WASHINGTON -- A new intelligence assessment of global trends projects that China will outstrip the United States as the leading economic power before 2030, but that America will remain an indispensable world leader, bolstered in part by an era of energy independence.
Russia's clout will wane, as will the economic strength of other countries reliant on oil for revenues, the assessment says.
The product of four years of intelligence-gathering and analysis, the study by the National Intelligence Council presents grounds for optimism and pessimism in nearly equal measure. The council reports to the director of national intelligence and has responsibilities for long-term strategic analysis.
One remarkable development it anticipates is a spreading affluence that leads to a larger global middle class that is better educated and has wider access to health care and communications technologies like the Internet and smartphones. The report assesses global trends until 2030.
"The growth of the global middle class constitutes a tectonic shift," the study says, adding that billions of people will gain new individual power as they climb out of poverty. "For the first time, a majority of the world's population will not be impoverished, and the middle classes will be the most important social and economic sector in the vast majority of countries around the world."
At the same time, it warns, half of the world's population will probably be living in areas that suffer from severe shortages of fresh water, meaning that management of natural resources will be a crucial component of global national security efforts.
But these developments also bring significant risks, allowing radicalized groups to enter world politics on a scale even more violent than that of current terrorist organizations by adopting "lethal and disruptive technologies," including biological weapons and cyberweapons.
The study warns of the risk that terrorists could mount a computer-network attack in which the casualties would be measured not by the hundreds or thousands killed but by the millions severely affected by damaged infrastructure, like electrical grids being taken down.
"There will not be any hegemonic power," the 166-page report says. "Power will shift to networks and coalitions in a multipolar world."
It warns that at least 15 countries are "at high risk of state failure" by 2030, among them Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Uganda and Yemen.
The study acknowledges that the future "is malleable," and it lists important "game changers" that will most influence the global scene until 2030: a crisis-prone world economy, shortcomings in governance, conflicts within states and between them, the impact of new technologies and whether the United States can "work with new partners to reinvent the international system."
The best-case situation for global security until 2030, according to the study, would be a growing political partnership between the United States and China. But it could take a crisis to bring Washington and Beijing together -- something like a nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan resolved only by bold cooperation between the United States and China.
The worst-case situation envisions a stalling of economic globalization that would preclude any advancement of financial well-being around the world. That would be a likely outcome after an outbreak of a health pandemic that, even if short-lived, would result in closed borders and economic isolationism.
The chief author and manager of the project, Mathew Burrows, who is counselor for the National Intelligence Council, said the findings had been presented in advance in more than 20 nations to groups of academic experts, business leaders and government officials, including local intelligence officers.