U.S. must fight pessimistic outlook

December 13, 2011


Is American power in decline, relative to the rest of the world? That question is at the center of a provocative study by the U.S. intelligence community exploring what the world might look like in 2030.

The answer, judging by comments from a panel convened to discuss the topic, is that America faces serious trouble: The U.S. economy is slowing, relative to its Asian competitors, which will make it harder for the country to assert its traditional leadership role in decades ahead. That, in turn, could make for a less stable world.

This pessimism among intelligence analysts contrasts sharply with the relentlessly upbeat prognostications made by politicians, especially the field of Republican presidential candidates, who describe an America of perpetual sunshine and unchallenged leadership. That’s certainly not the view of this nonpartisan group.

The unclassified study, titled “Global Trends 2030,” is being prepared by the National Intelligence Council, which is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. This is the fifth such study (the first, published in 1996, looked toward 2010) and the only one to radically question U.S. staying power.

In preparing the 2030 document, the analysts decided to focus on America’s role in shaping the global future. “You have to be intellectually honest that there are changes in the U.S. role, and the role of rising powers,” that will affect events, explains Matthew Burrows, a counselor at the National Intelligence Council and the principal author of the report.

Burrows and other contributors met in Washington early this month to hear outside comments — and it was an eye-opening discussion. A somewhat pessimistic paper on the U.S. economic outlook, prepared by Uri Dadush of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was criticized at this meeting for not being pessimistic enough.

The baseline scenario offered by Dadush was that America would avoid economic icebergs and stabilize its deficit and debt problems. The U.S. economy would grow an average of 2.7 percent annually between 2010 and 2030, and the country’s share of G-20 GDP would decline from about a third to about a quarter.

Dadush offered a second, bleaker picture, where breakup of the eurozone triggers a huge financial crisis that spreads to the U.S. After several years of deep recession, the U.S. begins to expand, but anemically. Under this forecast, U.S. growth would average just 1.5 percent through 2030. “Seen as a country on the downslide, the United States is both incapable of leading and disinclined to lead,” wrote Dadush about the more negative version.

A disturbing consensus emerged among the analysts that something closer to the pessimistic scenario should be the baseline. Fred Kempe, the president of the Atlantic Council, the think tank that hosted the meeting, sums up the views of these analysts and of a similar exercise last month by the World Economic Forum when he warns that the biggest national-security threat is “the danger of receding American influence on the world stage.”

My own view (I was asked to critique the presentations as an independent journalist) is that the key issue is how the United States adapts to adversity. That offers a slightly more encouraging picture: Relative to competitors, America still has a more adaptive financial system, stronger global corporations, a culture that can tap the talents of a diverse population, and an unmatched military. The nation’s chronic weakness is its political system, which is nearing dysfunction. If the U.S. can elect better political leadership, it should be able to manage problems better than most competitors.

What other trends does the National Intelligence Council foresee in 2030? Burrows explained that the study will look at 15 or so “disruptive technologies” and their potential impact; it will examine governance, and the growing gap between the pace of economic and political change and the ability of local, national and global governance to respond; and it will forecast likely conflicts — and assess ways that cyber, bio and other new weapons could empower individuals and small groups.

Here’s the most interesting footnote to this gloomy exercise. Burrows said that as he discusses his 2030 project with analysts around the world, he finds them much less downbeat about America’s prospects. “The Chinese are the first ones to say that we are too pessimistic about our future,” he reports, and Brazilian and Turkish analysts have said much the same thing.

Burrows noted that the nonpartisan report will be released after the 2012 presidential election. But the issue of America’s future will surely be at the heart of the coming campaign.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email is davidignatius@washpost.com.


Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 1 month ago

Pessimism can have what is called negative feedback. That is, it feeds upon itself.

If you are pessimistic, the people around you are likely to become that way also. Then, that makes you even more pessimistic. Add more to the crowd, and pretty soon, everyone is really bummed out.

And sometimes, they don't even know why.

cato_the_elder 5 years, 1 month ago

As usual, Ignatius misses the point. Ronald Reagan made Americans proud to be Americans. Barack Obama is ashamed to be called an an American. He's telegraphed that to many people in foreign countries, especially our enemies, who as a result perceive America to be weak under his presidency.

We can cure that malaise in November of 2012. Let's hope we do.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 1 month ago

"We can cure that malaise in November of 2012."

Only if there's another decent candidate running against Obama. It's questionable whether that is going to be the case.

voevoda 5 years, 1 month ago

I'm afraid that cato_the_elder has an overly-rosy memory of the stature of the US under Ronald Reagan. A lot of people abroad thought that he was a joke--a movie actor (not even in serious films) who thought that he could lead a country. Remember his "evil empire" quip, his pie-in-the-sky "star wars" anti-missile system notion, his susceptibility to Nancy's astrologer, his confusion of film fiction and historical reality, etc.
If people in other countries today doubt American strength, it's because people like cato_the_elder tear down our country and ridicule the president at every opportunity. And because the political polarization they have promoted has deadlocked our government.

cato_the_elder 5 years, 1 month ago

How old were you when Reagan was President? Just curious.

weeslicket 5 years, 1 month ago

once again insulting other posters, mr. cato. never mind the truth of the preceding commentary.

i was an adult voter in that election.
i can only assume that you were as well.

about 25 years later, you are still running president reagan as your preferred candidate. guess what mr. cato. he's not one of our current choices.

cato_the_elder 5 years, 1 month ago

Hey, Mr. Weeslicket - haven't heard from you for awhile.

How is it an insult to ask someone how old he or she was at a given time? No one's forcing anyone to answer. The fact is that a number of leftist posters on this forum frequently say things about historical figures that lead me to believe that they either weren't alive or were in diapers when the person(s) referred to were in their prime. Obviously, that shouldn't prevent someone from commenting, but I strongly suspect that many of the leftists who post on this forum are very young people who regurgitate things they've heard from left-wing professors or have read on left-wing websites, rather than having experienced them personally. In short, they would have to be quite young to hold such intellectually immature views.

As always, have a nice evening.

weeslicket 5 years, 1 month ago

whatever your suspicions may be, please set them aside for few moments.

i am suggesting, that when you "ask" someone to "state their age", you then compare that person's age to your own age. so you can "win" that argument because you are cato.the.ELDER.

nope. you don't get ot win that argument. and you insult anyone younger than yourself (at the least) when you try and post such.

cato_the_elder 5 years, 1 month ago

Weeslicket, it's impossible to insult a political liberal, because they have no shame. Case closed.

cato_the_elder 5 years, 1 month ago

Then you must enjoy laughing at yourself.

weeslicket 5 years, 1 month ago

from its.just.math: How'd we get here from there?

perhaps it was your vote

Maddy Griffin 5 years, 1 month ago

Maybe we should all be learning Mandarin.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 1 month ago

I read quite some time ago that there are more English teachers in China than there are people in the USA that can speak Chinese.

So you probably are right, we need to get with the program!

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