The international hand-wringing over North Korea's rocket test is obscuring a bigger story this week about the long-term future of Asia and the world. I'm referring to the dramatic conclusions of a major new US intelligence study which warns of unprecedented levels of uncertainty and complexity looking out to 2030.
The US National Intelligence Council's latest global futures report, Alternative Worlds, makes for rich, rewarding and often unpleasant reading, and should be compulsory homework for political decision-makers, officials, journalists, business leaders and think tank denizens alike. There's so much real-world intellectual treasure here, and it is so well crafted, that I was tempted to nominate it as my book of the year.
The report represents an impressive process: each four years, the US intelligence community reaches out to the so-called 'open source world' of scholars, former officials, thinkers and experts of every stripe, as well as fiction writers for good measure. It is the ultimate cross-disciplinary study: hundreds of fine minds arguing out their best estimates about the future.
Over months of debate – much of it conducted online this time – a core team winnows the sharpest ideas, tests and tightens them, and presents the final document to the US president shortly after the election. Then not long later the report is released to the world.
What this is not is an exercise in prediction. This is about projections, not prophecies. The report looks at major identifiable trends, marries them with distinctly possible game-changing events or discontinuities, and concludes with four alternative future worlds, none of them entirely positive or negative for human welfare, and all of them plausible.
Initial media reports have played up some of the report's starker projections about how Asia will dominate the global economy and how China will outstrip the US. But some of the best lessons of the report are more nuanced than that. In particular, it emphasises that power is not simply based on aggregate wealth: leadership, networks and agility matter too.
And from an Australian perspective, some of the document's most intriguing conclusions are about just what kind of Asian century we may be in for. In a subsequent post, I'll seek to unpack the NIC 2030 report alongside a rather more upbeat vision of the future that Australian policy circles have heard plenty about lately. What's clear is that the real Asian century could be at least as much about problems as opportunities.