The World in 2030 Won't Look Anything Like You Think

...But that doesn't mean thinking isn't still important. What to make of the intelligence community's effort to forecast global events

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Military vehicles line up during a parade in Pyongyang, North Korea on April 15, 2012. In 1997, analysts predicted the country would not last until 2010. (Reuters)

In 1997, the U.S. intelligence outfit charged with long-term strategic thinking made some startling predictions: by 2010, North Korea would be transformed into a normal state and tensions on the peninsula would be eliminated; the western world would see unending 2-percent growth in personal income; and precision weapons would make conflicts smaller and less costly.

None of those things happened. North Korea remains mostly unchanged today -- except for its nuclear program, which perhaps poses more of a threat than ever. Not only did the 2008 financial crisis stall most economic growth in the Western world, but personal incomes have largely stagnated as well. Finally, while precision weapons did make the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan less costly in some respects, neither war could be considered small. Few would argue those were examples of a new, high-tech way of fighting.

The U.S. National Intelligence Council's (NIC) report is supposed to help leaders understand how the world is changing. But its style of analysis has gotten a great deal wrong. So it's with some skepticism that we should regard the latest release of the NIC's forecasting report, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds (GT2030).

Unlike previous reports, the GT2030 report tries to account for predictions made in previous versions. What it doesn't do is grapple with the serious flaws in its overall approach. While some of this year's predictions are worthwhile, the report fails to account for how badly this same process has served previous reports.

The Global Trends reports tend to be two-sided. They offer specific, big claims that are almost always wrong on the one hand, while smaller, more vague observations about how the world is slowly changing tend to be more accurate on the other. In this sense, NIC predictions read like a Fareed Zakaria book: the really interesting parts that matter never turn out to make sense, while the very obvious things are written about so broadly they can't help but be right.

This year, GT2030 predicts that "Asia," defined broadly, will surpass the combined economic and military might of the Europe and the United States. If the rise of a multipolar world doesn't seem very new, that's because it was the thesis of Zakaria's most recent book, The Post-American World, written in 2008. In it, Zakaria predicted that the U.S. would experience a relative decline as other countries, particularly those in East Asia, catch up.

That the United States will be "first among equals" in the future isn't a terribly fresh prediction for NIC to make, but it does have the virtue of being likely. Similarly, the claim that the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) are not unified by ideology and are focused on their regional power bases is also likely to be true.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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