Want to Know the Future? Ask the CIA

Author: David Yee
Created: 06 July, 2015
Updated: 15 October, 2022
6 min read
. . . the idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behavior that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice. -- John Maynard Keynes, 1937

For a little more than two decades, the CIA, in conjunction with the director of National Intelligence, has created a forward looking document called Global Trends every four years for use by the Executive Branch for policy-making.

The next installment, Global Trends 2035, will be given to the president-elect in December 2016 to help guide policy-making for the upcoming term. Currently, President Obama uses Global Trends 2030, which will be used for the remainder of his presidency.

So, with now six installments of the Global Trends series (2010-2035) available, how good has the CIA been at predicting the changes in the world 15 to 20 years out -- from economics to geopolitical events?

Global Trends 2015 (GT-2015)

In December 2000, then president-elect George W. Bush was given GT-2015, which had many fantastic claims as to the way the world would shape up in the next 15 years.

Some international news outlets mocked the 70-page report, which only serves as a written record of how well the report predicted the future, including:

  • 9/11-style attacks;
  • creation of organizations such as Wikileaks;
  • the rise of Asian-based cyber-attacks against U.S. companies and governments;
  • organizations such as ISIS;
  • a growing alliance among terrorist organizations;
  • the rise in dependency of GMO foodstuffs;
  • accurately predicting the world's population;
  • political turmoil in Africa (i.e. the Arab Spring);
  • Russian economic contraction;
  • Russian military engagement threatening a new Cold War in Europe;
  • EU economic instability;
  • Chinese economic parity with the United States;
  • the underlying causes of the Great Recession;
  • increasing military tensions with China;
  • "cool at best" relations with India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea;
  • the rise of sex-trafficking;
  • domestication of U.S. oil reserves;
  • difficulty for U.S. to build international coalitions supporting our political objectives (proven by the P5+1 failures);
  • America beginning to abdicate its role as the world's policeman; and
  • wide-spread worldwide water shortages.

And while the report was amazingly accurate on most predictions, some fell (at times extremely) short of expectations:

  • a trade war with the EU over their increasing regulations of commerce;
  • the likelihood of a regional war in Asian (which still isn't wholly out of the question); and
  • China demanding an end to Japan's civilian nuclear program (which is ending, but for different reasons).

Global Trends 2030 (GT-2030) and Beyond

With a pretty good track history of predicting the future, what did the CIA predict for the next 15 years in GT-2030?

GT-2030 is divided into very interestingly titled subsections, basically falling around:

  • Unavoidable Megatrends;
  • Potential Game-Changers; and
  • Worst-Case Scenarios, including several individual-event "Black Swans" that could have the greatest national and international impact.

Unavoidable Megatrends

Like it or not, some of the world's problems will be fully into fruition by 2030, barring extreme global unity in combating the problems:

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  • Western economies will be facing the effects of an aging society. Services will become more expensive as more non-workers are reliant on a shrinking base of workers' efforts: "Aging countries will face an uphill battle in maintaining their living standards. Demand for both skilled and unskilled labor will spur global migration."
  • Worldwide growing urbanization: up to 60% (40% currently) of the world's population will live in cities.
  • A growing worldwide middle class will demand greater equity in the sharing of the world's resources.
  • No hegemonic world power: the world will become polarized with extremely regional spheres of influence.
  • The world's resources will be strained by growing demand and population shifts. "Tackling problems pertaining to one commodity will be linked to supply and demand for the others."

Potential Game Changers

While less likely to happen than the megatrends, these events could lead to severe changes in the structure and function of the world's political and economic systems:

  • The possibility of a crisis-prone world economy, spurred by competing interests of world players.
  • A governance gap -- will governments, especially smaller ones, be able to keep up with the world's changes and remain relevant and viable?
  • A potential for increased regional conflicts, especially over resource claims.
  • The impact of newly discovered 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 political make-up of the United States: What global role will the United States have based on the political will of the electorate?
  • A geopolitical best-case scenario: A broad-based collaboration between the U.S. and a growing democratized China that will ensure economic, military, and social stability worldwide.
  • U.S. will become fully energy independent, crippling international economies wholly dependent on energy export.

Worst-Case Scenarios

These potential scenarios are seen as possible worst-case scenarios by the CIA analysts:

  • "In the most plausible worst-case scenario, the risks of interstate conflict increase. The US draws inward and globalization stalls."
  • "Gini-Out-of-the-Bottle." In this scenario, the third world and emerging economies grow increasingly restless of the lack of equity in the distribution of the world's output. U.S. intervention makes matters worse, and the U.S. draws inward and disengages.
  • Nonstate actors, armed with increasingly advanced technology and weapons proliferation, will have a decisive impact on the geopolitical process.

Black Swans: Individual Events with Profound Repercussions

The possibility of single-event catastrophes is not only possible, but it is likely that the world will face at least one of the following "Black Swans":

  • Global pandemic causes widespread death and economic chaos worldwide.
  • Unforeseen changes in climate (this is outside of the man-made climate debate). For example, areas such as much of southern and southeastern Asia are dependent on rains from the monsoon season for agricultural success--unforeseen changes to climate could cause widespread starvation regionally.
  • The total collapse of the Euro or European Union. In either case, worldwide economic fallout would be created by financial and political instability.
  • Nuclear war or WMD/cyber attacks would create major disruption throughout the world.
  • 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."

2030: A Page from a Dystopian Novel

It seems like the CIA has a pretty gloomy forecast for America and the world for 2030.

It's not like we aren't seeing some of this play out already -- 

elder care is the fastest growing profession in America, often with some of the lowest wages. The seeds of an aging society are already beginning to sprout, and it doesn't look like a good "harvest" is going to come from it.

America's influence to build coalitions has been irreparably damaged from the fallout of the Iraq wars and spying allegations on our allies. The competing objectives of the P5+1 framework have highlighted that America's role on the world stage is already diminishing.

Our military has already had to concede that our primary strategy held since WWII has been a failure in the modern world, and is now trying to develop an integrated strategy for dealing with asymmetric threats from violent extremist organizations.

Violent extremist organizations have become the rule worldwide, not the exception. And it's not just in the Middle East -- China and Russia both periodically deal with so-called "Color Revolutions" that often have violent methods to achieve political aims, Boko Haram in western Africa has a body count much higher than ISIS (often slaughtering entire villages), and leftist terrorist organizations, alive and well in the United States, cause enormous financial damage, while being "proud" of themselves for not killing innocents.

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We are already down this path, and it will take more than partisan wrangling of hot-button issues in America for us to avoid the inevitability of some of these realities. The time to end partisanship is now, because if it takes partisanship collaboration when these problems come to full fruition, we can expect nothing but the worst-case scenarios happening to America in 2030 and beyond.

Photo Credit: Andrey_Popov / shutterstock.com