The new director of the National Intelligence Agency caused something of a stir last month when he warned Congress: "The primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications."
On that theme, Hampshire College professor Michael Klare sees the world economic meltdown as already prompting "economic brush fires" around the world and worries whether these could prove "too virulent to contain."
It seems as if the lyrics "trouble, trouble, trouble" from Meredith Willson's "The Music Man" have become too real in today's world.
Last November Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank Group, noted that the global financial crisis would hit hardest the "poorest and most vulnerable" in the developing world. At that time, Mr. Zoellick calculated another 100 million people around the world had been driven into poverty as a result of soaring food and oil prices. These prices have eased. Nonetheless, hundreds of millions in poor nations must try to balance household budgets on incomes of $2 a day or less.
Now he's forecasting the world economy will shrink by 1 to 2 percent this year, with difficulties possibly extending into next year. That's much worse than the bank group's forecast last year. It will be the first time world output has actually declined since World War II. And each 1 percent decline
in developing-country growth rates pushes an additional 20 million people into poverty, Zoellick reckons.
"The political ramifications [of rising poverty] will be great … though hard to predict," says John Sewell, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington. Before the election last fall, he assembled a group of experts who urged the incoming president to streamline the nation's development tools. These are now spread among 12 government departments, 25 government agencies, and almost 60 government offices. "No one is in charge," the group held.
Powerful droughts around the world could cause food shortages, reversing a dramatic drop in global poverty that the economic crisis recently halted, worries Mr. Klare, an expert on peace and world security.
As for brush fires, the driest tinder lies in eastern European states such as Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Bulgaria, he says. There, the people in fragile democracies had the notion that rising prosperity in the 1990s and up to 2006 would continue forever. Now the money from the West has dried up and gone home, leading to an economic bust.
"That is what is driving them to rage," says Klare. "The promises have been taken away."
His recent writings note dozens of trouble spots around the globe. These are mostly localized and disorganized enough that governments can bring them under control in short order. But it's entirely possible, Klare holds, that some could develop into more intense and long-lasting events, armed rebellions, military takeovers, civil conflicts, and even wars between nations.
Foreign aid, particularly if designed to help at the micro level, could provide helpful loans to small farmers and businesses, he figures.
At present, rich countries provide about $100 billion a year in foreign aid to poor nations.
Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development in Washington, hopes multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank, come up with $1 trillion over the next 18 to 24 months. "That would be very powerful," she says.