In 2008, the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) published the fourth installment in its effort to identify “megatrends” likely to shape world events a decade or more into the future. Shorenstein APARC Fellow and China expert Thomas Fingar, the then chairman of the NIC, oversaw that report, Global Trends 2025. The unclassified report uses scenarios to illustrate some of the ways in which the factors driving world events – from climate change to demographic decline to changing geopolitical powers – may interact to generate challenges and opportunities for future decisionmakers. One of these scenarios is the emergence of a global pandemic that bears a chilling resemblance to COVID-19.
We sat down with Fingar for an online conversation about the NIC report and its pandemic scenario, the government action it spurred, the United States’ failed initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and the implications of the current crisis for U.S.-China relations. Watch:
Twelve years after its publication, the NIC’s "Potential Emergence of a Global Pandemic" scenario (p. 75) has proven to be woefully accurate:
“The emergence of a novel, highly transmissible, and virulent human respiratory illness for which there are no adequate countermeasures could initiate a global pandemic. If a pandemic disease emerges by 2025, […] it probably will first occur in an area marked by high population density and close association between humans and animals, such as many areas of China and Southeast Asia […] Slow public health response would delay the realization that a highly transmissible pathogen had emerged […] Despite limits imposed on international travel, travelers with mild symptoms or who were asymptomatic could carry the disease to other continents. Waves of new cases would occur every few months. The absence of an effective vaccine and near-universal lack of immunity would render populations vulnerable to infection.”
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It was not a prediction, recalls Fingar, but rather an attempt to urge policymakers to think “beyond tomorrow,” past the end of their administration, and to stimulate strategic thinking about how to reinforce positive trends and change or ameliorate negative ones. If the report and its global pandemic scenario are precise, he notes, it is because the NIC’s effort involved the best specialists within the U.S. intelligence community and engaged numerous and varied groups of non-U.S. Government experts.
Yet the United States has been unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis is now worsening U.S.-China tensions. To address the crisis, however, argues Fingar, both countries must cooperate in the international fora. “Let that be the way that builds towards a better bilateral relationship.”