Post-Khomeini, Which Are the World's Shakiest Nations? Marvin Cetron Offers Some Startling Candidates Near Home

UPDATED 02/04/1980 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/04/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

"A person has vital signs—blood pressure, temperature and so forth," says professional forecaster Marvin Cetron. "The same is true of countries." Three years ago Cetron's Arlington, Va. firm, Forecasting International, fed economic, political, military and social data into a computer, studied the results and predicted that Iran would soon undergo a radical Islamic revolution. Only a few of Cetron's corporate clients paid heed, but those that did saved millions by relocating their investments. "Our technique is so accurate it's scary," Cetron claims. "We tested it by applying it to the past. It was right on the button. We even came up with the Cuban Revolution."

Not that the computer is always right. For example, Cetron predicted Yitzhak Rabin would win the 1977 election and become prime minister of Israel. "We couldn't foresee, "he notes, "that Rabin's wife would open an illegal bank account outside the country."

Recently Cetron and his staff published a new report commissioned at the request of 25 industrial clients. Based on an analysis of vital signs and trends—63 indicators in all—in 21 countries, the report tries to warn about potential trouble spots in the late 1980s. A Pennsylvania-born industrial engineer with a Ph.D. from American University in research and development, Cetron, 49, quit the Navy in 1971 after 19 years as a high-level planner to launch Forecasting International. The author or editor of nine books, Cetron is also editor-in-chief of the Technology Assessment Journal and an adjunct professor at Georgia Tech and American University. He lives in Fairfax, Va. with his wife, Gloria, and sons Edward, 22, and Adam, 17. Cetron gazed into the future for Clare Crawford-Mason of PEOPLE.

Why isn't Afghanistan on your list of unstable countries?

Afghanistan is not unstable: It's going to be a Russian satellite. That's it. The Russians know they don't have to go into the mountains to fight the Afghans, they only have to control the cities and the main roads.

What if the United States sent arms to the Afghan rebels?

It's doubtful the equipment would get through, and even if it did the Afghans have no organization and no capability to use the kinds of sophisticated weapons—antitank missiles and such—which we would send.

What does Afghanistan mean to the Soviet Union strategically?

It's just a stepping-stone—one strike through the Khyber Pass and Pakistan is in deep trouble. That is one reason Pakistan is No. 5 on our unstable list. The country is there also because it might become part of the overall Islamic revolution and because it has developed very little of its natural resources. The Russians really don't need Pakistan. I think they'd prefer to go straight down between the border of Iran and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. In addition to Iran's oil, what the Soviets really need is a deep warm-water port that will not freeze over in the winter months. They want that so bad they can taste it.

In Yugoslavia, what are the implications of Marshal Tito's failing health?

Very grave. It could be very tempting for the Russians. They could have the whole Adriatic Coast for their warm-water port, and what's more they'd get control of the best submarine bases, built by the Yugoslavs into solid rock. However, Yugoslavia could utilize sophisticated American weapons and has proved it has the will to fight. Still, Yugoslavia ranks as the sixth most unstable country in the world.

Are there any other factors?

When Tito, who's 87, passes away, they've got no replacement. Within the country there are six competing republics—and two provinces. Each of them votes not what's good for them but what's bad for the other guy. The country also has high inflation and more than a million "guest workers"—Yugoslav migrants living in places like Germany, France and Sweden. If they all come home, Yugoslavia has got real trouble because there aren't enough jobs.

Why does India rate as the most potentially unstable country?

It's one of the poorest countries there is. The Indians have an enormous population, food supply difficulties and no industrial capability or natural resources worth a damn. Their problems are so critical that they are way out in front as the most unstable country in the world.

Why is Israel No. 2 on the list?

There's going to be a big struggle between those who think Israel should be a purely secular state and those who want it to be a religious state run by the Orthodox. You've also got a crippling inflation rate and a serious brain drain—many of their best people are coming to the U.S. And I think Israel may ultimately be pressured by the rest of the world into giving up the West Bank—but I don't think that will help matters. It will just bring out the truth: that the real reason most countries don't support Israel is not the Palestinian question but, as I see it, that they are being blackmailed by OPEC. They need the oil.

What makes Poland third?

It is a marginal producer of industrial equipment and agricultural products, so under present conditions its economy is just squeaking by. In that respect, Poland is like Argentina. What makes Argentina more stable—14th on the list—is that it has a better-educated electorate, more natural resources, more fertile land and uranium, as well as nuclear reactors.

You're not optimistic about Zimbabwe?

It will get a little better. I believe the Zimbabweans are really going to have a peace settlement. It'll be a representative black regime, but they'll have problems because the bureaucracy needed to run the country isn't in place yet. Zimbabwe will make it, but it'll take time.

Why do you say Japan is headed for serious trouble?

Japan is the eighth most unstable nation because 96 percent of its energy is imported; it has few natural resources. By the end of the century Japan will be replaced by China as an economic power. It may seem unbelievable but that is what the computer says. The Chinese have the resources, the energy and the dedication. They believe in hard work, delayed goals, the family structure. The Chinese are like the Americans used to be. They have some serious food and population problems, but in the long run they have everything it takes.

What of the other countries on the list?

South Africa—No. 7—is headed for disaster because of its racial policy. The only friend it has is Israel. After Japan comes Iran, where anything can happen. Oddly enough, in the long run Iran appears more stable than Japan simply because it has its own oil.

How long do you think Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini will last?

I have no prediction. But Iran has five major factions that don't agree with the central government, and a significant number of Iranians are non-Shi'ite Muslims. That spells instability. I think the only support the U.S. can hope for, by the way, is from the middle officers in the Iranian army who were schooled here and trained on American equipment. Some of them may still harbor some pro-American sentiments.

Why do you rank Mexico as No. 10?

Population there is the big problem, and they desperately need the escape valve of their people moving across our borders. We've also got to keep buying their oil and natural gas and they've got to spread the wealth around to their people. No. 12, Brazil, suffers from terrorism and a brutal junta. Nigeria, No. 13, has no industrial base, but at least it has oil. If Libyan strongman Gadaffi keeps his mouth shut, and does not anger neighboring Egypt, his nation, No. 15, will be all right. In Saudi Arabia, the people on top are getting paid 30 times more than the people on the bottom—that warrants its ranking as No. 16. Many people view Saudi Arabia as stable. If a man's head is in the oven and his feet are in the refrigerator, his average temperature is normal—but he's obviously in trouble! That's the situation there. The remaining countries we looked at—France, the U.S.S.R., East Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom—have some destabilizing elements, but nothing really worrisome.

Among a country's vital signs, why do you think the number of unemployed males age 18 to 28 is significant?

This is an important factor in determining how shaky a society is. These are young men who perhaps have moved from the country to city but have no job. They can't go back and be shepherds. They have nothing to lose by rioting in the streets.

Do you see nuclear war as a strong possibility in this century?

No, because no one can afford reprisal. It's like nerve gas which was not used in World War II. There are three things I don't think any country will use: nuclear, chemical and biological warfare. On the other hand, if there is a land war with Russia in Europe, we have no choice but to use nuclear tactical weapons.

What do you see happening in the United States at the close of this century?

I can see us resembling Sweden with national health care, a more socialized government and no poor to speak of. In education, I think the teachers will be working only two days a week—the kids will be home three days using a TV or computer system where they will have some input. More people will be working at home because of computers. That will increase the divorce rate, by the way—maybe triple it, because people can take each other in small doses, but 24 hours a day is tough.

What is our energy outlook?

I see us using breeder reactors, because plutonium fuel is 80 percent recycled and increases our basic fuel supply. Safety will have to be improved. I don't think solar power is going to account for more than 3 to 5 percent of our energy needs. Wind power, maybe 3 to 4 percent. We will still badly need conservation, and maybe rationing

If many of your prophesies occur, like the collapse of, say, Yugoslavia and Saudi Arabia, won't the U.S. become more unstable?

No, not a chance—that's why the Arab countries invest their petrodollars here. We have problems, but I'm optimistic. In the long run there is no country stronger than we are.

Who will win the presidential election?

The Republicans, I think. There's a conservative movement going on here and throughout the world.

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