McLEAN, Va. -- It is 2020 and America, Europe, and Japan struggle to maintain a decent quality of life for masses of elderly people. China faces a choice between belligerence and joining Western nations as an economic superpower. India, Brazil, and Indonesia are emerging powers.
That is one future being contemplated by US intelligence officials as part of a long-range forecasting endeavor just getting underway. The effort, called the National Intelligence Council 2020 Project, aims to come up with a range of scenarios the world could face.
The product will be unclassified, which is unusual for the US intelligence services. The council chairman, Robert L. Hutchings, in a recent interview at CIA headquarters, said he expects to publish the paper in December 2004, timed between the presidential election and the beginning of either President Bush's second term or a new administration.
"It's a time when people inside government are more ready to think very broadly," Hutchings said.
With so much of the nation's intelligence community focused on the next car bomb, Hutchings said looking years ahead would help policy makers navigate what he described as a "period of profound flux in world affairs."
The council is made up of senior analysts who advise CIA director George J. Tenet. It is not part of the CIA but is located at the agency's headquarters.
The project held its first conference in November. Over the next year, it will bring together specialists on demographics, technology, and regional affairs. Foreign scholars will be consulted for their views on their home regions as well as the United States.
At the start, Hutchings and his colleagues have mostly questions:
Will mass retirements in North America, Europe, and Japan strain national economies to the point of causing a global slowdown?
"That's not inevitable," Hutchings said. "It's possible that these creative societies will be able to take policy measures to accommodate an aging work force and move toward a new era of economic growth."
What countries are most likely to fall apart and become potential terrorist havens?
Will poorer nations create a backlash that undermines the global trading system?
Will economic forces lead to major change in China, the world's most populous nation?
"What would it take for the Chinese Communist Party to evolve so much that it could accommodate all these new political, economic, and social forces that have been unleashed by economic growth?" Hutchings said. "What other forms of political expression might pop up?"
Whatever happens, Hutchings said the nation is unlikely to be just like the China of today.
"I'm personally attracted by the theory that China can either become aggressive or powerful, but not both," he said. "A China that was reverting to threatening behavior . . . wouldn't be open enough for economic growth."
The aftermath of the Iraq invasion will still be felt in the Persian Gulf region in 2020, he predicted.
And Hutchings, a Europe specialist, believes the emerging division between the United States and Europe will not go away.
"In a way, Iraq has just brought into full view changes that were already taking place and exposed how far we are from the bipolar world of the Cold War," he said.
Other possible events are true wild cards -- a 21st-century plague, a nuclear exchange in Asia, or some advance in energy technology that makes fossil fuels obsolete.
The 2020 project is a follow-up to two earlier projects, Global Trends 2010, which was finished in 1997, and Global Trends 2015, finished in late 2000. Some of the predictions from those earlier projects have borne out:
2000: "Between now and 2015, terrorist tactics will become increasingly sophisticated and designed to achieve mass casualties. We expect the trend toward greater lethality in terrorist attacks to continue."
1997: "In Iraq, Saddam Hussein will be gone and the challenge will be to see whether a modern, secular successor government emerges that does not threaten its neighbors."
Other predictions have not yet come to pass. The Global Trends 2010 report, for example, predicted North Korea would no longer be a threat.