December 12, 2012

Read between the lines of the U.S. intelligence community’s quadrennial global trends report, a document released this week that has significant influence on White House thinking, and the message to President Obama is clear.

First, the United States is at a far more crucial juncture of human history than most Americans realize – reminiscent of 1815, 1918, 1945 and 1989. Second, the United States has something that is unprecedented among the world’s great powers, a second chance to shape the international economic and political system.

Read more deeply, and you’ll find a stark warning for the president within the National Intelligence Council’s 140-page “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds” report.  The world may suffer severe consequences – ranging from economic slowdown and environmental catastrophe to violent conflict and global anarchy – if the U.S. fails to act, escape the fiscal cliff, restore its political effectiveness, revive its economic competitiveness, and engage China and a host of other rising actors.

The NIC lays out the stakes clearly for the U.S.:

How the U.S. evolves over the next 15-20 years – a big uncertainty – and whether the U.S. will be able to work with new partners to reinvent the international system will be among the most important variables in the future shape of the global order. Although the United States’ (and the West’s) relative decline vis-à-vis the rising states is inevitable, its future role in the international system is much harder to project: the degree to which the U.S. continues to dominate the international system could vary widely.

The challenge for U.S. leaders is that their margin of error is much smaller than it was after World War II. Then, America’s share of global GDP was 50% – more than twice what it is today. A mixture of post-war devastation and American economic and military dominance empowered the U.S. to construct, with friends and allies, a global institutional architecture that included the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a host of others.

Today, the relative decline of U.S. political and economic power, an ongoing euro zone crisis that saps key allies’ energies and confidence, and the rise of China weaken American leverage. According to the NIC report, by 2030, Asia will surpass North America and Europe “in terms of global power.” The factors are a combination of economic size, population, military spending and technological investment. The NIC says China will pass U.S. GDP in the 2020′s.

Though dampened, America’s ability to lead remains significant through 2030 due to its unique economic, social and military assets and the lack of any single or group of powers willing to supplant its global role.

Beyond that, many of the trends outlined by the NIC report may be uniquely favorable to U.S. prospects, including new energy extraction and manufacturing technologies that could in the best case help underpin average economic growth for the U.S. by as much as 2.7 percent per year through 2030.

The NIC also focuses on technology-driven “individual empowerment” as the first of four megatrends that will reduce poverty and double the size of the global middle class through 2030. The report calls it a “tectonic shift” that means “for the first time, a majority of the world’s population will not be impoverished.” This is not a guarantee of a move toward greater democracy or western values, but middle class populations make greater demands for accountable, responsible, transparent governance. Individual empowerment, however, has a darker side that means individuals and small groups will have greater access to lethal and disruptive technologies, “enabling them to perpetrate large-scale violence – a capability formerly the monopoly of states.”

The NIC, which serves as the intelligence community’s center for medium and long-term analysis, does not have a mandate to recommend policy from its findings. That is left to organizations like the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank and public policy group. (Disclosure: I am president of the council and, in its non-government capacity, it has convened many of the global workshops that contributed to the NIC report).

The Atlantic Council’s report – “Envisioning 2030: US Strategy for a Post-Western World,” proposes an approach that starts with President Obama recognizing the magnitude of the moment and the likelihood that his actions now will have consequences that will be felt for generations.

President Obama has been right to focus on “nation-building at home.” U.S. economic and innovative strength is the foundation for any global leadership role. However, even a revitalized U.S. economy won’t be enough to secure the future.

The U.S., with less absolute power, must act more creatively and collaboratively. What one already sees in the Arab Awakening in the Middle East is that national power will compete with new, multifaceted and amorphous networks – enabled by technology and instant communication.

At the same time, the U.S. must safeguard its longest standing alliance, NATO, and its most important strategic asset, Europe, by helping its allies manage the euro zone crisis while promoting a transatlantic free trade, investment and economic cooperation agreement.

The Obama administration must also deepen U.S.-Chinese cooperation, the most important single factor shaping the international system. A broad array of issues are at stake, such as multilateral institutions, the global financial system, the nuclear future, cyber security, climate change and global resource scarcity.

The Obama administration also has an immediate need to address  instability in the greater Middle East, from North Africa to Pakistan, where potential threats include nuclear-armed regional powers, failed nuclear states and terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Perhaps the most powerful message to President Obama from the NIC report is the following: Getting re-elected was the easy part. How he manages this juncture in human history, a much more difficult task, will determine his legacy.

Fred Kempe is the president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. This column was originally published by Reuters.

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