The Dangerous World of 2015

March 1, 2001

In 2015, the United States will still be the pre-eminent global power, unmatched in military, technological, and economic prowess. Even so, the world stage on which it will play such a dominant role will be more dangerous.

This world will be trickier-more complex, prone to rapid shifts in course, filled with a startling array of challenges.

Globalization and the continued networking of the global economy will not only generate great wealth by 2015 but also fuel tensions between haves and have nots. The information revolution will show itself to be the greatest influence on world affairs since the industrial revolution, but it will also empower nonstate actors such as international criminals and terrorists.

The rapid proliferation of advanced technology will significantly increase the threat posed by missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

Rapid aging in the industrial world and the arrival of a billion new inhabitants in the developing world will create giant waves of immigration and stoke competition for scarce resources such as water.

Both China and India will start to emerge as assertive actors in Asia. Russia will continue its decline. Japan will drop out of the top rank of economic powers. The Mideast will seethe with religious and ideological extremism.

Welcome to the future foretold in “Global Trends 2015,” a 68-page study produced by CIA’s National Intelligence Council. Essentially a strategic threat assessment, the report represents an attempt to track world trends by tapping into the best minds in the private sector, academia, and think tanks.

“This is not a traditional intelligence assessment, depending on classified sources and methods,” wrote CIA Director George Tenet upon its December release. “Rather, it reflects an Intelligence Community fully engaged with outside experts.”

GT 2015 identifies seven “global drivers” in international affairs, overlays them on various regions of the world, and then estimates their relative impact 15 years hence.

While GT 2015 presents a generally positive view of future events, its authors do hedge their bets. The report acknowledges the possibility of significant “discontinuities,” or alternative scenarios (see box), that could lead to a far more negative outcome.

What follows is a summary of the report’s views in the seven key areas.

1. Future Conflict

Risk of war among developed nations will probably decrease over the next decade and a half, but the international community will likely confront relatively frequent internal upheavals and less frequent regional interstate wars.

The potential for conflict among regional rivals in Asia–specifically, India-Pakistan and China-Taiwan–and among numerous antagonists in the Middle East is great and will grow.

Conflicts of this type will be made worse by availability of ever more lethal weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.

Internal conflicts stemming from religious, ethnic, economic, or political disputes will remain at current levels or increase.

In the future, export control regimes and sanctions will be less effective than today because of the diffusion of technology, porous borders, defense industry consolidations, and reliance upon foreign markets to maintain profitability. Arms and weapons technology transfers will be more difficult to control.

In the realm of war and military affairs, the US will be the heavyweight champion, maintaining a strong technological edge in information–heavy “battlefield awareness” and precision guided weaponry.

Even the United States, however, will face three significant types of threats:

Asymmetric warfare. State and nonstate adversaries will avoid direct engagements but devise strategies, tactics, and weapons-some improved by “sidewise” technology-to minimize US strengths and exploit perceived weaknesses. (Sidewise technology, per the report, includes developing innovative applications for “old” computer chips.)

Strategic weapons of mass destruction. Russia, China, “most likely” North Korea, “probably” Iran, and “possibly” Iraq have the power to strike the United States with nuclear missiles. In addition, there will be growth in the potential for unconventional delivery of weapons of mass destruction by states or nonstate actors.

Regional threats. A few countries will maintain large military forces with a mix of Cold War and post-Cold War concepts and technologies, posing a credible challenge to US might.

2. United States Power

Given its decisive edge in both information and weapons technology, as well as its economic power, the experts consulted for GT 2015 believe the United States will maintain a dominant world position-if it wants to do so.

“This power,” says the CIA report, “not only will ensure America’s pre-eminence but also will cast the United States as a key driver of the international system.”

America’s unparalleled economic strength, investment in research and development, and highly regarded university system will all serve to bolster its pre-eminent position.

The study’s authors do not underestimate the role that plain military might still plays in world affairs.

“Many potential adversaries, as reflected in doctrinal writings and statements, see US military concepts, together with technology, as giving the United States the ability to expand its lead in conventional warfighting capabilities,” the report concludes.

Allies and adversaries alike will factor continued US military pre-eminence in their calculations of national security interests and ambitions.

At the same time, both allies and adversaries alike “will try at times to check what they see as American ‘hegemony.’ “

“There will be increasing numbers of important actors on the world stage to challenge and check–as well as to reinforce–US leadership,” the study says. It refers to countries such as China, Russia, India, Mexico, and Brazil; regional organizations such as the European Union; and a vast array of increasingly powerful multinational corporations and nonprofit organizations with their own interests.

For better or worse, the world will continue to identify the US as the leading proponent and beneficiary of globalization.

US economic actions, even when pursued for domestic goals such as adjusting interest rates, will have a major global impact because of the tighter integration of global markets by 2015.

America will remain in the vanguard of the technological revolution from information to biotechnology and beyond.

3. Population and Demographics

In forecasting the state of the world in 2015, GT 2015 takes note of two significant world population trends:

In developed nations, the aging of the population, leading to a lower ratio of workers to retirees.

In the developing world, a huge population boom, with most new inhabits drawn by the magnet of urban “mega-cities.”

The aging of the population in the Western industrialized nations-spurred by declining birth rates and advances in health care-will cause major strains on social services, pensions, and health care systems.

Governments will seek to counter those tensions by delaying retirement, encouraging women to enter the workforce, and relying more heavily on immigration and migrant workers.

GT 2015 warns especially of rapidly aging populations in Europe and Japan. There, immigration remains controversial. Rapid increases in immigration could cause conflicts over national identity and fissures in the social contract, potentially leading to increased xenophobia and nationalism.

If growth in Europe and Japan falters for lack of workers, the burden on the US economy will increase, weakening the overall global economy.

World population will grow from 6.1 billion today to 7.2 billion in 2015, with fully 95 percent of that increase coming in developing countries.

The number of people living in Third World mega-cities (those with more than 10 million inhabitants) will double to more than 400 million.

Such rapid population growth and urbanization will sorely test the social policies and service delivery of weak governments in the developing world.

4. Science and Technology

GT 2015 experts agree that the information revolution under way around the world represents the most significant global transformation since the industrial revolution.

Continued fusion of advanced technologies-information, biotechnology, materials science, and nanotechnology-could well prolong and broaden that technological revolution.

Looking ahead another 15 years, the world will encounter more quantum leaps in information technology and in other areas of science and technology, the report forecasts.

The revolution’s leading edge will be “continuing diffusion of information technology” and “applications of biotechnology.”

Advances in science and technology, however, likely will prove to be a two-edged sword.

Examples: By 2015, local-to-global Internet access and new constellations of low-cost satellites will bring near-universal wireless connectivity via handheld devices. The rise of biotechnology will drive medical breakthroughs sure to increase human health and longevity. Genetically modified crops will help feed the world’s people.

However, poorer and less developed nations are likely to fail in this endeavor and benefit less than others. As a result, the gap between “haves” and “have nots” will increase.

5. Globalization

Closely tied to the technological revolution is an increasingly networked global economy that is driven by rapid and free flows of information, ideas, cultural values, capital, people, and goods and services.

This is globalization, whose dynamism is reshaping world economics, politics, culture, and more.

So dynamic is globalization, in fact, that GT 2015 predicts that over the next 15 years global economic growth will return to the high levels reached in the 1960s and early 1970s, the final years in the post-World War II “long boom.”

Dynamism will be strongest among so-called “emerging markets”-especially in the two Asian giants, China and India-but will be broadly based worldwide, taking in industrialized and developing countries, the report concludes.

One thing will not change: The economy will produce losers as well as winners. “The rising tide of the global economy will create many economic winners, but it will not lift all boats,” says the report.

Regions, countries, and groups that feel left behind by globalization, the report predicts, will face deepening economic stagnation, political instability, and cultural alienation. The result will likely be greater political, ideological, and religious extremism, along with the violence that often accompanies it.

The new global, interconnected economy will be volatile in ways not seen in the past. If the US economy suffers a prolonged downturn, for instance, international financial markets might face profound instability and disruption.

“The US economy-the most important driver of recent global growth-is vulnerable to loss of international confidence in its growth prospects,” states the report. This could well cause a painful downturn, with negative consequences around the world.

GT 2015 warns that its generally upbeat economic predictions might have to be drastically revised if:

  • China or India fail to sustain high economic growth and discontinue their economic reforms.
  • Global energy supplies suffer major disruption, perhaps as a result of war among key energy-producing states.
  • Emerging-market countries in Asia and Latin America fail to reform financial institutions and lose access to capital.

6. National and International Governance

Governments able to adapt to dramatic changes in the world environment will thrive in 2015. The reverse also is true.

Internationally, governments will increasingly form cooperative alliances and partnerships to exploit increased flows of migration, information, capital, and new technologies.

Internally, they will eliminate stovepipe-style government organizations that inhibit rapid problem solving actions.

“Shaping the complex, fast-moving world of 2015 will require reshaping traditional government structures,” the authors write, noting that the requirement favors the US and the other Western democracies.

The freer flow of information and multiple channels of information flow will complicate and undercut the authoritarian’s ability to maintain control.

While nation-states will continue to dominate world affairs, nonstate actors ranging from business firms and nonprofit organizations to international terrorist and criminal groups will play increasingly large roles in international affairs.

By 2015, transnational criminal organizations will have become adept at exploiting technology and the free flow of goods and capital. GT 2015 predicts such organized criminal groups will form loose alliances with one another and other nonstate actors such as terror and insurgent groups.

Such unholy alliances will “corrupt leaders of unstable, economically fragile or failing states, insinuate themselves into troubled banks and businesses, and cooperate with insurgent political movements to control substantial geographic areas.”

7. Natural Resources and Environment

The world of 2015 will produce enough food, in the aggregate, to feed 7.2 billion human beings. Even so, the world will lack sufficient infrastructure and distribution.

This problem, combined with political instability and chronic poverty, portends malnourishment in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite a 50 percent increase in global energy demand, energy resources will be sufficient to meet demand; the latest estimates suggest that 80 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 95 percent of its gas reserves are still untapped.

The Persian Gulf will remain the world’s largest single source of petroleum, but the global energy market will encompass two distinct patterns of distribution: one serving consumers (including the US) from Atlantic Basin reserves, the other meeting the needs of Asian customers (mostly China and India) from Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea supplies.

Water scarcities and water allocation problems will pose great challenges to governments in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and northern China, a factor that is sure to heighten regional tensions.

Dark Scenarios

While GT 2015 is generally upbeat in its projection of America’s relative position in the world in a decade and a half, the study’s authors note that the possibility exists for a far more negative future. Specifically, they point to eight darker scenarios that could result if the drivers and trends outlined in the report are managed badly.

Middle East Meltdown. Though the report predicts that Israel will attain a sort of “cold peace” with its Arab neighbors, GT 2015 notes that a change-resistant Middle East in general is poorly positioned to thrive in an age of globalization and information revolution. “With the exception of Israel, Middle Eastern states will view globalization more as a challenge than an opportunity,” the report states. With more than half the population in the Middle East presently under 20 years of age, the nations of the region are likely to face severe demographic pressures. By 2015 much of the Middle East population, for instance, will be significantly larger, poorer, more urban, and more disillusioned. Thus, “serious deterioration of living standards for the bulk of the population in several major Middle Eastern countries, and the failure of Israel and the Palestinians to conclude even a ‘cold peace,’ [could] lead to serious, violent political upheavals in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.”

  • A Super Terrorist Cartel. Apparently with the alliance between narco-traffickers and ultraviolent leftist insurgents in Colombia in mind-as well as the increased proliferation of weapons of mass destruction-the report cites as a significant potential “discontinuity” the trend toward more diverse, freewheeling transnational terrorist networks. Such alliances could lead “to the formation of an international terrorist coalition with diverse anti-Western objectives and access to [weapons of mass destruction].”
  • A Global Pandemic or Environmental Emergency. Another global epidemic on the scale of HIV/AIDS–or rapidly changing weather patterns attributable to global warming-could lead to grave damage with enormous costs for many developed nations. Such a crisis would likely spark “an enduring global consensus on the need for concerted action on health issues and the environment.”

    Nation-State Implosion. A major crisis could result if a state of significant strategic concern to the United States–such as Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, or Nigeria-failed to manage serious internal religious or ethnic divisions.

  • Globalization Backlash. Apparently with a mind to disruptive protests against globalization in places such as Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Warsaw, Poland, over the past year, the report warns of a growing “anti-globalization” movement that could become a powerful and sustainable global political and cultural force, thus “threatening Western governments and corporate interests.”
  • Anti-US Coalition. With fears growing around the world over US hegemony, the report warns that China, Russia, and perhaps India could form a defacto geo-strategic alliance in an attempt to counterbalance US and Western influence.
  • Trans-Atlantic Division. With the United States and the European Union already engaged in acrimonious disputes over various trade issues and an emerging independent European foreign affairs and defense identity, the report warns that the US-European alliance could collapse with potentially disastrous results.
  • Global Economic Rift. Major Asian countries could establish an Asian Monetary Fund or Asian Trade Organization, the report warns, thus undermining the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization and potentially crippling the United States’ ability to exercise global economic leadership.

James Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine–“Are We Wearing Out the Guard and Reserve?”–appeared in February 2001.