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Mad Max or Shining City on a Hill: Where Are We Headed?

An “alternative futures” exercise for the next administration.

What happens when an auspicious group of current and former Cabinet and federal agency heads, senior Office of Management and Budget and Government Accountability Office officials, academics and think tank leaders try to look into the future in order to tell the next presidential administration what it should (or should not) do to shape and influence that future?

Or rather, when they look at a set of alternative futures, each describing a dramatically different – but entirely plausible – state of the United States and the world. For example:

  • Imagine a future just a decade from now, one in which the U.S. has once again emerged as the shining city on the hill, the acknowledged and engaged leader of the first (and free) world and a generous benefactor of the rest – a magnet for the best and brightest everywhere, its preeminent prosperity fueled by as-yet-unimagined technology, an ‘open source’ society, and connected, responsive democratic institutions.
  • Or what about a darker future, one in which our taken-for-granted preeminence and power have declined. Where we were once at the top of the global heap, we’ve become like everybody else – the result of escalating internal economic, generational, racial, ethnic, and gender-based fissures? In this scenario, what is so common in much of the rest of the world today has become our “new normal,” as we turn inward and spiral downward.

Will either of these futures come to pass? Are there other alternative futures – some better and some even worse – that we may have to confront?

The answer: It depends in part on decisions to be made (or avoided) by the next administration, as well as on government’s capacity to execute those decisions. And both are problematic. That’s according to over two dozen of our nation’s most notable authorities on government, convened earlier this month by the National Academy of Public Administration and Booz Allen to conduct a unique exercise in strategic foresight – in this instance, to forecast the state of the world and the U.S. in the year 2025, as part of NAPA’s Presidential Transition 2016 project.

The point was not to predict the future. No one can, not with any real accuracy. Rather, our objective with this exercise – the first of four that will comprise our Presidential Transition Simulation Series – was twofold. First, we wanted to tap the brainpower of a group of luminaries to gaze into our nation’s murky future and see if there’s anything we can do about it. Second, we wanted to demonstrate the value of strategic foresight methodologies to those who may be shaping the agenda for the next administration.

So we looked around the corner (or at least at the next decade), and what we saw was paradoxical, both promising and problematic. Scenarios ranged from an extremely disconcerting “Mad Max” vision to one in which transnational chaos and conflict have largely been eradicated, but only by ceding privacy and individual freedoms to a global security state.

These potential futures, and all of the variations in between, may or may not ever come to pass. This generated much debate during the exercise, but again, that was the point – to extrapolate current macro trends to fathom what our world could look like, and what we could do about it.

Our group of experts all agreed on one thing: Whatever 2025 may bring, it will be shaped in part by what the next administration does, or doesn’t do.

Was that presumptuous? To some extent, certainly. First, as much as some may think otherwise, the power of any one administration (even a two-term one) to shape the future is limited, circumscribed by our system of checks and balances. Also, there are lots of other state and non-state actors on the world stage who are determined to have a say in the matter as well. Second, exogenous, inexorable forces are at work – climatic and environmental, demographic and socio-cultural, geostrategic and geopolitical – that are largely beyond the control of any one nation or even a bloc of them.

However, when one of those nations enjoys technological, military, economic and cultural predominance (even if by a declining margin), it may have more of a say than anyone else, whether we like it or not. So exercises like this one can be important, even more so if conducted by an administration itself as it begins its time in office as a way of anticipating the future and acting upon it.

The other thing that our erstwhile group concluded was that the federal government’s ability to shape a more positive (or at least a more benign) future depended on its capacity to do so. That is largely a function of those who serve and support it—the millions of servicemen and women, civil servants, contractors and citizens—that are its engine and drivetrain. Whether we choose a government that is large or small, it must be well-led, well-managed, and well-served. We ignore its capacity at our peril.

Dan Blair is president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration. Ronald Sanders is vice president and fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton.

Photo: Flickr user Tiberiu Ana