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James Clapper

Liveblog: James Clapper

Disease, deterrence and defence with Obama's former Director of National Intelligence 

Sophie Mackenzie
Sydney Opera House

We’re liveblogging from James R. Clapper’s talk at the Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre, as he reflects on 50 years of United States intelligence and his time as Obama’s Former Director of National Intelligence.

“Thinking about the future is hard, but vital,” Clapper starts. “Crises and drama keep intruding, making it all but impossible to look beyond daily headlines … we inevitably get consumed with the urgent, at the expense of the important.”

Clapper outlines three things he’ll go over this afternoon:
1. He will review seven key global trends out to about the year 2035 — about population, economy, technology, ideology, governance, conflict, and the interrelated cluster of climate change, environment and disease.
2. He'll go on to get specific with this region, and talk about a five-year timeframe for key challenges posed by Russia, China, North Korea and terrorism.
3. He will finish discussing the implications of these for the planet, and for Australia.

“I do need to state that what I say here does not represent the official, coordinated view of the U.S. Intelligence Community, or U.S Government policy." He pauses. After a telling deep breath, he continues "Oh, it is so very liberating to be free.” The audience laughs.

Clapper says that the rich are ageing and the poor are not. “The countries with chronically young populations will continue to be a challenge for places like the Middle East. These are the same areas where education levels are the lowest, a toxic combination that is fertile for violent extremism.” He interjects. “By the way, global GDP could rise by more than ten per cent by 2035 if the roles and relative compensation for women were equitable.”

Clapper says that people are indeed on the move, escaping poverty, war and the effects of climate change. “International migrants reached the highest levels ever recorded in 2015, with 244 million migrants, 65 million of which are displaced; in other words, one of every 112 persons in the world is either a refugee, an internally displaced person, or an asylum seeker.” Clapper predicts this trend is "not likely to abate."

"We inevitably get consumed with the urgent, at the expense of the important.”


Clapper audience

On technology: Clapper says all countries will find it hard to keep employment when automation and AI are on the rise. While ‘The Internet of Things’ might be efficient, it’ll also create vulnerabilities and security risks, including the rise of ransomware.

Clapper predicts exclusionary religious identities will " be a key factor in the Middle East and Africa," as "religious identity will remain a powerful connection."

On the current political climate: Clapper refers to polls that "suggest that majorities in emerging nations, especially in the Middle East and Latin America, believe government officials 'don't care about people like them.'" Interestingly, Clapper says Americans demonstrate their lowest levels of trust in their government since 1958 while in Australia, trust in politicians has dropped to its lowest level since 1969.

Democracy itself will come into greater question.  Freedom House reported that measurements of “freedom” in 2016 declined in almost twice as many countries as it improved. This has been the biggest setback in 10 years.

Clapper throws out some hard facts: "Violent extremists are operationally active in about 40 countries; a half dozen countries or so have experienced collapse of central government authority; 14 others face regime-threatening, or violent instability, or both.  Approximately 60 countries exhibit some aspect of instability."

Clapper discusses bio-risks. “Disease is a fundamental, existential, national security threat,” says Clapper. We’re in danger of reverting to a pre-antibiotic world where a common cut could be deadly. He points to the Ebola crisis as an example - three years after the outbreak, we still don’t have a licensed vaccine to prevent future instances. He says by 2035, air pollution will be the main cause of environment-related deaths.

Clapper audience

Clapper shifts his focus to a shorter timeline with some more immediate concerns: Russia’s role on the global stage; China’s rapidly shrinking working-age population and U.S. alliances; North Korea’s dependence on nuclear superweapons causing issues with stability and the influence of the Syrian civil war and foreign fighters on being "recruiting pool[s] for violent extremist groups."

"Forgive me for my preoccupation with Russia," says Clapper after delving into Russia's "faltering and hydrocarbon-reliant economy," "public impatience with deteriorating quality of life" and Putin's "abuse of power." 

Clapper finishes off today by running through the closer implications on Australia. He says that the states that survive will be the ones that invest in infrastructure, knowledge, and relationships. “The United States under President Trump,” he says, “with its avowed nationalist and protectionist policies, is now contributing to demise of this post-WWII order."

“As I look around this country, I see plenty of indications of resilience. Australia is well-placed to weather the shocks of the future."

“The bi-lateral alliance [between the U.S. and Australia] is bigger and stronger than a transient, unorthodox occupant of the White House. Australia can — and should — fill perceived leadership voids that the U.S. leaves.” 

During Q&A Clapper refers to his trip to North Korea in November 2014. He says the only debate point the North Koreans did not dispute was that the "US does not have any permanent enemies." Clapper refers to the Vietnam War.

After audience Q&A Clapper refers to a gift he recieved from Malcolm Turnbull. "It was a historic World War II photograph of an Australian soldier carrying a wounded US soldier." Clapper ends on admitting it was "the only gift from a foreign official I paid for to keep."

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