DAVID IGNATIUS: The high price of decline seen in studies about US power

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – 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.
A disturbing consensus emerged among the analysts that something closer to the pessimistic scenario should be the baseline.
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.
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’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.