The National Intelligence Council has warned in its latest report that the United States will decline as an economic and political world power over the next 20 years.
The NIC report is the first major U.S. government document on national strategy to appear since the Wall Street financial crisis began in September. But it does far more than simply note the crisis' existence. It warns that the ensuing economic crisis now sweeping the entire world is just the first part of a far vaster process -- a changing of the global power structure for the new century.
The report has the title "Global Trends 2025." But The Times of London newspaper described it in a headline with a far bleaker and more sensational message: "Sun setting on the American century."
The report does far more than survey the world. It was deliberately prepared to be an influential guide for the next president of the United States before he takes office on Jan. 20. President-elect Barack Obama will find it exceptionally sober reading. For the report confronts Obama's "Politics of Hope" with a warning of grave dangers ahead.
"The world of the near future will be subject to an increased likelihood of conflict over resources, including food and water, and will be haunted by the persistence of rogue states and terrorist groups with greater access to nuclear weapons," it said.
The report is also an indirect but very explicit repudiation of the grand strategy of outgoing President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the neo-conservative intellectuals who served them.
It clearly rejects their assumption that a new century of U.S. global supremacy, leadership and even control more total than any the United States enjoyed in the past is likely or even achievable.
Instead, the NIC report warns of an increasingly uncontrollable, fragmented world with strategic, military and economic power increasingly diffused -- and with the danger of local and wider wars, especially over scarce resources, greater than ever before.
"The international system will be almost unrecognizable by 2025, owing to the rise of emerging powers, a globalizing economy, a transfer of wealth from West to East, and the growing influence of non-state actors. Although the United States is likely to remain the single most powerful actor, the United States' relative strength -- even in the military realm -- will decline and U.S. leverage will become more strained," it said.
Ironically, the report appeared as French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for a new global economic summit to be held in Paris, ahead of the one that he and the other Group of 20 leaders of the world's major nations agreed at their Nov. 15 Washington gathering to hold in April. It is unclear if it would be before or after Jan. 20, but if the United States participated, either way a very old Bush administration or very new Obama administration would be hamstrung by the situation -- which is what the French leader appears to have in mind.
Sarkozy's call is, in essence, nothing more than grandstanding: The G20 summit in Washington, as we predicted in these columns, proved utterly useless in affecting the dynamics of the accelerating global economic crisis, but there is no reason to believe that any other gathering of the same ineffectual and unwieldy group, covering so many jealous, independent, conflicting and mutually selfish and suspicious interests, would prove any different.
Sarkozy was clearly trying to maneuver the European Union -- with France as its leader -- into the role of the world's leading player in confronting the crisis. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown clearly has similar ambitions. But Britain and France are simply too small in their basic economies, and the European Union too diffuse, unwieldy and militarily weak, to fulfill that role, especially as it remains so dependent on neighboring Russia for its natural gas supplies.
The National Intelligence Council report saw China and India as more likely to rival or challenge the United States in a position of influence than Europe, with Russia's role unclear.
The report, in fact, is neither sensationalist nor brilliant. It gravely underestimates the importance of Russia as a leading energy producer and exporter, strategic nuclear power and potential swing nation for either stability or upheaval. It takes Japan for granted. And it underestimates China's current economic, financial and regional military power relative to the United States.
But the report is balanced, it attempts to be realistic and it is certainly honest. It sets forth, in cautious, measured, bureaucratic prose, a somewhat ponderous acknowledgment of trends that have been clearly identified and warned about by a wide spectrum of experts and high-powered panels of various kinds for many years.
The real importance of the report is that it so directly challenges and rejects the assumptions of continued American unilateralist supremacy that the Bush administration acted upon and insisted upon. Even before President-elect Obama takes the oath of office and even while Bush remains as an increasingly insubstantial presence in the White House, that world is gone.