Uncertainty over how the United States will evolve over the next two decades makes its behavior a top "game- changers" of the international order. So say the authors of "Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds," the latest quadrennial future-gazing exercise by the National Intelligence Council.
The difficulty of predicting how a politically polarized U.S. will respond to the stiff domestic tests it faces is just one of six game-changers in this best guess by the intelligence community about the near-term world. These variables are playing out in a world inexorably shaped by four "megatrends": individual empowerment driven by technology, health-care advances and a growing middle class; the rise of a multipolar order shaped increasingly by networks and coalitions; shifting demographics, including accelerated urbanization; and an intensifying and struggle for food, water and energy.
It's easy to ridicule this sort of big-picture exercise. Why no mention of Venezuela, where a change of leadership could end its growing friendship with Iran and bankrolling of Cuba and other market-unfriendly regimes? Why is the prospect of Korean reunification or a North Korean collapse given short shrift? Why, for that matter, is North Korea, which has detonated two nuclear devices, called a nuclear "aspirant"?
Moreover, the "alternative worlds" that the report uses to sketch out scenarios for the future feel familiar and don't offer much range — a sign of prudence, or a lack of imagination?
That said, the report usefully brings into focus the complexity of the challenges facing policymakers. For example, two of the report's most important megatrends are dangerously intertwined: rising urbanization and increased stress on supplies of food, water and energy.
The authors predict that 60 percent of the world's 8.3 billion people will live in cities in 2030, up from 50 percent today. This will require an immense amount of home and office construction and infrastructure creation, perhaps as much as has been created by mankind in all history.