By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent BBC News website
US power: on the wane?
The latest offering from the US intelligence community paints a picture of a fragmented world over the next 20 years.
The predictions are contained in a report called Global Trends 2025 from the National Intelligence Council (NIC), which brings together all the US intelligence agencies. The Global Trends reports are issued every five years and this is the fourth of its kind.
Among its predictions: the US will remain the most powerful country but will be less dominant; power will shift from West to East; the appeal of al-Qaeda will lessen; a multipolar world will emerge with China, India and others playing greater roles; an "arc of instability" will stretch round the world among countries with young populations.
First, a note of scepticism about these reports.
In 1980, when Ronald Reagan was campaigning against President Jimmy Carter for the US presidency, he did so on the basis that the United States was about to be overwhelmed by the Soviet Union and Japan. At that time, Japan filled the role that China does now - it was going to take over the world with its economic muscle.
In fact it was the US that reasserted itself. Part of it was the Bill Gates effect. A whole new industry was invented to help cushion the impact of the death of the old. Microsoft ruled the world. It was Japan that entered a long period of relative stagnation and indeed is hardly ever talked of these days as a world influence. As for the Soviet Union, we know what happened.
That collapse in itself should give us pause when looking at this kind of long-range report. Almost nobody predicted it. Those that did were crying in the wilderness. The same people who failed in their predictions were then wheeled out to explain why the collapse they had not foreseen had taken place.
The same thing is going on right now over the financial crisis.
If you look back at the Global Trends report issued in 1997, which peered ahead to 2010, the nearest time to our own, you can see the problems of prediction. That report said of Russia: "The erosion in the authority of the central Russian government that has occurred will not be easily reversed."
President Putin has already reasserted central control and we have over a year to go before 2010. Further, the 1997 report was quite optimistic about democracy in Russia: "President Yeltsin's successors could try to arrest the current sense of drift in Moscow. That said, authoritative leadership would not necessarily be the same as authoritarian rule. Strong leadership could buttress democratic institutions and norms still in their infancy..." Has that happened?
To be fair, that report did accurately forecast one future trend of Russian policy: "The most likely outlet in foreign policy would be Russian efforts to rebuild a sphere of influence over its immediate neighbours."
And I noticed that, on Iraq, it correctly said that Saddam Hussein would be gone.
So one must arm oneself with prudence when reading these reports. They are often influenced by what is going on right now, which they then simply project into the future. For example the current report appears to have been written before the worst of the current credit crunch and assumes that economic growth will continue in much the same way that it has in the past.
There are also flashes of the blindingly obvious. If oil prices go up, we are told, major exporters will do well. If prices come down, they will not. Yes.
But having said that, there are some useful indicators and overall the importance of a document like this, if it does its job properly, is to remove from national leaders any suggestion that they have all the answers.
This report will be welcomed round the world and by many in a United States that has just elected a new president committed to changing the way America does business. It puts an end to talk that came to the fore just before the Bush administration took office in 2001 - which was that a "New American Century" was at hand, in which the US would use its power to assert its beliefs for the good of the world as it saw fit.
The report says that the Western model of economic liberalism, democracy and secularism "may lose its lustre". The implication of that is we will hear less about democracy as a way of justifying policy than we have in recent years.
That will not be welcome to those for whom democracy is a beacon. But it is probably a realistic expectation.