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The Many Ways Our Future is a Mess

Even the government is now warning the US will face a world of greater dangers, more challengers and a paucity of reliable allies.

In a remarkable evocation of the strategic environment of 2025, the National Intelligence Council (NIC), a government intelligence service, portrays a world in which the United States wields considerably less power than it does today but faces far greater challenges. The assessment, contained in Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, was released November 20 and is intended to be read by President-elect Obama's transition team as well as the general public. "Although the United States is likely to remain the single most powerful actor," the council notes, "the United States' relative strength -- even in the military realm -- will decline and US leverage will become more constrained."

The report is devoted largely to an examination of the major trends -- political, economic, military and environmental -- that will shape the world of 2025: the rise of China and India as major actors in world affairs; Russia's growing significance as a power broker in Europe; the increasing role of corporations, crime networks and other nonstate actors; and the growing impact of climate change. But two key developments, by the council's own admission, stand out above all others: the decline of America's global primacy and the growing international competition for energy.

One can, in fact, read this extraordinary report on two levels: as a forceful indictment of the policies that have governed US foreign and energy policy for the past eight years and as a clear-eyed look at the devastating repercussions of those policies stretching far into the future.

If the Bush/Cheney administration ever stood for anything, it was the perpetuation of America's dominant international role for decades to come. This vision was first articulated during the Bush I administration, when Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz composed the infamous Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) for the fiscal years 1994-99. "Our first objective," the 1992 document affirmed, "is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union." Although this precept was repudiated by Bush I in 1992 after the DPG was leaked to the press and aroused a storm of international criticism, it was later embraced by his son, who declared in a key 1999 campaign speech that if elected, he would strive to preserve America's paramount position "not just across the world but across the years."

This vision of enduring primacy was sustained, of course, by a belief that US military power was more than sufficient to overcome any conceivable adversary -- with or without the support of allies. And it was with this confidence, this swagger, that the Bush/Cheney team initiated the invasion of Iraq. No plans were made for the post-invasion occupation or the possibility of a persistent insurgency, because it was assumed that the "shock and awe" of American power would produce an aftermath conducive to US interests. Similarly, the reluctance of US allies to join the venture was considered irrelevant, given the overwhelming military advantage enjoyed by American forces and the presumed availability of Iraqi oil to finance the entire operation.

Now, following years of debilitating fighting in Iraq and the systematic depletion of the Treasury, the prospect of extending American dominance "not just across the world but across the years" appears to have vanished for good. "By 2025," the NIC report suggests, "the US will find itself as one of a number of important actors on the world stage," forced to share power with other key players, including China, India and Russia. Inevitably, "the multiplicity of influential actors and distrust of vast power means less room for the US to call the shots without the support of strong partnerships" -- which will be that much harder to form, given America's diminished clout and the competing interests of other players, including allies like Japan and Europe.

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