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The World of 2030

It won’t be what the intelligence community ­predicts.

Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By DAVID ADESNIK
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However, some of the vectors were arguably wrong as well. Several critics have pointed to the confident prediction in Global Trends 2010 (circa 1997) that “the next 15 years will witness the transformation of North Korea and resulting elimination of military tensions on the peninsula.” Similarly, that 1997 report anticipated a continuing erosion in the authority of Russia’s central government, with power shifting to NGOs and provincial governments.

Such specific forecasts became less common in subsequent editions of the report. Yet even the more general assessments remain problematic. According to Dr. Mathew Burrows, the principal author of Global Trends 2030, recent events have vindicated earlier forecasts regarding Europe. “From the 2020 work back in 2004, we’ve been very clear about our concerns about Europe, the unsustainability of some of the social welfare programs,” he says in an interview posted on YouTube. “We’ve been criticized heavily by the Europeans for doing that, but it did come true after 2008.”

Burrows is correct that Global Trends 2020 did anticipate the challenge presented by Europe’s shrinking workforce and expensive social programs. Yet the main finding in 2004 was that “an enlarged Europe will have the ability to increase its weight on the international scene.” It even asked, “Could Europe become a superpower?” Unsurprisingly, the current report is much more bearish, outlining one scenario in which the euro collapses along with the EU, triggering a global recession.

Interestingly, Global Trends 2025, released four years ago, was more candid than the current report about which of the NIC’s long-term forecasts had been overtaken by events. Whereas earlier reports had consistently projected sufficient growth in energy production, the November 2008 report arrived shortly after the country’s first brush with $4 gas at the pump. This report foresaw a dearth of countries capable of expanding production, thereby launching “a transition to cleaner fuels” and elevating “energy scarcity as a driving factor in geopolitics.”

Needless to say, there is no similar preoccupation with energy scarcity in the latest report, which describes the North American oil and gas boom as a “tectonic shift” that will result in “energy independence” for the United States within 10 to 20 years. Regrettably, there is also no acknowledgment that this forecast constitutes another 180-degree reversal.

Shortly before the release of Global Trends 2030, two prominent political scientists, Michael C. Horowitz and Philip E. Tetlock, offered their own assessment of its predecessors’ utility. They wrote, “The reports almost inevitably fall into the trap of treating the conventional wisdom of the present as the blueprint for the future 15 to 20 years down the road.” The contents of the 2030 report vindicate this expectation.

A final question to ask is whether Global Trends 2030 will influence its most important audience, the president of the United States. It may be a hard sell. As the president said in his 2012 State of the Union address, “anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

There is untapped potential, however, in the process of deliberation that provides input to the Global Trends series of publications. Few government bodies have established this kind of open and substantive dialogue with a global body of experts. Perhaps if the NIC made a more determined effort to identify lessons learned from past exercises, and struck a less omniscient pose, future reports would exert greater influence on the White House and across the government.

David Adesnik is a member of the research staff at the Institute for Defense Analyses.

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