NightWatch Special Comment: A Summary Evaluation of the National Intelligence Council’s report Global Trends 2010. Last week NightWatch promised to review the earliest Global Trends report it could find. The first report was published in 1997 and was entitled, Global Trends 2010.
NightWatch has been spending a lot of time just trying to understand the prolix and vague political science jargon of 1997, not to mention the meanings of judgments or predictions written in that language.
The language is imprecise, centered on the word “agendas” which is used repeatedly without definition. Every nation’s agenda was to have been changed by 2010, the report asserts. It never explains to what that metaphor refers.
NightWatch knows from long experience that the only way to improve intelligence judgments is to evaluate their accuracy in hindsight. No one knowingly goes to a doctor who has a 60% cure rate. In that spirit, NightWatch is confident in asserting that it is hard to imagine a trends assessment that could be so wrong as Global Trends 2010.
If the world had not changed much between 1997 and 2010, some of the forecasts in the report might have been marginally accurate. But the world did change, but not fundamentally. The nation-state system did not decline, as the report predicted. The financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 made nation-state safety nets even more important than ever. It was a world-wide catastrophe that made almost every prediction in the report wrong.
Global Trends 2010 contains an underlying assumption of continuing world economic growth. Almost all of its judgments assumed that without articulating that. The document never examined that assumption. Thus, when the world economy contracted, that assumption failed and every judgment extrapolated from it did as well.
It is not the fault of the writers, necessarily, because US intelligence and most US bankers, high-end investors and financiers failed to predict the economic contraction of 2008. Almost no one saw the train-wreck as early as 1997, but that is the lesson of this retrospective look. Analysts profess greater confidence about the next 18 years than they do about the next 18 days.
The economic crisis in 2008 was a true Black Swan in 1997, in the terms that Taleb defined in his seminal study, The Black Swan. A Black Swan is an unknown event that makes wrong all predictions based on extrapolations from the present and recent past. Thus, the ability to name and define a high impact-low probability threat means by definition that it is not a Black Swan, as Taleb wrote about the topic.
The report Global Trends 2010 report contains no conditions or caveats to its predictions, no examination of low probability-high impact threats. The Global Trends 2030 report, just released, boasts that it has identified six Black Swans during the next 18 years. That assertion should warn NightWatch Readers that the intelligence writers of Global Trends 2030 missed Taleb’s lesson.
The second major shortcoming of Gobal Trends 2010, in hindsight, is its insistence that the US was in decline at that time and would be restrained by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the breakdown of the nation-state system. Neither prediction proved accurate. The reasoning for these assertions might have been obvious to readers in 1997, but it is not presented.
Looking back from 2012 one wonders what were they talking about. The contraction of the world economy in 2007-2008 doomed NGOs, who have always depended on handouts from more prosperous nations. Despite world-wide economic contraction, the US remained the only safe investment and the importance of US economic and military strength grew, precisely the opposite of what was predicted in 1997.
A NightWatch check found that every Global Trends report conveys the theme of steady US decline. The reasons for the decline are different in every report, but the facts show the US is still the only indispensable power in the world, the only super power.
There are many more incorrect forecasts in 2010, a significant number of important omissions – things the 2010 report just failed to appreciate as important — and a handful of accurate extrapolations. There is little point in going over them all, unless readers are interested.
Global Trends 2010 is a cautionary lesson in the hazards and hubris of long term forecasting and scenario-casting without using better techniques than were in use in 1997. The effort might have seemed worthwhile at the time, but the happy world future that the analysts and academics in 1997 predicted would arrive by 2010 never happened. In fact, most of the world trends they described went backwards because of the economic crisis of 2007 and 2008.
NOTE: Global Trends 2010 does not appear at the National Intelligence Council website.