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Alternative Worlds

By: Patrick J. Garrity
January 16, 2013

"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." This quote, variously attributed to Niels Bohr and Yogi Berra, typically graces the introduction of power point presentations by experts who offer strategic forecasts. The gold standard for a number of years was the scenario planning methodology used by Royal Dutch Shell, which focused on key variables relevant to its business: energy demand and oil price. The company's scenarios anticipated a range of possible events, such as oil price shocks and higher continuing price levels that would stem from an OPEC oil embargo (which in fact occurred in 1973-74); and the possibility (in the early 1980s) of the market impact that would be caused by the eventual demise of the Soviet and other centrally planned economies. More recently, Andrew Marshall's Office of Net Assessment in the Pentagon has stayed ahead of the intellectual curve by exploring such concepts such as the Revolution in Military Affairs.

In December 2012, the National Intelligence Council (which styles itself as the center for long-term strategy analysis in the U.S. Intelligence Community) tried its hand at the very difficult by releasing its Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. This is the fifth installment in a series by the NIC "aimed at providing a framework for thinking about the future," in order to "stimulate strategic thinking by identifying critical trends and potential discontinuities." The first installment was published in 1997, with 2010 as its time horizon. The most recent report was generated after an elaborate process involving "[i]n-depth research, detailed modeling and a variety of analytical tools," supplemented by meetings with various U.S. academic and government experts, a blog, and review sessions in nearly 20 countries.

The NIC authors are quick to add that "we do not seek to predict the future—which would be an impossible feat—but instead provide a framework for thinking about possible futures and their implications." The report begins, however, with this statement:

The world of 2030 will be radically transformed from our world today. By 2030, no country—whether the US, China, or any other large country—will be a hegemonic power. The empowerment of individuals and diffusion of power among states and from states to informal networks will have a dramatic impact, largely reversing the historic rise of the West since 1750, restoring Asia's weight in the global economy, and ushering in a new era of "democratization" at the international and domestic level.


To the unsophisticated reader, this "world of 2030" might seem like a prediction of the most fundamental sort. The report explains, however, that this judgment is based on "megatrends" of which we can be quite certain and which can be expected to accelerate. These megatrends include, as noted above, the empowerment of individuals and the diffusion of power, along with the aging of the global population and growing resource scarcity. According to Global Trends 2030, the precise trajectory of the future could be transformed radically by six "game changers," such as breakthrough technological developments and major variations productivity of the global economy. To account for the interaction of all of the above,Global Trends 2030 posits four different future worlds, and proposes several potential "black swans"—discrete events that would cause large-scale disruptions.

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I will add a bit more detail to this predictive framework, below. For the student of strategy, several points are perhaps worth making at the outset. First, prediction is indeed hard. I have been enlisted in a number of strategic forecasting exercises over the years—as well as being prodded into predicting the outcome of major sporting events—and I cannot claim any particular or general prescience that allows me to dismiss Global Trends 2030, or any similar findings, out of hand. Second, forecasting is necessary, or at least valuable, if rightly understood. Dwight Eisenhower always extolled the virtues of military planning, not because of any specific plans that might be generated but because of the value of the planning process itself as an educational tool. The same can be said for forecasting—one can learn many interesting things that might otherwise not have come to one's attention. Jokes about Star Trek aside, solar geomagnetic storms may indeed become a big deal; who knew?

That said, one is struck by the a-strategic, a-historical quality of analysis in Global Trends 2030. Various entities—states, international organizations, non-state actors, corporations, individuals—are portrayed as bobbing around in some great futuristic ocean, lashed about by contrary sea and air currents. Some have sails and rudders of various sizes and qualities, which allow them to have a degree of seaway, but all are on the verge of being swamped and no one seem to have the ability to set an independent course. (The NIC authors, reacting to criticisms of previous numbers of the Global Trendsseries, did try to allow for some degree of policy discretion by the United States, but in a rather abstract fashion.) There is no apparent room for a particularly skilled helmsman—or for the notion that a nation-state or empire might seek to master or reverse the "megatrends." The report affects an air of objectivity but in fact it is based on the accepted wisdom of the day, a linear extrapolation of "irreversible" forces that point inexorably in a direction of which most American intellectuals believe and approve: the "decline" of American power and the end of the era of Western dominance (however "decline" and "end" are sugar-coated), the diffusion of power, the continued weakening of the nation-state, the empowerment of the individual, and the like. Each of the successive Global Trends reports share these assumptions.

That may prove to be the case, but serious strategic forecasting can also benefit from a look backwards, where things can be known with some certainty. The late Professor Harold W. Rood of Claremont McKenna College, for instance, taught that the study of politics is a study of history, something that is made possible and useful because human nature exists and is unchanging. What has happened, and how it came to happen with its consequences, is therefore a reasonable guide to what can happen. The great clashes of will that characterized the 20th century and the uncertainty and tensions of the current century originated years and centuries before.

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The study of history reminds the student of strategy to think in the very long term in order to make sense of day-to-day events. International relations have been characterized by certain persistent patterns of great power interactions and associated wars, as the great powers have sought to organize the world to their liking, or to keep others from doing so. There is no reason to assume that these patterns have disappeared because of the rise of the internet, economic globalization, or the spread of liberal ideas. Historical patterns provide a substantial degree of predictability—a baseline from which to understand the direction of human affairs. Strategic forecasting therefore might usefully begin with a study of the enduring objectives and actions of the great powers, those nation-states or empires with the ability and desire to control or influence matters on a continental or global scale. For instance, the particular aims and strategies of the great powers are affected in decisive ways by the fundamental facts of geography (defined broadly to include climate, soil quality, resources, and the like). Geography conditions the distribution and configuration of the great powers. It is yet to be proven that any "megatrends" have changed these verities in any fundamental way or that great powers have ceased to think and act in a strategic fashion.

Great powers exhibit those patterns of behavior despite apparent changes in political regimes. Certain "problems" in international relations have persisted for decades and centuries. Identifying and understanding these problems permit the student of strategy to understand better what was going on in the world—they constitute something of a "scorecard" of regional and global conflicts. Those problems are not immutable but their resolution generally requires absolute and convincing victory (or defeat) of one of the parties. Problems often turn on the question of whether nations are to be unified or dismembered.

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Rood liked to point to historical examples of wise strategic forecasting, often emerging from unusual places, including novels (for example, Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands, published in 1903, whose plot was based on the discovery of German plans to invade England) and apparently iconoclastic geopolitical analyses such as Homer Lea's The Valor of Ignorance (1909), which anticipated a great Japanese-American war in the Pacific, including a surprise Japanese attack and an invasion of the west coast of the United States. Lea's book included a map of sites predicting where the Japanese would land in the Philippines, which corresponded closely with Tokyo's campaign in 1941-42.

U.S. Army and Navy planners throughout the 1920s and 1930s also anticipated the main lines of a war in the Pacific. On April 4, 1939, the Joint Planning Committee of the Army-Navy Board published its Exploratory Studies, which was to be the basis for the development of Joint Army and Navy Basic War Plans: Rainbow 1 through 5, of which 5 was the general scheme under which the United States would wage war in coalition with Great Britain. In dealing with the problem of Japanese aggression in the Pacific, Exploratory Studies concluded

The objective of Japanese aggression against the Philippines and against the United States interest in the Western Pacific in general would be:

(a) Possession of the Philippines, economic and political. 
(b) Capture of Guam. 
(c) Elimination of outside interference to Japanese domination of the Western Pacific and Eastern Asia.


If the U.S. Fleet is not in a position to move to the Philippine area in sufficient time to intervene, the Japanese operations against the Philippines will include:

(a) Blockading, destroying, or driving off units of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, except submarines. 
(b) Blockade of Manila Bay. 
(c) Landing of expeditionary forces on Luzon. 
(d) Capture of Manila Bay. 
(e) Establishment of airfields and movement of aircraft by flight from Japanese homeland via Formosa. 
(f) Occupation of all the Philippine Islands. 
(g) Simultaneously Guam will be captured and defenses established.


Japan will undertake these operations when the international situation favors their success. She will prefer starting them when the U.S. Fleet, or a part of it, is in the Atlantic. In such a case the advantage to Japan of blocking the Panama Canal for an extended period would be at a premium.

If the U.S. Fleet is in the Pacific a probable Japanese measure would be attempts to damage Major Fleet Units without warning, or possibly attempt to block the Fleet in Pearl Harbor. Japan would plan the inauguration of these initial measures without warning, and with as little preliminary indication as possible.

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Exploratory Studies did not intend to predict events in a Pacific War but only to set forth what Japan would have to do in order to attain its objectives. Yet the description of what might be expected in such a war reads almost like an outline history of the period between December 7 and 8, 1941, and the surrender of the Philippines in May 1942. Rood found it notable that such a chain of events could be anticipated, based on a reasonable assessment of Japanese policy and military capabilities, placed in the context of geographical space and the inherent logic of war and strategy.

One might object that these forecasts all had to do with war between great powers; certainly we have gotten beyond all that. It would perhaps be impolitic for a document issued by the U.S. Intelligence Community to provide such an assessment. But great powers, and lesser powers, all do plan on wars. By understanding those plans—together with a reasonable assessment of military policy and capabilities, which are placed in the context of geographical space and the inherent logic of war and strategy—we may be in a position to speak a bit more confidently about the future.

Following is a summary taken from the report. The complete report can be found here

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Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds

Megatrends: Relative Certainties

[The NIC report begins by identifying what its authors see as the most important megatrends of our transforming world, which it claims are knowable and which by themselves point to a transformed world.]

1. Individual Empowerment:

Individual empowerment will accelerate owing to poverty reduction, growth of the global middle class, greater educational attainment, widespread use of new communications and manufacturing technologies, and health-care advances.... As individuals move into the middle class, values will shift including possible strengthening of religious, ethnic and national identities. But middle classes won't feel secure: one billion workers from developing countries will be added to [the] global labor pool, putting additional pressure on low-skilled labor.

2. Diffusion of Power:

Asia is set to surpass North America and Europe in global economic power, but there will not be any hegemonic power. The power of other non-Western or middle-tier states will rise. This middle tier as a group will surpass Europe, Japan, and Russia. China's economy will be 140-percent larger than Japan; India's will be 16 times larger than Pakistan's. Technology will be a great leveler, shifting the balance of power towards multifaceted networks.

3. Demographic Patterns:

Rapid extensions of life expectancy [are] likely: global deaths from communicable diseases are projected to drop by more than 40 percent. Some countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, will still have youthful populations, but the demographic arc of instability will narrow on both east and west flanks. "Aging" countries face the possibility of decline in economic growth. Increased migration will spread to emerging powers. Urbanization [is] set to grow to almost 60 percent.

4. Growing Nexus Among Energy, Water, and Food:

Demand for resources will increase owing to an increase in global population from 7.1 billion today to about 8 billion by 2030. Demand for food [is] set to rise 35 percent; energy 50 percent over the next 15-20 years. Nearly half of world population will live in areas with severe water stress. Fragile states [are] most at risk, but China and India are vulnerable to volatility of key resources. [The m]ain questions will be whether there will be more effective management, wider technology use, and greater governance mechanisms.

Critical Game Changers

[The NIC report identifies six factors that will determine more precisely the contours of the transformed world of 2030. These game-changers "are the raw elements that could sow the seeds of global disruption or incredible advances."]

1. A Crisis-Prone Global Economy:

Will global volatility and imbalances among players with different economic interests result in collapse? Or will greater multipolarity lead to increased resiliency in the global economic order? Both developing and developed countries face stiff challenges to achieve a new "normalcy" in the global economy. For much of the West, the challenges involve sustaining growth in the face of rapidly aging populations. For China and India, the main challenge will be to avoid "middle income traps."

2. Governance Gap:

Will governments and institutions be able to adapt fast enough to harness change instead of being overwhelmed by it? Potential serious governance deficits driven by rapid political and social changes are likely to exist. Countries moving from autocracy to democracy have a proven record of high instability. About 50 countries fall into this major risk group; all of them could grow out of their governance incongruities by 2030 if economic advances continue. [The p]olitical landscape will be a lot more complicated. Megacities and regional groupings [are] likely to assume increasing powers. The characteristics of ICT [information and communications technology] use-multiple and simultaneous action, near-instantaneous responses, and mass organization across geographical boundaries—increase the potential for more frequent discontinuous change in the international system. On the other hand, ICT will give governments—both authoritarian and democratic—an unprecedented ability to monitor their citizens.

3. Potential for Increased Conflict:

Will rapid changes and shifts in power lead to more intrastate and interstate conflicts? Limited natural resources—such as water and arable land—in many of the same countries that will have disproportionate levels of young men—particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and parts of the Middle East—increase the risk of intrastate conflict. Most intrastate conflicts will remain in form of irregular warfare, but spread of precision weaponry may change the character of some of these conflicts. A more fragmented international system, spillover from regional conflicts, and resource competition increases [the] potential for interstate conflict. The Middle East most likely will remain the most volatile region, even as it moves toward greater democratization. Any future wars in Asia and the Middle East probably could include a nuclear element. Many of these conflicts, once begun, would not be easily containable and would have global impacts.

4. Wider Scope of Regional Instability:

Will regional instability, especially in the Middle East and South Asia, spill over and create global insecurity? [The] Middle East and South Asia face a series of internal and external shocks. An increasingly multipolar Asia, lacking a well-anchored regional security framework able to arbitrate and mitigate rising tensions, constitutes a significant threat. A more inward-focused and less capable Europe would provide a smaller stabilizing force for crises in neighboring regions. Besides [the] Middle East and South Asia, countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and the Caribbean remain vulnerable to state failure.

5. Impact of New Technologies:

Will technological breakthroughs be developed in time to boost economic productivity and solve the problems caused by a growing world population, rapid urbanization, and climate change? [The NIC report identifies] 16 "disruptive" technologies with potential global significance out to 2030. They are grouped around potential energy breakthroughs; food-and water-related innovations; big data and forecasting human behaviors; and enhancement of human mental and physical capabilities and anti-aging. Many will need concerted government efforts to be realized by 2030.

6. Role of the United States:

Will the US be able to work with new partners to reinvent the international system, carving out new roles in an expanded world order?... [T]he US most likely will remain primus inter pares among the other great powers in 2030 because of the multifaceted nature of its power and legacies of its leadership, but the "unipolar moment" is over. [There is l]imited potential for China to replace [the] US as international leader by 2030. A reinvigorated US economy, spurred by possible US energy independence, would increase the prospects that the growing global and regional challenges would be addressed. If the US fails to rebound, however, a dangerous global power vacuum would be created.

Scenarios: Future Worlds

[By positing the possible interactions between the megatrends and the game-changers, the NIC report envisions four future potential worlds.]

1. Stalled Engines:

The US and Europe are no longer capable or interested in sustained global leadership. Corruption, social unrest, weak financial system and chronically poor infrastructures slow growth rates in [the] developing world. The global governance system is unable to cope with a widespread pandemic: rich countries wall themselves off from many poor countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. By disrupting international travel and trade, the severe pandemic helps to stall out, but does not kill globalization.

2. Fusion:

The specter of a spreading conflict in South Asia prompts the US and China to intervene. Washington and Beijing find other issues to collaborate on. Emerging economies grow faster than advanced economies, but GDP growth in advanced economies also accelerates. Technological innovation is critical to the world staying ahead of the rising resource constraints that result from the rapid boost in prosperity.

3. Gini Out of the Bottle:

Inequalities within countries and between rich and poor countries dominate. The world is increasingly defined by two self-reinforcing cycles—one virtuous leading to greater prosperity, the other vicious leading to poverty and instability. Major powers remain at odds; the potential for conflict rises. An increasing number of states fail. Economic growth continues at moderate pace, but the world is less secure.

4. Nonstate World:

New and emerging technologies that favor greater empowerment of individuals, small groups and ad hoc coalition spur the increased power of nonstate actors. This is a patchwork and uneven world. Some global problems get solved because networks manage to coalesce and cooperation exists across state and nonstate divides. Security threats pose an increasing challenge: access to lethal and disruptive technologies expands to terrorists and criminal actors.

Black Swans

[These are discreet events that would cause large-scale disruption.]

1. Severe Pandemic:

No one can predict which pathogen will be the next to start spreading to humans, or when or where such a development will occur. An easily transmissible novel respiratory pathogen that kills or incapacitates more than one percent of its victims is among the most disruptive events possible. Such an outbreak could result in millions of people suffering and dying in every corner of the world in less than six months.

2. Much More Rapid Climate Change:

Dramatic and unforeseen changes already are occurring at a faster rate than expected. Most scientists are not confident of being able to predict such events. Rapid changes in precipitation patterns—such as monsoons in India and the rest of Asia—could sharply disrupt that region's ability to feed its population.

3. Euro/EU Collapse:

An unruly Greek exit from the euro zone could cause eight times the collateral damage as the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, provoking a broader crisis regarding the EU's future.

4. A Democratic or Collapsed China:

China is slated to pass the threshold of US$15,000 per capita purchasing power parity (PPP) in the next five years or so—a level that is often a trigger for democratization. Chinese "soft" power could be dramatically boosted, setting off a wave of democratic movements. Alternatively, many experts believe a democratic China could also become more nationalistic. An economically collapsed China would trigger political unrest and shock the global economy.

5. A Reformed Iran:

A more liberal regime could come under growing public pressure to end the international sanctions and negotiate an end to Iran's isolation. An Iran that dropped its nuclear weapons aspirations and became focused on economic modernization would bolster the chances for a more stable Middle East.

6. Nuclear War or WMD/Cyber Attack:

Nuclear powers such as Russia and Pakistan and potential aspirants such as Iran and North Korea see nuclear weapons as compensation for other political and security weaknesses, heightening the risk of their use. The chance of nonstate actors conducting a cyber attack—or using WMD—also is increasing.

7. Solar Geomagnetic Storms:

Solar geomagnetic storms could knock out satellites, the electric grid, and many sensitive electronic devices. The recurrence intervals of crippling solar geomagnetic storms, which are less than a century, now pose a substantial threat because of the world's dependence on electricity.

8. U.S. Disengagement:

A collapse or sudden retreat of US power probably would result in an extended period of global anarchy; no leading power would be likely to replace the United States as guarantor of the international order.