The next U.S. president will govern in an era of increasing international instability, including a heightened risk of terrorist attacks in the near future, long-term prospects of regional conflicts and diminished U.S. dominance across the globe, the nation’s top intelligence officer said Thursday.
Competition for energy, water and food will drive conflicts between nations to a degree not seen in decades, and climate change and global economic upheaval will amplify the effects, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, said in a speech here.
McConnell, who has given security briefings to both major-party presidential candidates, said the list of worries will soon drown out the euphoria as the next occupant of the White House settles into the job.
He added that, besides the predictable conflicts and threats, “there is always surprise.” McConnell said that the first months of a new presidency are a “period of most vulnerability,” noting that major terrorist attacks occurred during the first year of the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
The sobering assessment was in part a reflection of a months-long analysis McConnell’s agency is preparing for the next administration, highlighting security challenges the country will face in the next two decades. Elements of that forecast have been described by intelligence officials in recent weeks, and some highlights have been shared with the presidential candidates in briefings that have occurred since the August conventions.
In the near term, the focus remains largely on al-Qaeda and its global network, which remains “very lethal” despite dramatic setbacks in Iraq and elsewhere, McConnell said. But in spite of progress against Osama bin Laden and his followers, the terrorist threat is not likely to disappear in the next 20 years. Instead, absent major economic and political improvements in the Middle East, “conditions will be right for growing radicalism and recruitment of youths into terrorist groups,” many of which will be descendants of established movements such as al-Qaeda, he said.
These groups will probably be more dangerous than their predecessors, because new technology will place dangerous weapons within their grasp, he warned. “One of our greatest concerns continues to be that a terrorist group or some other dangerous group might acquire and employ biological agents or, less likely, a radiological device, to create casualties greater than September 11,” McConnell said.
Meanwhile, population growth will create instability by increasing the strain on natural resources — not only energy but also fresh water and food supplies, he said. At the same time, large swaths of the planet will struggle to find reliable supplies of fresh water, because of urbanization and climate change. By 2025, 1.4 billion people in 36 countries will face water shortages, McConnell said. The scarcity of basic necessities will “create significant tensions on the globe,” he said.
Other intelligence officials in recent weeks have forecast declining U.S. dominance in the near future, but McConnell described the coming change in starker terms. Intelligence analysts see China, India and perhaps Russia ascending to new positions of power, a shift being driven by a massive transfer of wealth and manufacturing capability from the West to Eastern countries, particularly China.
“China is poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country,” he said. “China will also start becoming a major military power by 2025 [and] will likely be the world’s largest importer of natural resources and the largest contributor to pollution.”