James R. Clapper AO Global Trends Speech

26 June 2017

We inevitably get consumed with the urgent, at the expense of the important.

Former US Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper AO delivered his final address as part of his term as Visiting Vice-Chancellor's Distinguished Professor at The Australian National University.

Below is the full-text of his speech, which was delivered at the Sydney Opera House.

I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of this land, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I would also extend that respect and to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people joining us today.

I am humbled, thrilled and privileged to be here in this iconic venue. I do want to allay any concerns that I may break into an Aria. Absolutely, no worries.

Thinking about the future is hard, but vital.

Crises and drama keep intruding, making it all but impossible to look beyond daily headlines to what lies over the horizon. We inevitably get consumed with the urgent, at the expense of the important.

Yet long-term thinking is critical to framing strategy, and a longer perspective requires us to ask hard questions about which issues and choices will be most consequential in the decades ahead - even if they don't generate the here and now big headlines.

Peering into the future can be very scary, and it is very humbling.

Today I am going to talk about the Global Trends report, which the US National Intelligence Council publishes every four years. It is a major assessment of the forces and choices shaping the world before us over the next two decades.

The sixth and most recent of these reports was released in January 2017, under my auspices as the Director of National Intelligence.

A brief description of our methodology. Two years ago, we conducted exercises identifying key assumptions and uncertainties. We did research and consulted with numerous experts in, and outside, the US Government to identify trends. We tested early themes and arguments on a blog. We visited more than 35 countries and one territory, soliciting ideas and feedback from over 2,500 people around the world, from all walks of life.

So, this afternoon I want to do three things:

  • First, review seven key global trends out to about the year 2035 - these center on population, economy, technology, ideology, governance, conflict, and the inter-related cluster of climate change, environment and disease.
  • Second, drill down in this region, and use a shorter, five-year timeframe to talk about key challenges posed by Russia, China, North Korea, and terrorism.
  • And third, conclude by looking at the implications of all this, generally for the planet, and specifically for Australia.

I will try to hit the wave tops of all these issues, and then leave time for discussion, either about what I've talked about directly here, or other national security issues on your minds. 

I do need to state that what I say here does not represent the official, coordinated view of the US Intelligence Community, or US Government policy.



The world's population will be larger, older, and more urban - but the effect on each country will vary, as the major economies age, and the developing world remains young. The world's population is forecast to jump from roughly 7.3 to 8.8 billion people by 2035.  Africa - with fertility rates double those of the rest of the world, and parts of Asia - will see their populations soar.  This could lead to progress or disaster, depending on how well their governments manage, and societies ramp up education, health, and infrastructure. 

People over 60 are becoming the world's fastest growing age group.  The US and Australia are both aging at a slower rate than Japan and West European Countries, and will sustain a growing working-age population.

The countries with chronically young populations will continue to be a challenge for places like the Middle East.  These are the same areas where education levels are the lowest, a toxic combination that is fertile for violent extremism. 

The number of people, globally, reaching working age during the next 20 years will decline sharply - from 1.2 billion between 1995-2015 to 850 million between 2015-2035.

By the way, global GDP could rise by more than 10 per cent by 2035 if the roles and relative compensation for women were equitable.

Over half of all humanity lives in cities today, which will rise to over 2/3 in 2050.

Moreover, people are on the move.  International migrants reached the highest levels ever recorded in 2015, with 244 million migrants, 65 million of which are displaced; in other words, one of every 112 persons in the world is either a refugee, an internally displaced person, or an asylum seeker - a trend not likely to abate.


Here we see two countervailing trends. On one hand, global poverty is actually declining. Economic reforms in China and other Asian countries have fueled a historic rise in living standards for nearly a billion people since 1990, cutting the share of the world living in "extreme poverty" (below $2 a day), from 35 to around 10 per cent.

At the same time, western middle classes are being squeezed. Real median household incomes in the United States, Germany, Japan, Italy, and France rose by less than 1% per year from the mid-1980's through the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.  In Australia, income growth has been higher, yet so has the growth of inequality.

Most of the world's largest economies will likely under-perform, at least by historical standards. China and the EU - two of the world's three largest economies - will continue to try to make painful changes in the interest of long-term growth.

China will be the biggest wild card, as it tries to raise living standards for an increasingly demanding population, while shifting away from a state-directed economy.  This balancing act will be a real challenge for the regime.

All countries will face the challenge of maintaining employment.  Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and other technological innovations pose a threat to the very existence of vast numbers of jobs up and down the socioeconomic ladder, including hi-tech and white-collar jobs.   This is a good segue to the third major trend....


Let me highlight two areas:

(A)       Information Communication Technology, and (B) Biotechnologies

The Internet has been described as the "largest experiment in anarchy in history," and as the "world's largest ungoverned space."  Twenty years ago, the Internet connected 70 million people, or about 1% of the earth's population. Today, it connects over half of the world's population.

In 1990, one million people worldwide owned a mobile phone. Today, close to 6 billion are in circulation.

The "Internet of Things" will create more efficiencies, but also create vulnerabilities and security risks.  Right now, the IoT has more than 10.5 billion endpoints, which are projected to grow to almost 30 billion by 2020, entailing a market of US$1.7 trillion (with a T).

 New financial technologies - including digital currencies, applications of "blockchain" technology for transactions, and AI and "big data" for predictive analytics - will profoundly change financial services with potentially big impacts on systemic stability and the security of critical financial infrastructure.

Adversaries - especially non-state ones -will become ever more sophisticated at using these technologies.  They will, for example, manipulate data to compromise its fidelity, which is harder to detect.  We're clearly going to see increased use of ransomware.

(B) BIOTECHNOLOGIES are at an inflection point, where advances in genetic editing, exemplified by innovative ways to manipulate genes are turning science fiction into reality.  This opens the possibilities to enhance human capabilities, treat disease, extend longevity, or boost food production.

These technologies are also potentially very dangerous to us, threaten civil liberties, and privacy, and pose profound ethical questions.

I'd like to share a quote I came across recently that I think is very germane:

 "If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.  Ours is a world of (technological) giants, and ethical infants."

This came from General Omar Bradley, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, in his Armistice Day speech (what you call Remembrance Day) in 1948 - over 68 years ago.   The dilemmas facing mankind don't change.


To me it's counter-intuitive that a more inter-connected world increases, rather than decreases, differences in ideas, and identities - but that's what's happening.

Populism, which we're experiencing in my country, in Europe, and in Australia, will increase over the next two decades, if current demographic, economic, and governance trends hold. This development is characterized by open hostility toward elites, conventional politics, and established institutions.  It rejects globalization. I would observe that mandatory voting serves to moderate populism.

Similarly, exclusionary religious identities will continue to be a key factor in the Middle East and Africa.  Religious identity will remain a powerful connection. Over 80% of the world is religiously affiliated, and that trend will increase because of the high fertility rates in the developing world.

Tolerance and diversity - traditional values in Western Europe, Australia and the US will erode - making these ideals far less appealing.


Governments are going to have a tough time meeting public demands for security and prosperity. The gap between public expectation and government performance will generate more public distrust and dissatisfaction over the next 20 years.  That applies in the US, and in many other countries. 

Polls suggest that majorities in emerging nations, especially in the Middle East and Latin America, believe government officials "don't care about people like them."  Americans demonstrate the lowest levels of trust in government since such measurements were first done in 1958.

Here in Australia, trust in politicians has dropped to the lowest level since it was first measured in 1969, with only 26 per cent of respondents expressing confidence in government.

Democracy itself will come into greater question.  Freedom House reported that measurements of "freedom" in 2016 declined in almost twice as many countries as it improved - the biggest setback in 10 years.

While in past years the declines in freedom were generally concentrated among autocracies and dictatorships that simply went from bad to worse, in 2016 it was established democracies that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks.


Conflict levels are increasing, and battle-related deaths are up sharply since 2011.  Violent extremists are operationally active in about 40 countries; a half dozen countries or so have experienced collapse of central government authority; 14 others face regime-threatening, or violent instability, or both.  Approximately 60 countries exhibit some aspect of instability. 

There are now more Sunni violent extremist groups, members, and safe havens than at any time in history.

These non-state actors will grow more sophisticated in their use of technology - such as cyber, man-portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, unmanned drones and weapons of mass destruction.

War can be waged from afar and antiseptically.  Cyber-attacks, precision-guided weapons, robotic systems, and unmanned weapons lower the threshold for conflict because attackers are physically insulated from the target and thus at less risk of harm themselves.

Current nuclear weapon states will almost certainly maintain and modernize their nuclear arsenals through the year 2035.  The Russians, particularly, are aggressively pursuing modernization of their strategic nuclear forces, both land and sea launched. They have only one adversary in mind for these weapons: the United States.

I also need to mention the importance of space, which will become more democratic. Right now, some 80 countries participate in space activities, with more expected over the next two decades.   As nation-state budgets for space activities level off, private industry will fill the void and pursue such things as space tourism, asteroid mining, and space habitats. 

The Russians and the Chinese are embarked on very aggressive, multi-faceted counter-space programs, in direct recognition of our pervasive dependence on space.


For some people, this is a controversial issue.  It's true that extreme weather events are hard to attribute entirely to climate change, but regardless of the cause, patterns of extreme and record-breaking weather events are likely to become more common. 

Past greenhouse gas emissions have already locked in a significant rise in global mean temperatures for the next 20 years, no matter what greenhouse gas reduction policies are being implemented now.

Extreme weather can trigger crop failures, wildfires, energy blackouts, infrastructure breakdowns, supply-chain disruptions, migration, infectious disease break-outs (I'll have more to say about diseases in a moment).  Such events will be even more pronounced as people concentrate in climate-vulnerable locations (e.g. cities and coasts).

A few other sobering projections:

  • By 2035, air pollution is projected to be the top cause of environmentally related deaths worldwide, in the absence of new air quality policies.  More than 80% of urban dwellers are already exposed to air pollution that exceeds safe limits, according to the WHO.
  • Half of the world's population will face water shortages by 2035, according to the UN.  More than 30 countries - half of which are in the Middle East - will experience extreme water stress by 2035.
  • Melting ice in the polar regions will accelerate rises in sea levels over time.
  • More than a third of the earth's soil, which produces 95% of the world's food supply, is already degraded, and that degradation will accelerate over the next 20 years as the world's population expands.  Soil degradation is already occurring at rates as much 40 times faster than new soil formation.
  • These climate and environmental projections make the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord all the more disturbing and disappointing - both substantively and symbolically.


Let me turn now to disease, which is very much related to climate and the environment.

A recent article in the New York Times observed that with 7.3 billion people, 20 billion chickens, and 400 million pigs now sharing the earth, we have the ideal scenario for spawning and spreading dangerous microbes.  Trade and travel have connected most points on the globe in a matter of hours.  By some estimates, the 1918-1919 "Spanish" influenza killed more people that all the wars of the 20th century combined. Today, an influenza epidemic could be even more devastating.

The spread of antibiotic resistant microbes also continues at an ever-faster rate.  One recent comprehensive review predicted that, if unchecked, drug-resistant infections will kill more people world-wide by 2050 than cancer and diabetes combined. 

Without a global effort - which I believe can ONLY be led by the United States - we are in danger of reverting to a pre-antibiotic world in which a common cut could prove deadly and surgery would be too risky for infection.

Three years after the Ebola crisis, we still don't have a licensed vaccine or a plan for how to deploy one to prevent future outbreaks.  And, of course, there is the real threat of terrorists deliberately spreading disease. 

So, disease is a fundamental, existential national security issue, and will be more so over the next two decades.


As I said at the beginning, thinking long into the future is hard. There seems to be something in the human brain that resists envisioning far-distant challenges.

So, I thought it would be worthwhile looking at how some of the trends I have outlined will impact this region, and apply a shorter timeframe. I'll focus on Russia, China, North Korea, and terrorism.


Russia aspires to restore its great power status through nationalism, military modernization, nuclear saber rattling, and foreign engagements abroad.

Yet, at home, Russia faces increasing constraints, as its faltering and hydrocarbon-reliant economy struggles to emerge from two deep recessions - 2008 to 2009 and 2014 to 2017.

When we think about Russian strength, it is worth remembering that as a country with a population of 145 million people, its GDP is about the same size as Australia's - with a population of only 24 million.

Moscow's role on the global stage has become a source of regime power and popularity at home. Putin is personally popular, but approval ratings of 35 percent for the ruling party reflect public impatience with deteriorating quality of life conditions and abuse of power.

If the Kremlin's tactics falter, Russia will become vulnerable to domestic instability driven by dissatisfied elites.

Life expectancy among males in Russia is the lowest of the industrial world, and its population will continue to decline. The longer Moscow delays diversifying its economy, the more the government will stoke nationalism and sacrifice personal freedoms and pluralism to maintain control.

To compensate for these vulnerabilities, Russia will continue its interference in the political processes of countries whom it considers adversaries - the United States and Europe.


China faces a daunting test - with its political stability in the balance. After three decades of historic economic growth and social change, Beijing, amid slower growth and the aftereffects of a debt binge, is transitioning from an investment-driven, export-based economy, to one fueled by domestic consumption.

Satisfying the demands of its new middle classes for clean air, affordable housing, improved services, and continued opportunities will be essential for the government to maintain legitimacy and political order.

Beijing probably has ample resources to prop up growth while efforts to spur private consumption take hold.

Nonetheless, the more it "doubles down" on state owned enterprises in the economy, the more it will be at greater risk of financial shocks that challenge its ability to manage the economy.

The country's rapidly shrinking working-age population in relation to its growing older cohort will slow growth.

China views the continuing presence of the US military in the Western Pacific, the US alliances in the region, and US protection of Taiwan as outdated and representative of the continuation of China's "100 years of humiliation."

China is embarked on a long-term military modernization program, which its leaders believe is essential to achieving "great power status."

China's officially-disclosed military budget grew at an average rate of 8.5% per year, adjusted for inflation, from 2007 to 2016, and they seem committed to increases in defense spending for the foreseeable future, even as their economic growth slows.

They are leveraging this growing power to assert their claims in the East and South China Seas.

It seems appropriate at this point to briefly compare the challenges posed by Russia and China.

Both maintain worldviews in which they see themselves as dominant in their regions.

Both are exerting greater influence in their regions, to contest the US geopolitically, and, to compel Washington to accept their exclusionary regional spheres of influence.

However, it's not clear whether there is a mutually acceptable line between what China and Russia each consider as their respective natural spheres of influence.

China, I think benefits more from the current international order, and its economy is much more integrated with the West. This is why I view China more benignly than I do Russia - I think the economic engagement and the benefit China gets from the current system moderates their behavior.

Moscow, on the other hand, has little stake in the rules of the global economy. Moscow will test NATO and European resolve, seeking to undermine Western unity and credibility.

Moscow will remain active in the Middle East and those parts of the world in which it believes it can check US influence. And it will remain committed to nuclear weapons - its ticket to superpower status.


Tension on the Korean Peninsula will continue in the near-term, with the possibility of serious confrontation.

Kim Jong Un is consolidating his grip on power through a combination of patronage and executions. Continued North Korean provocations, including additional nuclear and missile tests, might worsen stability in the region and prompt neighboring countries to take actions.

Kim is determined to secure international recognition of the North as a nuclear armed state, for the purposes of security, prestige, and political legitimacy. Unlike his father and grandfather, he has signaled little interest in participating in talks on denuclearization. He codified the North's nuclear status in the party constitution in 2012 and reaffirmed it during the Party Congress in 2016.

As I learned when I visited Pyongyang in November of 2014, the North Koreans are NOT going to de-nuclearize.


The terrorism threat is likely to increase over the next five years, as the means and the motivations of states, groups, and individuals to impose harm diversify.

Terrorists will continue to justify their violence by their own interpretations of religion, but several underlying drivers are also in play.

The breakdown of state structures and the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia fuel the larger Shia-Sunni sectarianism.

This schism between Shia and Sunni is likely to worsen over the next five years, and probably longer.

The trends influencing terrorism during the next five years and beyond will depend heavily on how two situations are resolved or not. First, many intra and inter-state conflicts currently under way - the Syrian civil war, and the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, the Sahel, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere - will determine the intensity and geography of future violence.

Second, are the thousands of foreign fighters. Unless they are identified, deradicalized, and reintegrated back into society, they will remain the recruiting pool for tomorrow's violent nonstate actors on a sustaining basis. Similarly, disaffected migrants - without better integration, education, and economic opportunity -will also be a recruiting pool for violent extremist groups.


What are the implications of all this - for the globe, for this region, and for Australia?


1.         WORLD ORDER: The international order is at a cross-roads. The post-World War II international order that enabled today's political, economic, and security structures and institutions is in question as power continues to diffuse globally. This brings into question civil, political, and human rights - hallmarks of liberal values and US leadership since 1945.

The United States under President Trump, with its avowed nationalist and protectionist policies, is now contributing to demise of this post-WWII order.

The downsides of globalization that drive some governments to adopt protectionist and nationalist policies might also create opportunities to increase resilience and innovation at local levels.

  1. A Time of Testing for the US: The next five years - not to mention the next 20 - are going to severely test the resilience of the United States. I'll discuss in a moment how I think this applies to Australia.
  2. Uncertainty prevails: Uncertainty, I can attest, is high around the world regarding our global leadership role.  Many of my former foreign intelligence partners have expressed great concern about whether the United States is really going to turn inward.
  3. The Trends Are Global: The trends I've briefly outlined are truly global in scope; they don't lend themselves to individual nation-state solutions.  What is needed is LEADERSHIP that ONLY the US can provide.  As President Obama correctly observed, when bad things happen in the world, people don't call 911 in Moscow or Beijing.  They call Washington; whether and how we answer the phone has profound implications.
  4. The Paradox: We are living a paradox: the achievements of the industrial and information ages are shaping a world over the next two decades that is both far more dangerous... and far richer with opportunity...than ever before. 
  5. Promise or Peril: Whether promise or peril prevails, will turn on the choices of humankind.

So, with that extensive litany of doom, let me conclude on a more positive, upbeat note.


Studies have shown that measuring a state's resilience is likely to be a better determinant of success in coping with future chaos and disruption, than traditional measures of material power alone.

Tomorrow's successful states will probably be those that invest in infrastructure, knowledge, and relationships resilient to shock-whether economic, environmental, societal, or cyber.

Six factors enhancing the resiliency of states include the following:

  1. GOVERNANCE: Governments capable of providing goods and services, promoting political inclusiveness, enforcing the rule of law, and earning the trust of their populace will be better positioned to absorb shocks and rally their population in response.
  2. FINANCIAL STRENGTH: States with diversified economies, manageable government debt and adequate financial reserves, robust private sectors, and adaptable and innovative workforces will be more resilient.
  3. SOCIETY: A prepared, integrated, and orderly society is likely to be cohesive and resilient in the face of unexpected change and have a high tolerance for coping with adversity.
  4. INFRASTRUCTURE: The robustness of a state's critical infrastructure, including diversified sources of energy and secure and redundant communication, information, health, and financial networks, will lessen a state's vulnerability to both natural disasters and intentional attempts to create disruption through cyber and other forms of attack.
  5. SECURITY: States with a high military capacity, capable and trusted domestic law enforcement and emergency responders, good civil-military relations, and robust alliances will more likely be able to defend against unexpected attacks and restore domestic order following a disruptive shock.
  6. NATURAL RESOURCES: States that have a large land mass, high levels of biodiversity, and good quality air, food, soil, and water will be more resilient to natural disasters.

As I look around this country, I see plenty of indications of this resilience, in all 6 of these criteria. Australia is actually well placed to weather the shocks of the future.

In the past, I have often used the cliché that Australia "punches way above its weight," when describing Australian intelligence capabilities, which, I can attest, is true.  But, this analysis of a state's resilience, in the face of the challenges facing the planet, describes Australia much more broadly, and, in my view, accurately.  You do, indeed, "punch above your weight," not just in intelligence, but as a nation.

But, I have witnessed a lot of hand-wringing while I've been here about the loss of US leadership, and people point to President Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord (which groups the United States right up there with Syria and Nicaragua) as the most prominent and dramatic example, among others,  of the US taking off its leadership cape. 

I would offer two points:

First, the bi-lateral alliance is bigger and stronger than a transient, unorthodox occupant of the White House.  We have several bi-lateral pillars - economic, diplomatic, military, intelligence, and our traditional values - which are long-standing, deep, and durable, and, it is my strongly held belief that those pillars will continue to underpin the relationship between our two countries.

Second, I would respectfully suggest that Australia can - and should - fill perceived leadership voids that the US leaves.  Australia already has global responsibilities, and is already regarded as an influential global voice.  Given how well Australia meets the six criteria for resilience - a much more enlightened way to gauge national strength - I have no doubt about Australia's rightful place as a prominent global leader.

Polling by the Lowy Institute, the most recent iteration of which came out this week, suggests that the Australian public is confident about its place in the world, that they understand the resilience of this country.

I hope that policy makers listen to the sentiments implied by these public attitudes, and act with confidence in the world.

Of course, there will be debate in this country on how you face these future challenges. Judging by my three-decade association with Australia, I am confident that this debate will be thorough and inclusive.

I will close on this slightly more optimistic note, and I look forward to your questions.