FOCUS ON – The latest report of the U.S. National Intelligence Council : discussing not-so-distant futures and the way forward | February 16, 2017

In January 2017, the U.S. National Intelligence Council released its global trends report, an in-depth, well-documented report aiming at laying out possible futures. But after polls failed to predict short-term game-changers such as Brexit or Trump’s election, can a report make the difference?     Since 1997, the National Intelligence Council (NIC), a United States […]

In January 2017, the U.S. National Intelligence Council released its global trends report, an in-depth, well-documented report aiming at laying out possible futures. But after polls failed to predict short-term game-changers such as Brexit or Trump’s election, can a report make the difference?



Since 1997, the National Intelligence Council (NIC), a United States government agency providing midterm and long-term strategic thinking, publishes a global trends report after every presidential election. The idea behind this report is to provide policy- and decision-makers with a major assessment of the forces – and choices – which are most likely to shape the world over the next two or three decades.

The reports do not seek to predict the future—which would be an impossible feat—but instead aim at providing a framework for thinking about possible futures and their implications. For instance, in its latest global trends report[1], the NIC provides “three scenarios for the distant future”, which revolve around the ideas of islands, orbits or communities.

A variety of possible futures

Islands – The first scenario “emphasizes the challenges to governments in meeting societies’ demands for both economic and physical security as popular pushback to globalization increases […] It underscores the choices governments will face in conditions that might tempt some to turn inward, reduce support for multilateral cooperation, and adopt protectionist policies”.

Orbits – This second scenario looks more into regional power-games and explores a future of tensions created by competing major powers seeking their own spheres of influence while attempting to maintain stability at home. According to this alternative, countries such as Russia or Iran could get out while the going is good whereas others like India and Pakistan, or China and Japan, could have to deal with rising tensions. This scenario also examines how the trends of rising nationalism, changing conflict patterns, emerging disruptive technologies, and decreasing global cooperation might combine to increase the risk of interstate conflict.

Communities – In this last scenario, states are not perceived as the major players they once were. In it, governments need policies and processes for encouraging public-private partnerships with a wide-range of actors—city leaders, non-governmental organizations, and civil societies—to address emerging challenges. Large multinational corporations and charitable foundations, in particular, might increasingly complement the work of governments in providing research, education, training, health care, and / or information services to needy societies.

Three radically different scenarios … or one not-so-distant future?

The 2016 NIC’s global trends report presents three different scenarios but do these three scenarios even exclude each other? Or could there be a scenario in which all three cohabits… in a maybe not-so-distant future?

As a matter of fact, elements of each scenario are already materializing before our eyes.

In the United States for instance, the recently sworn-in President, Donald J. Trump, has vowed to build a wall between the United States and Mexico; threatened to cut funding to ‘sanctuary cities, counties and states’ providing shelter to undocumented immigrants; and tried to implement a three-month ban on all refugees and travelers coming from seven Muslim-majority countries. Willing to put ‘America First’, President Trump also wants to either renegotiate or break the North American Free Trade Agreement, “the single worst trade deal ever approved in [the United States]” according to him; has already withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, convinced that it would undermine the U.S. economy and their independence; and vowed to engage in bilateral trade negotiations, which promote American industry, protect American workers, and raise American wages. Could there be a better example of a country where “demands for both economic and physical security as popular pushback” find their expression in a turning inwards, a reduced support for multilateral cooperation and the development of protectionist policies?

In its second scenario, the 2016 NIC’s global trends report “explores a future of tensions created by competing major powers seeking their own spheres of influence”. To illustrate this projection, the NIC mentions states such as Russia, Iran or China … which are already at the heart of rising tensions. China, for instance, is claiming sovereignty over several territories in the South China Sea, including over the Senkaku Islands, which are legally under Japan’s jurisdiction, thus creating tensions between the two regional powers. Other tensions include the one opposing India and Pakistan, which are also mentioned in the latest issue of the global trends report. These two are currently in a standoff over Kashmir, which, in the worst-case scenario, could have nuclear repercussions. As for Russia and Iran, if their relationship is unlikely to evolve into a direct confrontation, both are making sure to remain a central regional power and have recently sponsored indirect talks between Syrian rebel factions and government representatives in the Kazakh city of Astana[2]. If Turkey, another regional power player, was involved too, the US, the EU, Saudi Arabia and the UN were largely marginalized. The only thing that is developed in the second scenario and that is not yet a reality is, to a certain extent, the deployment of new capabilities, such as counterspace weapons, which remain to be mass-produced. However, states such as China are already working on the development of counterspace arms; theirs are apparently mainly aimed at destroying or jamming U.S. satellites and limiting American combat operations around the world[3] … which will surely become another source of rising tensions.

As for the third scenario, the one in which non-state actors become more and more influential, and eventually step in when and where states are gradually withdrawing their involvement, this “future”, like the other two, is, in part, nothing but distant. For instance, in France, charities like Médecins Sans Frontières or Médecins du Monde are currently providing health care to refugees stranded at the French-British border or living in the streets of Paris[4], filling in for a state that was neither recently torn by war nor destroyed by a natural catastrophe. The private sector is also fulfilling a role once assumed by the public sector. For instance, according to a 2015 OECD report, more than 60% of research and development in scientific and technical fields is already carried out by industries whereas 20% and 10% is respectively funded and carried out by universities and government[5]. Other non-state actors such as local governments are also stepping up to the plate. Cities for instance are taking the lead in fighting climate change within structured networks such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group[6]. By the same token, in the United States, ‘sanctuary cities, counties and states’ are campaigning against President Trump’s latest federal immigration policy by offering shelter and support to refugees and undocumented migrants.[7]

The way forward

Reading this document, it seems that for once, the possible futures presented by the NIC’s global trends report are not-so distant after all… as if the real game-changers, which will most likely shape the future of the world for the next twenty or thirty years, are all happening now or within the next few years. Besides, for the first time ever, the National Intelligence Council did not adjoin a date to its report whereas previous editions were entitled Global Trends 2030, 2025, 2020, etc. Could it be yet another way to suggest that we have all reached a turning point?

For an organization like Handicap International, whether they are distant or in sight, these possible futures give reasons to worry. As a matter of fact, we are not looking forward to less multilateral cooperation for instance: Handicap International has indeed led emblematic international campaigns such as the ones against landmines or cluster munitions, whose success were facilitated by multilateral cooperation. By the same token, rising tensions between regional powers could result in even more instability in areas where humanitarian access is already impeded. Thus, Handicap International vowed in its 2016-2025 strategy to advocate in favor of more solidarity and inclusion in this world, and to strive for a creative and agile way to manage and adapt to change, rather than to remain helpless in the face of it.

[1] The National Intelligence Council, Global Trends – Paradox of progress, January 2017, 235p. Available here: (last consulted : 02/08/2017)

[2] Patrick Wintour, “Russia in power-broking role as Syria peace talks begin in Astana”, The Guardian, 23 January 2017; available here: (last consulted : 02/08/2017)

[3] Bill Gertz, “China, Russia rapidly building arms for space war”, The Washington Times, 21 September 2016; available here : (last consulted : 02/08/2017)

[4] Médecins Sans Frontières, Dossier – L’impasse des réfugiés en France, 1er février 2017; available here : (last consulted : 02/08/2017)

[5] OECD (2015), OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2015: Innovation for growth and society, OECD Publishing, Paris; available here: (last consulted : 02/08/2017)

[6] The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group’s website : (last consulted : 02/08/2017)

[7] Jasmine C. Lee, Rudy Omri, Julia Preston, “What are Sanctuary Cities?”, The New York Times, 6 February 2017; available here:  (last consulted : 02/08/2017)


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