Global Trends: Peering into the Future

For two decades, the National Intelligence Council, or NIC, which I had the honor to chair in the second Obama administration, has produced Global Trends every four years, peering from five to twenty years into the future. The latest version, released this past March, continues that proud tradition, one that has made Global Trends a brand looked to by officials, scholars, and business people around the world.

By Gregory F. Treverton

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.

When looking out more than a year or so, hardly any of intelligence’s secret information is much help. Rather, what is necessary is reaching out: by the time we had finished the 2017 Global Trends, we had touched more than two thousand people in one way or another, and been in more than thirty countries, hosting focus groups of students in Mexico City, entrepreneurs in Bangalore and women’s groups in a number of cities.

When we first conceived the Global Trends project, I was enough of a Washington insider to be glad that the document was unclassified. If we had given our policy colleagues a longish secret document looking far into the future, they would have thanked us profusely but never opened the report. The immediate would drive out the important. But if we got some media attention, they’d turn to their special assistants and ask: “what the devil is the NIC up to?” To make sure, I released the 2017 version at a day-long event in Washington at the Newseum, now sadly defunct.

The 2021 version aims to look out to 2040 but, like its predecessors, in fact has more of a 5–10 year horizon. On that, more later. It notes, as other assessments have, that while the Covid-19 pandemic has introduced new uncertainties, in the short run it has sharpened trends already afoot—Sino-American rivalry, “my country first” nationalism, inequality, the importance of the private sectors, and the growing disconnect between peoples and their governments.

The careful analysis begins with structural forces—demographics (aging populations in rich countries and China), environment (growing manifestations of climate change), economics (slower global growth, rising national debt and more fragmented international trade) and technology (increasing competition for global supremacy).

It then turns to the dynamics set in motion by those forces. The subtitle of the report is “A More Contested World,” and that is the theme of the dynamics, both within and between countries. Internally, decades of gains in prosperity and other measures of human development are reaching plateaus, yet social and technological change proceeds apace, leaving people wary of their governments’ ability to deliver and tempted to find shelter in small groupings based on religion, ethnicity or cause, all reinforced by information silos.

At the state level, there is a growing mismatch between what citizens expect and their states can deliver. New tools, in the hands of citizens to agitate for what they want, collide with states under pressure from new challenges and limited resources. The result will be more volatility, less democracy and new providers of “governance.”

At the international level, no state will broadly dominate, and a wider range of actors, including private sector ones, will compete to shape the international system. Competition between China and a coalition of nations around the United States will ratchet up, driven by sharp shifts in military balances, demographics, economic growth, environmental conditions, and technology, along with continued contestations over models of governing. In the process, multilateralism will suffer, and thus the mismatch will grow between transnational challenges, like climate, and the institutional arrangements for addressing them.

Like its predecessors, this Global Trends lays out scenarios, not as predictions of the future but as suggestive possibilities depending on how the forces and dynamics play out. The scenarios are driven by three questions: how severe are the global challenges ahead? How do states and non-state actors engage in the world? And to what do states give pride of place?

The resulting scenarios range from a “Renaissance of Democracy,” through “A World Adrift” to “Tragedy and Mobilization,” in which the European Union and China lead a major public-private initiative to revitalize multilateral institutions in response to environmental disaster. In between, the one closest to my bet is “Competitive Coexistence” between the United States and China, which I would frame as loose “clubs” around the two countries, with fluid membership and considerable hedging of bets but with continued if sometimes contested economic ties across the clubs.

While I was chairing the NIC, 2015 happened, and gave me the chance to see how the authors of Global Trends 2015 had done two decades earlier. The answer was “pretty well,” but if there was a flaw it was that of too much straight-line projection. After all, in the late 1990s, globalization looked pretty rosy. I finished a book on intelligence before 9/11 and realized it too was a pretty happy globalization view of the future, so in the last chapter I asked myself what might knock that future askew. I came up with two possibilities, neither one rocket science—a major terrorist attack on the United States and a global recession. I didn’t expect—and surely didn’t want—to be two-for-two!

Global Trends 2040 would have been richer still, and more encompassing of a two-decade horizon, if it had examined a clutch of “wild cards,” developments that are perhaps unlikely but are both imaginable and consequential within twenty years. Not surprisingly, several of these would have focused on the two most important global powers: what if the United States fails at the project of national renewal that now seems possible but not likely? What if, instead, the country literally came apart? What if China remained stuck in the “middle income trap”? Or, conversely, what if China easily escaped the trap and reintegrated Taiwan, relatively peacefully.

What about a use of nuclear weapons in anger, in South Asia or Europe’s East? Or the sudden collapse of Russia or Saudi Arabia? One thing is certain: over two decade we will be surprised even if we shouldn’t be. Global Trends 2020, done at the turn of millennium, didn’t predict Covid-19, but it did lay out as a possibility almost exactly what in fact occurred around the globe. Yet it came as a surprise.

Published on June 7, 2021 by

Dick Eassom, CF APMP Fellow