Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government

The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.

Crystal Ball Earth
Probably the most difficult aspect of forecasting the future is figuring out the good and bad consequences and where the balance may lie.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Nastco/iStock/Thinkstock and NOAA via Reuters.

For a decade, part of my job was to predict the future.

I worked on the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report, which explores changes that may take place over the next 15 to 20 years. The goal: to help each administration take the long view. The Global Trends report, which only comes out every four years, is briefed to the president and his senior foreign and domestic advisers at the beginning of their term; many nominees for new posts use it to prepare for their confirmation hearings. Defense, State, and the Department of Homeland Security use them in their quadrennial policy reviews. Other countries also use it in their strategic planning—even countries not necessarily on always good terms, such as China and Russia.

The Global Trends report looks at a wide range of topics: technological innovation, demographic shifts, economic pressures, shifts in geopolitical power, trends in religious and political movements, and much more. It’s a critical document in part because the speed of change has accelerated in recent years. From the start of its Industrial Revolution, Britain took 155 years to double GDP per capita with about 9 million people in 1870. It took the United States 30 years with a few tens of million people. China did it in 12 years with more than 100 times the people than Britain had. GDP per person in China could double again by the end of the decade.

This shift in national power may be overshadowed by a more fundamental shift in the very nature of power, which is increasingly diffuse. Individuals and small groups now have access to lethal and disruptive technologies, enabling them to perpetrate large-scale violence—a capability formerly the monopoly of states. New demographic patterns are also reshaping the world with an unprecedented shift toward aging and the shrinking of youthful societies. Finally, technology has hit its own inflection point when there are growing synergies across broad technologies, triggering a faster pace of breakthroughs. All in all, the present recalls past transition points—such as 1815, 1919, 1945, and 1989—when the path forward was not clear-cut and the world faced the possibility of different global futures, not all of them negative. Global Trends takes these various threads and examines various futures that could unfold.

The Global Trends report was first conceived back in the mid-1990s. At that time, the National Intelligence Council—a special unit within U.S. intelligence that is focused on helping the president think about possible developments in priority areas of U.S. foreign policy—realized that the new forces shaping the post–Cold War world did not get much attention. The intelligence community was used to covering hard security issues, not demographics, globalization, or the changing environment. The NIC pulled in expertise from outside to cover those wider issues. In fact, the edition published in 2000 was subtitled “a dialogue with nongovernmental experts.” Notably, Global Trends is about the only unclassified publication published by U.S. intelligence. The vast bulk of intelligence community analysis is classified and, outside of leaks, won’t see the light of day for years, if not decades. 

My involvement began in 2003 when the then-NIC chair—Ambassador Bob Hutchings—brought me on at the NIC and gave me the task of writing the next Global Trends. I was a seasoned analyst, having joined the CIA in 1986, but even so it was a daunting challenge to compile it in a year’s time. Most intelligence analysis is tactical and narrow, oftentimes focused on a specific question. Global Trends instead tries to understand the dynamics between many big drivers across diverse areas like economics, politics, and the environment and project them out 15 to 20 years.

For example, we are approaching tipping points on aging. The United States is much younger than all other advanced economies. Still, many economists fear U.S. growth potential has peaked due to a large number of baby boomers heading into retirement. Aging is also coinciding with greater automation, which is eliminating both high- and low-skilled jobs. That means increasing numbers of people are retiring at a time when the workforce is also under pressure from technological change. That’s worrisome, because the level of working-age participation in the economy is a key factor for maintaining U.S. economic and political strength in the world.

Probably the most difficult aspect of forecasting is figuring out the good and bad consequences and where the balance may lie. We underestimated the degree to which authoritarian states could exploit social media. China dedicates hundreds of thousands of people to monitoring communications not only to identify key dissidents but also to better understand the public mood. Many authoritarians are now smarter, no longer having to wait for the street demonstrations before detecting popular anger. On balance, I think social media still favors individuals’ ability to mobilize—as we saw in the Arab Spring—but authoritarians aren’t as much disadvantaged as we once thought by the Internet’s spread. 

Besides trends, we had to worry about shocks—unexpected events that change everything. Would the United States have invaded Iraq if 9/11 had never happened? There wasn’t much of a scenario section in Global Trends when I started. The inclination was to see change as more linear. However, I soon began writing a lot about discontinuous change like 9/11 or the financial crisis. For that, you need to develop scenarios—a playbook of how the future could unfold, particularly with an eye of detecting high-impact, low-probability events that might not be so obvious at first glance. John Maynard Keynes, the famous British economist, once wrote, “the idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behavior that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice.”  Gaming out possible scenarios is a way of forcing ourselves to face unpleasant future possibilities. 

Looking back, we created some great scenarios. Global Trends 2020: Mapping the Global Future, published in January 2005, featured a caliphate scenario. We saw how much a caliphate would be attractive to Sunnis alienated by the system, but it would also heat up Shiite-Sunni tensions. A caliphate would bring great turmoil even if it did not completely topple regimes. “In some countries two sets of authorities rule (the caliphate and the established government), neither of which has control.” I think that’s the case now in Iraq.

Another scenario in that same volume anticipated Americans’ ambivalence about the rest of the world. It was called Pax Americana, but the peace was one in which the United States has a hard time keeping order: “A lot of Americans are getting tired of playing the world’s policeman.” Would Americans continue to think the burdens are really worth it? I think the jury is currently out on that question and could tip either way.

The purpose of scenarios is not necessarily to predict the future, even though they sometimes come true. They are primarily there to warn. In my forthcoming book, The Future, Declassified, I’ve put in a scenario about a manmade virus being used by a terrorist group. Increasingly you won’t need years of lab work to be able to build a lethal organism. It could happen, but it doesn’t necessarily have to if the right oversight exists. In fact, sometimes the best scenarios are the ones that never take place, because thinking through the problem helped stop something terrible from happening.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect about the global trends work was the outreach. As Ambassador Hutchings told me, you can’t know the future by sticking inside the Washington Beltway. I met with experts all over the United States and overseas. For the last edition, I visited more than 20 countries. Scores of people across the world got a peek at the preliminary draft and a chance to critique it. Their views mattered. About 30 to 40 percent of the final report was changed due to all the new information and perspectives unearthed.

We didn’t necessarily agree with all the views offered. Middle Eastern governments saw many more negative consequences to democratization. On the other hand, we saw democratization as a messy process that yielded economic and political benefits over time. Russian commentators saw more hierarchy in the world, less “flatness” than we did. They criticized the United States for not “knowing how to use its power.”

Universally, however, everyone worried about a withdrawn America. The Chinese saw themselves as a rising power having greater regional sway, but with no inclination to take over the American role in the world. Africans worried about increasing Chinese power on their continent and decreasing U.S. interest.

I am often asked what difference Global Trends makes to policy. It doesn’t have specific policy recommendations—that’s not the intelligence community’s job. But the works have had an effect. They were very clear about the vast geopolitical changes with Asia reversing the historic rise of the West since 1750 and relative decline of the United States. These were controversial forecasts at the time. Policymakers did not always agree with how fast this was happening, but recent administrations—both Bush and Obama—have reached out and formed “strategic partnerships” with the newly emerging powers. The historic pattern of rising powers battling the status quo ones for their rightful place in the world order—as happened in the runup to World War I—doesn’t have to repeat itself. Humankind can learn from its mistakes.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.