"The world of 2030 will be radically transformed from our world today. By 2030, no country—whether the United States, China, or any large country—will be a hegemonic power.” However, the coming transformation will favor emerging powers, “largely reversing the historic rise of the West since 1750.”
This warning comprises the opening lines of a 160-page report published by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) just before the holidays, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. The NIC is the U.S. intelligence community’s center for long-term strategic analysis. It has published similar reports every four years since 1997.
Not by accident, the NIC publishes its reports in presidential election years, since its ideal audience is the leadership of the incoming administration. The preparation of the report is a major undertaking, with a series of conferences, workshops, and consultations involving experts across the United States and in almost 20 foreign countries.
Lest the message of the report’s opening lines be lost on the casual reader, it later pronounces, “the ‘unipolar moment’ is over and Pax Americana—the era of American ascendancy in international politics that began in 1945—is fast winding down.” The NIC’s forecast is remarkable for its certainty. Even though the report carries a disclaimer, “we do not seek to predict the future—which would be an impossible feat,” there is no hedging in its preemptive obituary for Pax Americana. When an official report of the intelligence community speaks with such confidence, can one afford to ignore its key finding?
Coverage of the report was thoroughly positive, yet confusion prevailed regarding its central message. “Intelligence Community: U.S. Out As Sole Superpower,” wrote Politico, echoing the NIC. Meanwhile, the Examiner’s website ran a contradictory headline: “Global Trends 2030 . . . U.S. to Remain Superpower.” Veteran New York Times correspondent Thom Shanker seemed to split the difference, reporting that “China will outstrip the United States as the leading economic power before 2030, but that America will remain an indispensable world leader.”
The source of this confusion becomes apparent if one delves more deeply into the report. In the same paragraph that announces the end of the Pax Americana, the NIC report indicates that “the United States will most likely remain ‘first among equals’ ” because of “its preeminence across a range of power dimensions,” both hard and soft. While the emerging powers will be “ambivalent and even resentful” about U.S. leadership, they will “not espouse any competing vision,” will not form any sort of coherent bloc, and will remain primarily interested in consolidating their domestic orders. If crises break out on the Korean Peninsula, in the Taiwan Strait, in South Asia, or in the Middle East, there will be a global clamor for sustained U.S. engagement to prevent any escalation of the conflict.
Rather than decline, this would seem to be a description of the status quo. America today has unmatched strength across a wide range of measures, especially military power. There is constant grumbling about American arrogance and double standards, yet the United States continues to have far more allies than it does adversaries. How, then, can one explain the decision of the report’s authors to characterize a perpetuation of the status quo as a radical decline of American power?
In his book The World America Made, Robert Kagan suggests that “today’s impressions about declining American influence are based on a nostalgic fallacy, that there ever was a time when the United States could shape the whole world to suit its desires.” Although published 10 months before Global Trends 2030, Kagan’s work anticipates its analytical flaws. There is no baseline against which to measure a potential decline, since the report provides no definition for either unipolarity or hegemony. Yet in a telling passage, the report does refer to Pax Americana as “the era of American ascendancy in international politics that began in 1945.” In point of fact, 1945 marked the beginning of a ferocious 40-year competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, whose outcome was anything but certain.
Given the soft foundation of its headline conclusion, how much confidence should one have in the NIC’s other key findings? To its credit, the NIC commissioned an academic study of the four previous Global Trends reports in order to assess the validity of their methods and forecasts. For the moment, the full study isn’t available, although Global Trends 2030 conveys the finding that previous editions “correctly foresaw the direction of the vectors” but underestimated their velocity.
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.