UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


NIC Logo National Intelligence Council banner


Executive Summary



The Contradictions of Globalization

Rising Powers

New Challenges to Governance

Pervasive Insecurity

Policy Implications

Document Cover Image: Mapping the Global Future  

Report of the
National Intelligence Council's
2020 Project


Policy Implications

The international order will be in greater flux in the period out to 2020 than at any point since the end of the Second World War.  As we map the future, the prospects for global prosperity and the limited likelihood of great power conflict provide an overall favorable environment for coping with the challenges ahead.  Despite daunting challenges, the United States, in particular, will be better positioned than most countries to adapt to the changing global environment.

As our scenarios illustrate, we see several ways in which major global changes could begin to take shape and be buffeted or bolstered by the forces of change over the next 15 years.  In a sense, the scenarios provide us with four different lenses on future developments, underlining the wide range of factors, discontinuities, and uncertainties shaping a new global order.  One lens is the globalized economy, another is the security role played by the US, a third is the role of social and religious identity, and a fourth is the breakdown of the international order because of growing insecurity.  They highlight various "switching points" that could shift developments onto one path or the other.  The most important tipping points include the impact of robust economic growth and the spread of technology; the nature and extent of terrorism; the resiliency or weakness of states, particularly in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa; and the potential spread of conflict, including between states.

  • On balance, for example, as the hypothetical Davos World scenario shows, robust economic growth probably will help to overcome divisions and pull more regions and countries into a new global order.  However, the rapid changes might also produce disorder at times; one of the lessons of that and the other scenarios is the need for management to ensure globalization does not go off the rails.

The evolving framework of international politics in all the scenarios suggests that nonstate actors will continue to assume a more prominent role even though they will not displace the nation-state.  Such actors range from terrorists, who will remain a threat to global security, to NGOs and global firms, which exemplify largely positive forces by spreading technology, promoting social and economic progress, and providing humanitarian assistance.

The United States and other countries throughout the world will continue to be vulnerable to international terrorism.  As we have noted in the Cycle of Fear scenario, terrorist campaigns that escalate to unprecedented heights, particularly if they involve WMD, are one of the few developments that could threaten globalization.

Is the United States' Technological Prowess at Risk?

US investment in basic research and the innovative application of technology has directly contributed to US leadership in economic and military power during the post-World War II era.  Americans, for example, invented and commercialized the semiconductor, the personal computer, and the Internet with other countries following the US lead.a  While the United States is still the present leader, there are signs this leadership is at risk.  

The number of US engineering graduates peaked in 1985 and is presently down 20 percent from that level; the percentage of US undergraduates taking engineering is the second lowest of all developed countries.  China graduates approximately three times as many engineering students as the United States.  However, post-9/11 security concerns have made it harder to attract incoming foreign students and, in some cases, foreign nationals available to work for US firms.b  Non-US universities-for which a US visa is not required-are attempting to exploit the situation and bolster their strength.

Privately funded industrial research and development-which accounts for 60 percent of the US total-while up this year, suffered three previous years of decline.c  Further, major multinational corporations are establishing corporate "research centers" outside of the United States.

While these signs are ominous, the integrating character of globalization and the inherent strengths of the US economic system preclude a quick judgment of an impending US technological demise.  By recent assessments, the United States is still the most competitive society in the world among major economies.d  In a globalized world where information is rapidly shared-including cross-border sharing done internally by multinational corporations-the creator of new science or technology may not necessarily be the beneficiary in the marketplace.

a  "Is America Losing Its Edge? Innovation in a Globalized World."  Adam Segal, Foreign Affairs, November December 2004; New York, NY p.2.

b  "Observations on S&T Trends and Their Potential Impact on Our Future."  William Wulf (President, National Academy of Engineering).  Paper submitted to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in support of the National Intelligence Council 2020 Study, Summer 2004.

c  "Is America Losing Its Edge?," p.3.

d  Global Competitiveness Report 2004-2005, World Economic Forum, http://www.weforum.org. October 2004.

Counterterrorism efforts in the years ahead-against a more diverse set of terrorists who are connected more by ideology and technology than by geography-will be a more elusive challenge than focusing on a relatively centralized organization such as al-Qa'ida.  The looser the connections among individual terrorists and various cells, the more difficult it will be to uncover and disrupt terrorist plotting.

  • One of our scenarios-Pax Americana-envisages a case in which US and European consensus on fighting terrorism would grow much stronger but, under other scenarios, including the hypothetical New Caliphate, US, Russian, Chinese and European interests diverge, possibly limiting cooperation on counterterrorism.
"The US will have to battle world public opinion, which has dramatically shifted since the end of the Cold War."

The success of the US-led global counterterrorism campaign will hinge on the capabilities and resolve of individual countries to fight terrorism on their own soil.  Efforts by Washington to bolster the capabilities of local security forces in other countries and to work with them on their priority issues (such as soaring crime) would be likely to increase cooperation.

  • Defense of the US Homeland will begin overseas.  As it becomes more difficult for terrorists to enter the United States, they are likely to try to attack the Homeland from neighboring countries.

A counterterrorism strategy that approaches the problem on multiple fronts offers the greatest chance of containing-and ultimately reducing-the terrorist threat.  The development of more open political systems, broader economic opportunities, and empowerment of Muslim reformers would be viewed positively by the broad Muslim communities who do not support the radical agenda of Islamic extremists.  A New Caliphate scenario dramatizes the challenge of addressing the underlying causes of extremist violence, not just its manifest actions.

  • The Middle East is unlikely to be the only battleground in which this struggle between extremists and reformers occurs.  European and other Muslims outside the Middle East have played an important role in the internal ideological conflicts, and the degree to which Muslim minorities feel integrated in European societies is likely to have a bearing on whether they see a clash of civilizations as inevitable or not.  Southeast Asia also has been increasingly a theater for terrorism.

Related to the terrorist threat is the problem of the proliferation of WMD and the potential for countries to have increased motivation to acquire nuclear weapons if their neighbors and regional rivals are doing so.  As illustrated in the Cycle of Fear scenario, global efforts to erect greater barriers to the spread of WMD and to dissuade any other countries from seeking nuclear arms or other WMD as protection will continue to be a challenge.  As various of our scenarios underline, the communications revolution gives proliferators a certain advantage in striking deals with each other and eluding the authorities, and the "assistance" they provide can cut years off the time it would take for countries to develop nuclear weapons.  

How the World Sees the United States

In the six regional conferences that we hosted we asked participants about their views of the role of the United States as a driver in shaping developments in their regions and globally.  

Participants felt that US preoccupation with the war on terrorism is largely irrelevant to the security concerns of most Asians.  The key question that the United States needs to ask itself is whether it can offer Asian states an appealing vision of regional security and order that will rival and perhaps exceed that offered by China.

US disengagement from what matters to US Asian allies would increase the likelihood that they would climb on Beijing's bandwagon and allow China to create its own regional security order that excludes the United States.

Participants felt that the rise of China need not be incompatible with a US-led international order.  The critical question is whether or not the order is flexible enough to adjust to a changing distribution of power on a global level.  An inflexible order would increase the likelihood of political conflict between emerging powers and the United States.  If the order is flexible, it may be possible to forge an accommodation with rising powers and strengthen the order in the process.

Sub-Saharan Africa
Sub-Saharan African leaders worry that the United States and other advantaged countries will "pull up the drawbridge" and abandon the region.  

Participants opined that the United States and other Western countries may not continue to accept Africa's most successful "export," its people.  The new African diaspora is composed overwhelmingly of economic migrants rather than political migrants as in previous eras.  

Some participants felt that Africans worry that Western countries will see some African countries as "hopeless" over the next 15 years because of prevailing economic conditions, ecological problems, and political circumstances.

Participants feared that the United States will focus only on those African countries that are successful.  

Latin America
Conference participants acknowledged that the United States is the key economic, political, and military player in the hemisphere.  At the same time, Washington was viewed as traditionally not paying sustained attention to the region and, instead of responding to systemic problems, as reacting primarily to crises.  Participants saw a fundamentalist trend in Washington that would lead to isolation and unilateralism and undercut cooperation.  Most shared the view that the US "war on terrorism" had little to do with Latin America's security concerns.

Latin American migrants are a stabilizing force in relations with the United States.  An important part of the US labor pool, migrants also remit home needed dollars along with new views on democratic governance and individual initiative that will have a positive impact on the region.

US policies also can have a positive impact.  Some participants said the region would benefit from US application of regional mechanisms to resolve problems rather than punitive measures against regimes not to its liking, such as that of Fidel Castro.

Middle East
Participants felt that the role of US foreign policy in the region will continue to be crucial.  The perceived propping up of corrupt regimes by the United States in exchange for secure oil sources has in itself helped to promote continued stagnation.  Disengagement is highly unlikely but would in itself have an incalculable effect.  

Regarding the prospects for democracy in the region, participants felt that the West placed too much emphasis on the holding of elections, which, while important, is only one element of the democratization process.  There was general agreement that if the United States and Europe can engage with and encourage reformers rather than confront and hector, genuine democracy would be achieved sooner.

Some Middle East experts argued that Washington has reinforced zero-sum politics in the region by focusing on top Arab rulers and not cultivating ties with emerging leaders in and outside the government.  

Although the Middle East has a lot to gain economically from globalization, it was agreed that Arabs/Muslims are nervous that certain aspects of globalization, especially the pervasive influence of Western, particularly American, values and morality are a threat to traditional cultural and religious values.  

Europe and Eurasia
Participants engaged in a lively debate over whether a rift between the US and Europe is likely to occur over the next 15 years with some contending that a collapse of the US-EU partnership would occur as part of the collapse of the international system.  Several participants contended that if the United States shifts its focus to Asia, the EU-US relationship could be strained to the breaking point.

  • They were divided over whether China's rise would draw the United States and Europe closer or not.

  • They also differed over the importance of common economic, environmental, and energy problems to the alliance.

In our Eurasia workshop, participants agreed that the United States has only limited influence on the domestic policies of the Central Asian states, although US success or failure in Iraq would have spillover effects in Central Asia.  Countries in western Eurasia, they believed, will continue to seek a balance between Russia and the West.  In their view, Ukraine almost certainly will continue to seek admission to NATO and the European Union while Georgia and Moldova probably will maintain their orientation in the same direction.

"A counterterrorism strategy that approaches the problem on multiple fronts offers the greatest chance of containing-and ultimately reducing-the terrorist threat."

On the more positive side, one of the likely features of the next 15 years is the greater availability of high technology, not only to those who invent it.  As we try to make clear in our Davos World scenario, the high-tech leaders are not the only ones that can expect to make gains, but also those societies that integrate and apply the new technologies.  For example, our scenario points up the beneficial effects of possible new technologies in Africa in helping to eradicate poverty.  As we have noted elsewhere in this paper, global firms will play a key role in promoting more widespread prosperity and more technological innovation.  

The dramatically altered geopolitical landscape also presents a huge challenge for the international system as well as for the United States, which has been the security guarantor of the post-World War II order.  The possible contours as several trends develop-including rising powers in Asia, retrenchment in Eurasia, a roiling Middle East, and greater divisions in the transatlantic partnership-remain uncertain and variable.

  • With the lessening in ties formed during the Cold War, nontraditional ad hoc alliances are likely to develop.  For example, shared interest in multilateralism as a cornerstone of international relations has been viewed by some scholars as the basis for a budding relationship between Europe and China.

As the Pax Americana scenario suggests, the transatlantic partnership would be a key factor in Washington's ability to remain the central pivot in international politics.  The degree to which Europe is ready to shoulder more international responsibilities is unclear and depends on its ability to surmount its economic and demographic problems as well as forge a strategic vision for its role in the world.  In other respects-GDP, crossroads location, stable governments, and collective military expenditures-it has the ability to increase its weight on the international stage.

"For Washington, dealing with a rising Asia may be the most challenging of all its regional relationships."

Asia is particularly important as an engine for change over the next 15 years.  A key uncertainty is whether the rise of China and India will occur smoothly.  A number of issues will be in play, including the future of the world trading system, advances in technology, and the shape and scope of globalization.  For Washington, dealing with a rising Asia may be the most challenging of all its regional relationships.  One could envisage a range of possibilities from the US enhancing its role as regional balancer between contending forces to Washington being seen as increasingly irrelevant.  Both the Korea and Taiwan issues are likely to come to a head, and how they are dealt with will be important factors shaping future US-Asia ties as well as the US role in the region.  Japan's position in the region is also likely to be transformed as it faces the challenge of a more independent security role.

"A key uncertainty is whether the rise of China and India will occur smoothly."

With the rise of the Asian giants, US economic and technological advantages may be vulnerable to erosion.

  • While interdependencies will grow, increased Asian investment in high-tech research coupled with the rapid growth of Asian markets will increase the region's competitiveness across a wide range of economic and technical activity.

  • US dependence on foreign oil supplies also makes it more vulnerable as the competition for secure access grows and the risks of supply-side disruptions increase.

In the Middle East, market reforms, greater democracy, and progress toward an Arab-Israeli peace would stem the shift towards more radical politics in the region and foster greater accord in the transatlantic partnership.  Some of our scenarios highlight the extent to which the Middle East could remain at the center of an arc of instability extending from Africa through Central and Southeast Asia, providing fertile ground for terrorism and the proliferation of WMD.

Realization of a Caliphate-like scenario would pose the biggest challenge because it would reject the foundations on which the current international system has been built.  Such a possibility points up the need to find ways to engage and integrate those societies and regions that feel themselves left behind or reject elements of the globalization process.  Providing economic opportunities alone may not be sufficient to enable the "have-nots" to benefit from globalization; rather, the widespread trend toward religious and cultural identification suggests that various identities apart from the nation-state will need to be accommodated in a globalized world.

The interdependence that results from globalization places increasing importance not only on maintaining stability in the areas of the world that drive the global economy, where about two thirds of the world's population resides, but also on helping the poor or failing states scattered across a large portion of the world's surface which have yet to modernize and connect with the larger, globalizing community.  Two of our scenarios-Pax Americana and Davos World-point up the different roles that the United States is expected to play as security provider and as a financial stabilizer.

Eurasia, especially Central Asia and the Caucasus, probably will be an area of growing concern, with its large number of potentially failing states, radicalism in the form of Islamic extremism, and importance as a supplier or conveyor belt for energy supplies to both West and East.  The trajectories of these Eurasian states will be affected by external powers such as Russia, Europe, China, India and the United States, which may be able to act as stabilizers.  Russia is likely to be particularly active in trying to prevent spillover, even though it has enormous internal problems on its own plate.  Farther to the West, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova could offset their vulnerabilities as relatively new states by closer association with Europe and the EU.

Parts of Africa share a similar profile with the weak states of Eurasia and will continue to form part of an extended arc of instability.  As the hypothetical Davos World scenario suggests, globalization in terms of rising commodity prices and expanded economic growth may be a godsend where good governance is also put in place.  North Africa may benefit particularly from growing ties with Europe.

Latin America is likely to become a more diverse set of countries:  those that manage to exploit the opportunities provided by globalization will prosper, while those-such as the Andean nations currently-that do not or cannot will be left behind.  Governance and leadership-often a wild card-will distinguish societies that prosper from those that remain ill-equipped to adapt.  Both regions may have success stories-countries like Brazil or South Africa-which can provide a model for others to follow.  The United States is uniquely positioned to facilitate Latin America growth and integration stemming the potential for fragmentation.

In that vein, the number of interstate and internal conflicts has been ebbing, but their lethality and potential to grow in impact once they start is a trend we have noted.

  • While no single country looks within striking distance of rivaling US military power by 2020, more countries will be in a position to contest the United States in their regions.  The possession of chemical, biological, and/or nuclear weapons by more countries by 2020 would increase the potential cost of any military action by the United States and its coalition partners.

  • Most US adversaries, be they states or nonstate actors, will recognize the military superiority of the United States.  Rather than acquiesce to US force, they will try to circumvent or minimize US strengths and exploit perceived weaknesses, using asymmetric strategies, including terrorism and illicit acquisition of WMD, as illustrated in the Cycle of Fear scenario.
".no single country looks within striking distance of rivaling US military power by 2020."

As our Pax Americana scenario dramatizes, the United States probably will continue to be called on to help manage such conflicts as Palestine, North Korea, Taiwan, and Kashmir to ensure they do not get out of hand if a peace settlement cannot be reached.  However, the scenarios and trends we analyze in the paper suggest the challenge will be to harness the power of new players to contribute to global security, potentially relieving the United States of some of the burden.  Such a shift could usher in a new phase in international politics.

  • China's and, to a lesser extent, India's increasing military spending and investment plans suggest they might be more able to undertake a larger security burden.

  • International and regional institutions also would need to be reformed to meet the challenges and shoulder more of the burden.

Adapting the international order may also be increasingly challenging because of the growing number of other ethical issues that have the potential to divide worldwide publics.  These issues include the environment and climate change, cloning and stem cell research, potential biotechnology and IT intrusions into privacy, human rights, international law regarding conflict, and the role of multilateral institutions.

Many ethical issues, which will become more salient, cut across traditional alliances or groupings that were established to deal mainly with security issues.  Such divergent interests underline the challenge for the international community, including the United States, in having to deal with multiple, competing coalitions to achieve resolution of some of these issues.

  • Whatever its eventual impact or success, the Kyoto climate change treaty exemplifies how formerly nontraditional policy issues can come to the fore and form the core of budding new networks or partnerships.

  • The media explosion cuts both ways: on the one hand, it makes it potentially harder to build a consensus because the media tends to magnify differences; on the other hand, the media can also facilitate discussions and consensus-building.

The United States will have to battle world public opinion, which has dramatically shifted since the end of the Cold War.  Although some of the current anti-Americanism [13] is likely to lessen as globalization takes on more of a non-Western face, the younger generation of leaders-unlike during the post-World War II period-has no personal recollection of the United States as its "liberator."  Thus, younger leaders are more likely than their predecessors to diverge with Washington's thinking on a range of issues.

Finally, as the Pax Americana scenario suggests, the United States may be increasingly confronted with the challenge of managing-at an acceptable cost to itself-relations with Europe, Asia, the Middle East and others, absent a single overarching threat on which to build consensus.  For all the challenges ahead, the United States will nevertheless retain enormous advantages, playing a pivotal role across the broad range of issues-economic, technological, political, and military-that no other state can or will match by 2020.  Even as the existing order is threatened, the United States will have many opportunities to fashion a new one.

[13] The Pew Research survey of attitudes around the world revealed sharply rising anti-Americanism, especially in the Muslim world, but it also found that people in Muslim countries place a high value on such democratic values as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, multiparty political systems, and equal treatment under the law.  Large majorities in almost every Muslim country favor free market economic systems and believe that Western-style democracy can work in their own country.


Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list