We can’t predict next week with accuracy, much less 2030. But there’s still value in thinking about the future.
Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project and member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group, points out in “The World in 2030 Won’t Look Anything Like You Think” that the National Intelligence Council’s quadrennial Global Trends reports have a mixed record.
In 1997, the U.S. intelligence outfit charged with long-term strategic thinking made some startling predictions: by 2010, North Korea would be transformed into a normal state and tensions on the peninsula would be eliminated; the western world would see unending 2-percent growth in personal income; and precision weapons would make conflicts smaller and less costly.
None of those things happened. North Korea remains mostly unchanged today — except for its nuclear program, which perhaps poses more of a threat than ever. Not only did the 2008 financial crisis stall most economic growth in the Western world, but personal incomes have largely stagnated as well. Finally, while precision weapons did make the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan less costly in some respects, neither war could be considered small. Few would argue those were examples of a new, high-tech way of fighting.
Four years ago, at the Atlantic Council launch of the Global Trends 2025 report, I wrote a piece in this space titled “Predicting the Future is Hard – And Necessary” noting that a key prediction in the Executive Summary was already overtaken by events.
The fact of the matter is that, while the National Intelligence Council—and for that matter, the Atlantic Council and the American Security Project—employ a lot of smart people who have the luxury of thinking for a living, none of us have a crystal ball. Predictions about the medium term future are either projections of current trends or wild guesses. Serious analysts, and certainly those employed by government bureaucracies, tend to stick to the former.
There’s little, then, in Global Trends 2030 that’s shocking to someone who regularly reads the New York Times and Scientific American.
But, Foust and I nonetheless arrive at the same conclusion: We need to try despite the obvious perils. Me, then:
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.
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.
Futures studies work best when they’re vague and build upon current trends to their logical (and often extreme) conclusion. Along the way, they usually play into their intended audience’s hopes and fears: economic collapse, infinite growth for the middle class, Malthusian predictions of food crashes, and a belief in the fundamental know-ability of what is to come.
At the same time, any specific prediction in these texts will almost invariably be wrong. And that limits how useful they can ever be beyond a limited scope of activity. It is rare to see government officials or even corporate executives making long-term plans based on a vision of the future laid out in these studies. You just won’t hear someone saying, “We should do this because of GT2030.”
That doesn’t mean this sort of study is useless. The GT2030 report is important for how it’s changing the process and trying to encourage adaptive thinking about the future. It helps leaders understand not just the current trends (which can change on a moment’s notice, in the way the 2008 recession undid all the previous predictions of forever-growth), but also how to be flexible enough to adapt to rapid change.
Leaders should look at reports like GT2030 and think about how they can evolve current institutions to be more adaptable and flexible in the future. It seems odd to think that the decentralized world GT2030 describes is going to be met with institutions that were designed in the 1940s.
That last point, incidentally, is the premise of the Atlantic Council’s companion to the 2030 report, Envisioning 2030: US Strategy for a Post-Western World. We’ve got only some vague clues about the future. Given what we know, though, it’s pretty clear that the United States will be in a better position in 2030 if it engages with both its traditional transatlantic partners and rising powers in Asia to shape that future.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. This is part of a New Atlanticist series exploring Envisioning 2030.