The next 15 years will witness the transformation of North Korea and resulting elimination of military tensions on the peninsula. No, this is not our rosy assessment of Northeast Asian politics or the reformist goals of Kim Jong Un. It was the verbatim prediction of the senior-most officials in the U.S. intelligence community -- 15 years ago. Needless to say, the Stalinist regime, though hardly the picture of health, remains untransformed. In fact, Pyongyang has since tested nuclear weapons, and relations between North and South show little sign of improving; military tensions are high.
One suspects the analysts who wrote that line regret it. But the truth is that prediction is hard, often impossible. Academic research suggests that predicting events five years into the future is so difficult that most experts perform only marginally better than dart-throwing chimps. Now imagine trying to predict over spans of 15 to 20 years. Sisyphus arguably had it easier. But that has not deterred the intelligence community from trying; that is its job.
Starting with the 1997 release of Global Trends 2010 -- the report that featured the North Korea prediction -- the National Intelligence Council (NIC) has repeatedly tried to predict the trajectories of world politics over a 15-to-20-year period. These predictions run the gamut from a 1997 prediction that Saddam Hussein would no longer rule Iraq by 2010 to the more generic prediction of global multipolarity by 2025 in the most recent report. These predictions are the product of hard work by talented analysts who work under political pressures and intellectual constraints. And, in any case, we are skeptical how much better than chance it is possible for anyone to do in forecasting 15 to 20 years into the future.
That said, when we look at these reports in light of recent research on expert judgment, we cannot help wondering whether there are not ways of doing a better job -- of assigning more explicit, testable, and accurate probabilities to possible futures. Improving batting averages by even small margins means the difference between runner-ups and World Series winners -- and improving the accuracy of probability judgments by small margins could significantly contribute to U.S. national security.
How Have They Done So Far?
The original Global Trends report came out of a series of conferences held by the NIC and the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University. The idea was to "describe and assess major features of the political world as they will appear in the year 2010." The report self-consciously focused on what it called evolutionary changes in world politics, positing that truly disruptive changes are too rare and difficult to predict. Three more reports, Global Trends 2015, Global Trends 2020, and Global Trends 2025 followed. The NIC is now finalizing Global Trends 2030, which will be released later this year.
There are several potential grounds for criticizing Global Trends reports. The reports almost inevitably fall into the trap of treating the conventional wisdom of the present as the blueprint for the future 15 to 20 years down the road. Many things the early reports get right, such as the continued integration of Western Europe, were already unfolding in 1997. Similarly, predicting that "some states will fail to meet the basic requirements that bind citizens to their government" or that information technology will have a large impact on politics was hardly going out on a limb.
Looking carefully at the first two Global Trends reports reveals how the reports have struggled to make accurate non-obvious predictions of big-picture trends. (It is harder to assess Global Trends 2020 and 2025 because we are still so far away.) There are some things the Global Trends reports got right, like Saddam Hussein leaving office before 2010, but many others they missed. Consider how the reports treat the rise of China. Global Trends 2010 predicted that "While China has the potential to become the region's dominant military power, it is beset by significant internal problems that in our judgment will preclude it from becoming so during this time frame." The report then goes on to predict the present (circa 1997): offering a thoughtful analysis of the large internal problems facing the Chinese government. Global Trends 2015, published in December 2000, contained similar statements. What can we make of this? On the one hand, both reports were technically correct. Yet it was not until Global Trends 2020, written in 2004, that the report fully embraced the key trend: the notion of a rising China, which by that time was simply predicting the present.
Global Trends 2010 and Global Trends 2015, the two reports written before the 9/11 attacks, also underplay the threat of terrorism. Global Trends 2015 includes a paragraph on the risk to the United States in a laundry list of threats, but neither report references al Qaeda or comes close to predicting the events of the last 11 years.
The reports also engage in extensive hedging. For every prediction, there is a caveat. The reports lean heavily on words such as "could," "possibly," and "maybe." The lead-in to Global Trends 2025 uses "could" nine times in two pages, and the report as a whole uses the word a whopping 220 times. The report also uses "maybe" 36 times. Global Trends 2020 uses "could" 110 times. Add all of the caveats and conditionals, and a harsh critic might conclude that these reports are saying no more than that there is a possibility that something could happen at some point -- and it might have a big effect.