Notes on the Quadrennial Intelligence Community Review

Thanks to Noah Shachtman’s post at Danger Room I’m reading through the Quadrennial Intelligence Community Review document, “Scenarios: Alternative Futures the IC Could Face” [PDF]. I’ll let them describe the report:

The Quadrennial Intelligence Community Review (QICR) 2009 is a scenario-based strategic planning activity that looks out to the year 2025 and considers alternative futures (i.e., “scenarios”), missions the Intelligence Community (IC) might be called on to perform, and the operating principles and capabilities required to fulfill those mission… The insights gleaned are intended to help shape the next National Intelligence Strategy and other planning and capability guidance documents.

The document considers four scenarios based on the NIC’s Global Trends 2025 report: World without the West, Politics is not always local, BRIC’s bust-up, and October surprise. These are plotted against two axes: Global Cooperation & Key Players. The scenarios thus represent movement between State-Dominated & Non-State-Dominated Actors, and Aligned & Fragmented Global Cooperation. [Wish I could embed the graphic but it’s locked in the PDF.]

From this scenario map I want to consider first why non-state-dominated actors might be more important to the global landscape in the next 15yrs. States function as, literally, governors of the system for which they are responsible. They’re tasked with maintaining a degree of socioeconomic equilibrium in the face of change. Yet state governance is relatively immature and considerably laden with the legacy code of The Enlightenment. Most of the prevailing governing structures did not anticipate the world in which we find ourselves today. The rate of change has become so accelerated and the system of civilization so complex that significant broad control of nations has become nearly impossible. Even cities are struggling to manage the change tearing through their streets. This suggests a declining ability of large states to effectively manage their domains, both through inability to manage internal complexity and over-extension across the globalized world. The perennial torpor of state bureaucracy is much slower to adapt leaving more nimble actors room to innovate & thrive.

So with respect to the Key Players axis of the QICR Report, I’m inclined to forecast a rise in non-state-dominated actors (eg corporations, NGOs, militias, cartels, super-empowered individuals…) increasingly pulling power away from state institutions. This, of course, will be against a background of hardening state bodies (eg Iran, Russia, China…) trying to clampdown on their power typically through authoritarian means. But the pre-eminence of state control is already fading against rising non-governmental powers. Of particular note is the empowerment of ideological-based insurgencies and organized crime. These elements deliberately undermine state authority often directly challenging control with open source warfare tactics, as in Somalia, Mexico, Iraq, and Af-Pak. Similarly, corporations do this with increasing boldness but generally stop short at armed aggression (though maybe Xe/Blackwater will cross this line…).

The second consideration involves the axis of Global Cooperation. What are the factors at play here? Treaties, trade, military, Bretton-Woods structures like the UN and World Bank, and the structures of government and the Rule of Law all give cohesive input to the system. Working against such cohesion are identity politics, self-interest, tribalism, and the injuries wrought by history. Technology has certainly enabled cooperation and the Social Media Revolution seems to reinforce the basic human nature to share and collaborate. Yet it’s likely that such a popular movement will take time to erode the catatonia of bureaucracy enough to make a significant difference in government. Historically, foreign policy has primarily been a function of managing competition, aggressing towards resources, and defending against incursions. So it would be a considerable shift to see a great degree of cooperation across governments, the difficulty of which is presently illustrated by the delicate climate negotiations at Copenhagen.

So with respect to the Global Cooperation axis, my sense is that people and groups and even larger NGOs are indeed cooperating more but governments and corporations are still driven primarily by competition and prone to territorial disputes. The very nature of state borders delineates an “Us vs. Them” posture, as does the Art of War mentality still deeply lodged in the corporate marketplace. This oppositional influence effectively reinforces the ascendancy of non-state actors, particularly identity-based groups and NGOs that can show more competency and humanity in addressing the very real problems of the world. In many ways globalization itself has played a major role in challenging tribal structures and incentivizing cooperation. Buoyed by the waves of commerce, the devices of instantaneous global communication have washed up on the shores of almost every developed & developing nation. Tools of instantaneous collaboration have been surprisingly empowering to insurgencies and militias now much more capable of coordinated strategies and global networking. Ultimately, non-local social networking is likely to undermine racial and nationalistic tendencies while enabling affinity-based collaborations. Yet, in spite of such tremendous connectivity, governments continue to proceed from territorial geopolitics while citizens are living increasingly in a world without borders. This gap will produce increasing tensions in the near-term before yielding to new forms of emergent governance over the next decade.

The primary outlier today is climate change. Shifting patterns of rainfall and arable land may radically redraw the map of cooperation. Rising food prices and massive migratory displacement are obvious precursors to substantial internecine resource conflicts and all-out war. In such a scenario states will radically harden borders and identity politics will cohere around resource rights and the safe-havens of nationalism and religious fervor. If India has to absorb millions of Bangladeshi’s as the Himalayas melt, Indians will face much stiffer competition for local jobs & resources. This pattern could play out all over the world given the mosaic of effects predicted by current climate models. In such a crisis, it’s unclear whether the insurmountable US military will act as global peacekeeper or merely reinforce the interests of its owners.

Nevertheless, humans seem to be innately wired to cooperate and help others. As a species, we’re arguably on a path that reinforces this nature. Our technologies keep making it easier & easier to connect across the world and collaborate towards great heights. Tribalism continues but there is a trend towards tribes of affinity rather than tribes of geography. Whether we can collaborate enough and in time to avoid a return to global tribalism is an open topic. As animals, our access to food & water will determine everything, as will the struggle to maintain energy flow towards all of our technological endeavors.

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