The National Intelligence Council’s four-yearly report to the incoming President is worth noting this time around because it appears to represent such a sharp shift in world view in such a short time. Suddenly, the “official” view of the world projected by the NIC, which fronts for America’s multiplicity of intelligence agencies, is projecting a world of energy scarcity and resource shortages along with challenges to America’s global  leadership. Such a sharp shift, in fact, that it makes you wonder if there’s a different “Phoenix” version which would have been pulled out of the drawer had McCain won the election.

Of course, the NIC knows its futures, and Global Trends 2025 comes with the usual caveats. It’s not a forecast, and uncertain things will happen. Economic volatility tends to be linked to political volatility, and geopolitical differences are more likely to cause disruptions than technological change. Leadership matters (well, this is a report for an incoming President; always keep your client in mind.)

But it does see some fundamental structural global shifts, and the difference in perspective between the last – “2020” – report and this one are helpfully summarised in a box.

The 2025 report describes a world in which the US plays a prominent role in global events, but  the US is one among many global actors who manage problems. In contrast, the 2020 report projects continued US dominance, positing that most major powers have forsaken the idea of  balancing the US.

The two documents also differ in their treatment of energy supply, demand, and new alternative
sources.  In 2020, energy supplies “in the ground” are considered “sufficient to meet global
demand.”  What is uncertain, according to the earlier report, is whether political instability in
producer countries, supply disruptions, or competition for resources might deleteriously affect
international oil markets. … emphasizes the domination of fossil fuels.  In contrast, 2025 sees the world in the midst of a transition to cleaner fuels.  New technologies are projected to provide the capability for fossil fuel substitutes and solutions to water and food scarcity.  The 2020 report acknowledges that energy demands will influence superpower relations, but the 2025 report considers energy scarcity as a driving factor in geopolitics.

In summary, then, the 2025 story goes like this:

  • The rapid shift of wealth from ‘west’ to ‘east’ which the NIC views as being “without precedent in modern history”, along with an age shift (richer world older, poorer younger, with the US somewhere in the middle because of its relatively high levels of inward migration.) In 1800, they note, China produced 30% of world output, and India 15%.
  • A shift to a multipolar world in which America (though still ‘top nation’) is only one of a number of leading actors – and will likely to have to respond in particular to China and India.
  • Resource issues are central. They follow an estimate from the World Bank that demand for food will grow by 50% by 2030 (because of rising population and an increasingly affluent lifestyle in the emerging economies). The number of countries without access to stable water supplies will increase to 36 (population of 1.4 billion), up from 21 (600 million people) now.
  • Energy – there’s not enough of it, but the transition to renewables will be slow (too slow).

The consequence of all of this is that resource wars flare up and in some parts of the world there will be a breakdown in government as a result, as gangsters and warlords take control. Asymmetric warfare also features, given the continuing spead of nuclear and bio-weapons. But – as was picked up by American papers, less by others – al Qaeda will likely have declined, because of its unachievable strategic objectives and inability to attract broad-based support.

It was the trends that were given the most coverage, and the overall tone of the report – which is more about projection – does encourage an air of certainty.But the NIC has also developed a set of scenarios, buried throughout the report, all darker futures, at least from an elite leadership position, and all animated through “official” documents from the future, such as communiques, letters, and so on.

Two are more broadly about geopolitical competition, two more influenced by climate change.

  • A world without the west: probably not a direct challenge to the international system, more likely “the possibility that the emerging powers will assume a greater role in areas affecting their vital interests”. Such a coalition of forces could be a competitor for institutions such as NATO, offering others an alternative to the west.
  • October surprise: inattention to climate change causes unexpected impacts and creates vulnerability. Greater frequency of extreme weather events, combined with other climate change effects, such as water security and food scarcity, preoccupies policy makers “even while options for solving such problems are narrowing”. Developed and developing countries are both affected.
  • BRICs bust-up: China clashes with India over energy security, and there are increasing fears over energy supplies, with a smaller number of producers increasingly concentrated in the middle east. Misperceptions and miscommunications increase vulnerability as the emerging powers increasingly clash with each other.
  • Politics is not always local: nation states no longer set the national agenda – because of the growth of sub-national and transnational entities, including social and political movements. Public concern about environmental degradation creates new “activist” leaders, supported and enabled by technology.

One way of looking at all of this is as the failure of the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century which animated so many of Bush’s advisers, and which met an expensive and bloody end in Iraq. PNAC believed that it was essential to build up US military strength so as to maintain American global leadership. But hidden in some of the detail there is language which belies the apparent change in view. The FT’s Westminster blog picked up on its portrayal of Europe as a “hobbled giant”, with an ageing population, increasing dependency ratios, a “democracy gap” between Europe and the citizens of its member states, and no sign of “liberalising” (i.e. cutting) the expensive social programmes its citizens continue to enjoy. As Alex Barker puts it:

What do they think EU leaders should do to avert the onset of continental mediocrity? Slash pensions and health benefits. Coordinate defence budgets. Agree on foreign policy. Stop buying so much gas from Russia. Let Turkey in.

Which is where the problem of thinking in trends shows itself. There are other solutions, such as extending working lives, enabling inward migration, and so on. And some would argue only an American military discourse would think that Europe has been disadvantaged over the past decade by unco-ordinated defence budgets and the lack of an agreed foreign policy. More generally, the report is weak on the notion of “soft power”. Much of it reads like a 21st century version of Diplomacy.

A few points from some of the coverage which are worth mentioning. Gideon Rachman, also in the Financial Times, observes that this may just be the latest version of the recurring notion of “declinism”, which breaks out from time to time in American political circles – for example during the Vietnam War and again during the 1980s – without decline following. I’d say that the challenge this time is harder, because of the scale of America’s global debts, and looming resource and energy constraints. Rachman observes:

Professor [William] Wohlforth argues that the NIC report reflects “a mood change, not a change in the underlying assessment of power”. As he says, rising powers do not always complete their climb and economic strength does not always translate into political power. This is all true. But there are still reasons for thinking that the new declinism may be more soundly based than its predecessors. China has a record of sustained and dynamic economic growth that the Soviet Union was never capable of. … This time it really does feel different. But then it always does, does it not?

One of the comments on Rachman’s piece quotes the economist Joseph Stiglitz, who said: “China has two ways to keep its economy growing. One way is to finance the American consumer. But another way is to finance its own citizens, who are increasingly able to consume in large enough quantities to stimulate economic growth in China. They have options, we don’t.”

And some of the tone of the report, and the coverage, couldn’t help but remind me of the spoof British history book, 1066 and all that, which finished at the point when Britain was no longer top nation and “history came to a .”

But one of the more alarming observations came in the Guardian, which picked up an idea which is hinted at in Global Trends 2025. Much of the current discussion about  climate change positions us – in historical analogy – in the run-up to the kind of international agreement reached at Bretton Woods in 1944. What if this analogy is wrong?

But what if we have not yet reached 1944? What if we’re still in 1914, when the world’s first period of globalisation was about to end to be replaced by 30 years of upheaval, depression and conflict?

As the report says, at both the beginning and the end, leadership can make a difference. But – as we learnt between the wars – it depends on the type of leadership. The cultural historian Joanna Bourke describes the NIC report as a form of “scaremongering”. In the face of problems which the west is largely responsible for – because of its unsustainable consumption levels, despite the apparently distanced review of significant global trends, the discourse of the report (for, she says, ‘scaremongering is a political act’) below the is about creating fear, and seeing scapegoats and dangerous ‘others’.

Instead of responding creatively to ward off dangers, excessively frightened people either sit back and passively accept their fate or turn aggressively against scapegoats, externalising fears onto individuals or groups outside of their own communities. … The result, however, is counterproductive. By lashing out at imagined enemies, we increase our risk of being threatened further.

Of course, in such a world intelligence agencies thrive. The military tends to do well. On the face of it Global Trends 2025 seems to represent a significant shift in world view, but the interests it serves turn out to be very familiar.