global trends, values, and ethics

Chapter 1

A Framework—Not Fortune Cookies

Since 1997, the NIC has convened a number of meetings with government officials, experts, the private sector, and academics to produce reports published every four years following the US presidential election. A copy is delivered to the incoming president some time after election before inauguration. However, the publication is not for the president’s eyes only: it is freely available to the public, foreign governments, policymakers, analysts, and journalists. Even a terrorist with dial-up can download what leaders in the US intelligence community think. The NIC’s aim is to play a vital role in providing policy communities with honest, unadulterated information. What is remarkable about “Global Trends 2030” is that it is an official US document that attempts to publicly and earnestly espouse impolitic assessments for many American ears:

Although these trends might be unsettling for some of the American public, we should ask whether these predictions are necessarily dismissible. When policies negligently get life-altering facts wrong, people needlessly suffer. And if one is concerned not only with themselves, but also with the lives of others, preventable ignorance is unacceptable. Thus, a forward-thinking strategic report such as “Global Trends 2030” is of no small consequence.

Although “Global Trends 2030” should not be slighted as the work of some five-dollar fortuneteller, it also would be too extreme to consider the NIC’s findings as prophecies from the Oracle at Delphi. The NIC is not aspiring toward such prognostic feats. It emphasizes that the report offers a framework that will stimulate thinking about possible futures.

Yet most coverage of “Global Trends 2030” has not focused on assessing the framework.[4] Instead, headlines have understandably highlighted the report’s wide range of trends including the rise of China and India, the growth of the global middle class, and the shift not only in national power but also the nature of power. To be sure, these are important trends, they were in the report, and journalists would have been harangued for not mentioning such details. And given the mind-boggling array of facts, figures, and futures, the report can be overwhelming to digest. It is understandable why editors have selected the stories that they find most interesting for their readers. Indeed, it sounds counter-intuitive to criticize journalists for reporting the trends listed in a global trends report.

But there is a good reason to be counter-intuitive.

Danger lies in foretelling the future by fortune cookie. Such small snippets of worldly wisdom, mass-printed and served to readers as absolute truths, may not only lead readers to think that such facts and worlds are inevitable; they may further narrow their views of what is possible. “Global Trends” was designed to prod policymakers and stimulate citizens into thinking seriously about our future world by establishing a framework for planning. Policymakers and citizens deserve the full feast of the report, not simply what seems novel. Even the most seasoned political analyst will be impressed by the systematic breadth and caliber of this exercise. The richness of the report—and its flaws—can only be appreciated by evaluating its framework, which tells a story of individual-, society-, state-, and global-level megatrends.


By 2030, individual empowerment will be the central mega-trend shaping all of our futures. A number of factors will elevate individuals. A growing global middle class will usher in the reduction of extreme poverty to the lowest levels ever known in human history. Throughout the world, people will be better educated and healthier. Women and men will enjoy more equal rights. Technological innovation will bring about the greatest change in individual empowerment.[5] Big data, social networking, and smart city information technologies will drive growth for both the developed and developing worlds. Leap-frog technologies such as smartphones will lift the poor out of poverty. Automation and manufacturing technologies such as robots, self-driving vehicles, and 3D printing will free the individual by permitting new and more productive work patterns. Resource technologies such as genetically modified crops, precision agriculture, and better water management will feed a more populous world while biofuels and solar energy will drive those new people to work. Health technologies will lead to new cures that will eliminate or alleviate many of today’s diseases. Human augmentation will better allow the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and those with impaired limbs to touch.

Individual empowerment will be so great that it will bend the trajectories of the other three megatrends. Changes in demographic patterns will be the most proximate change. An additional 1.2 billion people will increase the world’s population to 8.3 billion. Yet these newborn babies will not lead to a more youthful world: future populations of all societies (except for sub-Saharan Africa) will face rapid aging. Today’s Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development high-income countries will become demographically post-mature structured countries (i.e., the number of older people will outstrip the number of middle-aged and young people) and today’s emerging BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) will become mature structured. Thus, aggregate GDPs will decrease in today’s rich countries for two reasons: (1) older, less energetic workers will become less productive but continue to demand high living standards, and (2) the numbers of youthful domestic and international workers drop. This will lead to a shrinking number of youthful countries. However, urbanization will drive increased demand and opportunities for both skilled and unskilled migrant labor for the construction of housing, offices, and transportation infrastructure over the next forty years.[6] Globalization’s incentives toward efficient urbanization, particularly in the developing world, will lead to 60 percent of the world’s population to live in cities.

This future, more-crowded planet will face a food, water, and energy nexus. An additional 1.2 billion people will increasingly demand resources that have always been interconnected, but never consumed at as such levels by so many people in history. Climate change will be intertwined with this nexus. Changing weather patterns will bring to light commodity interdependencies. Climate change’s effects on land and water availability will affect the supply and demand chains of food, and these effects will also challenge the global middle class’s demands for higher consumption of energy. Climate change will also help determine food and water availability region by region. However, growing strains on these commodities may not preordain their scarcity. Food technologies such as genetically modified crops and precision agriculture may accommodate the rising global population as the green revolution did in the past. Water management with subsurface drip irrigation systems may conserve water in a future of higher demand and droughts. Innovations in energy technologies such as bio-fuels, solar, and hydraulic fracturing may also help to prevent a scarcity of fuels for the future. Efficiencies brought about by urbanization and smart cities may also mitigate problems.

Individual empowerment through economic growth and technology; shifting demographic patterns of a rising global middle class, aging, and urbanization; and the strains of the food, water, and energy nexus will all culminate to direct a global diffusion of power not only in terms of a new distribution of national power, but also in terms of the nature of power. By 2030, regardless of which global power index one uses—one measurement includes only GDP, population, military spending, and technology while another also incorporates health, education, and governance—China will surpass the US and EU as both experience relative decline. India will surpass both the US and EU if the more basic index is used. China and India will not be the only countries to rise, nor will the US and the EU be the only countries to decline. Goldman Sachs’s designated “Next Eleven” countries combined (i.e., Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, The Philippines, South Korea, Turkey, and Vietnam) will overtake the EU’s global power by 2030. At the same time, the 20th century’s other great powers, Japan and Russia, will follow the same relative downward power trajectory as the US and EU.

However, these national power shifts will not result in a new order of dominance: no country—not the US, China, or any other country—will be a hegemonic power. What does this mean for stability? A multipolar, fragmented international system may increase the potential of conflict through a number of game-changers: new global players may introduce economic volatility and imbalances and lead to a crisis-prone global economy; interdependence may lead to wider scopes of regional instability since crises in regions such as the Middle East or the South China Sea could spill over; a limited US role in the world could preclude the hegemonic stability that some believe has been ensured in the past century; new technologies may lead to new weapons capabilities beyond the surveillance of drones; and the high expectations of empowered, hungry, middle-class individuals may form a governance gap due to the inability of their elected politicians or leaders to deliver public goods.

Despite these game-changing risks, new states would face an even greater risk if they were to violently revise the status quo that is permitting them to rise into the future. Today, interstate conflict is at a historical low. A major reason for this, many argue, is that the victors of World War II created an international order of international institutions and a global economy that would benefit all states.[7] No other country offers an alternative vision in the next fifteen to twenty years from today’s liberal international order that would be beneficial for all states. Multipolarity, despite increased risks, does not necessarily entail great power conflict. The “hundred years’ peace” was a period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War characterized by multipolar stability. Limited wars occurred, but great wars did not. Although this period was bookended with the most violent conflict in history and the powers of the future may push for a different order rendering such conflicts in the future as plausible, a conflict of a world-war magnitude is not predicted by 2030.

Intrastate conflict will likely continue a now two-decades-long downward trajectory. Young men—the most violent, destabilizing demographic group in history—will, as a cohort, grow older. In the past, this aging was arguably a cause for the decline of violence in Europe and the US. Today, we see youth uprisings from South and Central Asia across the Middle East, encompassing Sub-Saharan Africa, and tapering off in the Central Andes and mid-section of Central America. By 2030, though, we will see a contraction and aging of this youthful global “demographic arc of instability” and fewer intrastate conflicts are likely to occur. Some countries, unfortunately, will not have such a future: the demographic and ecological factors that have put the fifteen states most at risk of state failure today will be no different in 2030. Somalia, Burundi, Yemen, Uganda, Afghanistan, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Niger, Pakistan, Chad, Haiti, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh will continue to be at risk of intrastate conflict due largely to their youthful demographics and ecological conflicts over food and water. The only difference might be the country order of their risk of state failure.

The changing nature of power may be even more profound than shifts in national power. The role of hard power will be limited by states’ desire to maintain a peaceful and prosperous world order. The utility of military force may become too blunt of an instrument, as diplomacy becomes increasingly important for all states, especially for today’s middle powers, in achieving their interests. However, technological innovation will cause the most drastic change in power. Amorphous networks of state and nonstate actors will fill the interstices of today’s international order. Individuals, multinational corporations, and nongovernmental organizations will be able to harness big data in real time at speeds faster than governments. Past power asymmetries will be upended as nonstate actors will be able to exert more pressures on their governments to become more responsive and as these actors become more accountable to the public. Individual-state interactions will more broadly range from symbiotic dependencies beneficial to all actors, to individuals more independent from their states, to confrontations between malicious hackers and governments.

United States Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds

Theme Major Trends Ancillary Trends
Megatrends Individual empowerment Reduction of poverty
Expanding global middle class
Narrowing education and gender gaps
Innovations in communications technologies
Improving health
Increasingly conflicted ideological landscape
Diffusion of power Rise and fall of countries: no hegemonic power
More limits to hard power
Power shifts to networks and coalitions in a multipolar world
Demographic patterns Widespread aging and shrinking number of youthful countries
New impetuses for migration
Increasing urbanization
Food, water, energy nexus Increasing demand for resources
Increasing linkages among resources
Game-changers Crisis-prone economy Pressures on the West
Pressures on emerging powers
Multipolar global economy: Inherently more fragile?
Governance gap Governance starts at home: risks and opportunities
Increased focus on equality and openness
Creation of new governmental forms
A new regional order?
Increase in global multilateral cooperation
Potential for conflict Interstate conflict: continued decline
Intrastate conflict: chances rising
Wider scope of regional instability Middle East: at a tipping point
South Asia: shocks on the horizon
East Asia: multiple strategic futures
Europe: transforming itself
Sub-Saharan Africa: turning a corner by 2030?
Latin America: more prosperous but inherently fragile
Innovations in new technologies Information technologies
Automation and manufacturing technologies
Resource technologies
Health technologies
The role of the US Steady US role
Multiple potential scenarios for the US

These megatrends and game-changers will diverge toward a range of four alternative worlds. Although the actual future world will likely be composed of elements from these worlds, these archetypes are useful sketches of likely global developments. A number of black swans (i.e., low probability events that may have cataclysmic effects on the fundamental dynamics of world affairs) could cause great strains on the four megatrends.[8] In the past, the development of unforeseeable events such as the invention of the Internet or the nuclear bomb transformed epochs for better or worse. Such events in the future might include severe pandemics, much more rapid climate change, an EU collapse, US disengagement, a democratic or collapsed China, a reformed Iran, a nuclear war, a weapons of mass destruction or cyber attack, or solar geomagnetic storms. However, given their relatively low probabilities, only few of the possible worlds incorporate these dramatic influences.

The best-case Fusion scenario has both the US and China realizing a shared interest in a growing global economy without conflict. Both countries will coordinate to avoid conflict in the South China Sea. And they will look for other opportunities to cooperate. This forward-thinking inclination sets a norm of cooperation over competition that other countries will internalize. Trust among civilizations will increase. Multilateral institutions will become more inclusive. China will undergo political reform. The EU will use today’s eurozone crisis as a catalyst for political restructuring. Technological innovation will skyrocket as all growth in all economies—developing, emerging, and OECD—accelerates. Innovations will alleviate stresses on the food, water, and energy nexus.

Stalled Engines represents a worse-case, but still decent world where the risk of interstate conflict increases in Asia and the Middle East, globalization slows, and the US and EU no longer lead. The European Union will unravel as countries leave the eurozone. Emerging economies will continue to grow, but beneath their potential since fundamental economic and political reforms in China and India will not be made. Technological innovation will consequently slow, although IT connectivity will continue to grow. A global black swan shock such as a pandemic will expose the weakness of multilateral governance as rich countries shield their own citizens from the poor countries where diseases might originate.

Inequality within and between countries characterizes the Gini Out-of-the-Bottle world. Although global GDP growth will be greater than in the Stalled Engines world, the least well off in this world are worse off than in any other alternative. At the national, regional, and global levels, the rich will get richer, and the poor will get poorer. The US’s hydraulic fracturing investments and technological innovations will maintain its status the preeminent power. Uncompetitive Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal will be thrown out of the eurozone. With America disengaged and Europe looking after itself, African countries at most risk of state failure will suffer from sectarian tribal and ethnic conflicts without the sympathy of international aid and peacekeeping forces. Chinese political institutions will become unstable while its coastal cities thrive and middle-class dreams will be snuffed out by corruption and governance gaps. These political and economic inequalities will also increase the risk of intra- and interstate conflict.

The Nonstate World reflects a radical decentralization of global power. Nongovernmental organizations, multinational businesses, academic institutions, wealthy individuals, and megacities take the initiative on global challenges. Technologies will have been innovated in such ways that individuals and small groups will no longer need governments to provide their services. Social media, mobile communications, and big data will increasingly connect and inform individuals. The global values of elites and the middle-class will have converged on poverty, the environment, anticorruption, rule of law, and peace. Governments will play the role of facilitators rather than directors. Private capital and philanthropy will outstrip official development assistance. International governance institutions will have to accommodate nonstate actors at the same table as states. Dangers may also persist. Terrorists and criminal networks will be able to wield lethal and disruptive technologies and slip through the cracks of a patchwork of competing security authorities. This world will be more stable and prosperous than the Gini Out-of-the-Bottle world since it will be more socially cohesive and cooperative.

[4] See NIC, “Global Trends 2030 Media Coverage,” available at www.dni.gov/index.php/about/organization/global-trends-2030-media-coverage .

[5] For a more extensive overview of the effects of future connectivity on the lives of individuals as seen by Google, see Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, “Our Future Selves” in The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business (New York: Random House, 2013).

[6] For a more detailed illustration linking the rise of a global middle class and urbanization, see McKinsey and Company, “Urban World: Cities and the Rise of the Consuming Class,” McKinsey Global Institute, June 2012.

[7] For example, see G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[8] See Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2nd ed. (New York: Random House, 2010).

Copyright © 2014 by Thong Nguyen

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Of All Possible Future Worlds: Global Trends, Values, and Ethics by Thong Nguyen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.