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U.S. intelligence agencies generally focus on pressing security threats. But every few years, they take a big step back and look at how the world is changing. A new intelligence report projects global trends to the year 2030. Asia, it says, will return to the global power position it held six centuries ago. The West will be in decline. War and violence will still be with us, but we'll also be living in an increasingly middle-class world. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: These global trends reports come out every four years or so. The last ones were pretty sober, anticipating a worsening climate and wars fought over food and water. But when the intelligence agencies put those earlier reports out for comment, the reviewer said they were, if anything, too optimistic. The principal author of the series, Mathew Burrows, picked up on this sentiment in his recent travels around the world.
MATTHEW BURROWS: Particularly in the U.S. and particularly in Europe, very gloomy outlook on the future.
GJELTEN: The new report, Global Trends 2030, outlines four alternative visions of the future. In all four, U.S. influence declines. The report highlights several possible turning points, like Iran getting a nuclear bomb. Most of the scenarios are negative, but not enough, apparently, to satisfy all the doomsayers out there.
BURROWS: You know, I got some comments from even government officials who think that, you know, we should have put more accent on even more negative scenarios and a lot more on, you know, like a World War III scenario.
GJELTEN: But that one's not plausible, Burrows says. In fact, several global trends are positive. Individuals will be more empowered, in large part because the world population will be more educated and have better health care.
CHRISTOPHER KOJM: For the first time in human history, a majority of the world's population will no longer be impoverished.
GJELTEN: Christopher Kojm, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, releasing the global trends report today. Around the world, middle classes will be the most important social and economic sector. More opportunities for individuals should boost innovation and economic development. Of course, people can use power for ill as well as good. New technology, Kojm said, means individual bad guys are getting more dangerous.
KOJM: With more widespread access to lethal and disruptive technologies, individuals who are experts in such areas as cyber-systems might sell their services to the highest bidder.
GJELTEN: But terrorism is likely to be less violent - fewer civilian casualties, more economic disruption. The big mega-trend: Asia up, the United States and Europe down. It's a shift analyst Matt Burrows and his team identified in their last global report, but it gets more attention this time around.
BURROWS: We knew China was rising. We underestimated the speed.
GJELTEN: Likewise, the last global trends report did foresee a democratizing Middle East. But the Arab Spring nevertheless caught analysts a bit off guard.
BURROWS: I mean, we were thinking about over 15 years from - we wrote that in 2008, so some time between 2008 and 2025. I think that's the lesson in a lot of these is that the developments come a lot faster.
GJELTEN: There's nothing new in the world transforming. But never ever have the changes come as fast as they do now. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this new era will be that it's likely to be less organized. No single state or group of states will dominate. Global leadership will flow not to the strongest but to those who are most skilled at diplomacy and best able to mobilize international support. And if no one can pull it off, that would be bad, says Matt Burrows.
BURROWS: Well, it's probably a world you don't want to live in.
GJELTEN: Why not?
BURROWS: Simply because, you know, the challenges - everything from proliferation to the environment and resource issues - all those issues are not likely to fare very well in that world.
GJELTEN: Because, Burrows says, you'll need good global management to deal with all the conflicts and dangers. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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