Alternative worlds imagined – but the US is still the Hegemon

Alternative worlds imagined – but the US is still the Hegemon

The U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) released its latest report on Dec. 10, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” in order to provide a framework for thinking about the future. Although it was principally authored by the NIC’s leading global futurist, Mat Burrows, it does not seek to predict the future, an impossible feat, but rather sketch an outline for possible futures. The main contours of the report are so familiar by now from similar reports that there are few new ideas; even though it talks about “tectonic shifts” there is certainly nothing shocking.

The report lists four predictable megatrends that are likely to transform the world in the future:

Individual empowerment, diffusion of power, demographic patterns, and the food- water-energy nexus. It highlights six “game-changers” that could affect the megatrends and shape the alternative futures:

The role of the U.S., the governance gap, wider regional instability, the crisis-prone global economy, the potential for increased conflict, and the impact of new technologies.

It imagines four alternative scenarios: The worst-case scenario includes an increased risk of interstate conflict, competition for resources, the spread of lethal technologies, the rise of middle class expectations, and the U.S.’s inward turn. The best-case scenario foresees the collaboration of China and the U.S. on diverse issues, leading to increased global cooperation. The more likely scenario might emerge as something in between, marked by the rise of non-state actors and heightened global tension due to increasing inequalities, with the U.S. no longer a dominant actor.

The report unsurprisingly predicts that Asia will surpass the U.S. and Europe, and that China will be the largest economy. In addition to China, India and Brazil, it lists Colombia, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa and Turkey as regional players that will become important for the global economy. In contrast, Europe, Japan and Russia will face aging and decreasing populations, economic decline, resulting in a shift of power from the West to the non-Western world.

Interesting tidbits are also scattered around the report. For example, the time needed to adopt technological changes is shortening globally. The report cites that it took 35 years for 25 percent of the U.S. population to adopt the telephone and only 13 years for it to adopt mobile phones. Predictions for smart phones and tablets are much faster. Clearly, the adaptation ability and the appetite for change in the middle classes the world over will drive demand for these technologies. The impact on business will be staggering.

The decreasing costs of wireless infrastructure will ensure developing countries have greater access to education, health resources and business opportunities. The availability of cheap, powerful and connected personal devices will induce income growth in these countries and further change the global balance of power. The medium of teaching as we know it today will change tremendously, easing and varying the way people reach knowledge.

Finally, not everything changes: There will still be conflicts in Turkey’s region in the future due to ethnic and religious divergences, the scarcity of natural resources, weak governance, economic diversification, and a wider access to lethal technologies. Turkey’s experience with liberal economics is mentioned as potentially contributing to the integration of those countries to global cooperative trends - if played right, of course.

The credibility of the report’s findings will no doubt be verified in time. But the global trends for the first half of the twentieth century are now so well identified by various reports and analyses around the world that it would be foolish for any state or decision maker to ignore or discard them when thinking about their country’s future.