“…the era of American ascendancy in international politics that began in 1945—is fast winding down.”
- From the Office of the Director
of the US National Intelligence Council
It creates one of the most important documents in the world, one that helps define the direction of US foreign and domestic policy which then reflects the entire global body politic – yet you will scarcely ever hear it quoted by decision makers or by mainstream media. The National Intelligence Council (NIC) is at the center for midterm and long-term strategic thinking within the United States Intelligence Community (IC).
By Don Elzer
The NIC's goal is to provide policymakers with the best information: unvarnished, unbiased and without regard to whether the analytic judgments conform to current U.S. policy. One of the NICs most important analytical projects is a Global Trends report produced for the incoming US president. The report is delivered to the incoming president between Election Day and Inauguration Day, and it assesses critical drivers and scenarios for global trends with an approximate time horizon of fifteen years. The Global Trends analysis provides a basis for long-range strategic policy assessment for the White House and the intelligence community. The NIC's most recent Global Trends report is titled "Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds" and it should be required reading for every decision maker, community planner and activist who might wonder about where big brother might be going – or not.
The forecast is in 15-year periods, the last one being in 2000 and was circulated just before 9-11 as the “2015 Trends Forecast”. That forecast helps place the 2030 forecast in context as it describes a certain US Manifest Destiny that appears to be weakening - it says, “In the absence of a clear and overriding national security threat, the United States will have difficulty drawing on its economic prowess to advance its foreign policy agenda. The top priority of the American private sector, which will be central to maintaining the US economic and technological lead, will be financial profitability, not foreign policy objectives.”
As history tells us, just a few months after the 2000 report was published the events of 9-11 provided the “clear and overriding national security threat” which then took some of the pressure off of the country’s need for economic prowess – it could once again depend on it’s military industrial complex for advancing US foreign policy objectives.
It’s interesting to note that in the report, “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMD’s) remain prominent within its narrative as it outlines the fear of who might have them. History once again tells us that WMD’s are now well entrenched in the American vernacular.
According to the NIC, Global Trends 2030 is intended to stimulate thinking about the rapid and vast geopolitical changes characterizing the world today and possible global trajectories over the next 15 years. In depth research, detailed modeling and a variety of analytical tools drawn from public, private and academic sources were employed in the production of this report.
So these Trends Forecasts are important, they might even cue up trends on their own right as they sketch a starting point for governments, corporations and institutions to deliver their own plans and agendas in an effort to be in-step with the big picture. In 2000 the NIC began to make mention of something called a “Nonstate World” which was different from the normal narrative that included emerging nations and such, now within the 2030 forecast there is a growing interest in the Nonstate World and there is a vantage point from which the status quo is feeling that there is an emerging influence brewing, one that it does not quite understand yet. The intelligence community seems to apply old world threat scenarios to it, but it also seems to be trying to seek to understand its leadership and structural drivers. The fact that the intelligence community is seeing it as a possible “world” in only 15 years means that this “movement” has arrived. The people or at least the informal leadership within this grassroots movement might call their efforts “local” or “bioregional” but there will be corporate forces at work to control all things local as well; and to the NIC threats loom as state control and globalization transforms into something very different.
Four Possible Worlds:
A Future in Transition
From Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds:
The present recalls our past global transition points—such as 1815, 1919, 1945, and 1989—when the path forward was not clear-cut and the world faced the possibility of different global futures. We have more than enough information to suggest that however rapid change has been over the past couple decades, the rate of change will accelerate in the future. Accordingly, we have created four scenarios that represent distinct pathways for the world out to 2030: Stalled Engines, Fusion, Gini Out-of-the-Bottle, and Nonstate World.
As in previous volumes, we have fictionalized the scenario narratives to encourage all of us to think more creatively about the future. We have intentionally built in discontinuities, which will have a huge impact in inflecting otherwise straight linear projections of known trends. We hope that a better understanding of the dynamics, potential inflection points, and possible surprises will better equip decision makers to avoid the traps and enhance possible opportunities for positive developments.
Stalled Engines: In the most plausible worst-case scenario, the risks of interstate conflict increase. The US draws inward and globalization stalls.
Fusion: In the most plausible best-case outcome, China and the US collaborate on a range of issues, leading to broader global cooperation.
Gini-Out-of-the-Bottle: Inequalities explode as some countries become big winners and others fail. Inequalities within countries increase social tensions. Without completely disengaging, the US is no longer the “global policeman.”
Nonstate World: Driven by new technologies, nonstate actors take the lead in confronting global challenges.
Describing the Nonstate World
According to the NIC, in a Nonstate World, nongovernmental organizations(NGOs), multinational businesses, academic institutions, and wealthy individuals, as well as subnational units, such as megacities, flourish and take the lead in confronting global challenges. New and emerging technologies that favor greater empowerment of individuals, small groups, and ad hoc coalitions spur the increased power of nonstate actors. A transnational elite educated at the same global academic institutions—emerges that leads key nonstate actors (major multinational corporations, universities, and NGOs).
A global public opinion consensus among many elites and middle-class citizens on the major challenges—poverty, the environment, anti-corruption, rule-of-law, and peace—form the base of their support and power. Countries do not disappear, but governments increasingly see their role as organizing and orchestrating “hybrid” coalitions of state and nonstate actors, which shift depending on the challenge. Authoritarian regimes—preoccupied with asserting the primacy and control of the central government—find it hardest to operate in this world. Smaller, more agile states where the elites are also more integrated are apt to be key players—punching way above their weight—more so than large countries, which lack social or political cohesion.
Global governance institutions that do not adapt to the more diverse and widespread distribution of power are also less likely to be successful. Multinational businesses, IT communications firms, international scientists, NGOs, and groups that are used to cooperating across borders thrive in this hyper-globalized world where expertise, influence, and agility count for more than “weight” or “position.”
Private capital and philanthropy matter more, for example, than official development assistance. Social media, mobile communications, and big data are key components, underlying and facilitating cooperation among nonstate actors and with governments.
In this world, the scale, scope, and speed of urbanization—and which actors can succeed in managing these challenges—are critical, particularly in the developing world. National governments that stand in the way of these clusters will fall behind.
This is a “patchwork” and uneven world. Some global problems get solved because networks manage to coalesce, and cooperation exists across state and nonstate divides. In other cases, nonstate actors may try to deal with a challenge, but they are stymied because of opposition from major powers. Security threats pose an increasing challenge: access to lethal and disruptive technologies expands, enabling individuals and small groups to perpetrate violence and disruption on a large scale. Terrorists and criminal networks take advantage of the confusion over shifting authorities among a multiplicity of governance actors to acquire and use lethal technologies. Economically, global growth does slightly better than in the Gini Out-of-the-Bottle scenario because there is greater cooperation among nonstate actors and between them and national governments on big global challenges in this world.
2030: A Fictitious Sketch
The Trends Report includes a fictitious sketch; in 2030 a historian is writing a history of globalization and its impact on the state during the past 30 years. He had done a doctoral thesis on the 17th century Westphalian state system but hadn’t managed to land an academic job. He was hoping that a study of a more recent period would give him a chance at a big-time management consultancy job. The following is a synopsis of his book, “The Expansion of Subnational Power”.
Globalization has ushered in a new phase in the history of the state. Without question, the state still exists. The continuing economic volatility in the global economy and need for government intervention shows that the state is not going away. However, it would also be wrong to say that the powers of the state have remained the same. During the past 30 years, subnational government authorities and the roles of nonstate bodies have greatly expanded. This has been especially the case in Western democracies, but the increase in subnational power has spread far and wide; the West no longer has a monopoly.
The expansion has been fueled by the formation of a transnational elite who have been educated at the same universities, work in many of the same multinational corporations or NGOs, and vacation at the same resorts. They believe in globalization, but one that relies on and benefits from personal initiative and empowerment. They don’t want to rely on “big” government, which they see as oftentimes behind the curve and unable to react quickly in a fast-moving crisis.
This “can-do” and “everyone-can-make-a-difference” spirit has caught on with the rising
middle classes around the world, which are increasingly self-reliant. It’s fair to say that in a number of cases, the rising middle classes distrust the long-time elites who have controlled national governments in their countries. Hence, for the rising middle classes, working outside and around government has been the way to be upwardly mobile. Denied entry at the national level, many—when they seek elected office—see cities as steppingstones to political power.
This new global elite and middle class also increasingly agree on which issues are the major global challenges. For example, they want to stamp out cronyism and corruption because these factors have been at the root of what has sustained the old system or what they term the ancien regime. The corruption of the old elites has impeded upward mobility in many countries. The new elites believe strongly in rule-of-law as a way of enforcing fairness and opportunity for all. A safe and healthy environment is also important to ensuring quality of life. Many are crusaders for human justice and the rights of women.
Technology has been the biggest driver behind the scenes. With the IT revolution, all the
nonstate bodies, from businesses to charities to universities and think tanks, have gone global. Many are no longer recognizable as American, South African, or Chinese. This has been disconcerting to central governments—particularly the remaining authoritarian ones—which do not know whether to treat them as friend or foe.
The technological revolution has, in fact, gone way beyond just connecting people in far-flung parts of the world. Owing to the wider access to more sophisticated technologies, the state does not have much of an edge these days. Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) are within the reach of individuals. Small militias and terrorist groups have precision weaponry that can hit targets a couple hundred miles away. This has proven deadly and highly disruptive in a couple of instances. Terrorists hacked into the electric grid and have brought several Middle Eastern cities to a standstill while authorities had to barter and finally release some political prisoners before the terror-hackers agreed to stop.
Many people fear that others will imitate such actions and that more attacks by ad hoc groups will occur. We have seen in the past decade what many experts feared for some time: the increasing overlap between criminal networks and terrorists. Terrorists are buying the services of expert hackers. In many cases, hackers don’t know for whom they are working.
A near-miss bioterrorist attack occurred recently, in which an amateur’s experiments almost led to the release of a deadly virus. Fortunately, the outcry and panic led to stronger domestic regulations in many countries and enormous public pressure for greater international regulation. As an example of the enhanced public-private partnership, law enforcement agencies are asking the bio community to point out potential problems. In light of what could happen, the vast majority of those in the bio community are more than eager to help.
However, most everyone has recognized that action at the country level is needed too. Thus, the original intent of the Westphalian system—to ensure security for all—is still relevant; since the near-miss bioterror attack, no one is talking about dispensing with the nation-state.
On the other hand, in so many other areas, the role of the central government is weakening. Consider food and water issues. Many NGOs sought central government help to institute country-wide plans, including pricing of water and reduced subsidies for subsistence farmers. There was even that huge G-20 emergency summit—after the wheat harvests failed in both the US and Russia and food riots broke out in Africa and the Middle East—which called for a new WTO round to boost production and ensure against growing export restrictions. Of course, all the G-20 leaders agreed, but when they got back home, the momentum fell apart.
The momentum took a dive not just in the US and the EU, where the lobbyists sought to ensure continued subsidies, but also in places like India where subsistence farmers constitute important political constituencies for the various parties.
Five years later no progress has been made in restarting a World Trade Organization round. On the other hand, megacities have sought their own solutions. On the frontlines in dealing with food riots when they happen, many far-sighted mayors decided to start working with farmers in the countryside to improve production. They’ve dealt with Western agribusiness to buy or lease land to increase production capacities in surrounding rural areas. They are increasingly looking outside the countries where the urban centers are located to negotiate land deals. At the same time, “vertical farming” in skyscrapers within the cities is being adopted.
This effort of each megacity looking after itself probably is not the most efficient. Many
people not living in well-governed areas remain vulnerable to shortages when harvests fail; those living in the better-governed areas can fall back on local agricultural production to ride out the crisis.
In general, expanded urbanization may have been the worst—and best—thing that has happened to civilization. On the one hand, people have become more dependent on commodities like electricity and therefore more vulnerable when such commodities have been cut off; urbanization also facilitates the spread of disease. On the other hand, it has also boosted economic growth and meant that many resources—such as water and energy—are used more efficiently. This is especially true for many of the up-and-coming megacities—the ones nobody knew about 10 or 15 years ago. In China, the megacities are in the interior. Some of them are well planned, providing a lot of public transportation. In contrast, Shanghai and Beijing are losing businesses because they have become so congested. Overall, new or old, governance at the city level is increasingly where the action is.
We’ve also seen a new phenomenon: increasing designation of special economic and political zones within countries. It is as if the central government acknowledges its own inability to forge reforms and then subcontracts out responsibility to a second party. In these enclaves, the very laws, including taxation, are set by somebody from the outside. Many believe that outside parties have a better chance of getting the economies in these designated areas up and going, eventually setting an example for the rest of the country. Governments in countries in the Horn of Africa, Central America, and other places are seeing the advantages, openly admitting their limitations.
The World seen through the eyes of Intelligence Agencies
There is a deep historical view that emerges within the trends forecast, one that is seeded in American Manifest Destiny, which has now permeated into a global geo-political influence. The trends forecast emphasizes that there are mega trends at work as well as a conflicted ideological landscape, which then primes a domestic or global threat. The trends forecast is largely about how trends might threaten or provide opportunity for the US economy. The NIC identify four overarching megatrends that will shape the world in 2030:
The Diffusion of Power.
The Growing Nexus among Food, Water, and Energy in combination with climate change.
The report states, “These trends exist today, but during the next 15-20 years they will deepen and become more intertwined, producing a qualitatively different world. For example, the hundreds of millions of entrants into the middle classes throughout all regions of the world create the possibility of a global “citizenry” with a positive effect on the global economy and world politics. Equally, absent better management and technologies, growing resource constraints could limit further development, causing the world to stall its engines. Underpinning the megatrends are tectonic shifts—critical changes to key features of our global environment that will affect how the world “works.””
The NIC has not really made a genuine connection that globalization continues to prime and fuel climate change and that this will then reflect the looming crises that will see food, water and energy shortages. In the report there doesn’t seem to be a negative side to “development” or “consumption”. So by 2030 will we see more consumption or less? Up to now less than one billion people have accounted for three-quarters of global consumption. According to the NIC during the next two decades, new and expanded middle classes in the developing world could create as many as two billion additional consumers. Such an explosion will mean a scramble for raw materials and manufactured goods.
In fact they forecast that by 2030, “…owing to rapid urbanization in the developing world, the volume of urban construction for housing, office space, and transport services could roughly equal the entire volume of such construction to date in world history…”
Globally, the mainstream political narrative will continue to seek support that will strengthen globalization and growth in hopes that we can buy the solutions required to fix all the damage that we have caused. This jargon is exactly why there are more and more grassroots movements seeking to fix things without the help of government. It can’t be underestimated that whatever grassroots local activism is emerging that will help us solve present and future problems, that this activity will either be seen as fitting or not fitting into the picture of the world as defined by the NIC and others. If such activity is seen as a “threat” then it may fall victim to negative constructs that intelligence agencies have become notorious for.
The NIC’s forecast describing a Nonstate World is missing a great deal of grassroots intelligence, which should make activists nervous in the event that national intelligence agencies everywhere invent their own stories about what the truth might be. Bioregionalism, Localism and Permaculture are all micro-movements that are slowly building a wave of local solution building that has been flying below the radar. The challenge will be for these movements to capture a strong pro-active narrative within mainstream information networks in order to prevent themselves from being constructed as a threat to intelligence agencies, which seem to be the gatekeepers for globalization and mass consumption.
What seems very apparent is that we are going to experience dramatic uncertain change over the next 15 years.
Before launching work on the current volume, the NIC commissioned an academic study of the four previous Global Trends studies, beginning with the first edition in 1996-97. The reviewers examined the Global Trends papers to highlight any persistent blind spots and biases as well as distinctive strengths. A subsequent conference focused on addressing shortcomings and building on the studies’ strong points for the forthcoming work. They sought to address the reviewers’ concerns in
designing the present project.
The key “looming” challenges that reviewers cited for GT 2030 were to develop:
A greater focus on the role of US in the international system. Past works assumed US centrality, leaving readers “vulnerable” to wonder about “critical dynamics” around the US role. One of the key looming issues for GT 2030 was “how other powers would respond to a decline or a decisive re-assertion of US power.” The authors of the study thought that both outcomes were possible and needed to be addressed.
A clearer understanding of the central units in the international system. Previous works detailed the gradual ascendance of nonstate actors, but we did not clarify how we saw the role of states versus nonstate actors. The reviewers suggested that we delve more into the dynamics of governance and explore the complicated relationships among a diverse set of actors.
A better grasp of time and speed. Past Global Trends works “correctly foresaw the direction of the vectors: China up, Russia down. But China’s power has consistently increased faster than expected . . . A comprehensive reading of the four reports leaves a strong impression that [we] tend toward underestimation of the rates of change . . . ”
Greater discussion of crises and discontinuities. The reviewers felt that the use of the word “trends” in the titles suggests more continuity than change. GT 2025, however, “with its strongly worded attention to the likelihood of significant shocks and discontinuities, flirts with a radical revision of this viewpoint.” The authors recommended developing a framework for understanding the relationships among trends, discontinuities, and crises.
Greater attention to ideology. The authors of the study admitted that “ideology is a frustratingly fuzzy concept . . . difficult to define . . . and equally difficult to measure.” They agreed that grand “isms” like fascism and communism might not be on the horizon. However, “smaller politico-pychosocial shifts that often don’t go under the umbrella of ideology but drive behavior” should be a focus.
More understanding of second- and third-order consequences. Trying to identify looming disequilibria may be one approach. More wargaming or simulation exercises to understand possible dynamics among international actors at crucial tipping points was another suggestion.
The NIC state that they will let readers judge how well they met the above challenges in this volume.
Global Trends 2015:
A Dialogue About the Future
With Nongovernment Experts
During the late 1990's, the National Intelligence Council (NIC), in close collaboration with US Government specialists and a wide range of experts
outside the government, has worked to identify major drivers and trends that will shape the world of 2015.
The key drivers identified for 2015:
(2) Natural resources and environment.
(3) Science and technology.
(4) The global economy and globalization.
(5) National and international governance.
(6) Future conflict.
(7) The role of the United States.
In examining these drivers, several points should be kept in mind:
No single driver or trend will dominate the global future in 2015.
Each driver will have varying impacts in different regions and countries.
The drivers are not necessarily mutually reinforcing; in some cases, they will work at cross-purposes.
Taken together, these drivers and trends intersect to create an integrated picture of the world of 2015, about which we can make projections with varying
degrees of confidence and identify some troubling uncertainties of strategic importance to the United States.
Global Trends 2015 provides a flexible framework to discuss and debate the future. The methodology is useful for our purposes, although admittedly inexact for the social scientist. Our purpose is to rise above short-term, tactical considerations and provide a longer-term, strategic perspective.
Judgments about demographic and natural resource trends are based primarily on informed extrapolation of existing trends. In contrast, many judgments
about science and technology, economic growth, globalization, governance, and the nature of conflict represent a distillation of views of experts inside and outside the United States Government. The former are projections about natural phenomena, about which we can have fairly high confidence; the latter are more speculative because they are contingent upon the decisions that societies and governments will make.
The drivers we emphasize will have staying power. Some of the trends will persist; others will be less enduring and may change course over the time
frame we consider. The major contribution of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), assisted by experts from the Intelligence Community, has
been to harness US Government and nongovernmental specialists to identify drivers, to determine which ones matter most, to highlight key uncertainties, and to integrate analysis of these trends into a national security context. The result identifies issues for more rigorous analysis and quantification.