Paradox of Progress: National Intelligence Council Releases Global Trends Report

Do you experience information overload? Feel like there’s always another crisis to worry about? Sense a kind of chaos? Well, you may be a citizen of the early 21st century.

In a new report, Global Trends: Paradox of Progress, the U.S. National Intelligence Council puts forth its latest quadrennial assessment of the dynamics driving events around the world. We live in a world of incredible possibilities, thanks to industrial and technological progress, but that same progress is disrupting the state-centric global order and creating potential pitfalls, according to the report.

Influential individuals and non-state groups are more powerful than ever, making consensus and collective action more difficult. The diffusion of actors on the world stage and advances in information technology are increasing the power of “veto players” and creating echo cambers that “reinforce countless competing realities [and undermine] shared understandings of world events,” write the authors.

Shocks to the global system like the Arab Spring, 2008 financial crisis, and recent rise of populist politics may be a sign of more “deep shifts” to come.

There will be opportunities too, the National Intelligence Council says, including greater transparency in government processes, more voices in decision-making, cleaner energy, and better workforce education that could help people adjust to changing job markets.

The societies that best weather the storm of change will be those that are most resilient, those that move “with, rather than against, historical currents” and invest in infrastructure, knowledge, and relationships.

Challenging Assumptions

Thinking about the future is hard. It requires recognizing and then reexamining key assumptions about how the world works. Two years ago, writes Chairman of the National Intelligence Council Gregory Treverton, the Global Trends team began interviewing experts in and out of government around the world – 2,500 people in all, from 35 countries. They compiled a list of assumptions underlying U.S. foreign policy that was “stunningly long” and then developed scenarios based on what could happen if some were upended.

As Steven Gale wrote on New Security Beat last year, the circle of people involved in this iteration of Global Trends is wider than in the past. Previous versions of Global Trends also referenced a year in the title (e.g., Global Trends 2030), but Treverton writes that they decided not to do so this year because it “conveys a false precision.” The “long term” means more than the next two decades.

The report sets out three illustrative scenarios for the next 20 years and beyond to show how certain decision points could affect the future:

Environmental Change, Demographic Instability

Whether looking at near-term possibilities or future scenarios, the report touches on an incredible array of issues, from urbanization to how people think and organize.

Environmental change and health issues are identified as threats that will require collective action to address. In fact, the report points out that the global community’s willingness to “uphold recent environmental commitments” and otherwise prepare and respond to climate change may be a litmus test for cooperation on other challenges to come.

Willingness to uphold recent environmental commitments may be a litmus test

“Nearly all of the Earth’s systems are undergoing natural and human-induced stresses outpacing national and international environmental protection efforts,” the report concludes. Climate change, water and soil stress, food insecurity, and biosphere decline are all threats that no one state (or non-state) can address alone. Likewise, international cooperation will be needed to avoid global pandemics.

The positive historic trend of cooperation around water “will be hard to maintain,” the authors continue. Political and cultural stress are most likely to contribute to increased water-related tension, but neglect or rejection of existing transboundary water agreements is also a challenge, along with new large dams and pollution.

In the Middle East and North Africa, the demographic profile of the population – rapidly growing, youthful, and urban – is likely to contribute to problems “for years,” particularly youth unemployment. An “emerging lost generation” of children who have missed out on education, health care, and stability because of conflict will be vulnerable to radicalization. Conditions for women will “likely” get worse, following recent trends and as a result of “identity-based extremism.”

Africa will remain the fastest growing region in the world for the next five years and beyond, as fertility rates have declined more slowly than expected. Central Africa is the most youthful and “most at risk for violence and instability if opportunity and governance are insufficient.”

A Discussion Starter

The full report includes much more, on technological advances, global economic trends, migration, how people identify with one another, wish to be governed, and how they are likely to fight (warfare will be more “diffuse, diverse, and disruptive”).

Three questions thread throughout the wide-ranging discussion:

How these questions are answered will mean the difference between the promise and peril of our fast-changing world.

The National Intelligence Council calls Global Trends: Paradox of Progress “an invitation to discuss, debate, and inquire,” saying their intent is to “encourage open and informed discussions about future risks and opportunities.”

So what do you say? Can we “forge new patterns of cooperation,” and how?

Sources: National Intelligence Council.

Photo Credit: Earth photographed from low orbit by the International Space Station, courtesy of NASA.