Intelligence analysts have long debated whether their discipline is an art or a science. For the most part, forecasting remains an exercise in structured analytic reasoning. Analysts have to factor in past and present dynamics to sketch out possible and probable future trends, to guide clients such as policymakers. This also requires imagination and factoring in unknowns. In as much as geopolitical risk analysis uses the history of the present to set the tone for the immediate future, thinking through a vision of the future also helps to illuminate the present. In this regard, much value can be derived by studying strategic forecast analyses, specifically those by national intelligence agencies that have the resources to employ worthy minds to this end.
The US National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) report Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress, offers fascinating insights into possible and probable geopolitical, social and economic trends. The report explores “how the changing nature of power is increasing stress both within countries and between countries” and tries to understand what transformative impacts these stresses will have.
Global Trends notes that the next five years will see an increase in tensions between and within countries, and that the future will likely be marked by greater conflict risks of due to “diverging interests among major powers, an expanding terror threat, continued instability in weak states, and the spread of lethal, disruptive technologies”. Cooperation on global issues is likely to be hampered by ‘veto power’ due to competing strategic visions and the expanding interests of the great and regional powers and their UNSC allies (think Syria in recent years). Conflict prevention norms and human-rights provisions will be weakened, including by states such as Russia and China, leading to more violent localized conflict, while preventing multilateral diplomatic solutions. Conflict will also move away from traditional defeat of the enemy on battlefield towards disruptive attacks targeting critical infrastructure and undermining social cohesion to secure advantage and force an opponent’s hand.
The report notes that the lines between war and peace will be blurred through these increasing range of tools that actors may employ, ‘undermining old norms of escalation and deterrence’. Deniable state-sponsored cyberattacks on an opponent’s electricity infrastructure during an election period to sway the vote may be a good example here. Terror attacks may become more consequential due to the spread of lethal and disruptive technologies, including precision weapons, robotic systems and cyber arsenals. State sponsored sabotage could employ these same tool, likely in the targeting of enemy industrial infrastructure. The report also notes that noncombatants will increasingly be targeted, perhaps to incite disruptive intra-state tensions and conflict. Long-distant and remote attacks will become increasingly possible, risking escalation due to the temptation to engage in preemptive attacks. This includes attacks on enemy communication technology such as military satellites. There may also be greater doctrinal acceptance of using low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.
Political stability may be affected by increasing bouts of populism and nationalism, partly in response to disillusionment with failing economic policies, and against established political institutions and the elites that maintain them. Populist and nationalistic leaders may increasingly use democratic legitimacy to consolidate executive power, while quashing domestic opposition, leading to an erosion of civil society and the rule of law. Politically convenient waves of anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment are possible. Global Trends notes that “exclusionary religious identities will shape regional and local dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa and threaten to do so in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa between Christian and Muslim communities.” Political stability may be further threatened by mass protests as public distrust and expectations with authorities erode, compounded by the inevitable corruption scandals amid political polarization and fiscal constraints on effective governance. The report also notes that governance will become more challenging due to the multiplicity of influential actors, such as NGO’s, corporations, powerful individuals, that must be co-opted or whose interests need be taken into account.
Global Trends outlines three scenario-based models of the future which may emerge in response to certain trends in the decades ahead. These scenarios involve national (Islands), regional (orbits) and sub-state & transnational (communities) level scenarios.
Islands – This scenario ‘investigates a restructuring of the global economy’ as states attempt to become self-sufficient ‘islands’ in a slow process of rejecting globalization. Measures could include protectionist economic policies and retreating from multilateral cooperation. This process could be in response to bottom-up pressure from a domestic audience disillusioned with globalization and wealth inequality, seeking new forms of economic and social security, perhaps a result of long periods of weak or no economic growth, compounded by the disruptive role of automotive and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. Changing regional and global trade patterns could result, as well as renewed local entrepreneurship amid a slowdown in global economic integration.
Orbits: The great powers, and increasingly, powerful regional states, will carve out territorial spheres of influence where they will enjoy political hegemony. Factors such as rising nationalism, domestic insecurity, conflict and strategic trends, disruptive technologies, and a weakening of multilateral cooperation will increase the risk of interstate conflict. The scenario envisages the use of a nuclear weapon by a belligerent, highlighting the danger of new weapons technologies, such as a possible use of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons. Non-state actors assume increasing power and influence, including terrorist and criminal groups.
Communities: This scenario sees non-state and private actors, including nonprofit organizations, multinational corporations and religious groups increasingly assume responsibility for service provision due to the failure of, and despite the resistance of, national governments who are unable to provide due to fiscal constraints or political ineffectiveness. This is an era of new public-private relations. This scenario also sees as enhanced role for local governments as they negotiate greater concessions from the national regime. Information technologies, including expanding social media penetration will give these actors increasing social and political influence, able to shape public opinion. As in Orbits above, the corporation and the terrorist emerge as two non-state actors on different sides of the spectrum, although both can be seen as deeply intertwined with, or in opposition to the state.