Thinking about the future is vital but hard. Crises keep intruding, making it all but impossible to look beyond daily headlines to what lies over the horizon. In those circumstances, thinking “outside the box,” to use the cliché, too often loses out to keeping up with the inbox. That is why every four years the National Intelligence Council (NIC) undertakes a major assessment of the forces and choices shaping the world before us over the next two decades.
This version, the sixth in the series, is titled, “Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress,” and we are proud of it. It may look like a report, but it is really an invitation, an invitation to discuss, debate and inquire further about how the future could unfold. Certainly, we do not pretend to have the definitive “answer.”
Long-term thinking is critical to framing strategy. The Global Trends series pushes us to reexamine key assumptions, expectations, and uncertainties about the future. In a very messy and interconnected world, a longer perspective requires us to ask hard questions about which issues and choices will be most consequential in the decades ahead–even if they don’t necessarily generate the biggest headlines. A longer view also is essential because issues like terrorism, cyberattacks, biotechnology, and climate change invoke high stakes and will require sustained collaboration to address.
Peering into the future can be scary and surely is humbling. Events unfold in complex ways for which our brains are not naturally wired. Economic, political, social, technological, and cultural forces collide in dizzying ways, so we can be led to confuse recent, dramatic events with the more important ones. It is tempting, and usually fair, to assume people act “rationally,” but leaders, groups, mobs, and masses can behave very differently—and unexpectedly—under similar circumstances. For instance, we had known for decades how brittle most regimes in the Middle East were, yet some erupted in the Arab Spring in 2011 and others did not. Experience teaches us how much history unfolds through cycles and shifts, and still human nature commonly expects tomorrow to be pretty much like today—which is usually the safest bet on the future until it is not. I always remind myself that between Mr. Reagan’s “evil empire” speech and the demise of that empire, the Soviet Union, was only a scant decade, a relatively short time even in a human life.
Grasping the future is also complicated by the assumptions we carry around in our heads, often without quite knowing we do. I have been struck recently by the “prosperity presumption” that runs deep in most Americans but is often hardly recognized. We assume that with prosperity come all good things—people are happier, more democratic and less likely to go to war with one another. Yet, then we confront a group like ISIL, which shares none of the presumption.
Given these challenges to thinking about the future, we have engaged broadly and tried to stick to analytic basics rather than seizing any particular worldview. Two years ago, we started with exercises identifying key assumptions and uncertainties—the list of assumptions underlying US foreign policy was stunningly long, many of them half-buried. We conducted research and consulted with numerous experts in and outside the US Government to identify and test trends. We tested early themes and arguments on a blog. We visited more than 35 countries and one territory, soliciting ideas and feedback from over 2,500 people around the world from all walks of life. We developed multiple scenarios to imagine how key uncertainties might result in alternative futures. The NIC then compiled and refined the various streams into what you see here.
This edition of Global Trends revolves around a core argument about how the changing nature of power is increasing stress both within countries and between countries, and bearing on vexing transnational issues. The main section lays out the key trends, explores their implications, and offers up three scenarios to help readers imagine how different choices and developments could play out in very different ways over the next several decades. Two annexes lay out more detail. The first lays out five-year forecasts for each region of the world. The second provides more context on the key global trends in train.
The fact that the National Intelligence Council regularly publishes an unclassified assessment of the world surprises some people, but our intent is to encourage open and informed discussions about future risks and opportunities. Moreover, Global Trends is unclassified because those screens of secrets that dominate our daily work are not of much help in peering out beyond a year or two. What is a help is reaching out not just to experts and government officials but also to students, women’s groups, entrepreneurs, transparency advocates, and beyond.
Many minds and hands made this project happen. The heavy lifting was done by the NIC’s Strategic Futures Group, directed by Dr. Suzanne Fry, with her very talented team: Rich Engel, Phyllis Berry, Heather Brown, Kenneth Dyer, Daniel Flynn, Geanetta Ford, Steven Grube, Terrence Markin, Nicholas Muto, Robert Odell, Rod Schoonover, Thomas Stork, and dozens of Deputy National Intelligence Officers. We recognize as well the thoughtful, careful review by NIC editors, as well as CIA’s extremely talented graphic and web designers and production team.
Global Trends represents how the NIC is thinking about the future. It does not represent the official, coordinated view of the US Intelligence Community nor US policy. Longtime readers will note that this edition does not reference a year in the title (the previous edition was Global Trends 2030) because we think doing so conveys a false precision. For us, looking over the “long term” spans the next several decades, but we also have made room in this edition to explore the next five years to be more relevant in timeline for a new US administration.
We hope this Global Trends stretches your thinking. However pessimistic or optimistic you may be about the years ahead, we believe exploring the key issues and choices facing the world is a worthy endeavor.
Sincerely, Gregory Treverton, Chairman, National Intelligence Council