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A maturity test for America's foreign policy community

Every five years or so the National Intelligence Council releases a Global Trends report about what the world will look like a generation from today.  The Global Trends 2030 report is now out, and if my Twitter feed and Thom Shanker's New York Times story are any indication, well, there's gonna be some freaking out inside the Beltway: 

A new intelligence assessment of global trends projects that China will outstrip the United States as the leading economic power before 2030, but that America will remain an indispensable world leader, bolstered in part by an era of energy independence....

“There will not be any hegemonic power,” the 166-page report states. “Power will shift to networks and coalitions in a multipolar world.”

It warns that at least 15 countries are “at high risk of state failure” by 2030, among them Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Yemen and Uganda.

The study acknowledges that the future “is malleable,” and lists important “game-changers” that will most influence the global scene to 2030: a crisis-prone world economy, shortcomings in governance, conflicts within states and between them, the impact of new technologies and whether the United States can “work with new partners to reinvent the international system.”

The best-case situation for global security to 2030, according to the study, would be a growing political partnership between the United States and China. But it could take a crisis to bring Washington and Beijing together — something like a nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan resolved only by bold cooperation between the United States and China.

The worst-case situation envisions a stalling of economic globalization that would preclude any advancement of financial well-being around the world. That would be a likely outcome following an outbreak of a health pandemic that, even if short-lived, would result in closed borders and economic isolationism.

The chief author and manager of the project, Mathew Burrows, who is counselor for the National Intelligence Council, said the findings had been presented in advance in more than 20 nations to groups of academic experts, business leaders and government officials, including local intelligence officers.

As one of those academic experts, let me say three things.  First, the NIC puts a lot of effort into these reports, and they're important because they're consumed globally and not just nationally.  Not a lot of other countries have either official or unofficial institutions trying to do this kind of long-range analysis, so they devour the NIC reports just as much as Americans. 

Second, as Michael Horowitz and Philip Tetlock pointed out in Foreign Policy just a few short months ago, these NIC reports are hardly a perfect crystal ball: 

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....

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.

Third, that prediction of the end to U.S. hegmony will be an interesting litmus test of the maturity of America's foreign policy community.  Sure, other institutions have made this kind of prediction about rising Chinese power, but it's different when a U.S. government body does it.  Despite the wide variance contained within these kind of predictions, it's gonna be easy for threat-mongers to screech at the headline statements. 

Furthermore, whenever the topic of waning American hegemony comes up in public discourse... well, the conversation doesn't go well.  Admitting a relative decline in American power is not something American's political and policy elites like to do -- see 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney. 

So pay close attention to who freaks out and who doesn't from the NIC report, and feel free to discount the future statements of those who choose to freak out today. 

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