What US intelligence agencies are forecasting for President Obama as he starts his new term

Calm before the storm?
Calm before the storm?
Image: Getty Images / Brendan Hoffman
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Every four years, US intelligence agencies assemble their top prognostications of coming big global trends for the nation’s president to absorb before launching into a new term of office. In the latest such report, released Dec. 10 for President Barack Obama, the agencies have inserted an important caveat: Something big is on the way by 2030—that is clear. But what it is precisely is not.

The Global Trends 2030 report in fact does make concrete forecasts, some of which we describe below. But in making the concession regarding their relative muddle, the National Intelligence Council places the age amid some of history’s exceptional inflection points, times that seemed to heave with portentousness:

♦ 1815—the so-called “Long Peace” among great European powers that lasted through 1914

♦ 1919—the post-World War I world absent Romanov, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman rule

♦ 1945—the beginning of Pax Americana

♦ 1989—the unraveling of Soviet power, starting in eastern Europe.

At none of these times could anyone say precisely what the subsequent years would bring. It merely seemed that all should be watchful. In the current mystery, what could the 16 agencies comprising the Council say with certainty? “We have more than enough information to suggest that, however rapid change has been over the past couple decades, the rate of change will accelerate in the future,” they wrote.

That change seems to accelerate is not a new idea. Nor is the phenomenon in which those living through a particular era sense something significant on the horizon. Yet it is refreshing to read a report of this stature with some humility.

This is the National Intelligence Council’s fifth quadrennial global trends report, all of which are online. While spy agencies typically operate in the dark, there seems to be a political aspect to the public release of where they think the world is going. After all, public opinion must be carried along with any big policy shift the president proposes.

Along with the usual twin forecast that we see in the West—Chinese ascendancy and continued US essentialness—a thread that caught my eye was that half the world’s population will cope with severe water shortages by 2030. That is a huge number, and the source of much potential disruption. The report describes a fast-growing population occupying a belt of aridity stretching across northern Africa, the Middle East, central and southern Asia and northern China. Rivers that will be dangerously in trouble include the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus, the Ganges, the Mekong, the Yellow and Yangtze, plus the Jordan River, the Kura-Ural, and the Syr and Amu darya. See this chart from the report.

The dry belt
The dry belt
Image: National Intelligence Council

One reason for potential fighting is demographics. India, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East will have a disproportionate number of young men, an age group that carries with it a high risk of intrastate and interstate conflict.

No such report should end pessimistically, and the US spooks say near the end of theirs that technological breakthroughs could save the day. Just what breakthroughs? You will have to wait and see.