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Global Trends 2025

November 21, 2008


Anyone vaguely familiar with what we in America call the “intelligence community” knows that it is resembles a garden salad — a bunch of separate organizations tossed in a bowl. Calling it a “community” stretches a bit the definition of that word. The establishment of the Direction of National Intelligence was supposed to eliminate the barriers that for years had prevented information sharing among these various organizations. There has been noticeable improvement in information sharing, but there have also been calls for eliminating the DNI. This blog, however, is not about reorganizing the intelligence community; rather, it is about a report produced by one the organizations found our salad bowl — the Global Trends 2025 report prepared by the National Intelligence Council (NIC).


Outside of the intelligence community the NIC is not as well known as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), or National Security Agency (NSA). Yet the NIC plays a crucial role in helping the U.S. Government prepare for the future. The NIC is probably most famous for preparing National Intelligence Estimates, but it does more than that. Go to the NIC web site and you will find its mission statement:

“The National Intelligence Council (NIC) is the Intelligence Community’s (IC’s) center for midterm and long-term strategic thinking. Its primary functions are to:

  • Support the DNI in his role as head of the Intelligence Community.
  • Provide a focal point for policymakers to task the Intelligence Community to answer their questions.
  • Reach out to nongovernment experts in academia and the private sector to broaden the Intelligence Community’s perspective.
  • Contribute to the Intelligence Community’s effort to allocate its resources in response to policymakers’ changing needs.
  • Lead the Intelligence Community’s effort to produce National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) and other NIC products.

NIEs are the DNI’s most authoritative written judgments concerning national security issues. They contain the coordinated judgments of the Intelligence Community regarding the likely course of future events. The NIC’s goal is to provide policymakers with the best, unvarnished, and unbiased information—regardless of whether analytic judgments conform to US policy. National Intelligence Officers’ (NIOs) primary functions are to:

  • Advise the DNI.
  • Interact regularly with senior intelligence consumers and support their current and longer-term needs.
  • Produce top-quality estimative intelligence in a process that is efficient and responsive.
  • Engage with outside experts to tap their knowledge and insights.
  • Help assess the capabilities and needs of IC analytic producers.
  • Promote collaboration among IC analytic producers on strategic warning, advanced analytic tools, and methodologies.
  • Articulate substantive priorities to guide intelligence collection, evaluation, and procurement”

The most important words in that mission statement highlight the fact that members of the NIC are supposed to provide government leaders with the “best, unvarnished, and unbiased information” that they can. In other words, they are supposed to the honest brokers of the intelligence community. That role makes the NIC’s Global Trends series of reports valuable tools for future planning. The fourth report in that series was just released. Although I haven’t had the opportunity yet to read it, Peter Finn and Walter Pincus provide a brief overview of the report contains [“Report Sees Nuclear Arms, Scarce Resources as Seeds of Global Instability,” Washington Post, 21 November 2008]. They write:

“The drive for dwindling resources, including energy and water, combined with the spread of nuclear weapons technology could make large swaths of the globe ripe for regional conflicts, some of them potentially devastating, according to a report released by the National Intelligence Council yesterday.”

Now there’s a gloomy way to start your morning. Don’t blame the NIC for being pessimistic — that’s it job. The NIC wouldn’t be much help to government leaders if they simply reported that everything looks bright and there’s no need worry. As taxpayers and citizens, we want somebody who is both smart and trustworthy to stare into their crystal ball and tell us about things that could go wrong so that we can prepare to prevent them or mitigate their consequences. That’s what being resilient is all about. It doesn’t necessarily mean that members of the NIC are personally discouraged about how things are unfolding in the world.

“The report, Global Trends 2025, covers a range of strategic issues, including great-power rivalry, demographics, climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, energy and natural resources. It makes for sometimes grim reading in imagining a world of weak states bristling with weapons of mass destruction and unable to cope with burgeoning populations without adequate water and food. ‘Those states most susceptible to conflict are in a great arc of instability stretching from Sub-Saharan Africa through North Africa, into the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and South and Central Asia, and parts of Southeast Asia,’ the quadrennial report says. At the heart of its deepest pessimism is the Middle East, which it suggests could tip into a nuclear arms race if Iran goes ahead with such weapons. ‘The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran spawning a nuclear arms race in the greater Middle East will bring new security challenges to an already conflict-prone region, particularly in conjunction with the proliferation of long-range missile systems,’ the report says. ‘… If nuclear weapons are used destructively in the next 15-20 years, the international system will be shocked as it experiences immediate humanitarian, economic, and political-military repercussions.”

Of course, the current financial crisis might prove to the world that Middle Eastern countries are fiscally responsible partners in fostering the global economy and governments there could continue their march toward democracy. My point is that NIC staffers know that you hope for the best but prepare for the worse — that’s simply prudent. For that reason, good news is always tempered in the report.

“While the appeal of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda is likely to wane dramatically between now and 2025, the lethality of violent extremists may increase because of their ability to access biological weapons or even nuclear devices, according to the report, which is designed to give policymakers a beyond-the-horizon view of where today’s events may lead. It was produced by the intelligence council, the senior analytic body within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.”

The NIC makes it perfectly clear that the report is not predictive.

“As the report’s authors note, none, some or all of this may come to pass. A ‘what-if’ for wonks, the report, the fourth of its kind, is an effort to stimulate the thinking of the incoming presidential administration, according to Thomas Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis. ‘It is not a prediction,’ Fingar said. ‘Nothing that we have identified in this report is determinative. Nothing in it is inevitable or immutable. These are trends and developments and drivers that are subject to policy intervention and manipulation.’ In the case of the Middle East and other potentially unstable regions, the report posits that economic growth could become ‘increasingly rooted and sustained.’ In that scenario, Middle Eastern leaders would ‘move forward with political reform that empowers moderate — and probably Islamic — political parties; work to settle regional conflicts; and implement security agreements that help prevent future instability.'”

Another way to look at the report is as an alternative futures exercise. I have stated before that I am a big believer in alternative future analysis. It is a great way to help government or business leaders break out of their normal operating paradigms and consider discontinuities rather than simply assume the present can be extrapolated into the future. Finn and Pincus continue their overview of the report noting that some of its content is more factual than speculative:

“Among the visible contours of the world in 2025 is a United States experiencing the relative decline of its economic and military power, driven both by the rise of new behemoths such as China and India and domestic constraints on its global leadership. The United States ‘will have less power in a multipolar world than it has enjoyed for many decades,’ according to the report’s authors, who consulted policy- and opinion-makers in America and abroad over the past 12 months. ‘… We believe that U.S. interest and willingness to play a leadership role also may be more constrained as the economic, military, and opportunity costs of being the world’s leader are reassessed by American voters.’ The authors say, however, that foreign leaders, including in Beijing, will continue to view U.S. global engagement as essential — as long as it is not driven by unilateralism. China is said to be ‘poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country.’ The study projects that by 2025, China will have the world’s second-largest economy, behind the United States’, and it ‘will be a leading military power.’ Among the other major powers, Russia has the potential to be richer and more powerful, but only if it expands and diversifies its resources-driven economy. And the authors think that countries such as Indonesia, Turkey and a possible post-clerical Iran could play dynamic roles in their neighborhoods.”

For anyone who closely follows the news, none of those developments will seem at all startling. Neither will some of the report’s longer-view analytical statements.

“Looking into the distance at countries that are of major interest today, the study projected that Afghanistan will remain an essentially tribally centered nation facing continual conflict. The future of Iraq does not look much better. The study sees internal ethnic, sectarian and tribal rivalries continuing, so that by 2025, ‘the government in Baghdad could still be an object of competition among the various factions seeking foreign aid and pride of place, rather than a self-standing agent of political authority, legitimacy, and economic policy.’ Pakistan is described as a ‘wildcard,’ with its northwestern territories remaining ‘poorly governed’ and cross-border activities continuing to cause instability in nearby areas of Afghanistan.”

No real surprises there. The real surprise (and big disappointment) would be if government leaders used the report to prepare for the worse future without trying to attain the best one. Release of the report was deliberately timed to assist the new administration establish its policies and set its goals. Obama based his campaign and won the election on providing hope for the future and a brighter day for American citizens. Americans want him to be prudent but positive. As the NIC report notes, American “global engagement [is] essential — as long as it is not driven by unilateralism.” The president-elect has promised to repair damaged alliances and promote new friendships. He has indicated that he wants America to be a country where its moral strength is as respected as its military strength. Correctly used, the Global Trends 2025 report can show potholes in the road to a brighter future.

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