Thomas Fingar, the chair of the National Intelligence Council, spoke to the Atlantic Council tonight on the release of “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World.”

He and his team project nearly two decades into the future in order to “stimulate strategic thinking” among U.S. policymakers during this period of transition between presidential administrations.  This undertaking is useful, as Council president Fred Kempe noted, “in a town that doesn’t tend to look past the current news cycle.”

The intelligence community, think tanks, and others have a notoriously poor track record when trying to project even a few years ahead, so this is, in one sense, an exercise in futility.  The perils of forecasts are made clear by this paragraph from the Executive Summary:

In terms of size, speed, and directional flow, the transfer of global wealth and economic power now under way—roughly from West to East—is without precedent in modern history.  This shift derives from two sources.  First, increases in oil and commodity prices have generated windfall profits for the Gulf States and Russia.  Second, lower costs combined with government policies have shifted the locus of manufacturing and some service industries to Asia.

When that was written, oil was at $150 a barrel.  It’s now back to $50.  The windfall for the petroleum states has, for now at least, vanished.  Further, the global financial crisis has will have myriad impacts on the relative power of the world’s actors that’s as of yet unknown.

Fingar himself acknowledged this point several times throughout his talk, noting that that this was “not a prediction or a forecast,” let alone a set of “preferred outcomes.”  Nor is it “a worry bead list.”  Instead, it’s an attempt, made in consultation with a variety of subject matter experts from around the globe, to help us “better anticipate where the problems and opportunities are.”

At the same time, it’s absolutely vital to think strategically about the long term. While we can’t know with any certainly which present trends will continue, it takes so long to develop and acquire systems, train personnel, and otherwise transform government that decision-makers need the best possible guidance for planning.  As Fingar underscored, little of what’s in the report is “inevitable or immutable” and we should “avoid any notion of determinism.”

Take, for example, this from the report’s opening chart (p. 10):

Relative Certainties: A global multipolar system is emerging  with the rise of China, India, and others.   The relative power of nonstate actors— businesses, tribes, religious organizations, and even criminal networks—also will increase.

Likely Impact: By 2025 a single “international community” composed of nation-states will no longer exist.  Power will be more dispersed with the newer players bringing new rules of the game while risks will increase that the traditional Western alliances  will weaken.  Rather than emulating Western  models of political and economic development, more countries may be attracted to China’s alternative development model.

Whether the world of 2025 will be truly multipolar, let alone whether China and India will be equal in power to the United States and the European Union, is debatable.  That the trendlines are pointing in that direction and that we are quite likely to see a major disruption in the global system as it now exists is not.

Indeed, had we heeded the advice of those seeing the rise of non-state actors in the early 1990s, we’d have been much more prepared for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this decade. What will a rising China mean for the United States military and its materiel and personnel needs ten or fifteen years from now?  It’s worth thinking about seriously — as Fingar’s team has — before we overcorrect for our lack of preparedness for counterinsurgency warfare.

Perhaps the most interesting point made in the report — and one emphasized by Fingar in his talk — is that the future is, to a considerable extent, in our own hands.

Whether global institutions adapt and revive—another key uncertainty—also is a function of leadership.  Current trends suggest a dispersion of power and authority will create a global governance deficit.  Reversing those trend lines would require strong leadership in the international community by a number of powers, including the emerging ones.

Which, incidentally, is a core belief of the Atlantic Council.  We’re a non-partisan organization and a quick glance at our board of directors will confirm a wide ideological range.  We do agree, however, that strong U.S. leadership, in concert with our European allies, is vital to meeting global challenges, whatever the future might bring.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. Photo by Flickr user ToastyKen modified by the author under Creative Commons license.