Personal Empowerment Worldwide Could Affect U.S. Security and Economics

January 7, 2013
By Rita Boland

The release of the National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds report in early December spawned a wave of media attention and crashed two websites hosting the document. For the first several days, officials tracked approximately 60,000 Tweets pertaining to the information sent out every 20 minutes. "The first thing to say is that the amount of response and amount of attention focused on it came really as a surprise to us ... it did really go viral in a way we didn't appreciate beforehand," states Dr. Mathew Burrows, counselor, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, National Intelligence Council, and principal author of the report. But despite all the action surrounding Global Trends, contributors to it feel that certain facets might still need some attention.

Much discussion of the report has focused around the possibility that the United States' position as the world's premier economy could change especially in relation to growing economies in Asia. But Burrows says he and his colleagues hoped for a better appreciation of deeper structural changes underway, particularly the advancement of individual empowerment. The report predicts that in 2030, the middle class will thrive around the nonwestern world. Another empowerment is the technological revolution. "I think that has huge concerns for us in the intelligence community," Burrows states. Though a positive trend overall, it gives advantages to people seeking access to lethal and disruptive technologies.

The changing nature and diffusion of power possible in 2030 could result in individuals and small groups that are difficult to track yet have immense ability to create disruption and harm on unprecedented levels. These scenarios apply not only in the cyber realm but with regards to biological and precision conventional weaponry. "I think that's a terribly important concept for us to begin to grapple with," Burrows says of the power shift.

He adds that, "The next step is to think about what strategies we need. That should be a discussion." Because the intelligence community does not have a mandate to develop policy, the report includes no recommendations. However, members of the National Intelligence Council want those in a position to make advantageous policy decisions to deal well with the possible alternative futures outlined. "That's the use I see for the information," Burrows explains.

The use of Alternative Worlds in the title reflects that now is an inflection point in history. The world is in a period of historic transition wherein the United States could end up in many different positions, ranging from very negative spots to much more positive directions. "The point we're making is we have to engage with this process, understand it and not have faith that everything is going to turn out all right" Burrows says. "It won't necessarily happen that way." However, the document is not intended to be fatalistic. Rather, readers can use it to avoid past mistakes, recognize the stark contrasts of different choices and think about how to plot a favorable course.

From the beginning, personnel involved with the report made an effort to include many, diverse opinions, attempting to overcome any biases or blind spots past reports may have included. The website created a forum for bloggers relevant to the topic to discuss selected issues. Each week featured a different discussion item. Burrows explains that the input added perspective especially in terms of happenings in various geographic regions. People involved with the report conducted outreach with almost 20 different countries to broaden perspectives. These efforts illustrated how populations in various areas view issues. Returning to individual empowerment, officials in Beijing, China, believed that the state is the really important actor, while in Shanghai, China, personnel embraced individual empowerment as the way of the future.

The contributors also reached out to sectors such as technology to learn more about their viewpoints. Burrows says one fascinating aspect of these talks was the revelation that in Silicon Valley, professionals see technology as a solution and the government as an obstacle or at least not particularly helpful. On the East Coast, opinions were more centered around the state.



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