Just How Intelligent is the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030?

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Every half-decade, the National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends” series produces a roughly 20-year predictive analysis of the world’s evolution – an analysis considered to be the best long-range geopolitical forecasting conducted by the U.S. government. These multi-year efforts involve consultations with hundreds of experts from around the world (the last two drills have featured interviews and presentations from yours truly.) The NIC also conducts global “road shows” to collect feedback for great powers like Russia, China and various European states.

Simply stated, the biggest problem with this year’s Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds is the lack of internally consistent logic throughout each of the worlds presented.

In its worst-case world (Stalled Engines), the U.S. energy revolution fails and thus America’s economy enjoys no resurrection. The nation as a whole falls under a mood of isolationism, decidedly disengaging from an equally troubled world.

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In historical terms, the logic there is a bit odd.

America has remained highly engaged in global affairs throughout decades of growing energy dependency, so it’s hard to imagine it would disengage if its quest for energy self-sufficiency failed – especially amidst a world of heightened resource competition. Wouldn’t it still be out there, protecting those precious sea lines of communication? Or should we expect the U.S. to rely on rival powers like China to provide the bulk of that collective good? Can we really expect a “Fortress America” mindset to emerge, or might we expect just the opposite?

In this scenario we are also told that, absent a strong U.S. presence, a “great game” in Asia would unfold. This means global energy resources would suffer instability, while the U.S. would somehow stay out of the fray despite still being significantly dependent on foreign sources. In this “great game,” it is rising powers China and India that conflict with one another over scarce resources in Asia.

Furthermore, the underlying logic for why the global economy stalls in this pathway is underwhelming: the Eurozone collapses but the global middle class  still expands (what the NIC terms Tectonic Shift #1). Due to the failed energy revolution, America never quite resurrects its economy, and so economic power shifts to the East and South (Tectonic Shift #3). If the latter point holds true, then it’s not all that clear that globalization must stall – unless you believe it can fall apart absent the U.S. playing global policeman (NIC: “A collapse or sudden retreat of U.S. power would most likely result in an extended period of global anarchy”). In the end, this may be a worst-case scenario for the West, but it’s unclear that is the case for the “Rest” – or the world for that matter. So this seems to be the NIC channeling Fareed Zakaria’s “post-American” vibe: In truth it’s not all that bad; it’s just scary for the West to consider.

In the report’s best-case world (Fusion), the report posits a “scared straight” (my term) near-major conflict in South Asia that pulls in Europe, the U.S. and China to cooperatively defuse the crisis.

This big scare and the resulting great-power collaboration lead to an unprecedented U.S.-China partnership going forward. Here, the global economy does best, but it’s not clear why. The assumption here seems to be that absent Sino-American tension, globalization naturally expands because a dual-Leviathan of sorts has emerged. This is the only world in which the U.S. appears to maintain its currently-expansive engagement on global security, so the NIC seems to be saying: get the Sino-American partnership right (what theNIC calls Game Changer #6 asks whether the U.S. will learn how to work with non-Western partners) and globalization stands tall. This vision corresponds to my rather fierce – and lonely – argument for Sino-American alliance, a case I’ve made over the last decade across a trio of books and a 2005 Esquire article.

So far, we have a clear question that seems to explain the spectrum between best and worst cases: does the U.S. remain engaged?

The odd part here is that non-engagement is linked to the failure of the energy revolution in the U.S./North America. (The adding-on of a collapsed Eurozone/EU is only marginally tied to the question of U.S. engagement in Stalled Engines, and seems included primarily to account for a worst-case global economy.) In the best case, the U.S. is apparently energy independent (Tectonic Shift #7), so it requires that “scared straight” moment in South Asia to force the U.S. and China into genuine global partnership.

The other two mixed-case scenarios do not form a spectrum (you can’t arrange the quartet on an X-Y axis pairing): in both Gini Out-of-the-Bottle and Nonstate World, the dominant characteristic is the failure of governments (states address inequality poorly in Gini) and/or their tremendous diminishment (nonstate actors increasingly outrank governments, which fade into the governance background in Nonstate World).

In the Gini scenario, we are faced with the classic Pentagon image of rising conflict between haves and have-nots – albeit largely within states. Oddly enough, in this imagined pathway the rise of such conflict makes the U.S. less the global cop, while implying that China ends up being more the disruptive actor. Neither concept makes much sense if history is a guide.

If the U.S. is doing well (rising income and energy self-sufficiency) in this scenario (that also features dropping energy prices, which destabilize the youth-bulged Middle East and Africa), it is in fact less likely to disengage from the world. This is especially the case if Marxist/Maoist insurgencies surge globally (due to all that rising inequality). An economically confident America has – since becoming a world power at the start of the 20th century – tended toward global engagement. It is during times of economic stress (1930s, 1970s) that America has become more withdrawn.

The implied logic with China is even more dubious. Here the NIC describes a combination of globally surging Maoist/Marxist insurgencies, plus a Maoist revival in China – plus the Party there succumbing to nearly uncontrollable nationalism. Yet it does not come out and say that China becomes more externally aggressive in this scenario, even as it states that rising nationalism inside China in the Stalled Engines scenario does push Beijing toward “becoming more adventurist overseas.” So let’s stipulate that the same logic holds in both scenarios, because it’s hard to imagine a highly nationalistic and Maoist China sitting on the sidelines during a global Marxist revival.

Well, the Middle Kingdom’s long history is fairly clear on this subject: when China is suffering internal instability/civil strife, it tends to be very conservative in its foreign and security policies – meaning that it withdraws from the world.

So in the Gini scenario, we have both the U.S. and China acting against their respective historical tendencies – namely, an economically confident U.S. tends to be more engaged in the world, and a politically unstable China tends to be less so. (And yes, that historical record also calls into question the NIC’s China projection in the Stalled Engines scenario.)

The Nonstate World suffers the worst internal logic of the four. In many ways, it seems to embrace Parag Khanna’s notion of a return to medieval times – i.e., an almost pre-Westphalian system in which states are less important than non-/sub-/trans-/supranational actors.

Here, the global economy does better than either the Gini or Stalled worlds but not as well as the Fusion one. But check out this logic: NGOs blossom in power, as do multinational corporations, academic institutions, the global elite and megacities. But somehow the nation-state, while it “does not disappear,” recedes into the global governance background. To say states absolutely must lose relevance when all these nonstate actors gain is an unnecessarily zero-sum argument.

So, what is the historical record on this? The most globalized states in this world have the strongest governments – meaning strong in their regulatory powers but reasonably limited in their scope (and thus not authoritarian). The states with the best (and usually most) rules are generally the most globalized and successful within globalization. You can see this reality in spades in Foreign Policy’s (previously) annual measuring of which states are most globalized.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not arguing that all of these nonstate actors won’t gain more power and importance. I’m just noting that this tends to happen most in those states with powerful and important governments that facilitate such connectivity/globalization – thus I argue it’s an additive/complimentary process rather than a subtractive one. In my opinion, Nonstate World is hardly an alternative world. In fact, it seems an inescapable characteristic of all possible “worlds” going forward – even one in which globalization “stalls.”

In the end, what’s most interesting about the NIC’s “alternative worlds” report is that the U.S. is finally allowed to be an evolving character in the stories presented.

By that we mean it’s offered as a real actor capable of different roles across the spectrum of trajectories presented. This is a critique that I’ve made in print for roughly a decade, most notably in my book, Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating. I’ve also delivered this critique directly to NIC staff whenever I’ve gotten the chance: the U.S. was always cast as the “Hamlet” in previous reports: as the world swirled furiously around it, America was never allowed to change in response to the range of alternatives. Instead, our “Hamlet” seemed perpetually lost to stasis.

The NIC certainly did address that missing link in this report, as touted in the opening section in which the authors revealed that they had examined old reports to see where they had gone wrong or right.

A primary observation they offered (citing critiques like mine) was that the NIC needed to make the U.S. a more malleable/responsive actor in the worlds they presented. And the Council most certainly did in this report, essentially making America’s choice of engagement or isolationism the primary geopolitical variable that distinguishes between best and worst cases. Within that choice, the most important variable is U.S.-China relations (antagonistic in the worst case, highly cooperative in the best case). Indeed, dramatically improved Sino-American ties positively define the NIC’s best-case future.

In that sense, this is easily the most policy-minded Global Trends report the NIC has produced, in that it none-too-subtly suggests that America’s engagement with the world – and specifically with China – is the most important variable in determining the world’s future.