Global Trends 2025 - the US intelligence perspective

The lead Guardian story last Friday was 2025: the “end of US power”. The quote is taken from Global Trends 2025, the latest environmental analysis by the US’s National Intelligence Council. This is strategic analysis by some of the best, most informed strategic analysts on the planet. So, I thought it might be interesting to have a quick look from a more generic perspective – I’ll leave you to decide whether the Guardian’s headline of choice was representative of the content.

First up, I think there are some interesting messages for those who are trying to think about what drives change in their environment. In the introduction (see page 5) it argues that futures work in general has failed to see major geopolitical events (such as the Great Depression). It then proposes that the last 50 years have, despite various shocks, provided a relatively stable environment but warns that:

“The development of a globalized economy in which China and India play major roles has opened a new era without clear outcomes”.

The same section then argues that we can learn a number of lessons from history to help forecast the future: “leaders and their ideas matter”, it says, something that seems to translate right down to the local level; economic volatility introduces a major risk factor – as President Clinton may have realised; and, geopolitical rivalries trigger discontinuities more than does technological change. However, it still recognises that technology matters.

In terms of trends, some of the more interesting ones I found were:

  • the rise of a global middle class, but the poorest getting relatively poorer
  • the rise of “state capitalism”, suggesting a counter-trend to the rise of the free market
  • greater population churn as the economic consequences of ageing shape migration patterns (see global population movement)
  • resource scarcity (food, energy, water) exacerbated by rapid development in China, India and other countries (see global resource constraints)
  • the inability of current technologies to address resource scarcity
  • more potential for conflict

Finally, what about NGOs and Civil Society in 2025? In a number of the future scenarios described in the report civil society organisations seem to play an important role in the international system. It highlights the probable increase in organisations due to low barriers to entry, both in terms of establishment and then participation in policy networks. New technologies are argued to facilitate their global connections (see growth of online communities), possibly leading to a scenario where influence moves from the local and national to the global level. Indeed, it is this increasingly networked approach to policy making (what might has been termed the shift from government to governance) that creates much greater opportunities for civil society (see Richard Bennett’s think piece NGO futures in a complex and fluid world for further exploration of these ideas for more on the future of NGOs). One key passage on NGOs suggests:

“Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—concentrating on specific issues—increasingly will be a part of the landscape, but NGO networks are likely to be limited in their ability to effect change in the absence of concerted efforts by multilateral institutions or governments. Efforts at greater inclusiveness—to reflect the emergence of the newer powers—may make it harder for international organizations to tackle transnational challenges. Respect for the dissenting views of member nations will continue to shape the agenda of organizations and limit the kinds of solutions that can be attempted.”

It seems to argue in a few places that civil society organisations and social networks contribute to the fragmentation of global governance (see international institutions), creating a situation where it is more difficult to achieve consensus. It also argues that whilst numerous they lack the capacity to effect change. Where civil society arguably also gets a mention is when religion is argued to be more central to global governance:

“Religion based networks may be quintessential issue networks and overall may play a more powerful role than secular transnational groupings in exerting influence and shaping outcomes in the period out to 2025. Indeed, we could be entering a new age of clerical leadership in which religious leaders become major power brokers in resolving future international disputes and conflicts.”

As I said at the beginning, this is a quick look – it is well worth longer consideration, particularly for those working on issues such as the environment or international development. I’d be interested in what other people take from the report.

Last updated at 15:08 Mon 18/May/09.
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