Nine months before the September 11 attacks—and just days after the Supreme Court halted the Florida recount, handing the presidency to George W. Bush—U.S. intelligence officials published an 85-page prediction for what the world would look like in 2015. It's a world that seems familiar in some ways, and utterly foreign in others. And it's a world in which power is diffusing and decaying—reflecting one of the most significant trends of 2014 and perhaps the coming year as well.
The future depicted in the National Intelligence Council's "Global Trends 2015" report, published in December 2000, contains numerous contemporary echoes, as my colleagues at Defense One have pointed out. There's financial volatility; anonymous cyberattacks; widening economic divisions; an increasingly assertive China; a WMD-wielding North Korea; growing illegal migration to the U.S. from Central America; a mercurial, authoritarian Russia that "remains internally weak and institutionally linked to the international system primarily through its permanent seat on the UN Security Council"; a Middle East tormented by "demographic pressures, social unrest, religious and ideological extremism, and terrorism," and shaped by the destabilizing impact of new technology and the allure of political Islam.
But there are also developments that are difficult to imagine in 2015: a new state of Palestine; Iraq acquiring nuclear weapons; Japan losing its position as the world's third-largest economy. Instead of a country reeling from 13 years of war, the study envisioned an "internationally isolated" Afghanistan offering "a haven for Islamic radicals and terrorist groups" (Osama bin Laden was holed up there at the time). Instead of forecasting grinding conflict between pro-Russian and pro-Western forces in Ukraine, U.S. officials wrote that "Ukrainians of all political stripes [are] likely to opt for independence rather than reintegration into Russia’s sphere of influence." They prophesied that "most technological advances in the next 15 years ... will not have substantial positive impact on the African economies," missing the role that, say, cell phones have played in stoking economic dynamism in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2015, they noted, "Europe's agenda will be to put in place the final components of EU integration"—integration that is now threatened by the region's ongoing economic crisis. The report also posited bolder, alternative scenarios that it admitted were unlikely: Korean unification; the emergence of an "international terrorist coalition with diverse anti-Western objectives and access to WMD;" China demanding that Japan dismantle its nuclear program, prompting the U.S. to come to Tokyo's aid as the world powers hurtle toward "a major war."
The study's overarching theme was "globalization," that contentious catchphrase of the late 1990s. The globalized economy would, on balance, make the world a more politically stable place in 2015, according to the report, which relied on the intelligence community's consultations with outside experts. But globalization, and attendant technological advances, would also shatter the very nature of power.
"States will continue to be the dominant players on the world stage, but governments will have less and less control over flows of information, technology, diseases, migrants, arms, and financial transactions, whether licit or illicit, across their borders," U.S. officials predicted. So-called "non-state actors"—ranging from companies to nonprofits to narcotraffickers to "free-wheeling, transnational" terrorist networks—would "play increasingly larger roles in both national and international affairs." The "quality of governance, both nationally and internationally, will substantially determine how well states and societies cope with these global forces," they added.
This vision of the fragmented future of power was still blurry; the report, for example, did not mention al-Qaeda or bin Laden. But media coverage of the study at the time nevertheless picked up on the insight. "The world is on the brink of a new era that may resemble the script of a James Bond film in which international affairs are increasingly determined by large and powerful organisations rather than governments," The Telegraph observed.
Tony Karon elaborated on the report's findings for Time:
[T]he problem of managing global affairs is made much more difficult by the diminishing power of the state. The Cold War, artificially, managed to organize almost every regional conflict in the world into a global system of conflict, which was managed at the top by two states that had an overarching interest in avoiding instability that could drag them into a very dangerous confrontation. After it ended, many of the states of the old Soviet empire began to collapse, accelerating crime, lawlessness, tribal violence and terrorism. And the problem acknowledged in "Global Trends 2015" is that governments don't have very sophisticated mechanisms for dealing with "non-state actors."
"Global Trends 2015" did not predict many of the international storylines that will likely spill over into the new year: the rise of the Islamic State, the faceoff between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed militias; the cyberattack of possibly North Korean origin against Sony. But it did predict the volatile dynamic between weak and powerful states on the one hand, and non- and semi-state actors on the other, that all these developments have in common. As Moisés Naím wrote in The Atlantic this summer, "disguising soldiers as civilians and recruiting civilian insurgents are old practices. But in the twenty-first century, they've acquired unprecedented potential as tools of war." Back in 2000, U.S. intelligence officials glimpsed this phenomenon. Heading into 2015, it's right before our eyes.