking and original, I believe, is the report’s emphasis on the role of climate change and resource competition in the world of 2025 and beyond. Until now, these issues have appeared solely on the margins of U.S. strategic and intelligence studies. Now, for the first time, they have moved front and center.
“Resource issues will gain prominence on the international agenda,” the NIC report notes. “Unprecedented global economic growth — positive in so many other regards — will continue to put pressure on a number of highly strategic resources, including energy, food, and water, and demand is projected to outstrip easily available supplies over the next decade or so.”
The likely future availability of energy and water receives especially close attention. Oil, in particular, is seen as being at risk of failing to meet anticipated world requirements: “Non-OPEC liquid hydrocarbon production — crude oil, natural gas liquids, and unconventionals such as tar sands — will not grow commensurate with demand. Oil and gas production of many traditional energy producers already is declining…Countries capable of significantly expanding production will dwindle; oil and gas production will be concentrated in unstable areas.” The bottom line: global oil supplies will be inadequate to satisfy demand, and importing nations will be forced to consume less and/or speed the production of alternatives.
Water scarcity is seen as an equally significant problem: “Lack of access to stable supplies of water is reaching critical proportions, and the problem will worsen because of rapid urbanization worldwide and the roughly 1.2 billion persons to be added [to the world’s population] over the next 20 years.” At present, we are told, some 600 million people in 21 countries are suffering from inadequate water supplies; by 2025, an estimated 1.4 billion people in 36 countries will face this peril.
Global warming will further exacerbate resource pressures, especially with respect to water and food. Although the impact of climate change will vary from region to region and cannot be predicted with precision, “a number of regions will begin to suffer harmful effects, particularly water scarcity and loss of agricultural production.” Some areas will suffer more than others, “with declines disproportionately concentrated in developing countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa.” For many of these countries, “decreased agricultural output will be devastating because agriculture accounts for a large share of their economies and many citizens live close to subsistence levels.”
That resource scarcity and climate change will become increasingly severe in the decades ahead are hardly novel observations — many “peak oil” and environmental groups have been saying the same thing for years. But the NIC report takes this one step further by describing how these phenomena will intrude into international affairs and could provide the spark for armed violence. Increased scarcity, it suggests, could lead to greater efforts by states to secure control over overseas sources of energy and other key resources, producing geopolitical struggles among the major energy-deficit nations and possibly provoking all-out war.
“The rising energy demands of growing populations and economies may bring into question the availability, reliability, and affordability of energy supplies,” the report notes. “Such a situation would heighten tensions between states competing for limited resources…In the worst case this could lead to interstate conflicts if government leaders deem assured access to energy resources to be essential to maintaining domestic stability and the survival of the regime.”
Even in the absence of major interstate conflict, the report argues, growing competition for dwindling energy supplies could lead to heightened tensions, internal conflict, and terrorism. “Even actions short of war will have important geopolitical implications as states undertake strategies to hedge against the possibility that existing energy supplies will not meet rising demands.” For example, “energy-deficient states may employ transfers of arms and sensitive technologies and the promise of a political and military alliance as inducements to establish strategic relationships with energy-producing states.” Such relationships are already emerging in Central Asia, where China, Russia, and the United States are all competing for access to and control over the region’s oil and gas reserves.
The growing concentration of wealth in the hands of petro-elites in places like Angola, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Nigeria will be another source of potential conflict. Because such elites rarely allocate oil revenues on an equitable basis or allow for a democratic transfer of power, any alteration in national governance (and the distribution of wealth) is likely to be accompanied by violence — often in the form of attacks on pipelines, refineries, and other oil-industry infrastructure. This, in turn, could invite “military intervention by outside powers to stabilize energy flows.”
Several areas of the world are likely to figure in energy conflicts of this sort, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Each is the site of overlapping lines of conflict produced by a combination of ethnic and religious schisms, internal disputes over the allocation of resource revenues, and the contending geopolitical interests of the major powers. Under these circumstances, it would not take much for a minor skirmish — such as that between Georgia and Russia last August — to escalate into something much greater.
Water and land scarcity brought about or exacerbated by climate change could also trigger armed conflict, suggests the NIC report, although mostly of the internal sort. “Climate change is unlikely to trigger interstate war, but it could lead to increasingly heated interstate recriminations and possibly to low-level armed conflicts.” A particular danger zone is the Himalayan region, where the ongoing melting of major glaciers is expected to diminish the annual flow of vital rivers in Bangladesh, China, India, and Pakistan — many of them shared by two or more of these countries and a perennial source of friction among them.
Clusters of Hostility
Terrorist violence will also be spurred by the struggle over critical resources. As climate change and water scarcity renders many rural areas uninhabitable — especially in high-population-growth areas of North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia — hundreds of millions of unemployed young men will pour into the sprawling mega-cities of the developing world, often facing unfriendly reception from the original inhabitants of these areas (who often will be of another religion or ethnicity). Some of these desperate, bitter young men will be drawn to crime; others to militant ideologies and movements.
“As long as turmoil and societal disruptions, generated by resource scarcities, poor governance, ethnic rivalries, or environmental degradation, increase in the Middle East, conditions will remain conducive to the spread of radicalism and insurgencies,” the report concludes. And these clusters of hostility will not be confined to the Middle East: “Increasing interconnectedness will enable individuals to coalesce around common causes across national boundaries, creating new cohorts of the angry, downtrodden, and disenfranchised.”
As the report makes clear, these phenomena will have an ever-increasing impact on world affairs. For one thing, the growing uninhabitability of large parts of North Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Central America will force more and more people to migrate to the cities — producing political and social unrest, as noted — or across international boundaries, to countries less severely affected by climate change and resource scarcity. This surely will produce increased political debate over immigration in receiving countries — and, in all likelihood, an increase in anti-immigrant violence. At the same time, it will complicate the task of combating international terrorist networks that recruit from and hide within immigrant communities in Europe and elsewhere.
Eventually, the report suggests, entrepreneurs and their government backers in the industrialized world will develop new materials and technologies to replace substances in short supply or methods for using them more sparingly. For example, we can expect further improvements in wind and solar power, advanced biofuels, hydrogen fuel-cells, and other alternative energy systems making them more efficient and affordable. This technological revolution will be well underway by 2025 — but not so far advanced as to erase the problems raised by inadequate supplies of oil and natural gas. Also, land and water scarcity will remain a significant worry no matter how much progress is made in other areas. The report’s warning of intensified resource strife in 2025 and beyond should, therefore, be read with considerable alarm.