Every four years, US intelligence community analysts try to predict what is going to happen in the next 20 years. Although events regularly take place that show how difficult it is to make predictions for even the next five years (I’m talking about predictions, not plans), the US intelligence community continues putting together these reports using a set template.
In the summary of the report released in March, it notes that demographics will be the main factor influencing geopolitical processes around the world. It states: “The most certain trends during the next 20 years will be major demographic shifts as global population growth slows and the world rapidly ages. Some developed and emerging economies, including in Europe and East Asia, will grow older faster and face contracting populations, weighing on economic growth. In contrast, some developing countries in Latin America, South Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa benefit from larger working-age populations, offering opportunities for a demographic dividend if coupled with improvements in infrastructure and skills. Human development, including health, education, and household prosperity, has made historic improvements in every region during the past few decades. Many countries will struggle to build on and even sustain these successes. Past improvements focused on the basics of health, education, and poverty reduction, but the next levels of development are more difficult and face headwinds from the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially slower global economic growth, aging populations, and the effects of conflict and climate. These factors will challenge governments seeking to provide the education and infrastructure needed to improve the productivity of their growing urban middle classes in a 21st century economy. As some countries rise to these challenges and others fall short, shifting global demographic trends almost certainly will aggravate disparities in economic opportunity within and between countries during the next two decades as well as create more pressure for and disputes over migration.”
The coronavirus pandemic is considered separately and given its own section. According to the authors, it has created new uncertainties about economics, government, and technology, and its consequences will continue to be felt for years to come.
The summary also points out that the intelligence community’s previous reports predicted the potential for new diseases and pandemic scenarios, but they failed to provide a full picture of what the spread of COVID-19 could lead to and its influence on society.
Generally speaking, the pandemic has led to the following trends:
– the catalysis of economic trends due to lockdowns and border closures;
– a rise in nationalism and polarisation;
– a deepening in inequality;
– a decline in trust in governments;
– the exposure of weaknesses and inabilities in international organisations like the UN and WHO; and
– a rise in non-state actors.
As a result, it states that “[i]n this more contested world, communities are increasingly fractured as people seek security with like-minded groups based on established and newly prominent identities; states of all types and in all regions are struggling to meet the needs and expectations of more connected, more urban, and more empowered populations; and the international system is more competitive – shaped in part by challenges from a rising China – and at greater risk of conflict as states and nonstate actors exploit new sources of power and erode longstanding norms and institutions that have provided some stability in past decades. These dynamics are not fixed in perpetuity, however, and we envision a variety of plausible scenarios for the world of 2040 – from a democratic renaissance to a transformation in global cooperation spurred by shared tragedy – depending on how these dynamics interact and human choices along the way.”
The authors manage to narrow their future scenarios down to five themes. Global challenges from climate change and disease to financial crises and technology disruptions will happen more frequently and more intensely in every region and country of the world. The continuing rise in migration, which increased by 100 million in 2020 compared with 2000, will have an impact on both the origin and destination countries. Countries’ national security systems will be forced to adapt to these changes.
Increasing fragmentation will affect communities, states, and the international system. Despite the world being more connected through the use of communications technology, people will be divided along different lines. The main criteria will be a commonality of views and beliefs, and a shared understanding of the truth.
This will lead to an imbalance. The international system will lack the power to respond to these challenges. There will be a growing divide within states between the demands of the people and the capabilities of governments and corporations. People will take to the streets throughout the world – from Beirut to Brussels and Bogota.
Disputes within communities will intensify, leading to rising tensions. Politics within states will grow more contentious. In world politics, China will challenge the US and the Western-led international system.
Adaptation will be both an imperative and a key source of advantage for all actors in the world. From technology to demographic policies, everything will be used as strategies to improve economic efficiency, and the most successful countries will be those that have managed to build societal consensus and trust.
Therefore, the authors suggest paying attention to demographic, environmental, economic and technological developments, since these will determine the contours of our future world. Urbanisation will continue and, by 2040, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. The number of cities with a population of more than one million will also increase. Urbanisation will not mean an improved quality of life. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia will account for around one-half and one-third respectively of the increase in the urban poor.
On the whole, the poverty issues that the UN promised to resolve 20 years ago (with its Millennium Development Goals and its Sustainable Development Goals, for example) will not only remain but also worsen. There will be reduced access to education, health care, housing, etc., and basic needs will increase.
In the section on the dynamics of the international system, particular attention is paid to the rivalry between China and the US, the two countries that will have the most influence and occupy opposite sides of the future world order. Their rivalry will not be the same as the rivalry that existed in the bipolar world of the USSR and the US, however, because there are a greater number of actors now that are capable of defending their own interests, especially in their own regions. The countries listed as most likely to reap geopolitical and economic benefits are the EU, India, Japan, Russia, and the UK, while North Korea and Iran are referred to as “spoilers” that, by defending their interests, will bring increased uncertainty and volatility. It also notes: “China and Russia probably will try to continue targeting domestic audiences in the United States and Europe, promoting narratives about Western decline and overreach. They also are likely to expand in other regions, for example Africa, where both have already been active.”
Interestingly, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and his colleague Professor Charles Kupchan recently published an article that spoke of the need to establish a new concert of powers that would include the US, the EU, Japan, Russia, and the UK. They even openly acknowledged the onset of multipolarity, which needs to be managed in the interests of the whole world.
Does this position align with that of the US intelligence community? Well, yes, since that is where the CFR gets its employees from, and it also plays an active role in shaping the political and scientific agenda in the US.
The report lists Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates as the regional powers that will try to gain advantages and take on roles where they can influence regional stability.
In addition to states, NGOs, religious groups, major technology companies and other non-state actors will also be active in the international arena. Having the resources, they will build and promote alternative networks that, depending on their functions and goals, will either compete with or help states.
At the same time, global intergovernmental organisations that once served to underpin the Western-led international order, including the UN, the World Bank and the WTO, will fall apart. Country leaders will prefer special coalitions and regional organisations.
Western leadership of the intergovernmental organisations will also decline as Russia and China deliberately undermine Western initiatives, among which the authors of the report mention the Belt and Road Initiative, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the New Development Bank, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
As for future conflicts, the risk of an interstate conflict will be higher than before, despite the desire of the major powers to avoid a full-scale war, due to new technologies, an expanding range of targets, a large number of actors, more complex dynamics of deterrence, and weakening norms.
The conflict spectrum could range from economic coercion, cyber operations (not kinetic) and hybrid warfare, including the use of insurgents, private companies and armed proxies, to the use of regular armed forces and nuclear weapons (conventional and strategic).
Terrorism is not going to disappear, but the report’s authors show very little imagination and limit themselves to well-known global jihadist groups, Iranian and Lebanese Shiite groups, and extreme left-wing and right-wing groups in Europe, the US and Latin America.
Eventually, five scenarios are put forward. “Three of the scenarios portray futures in which international challenges become incrementally more severe, and interactions are largely defined by the US-China rivalry. In Renaissance of Democracies, the United States leads a resurgence of democracies. In A World Adrift, China is the leading but not globally dominant state, and in Competitive Coexistence, the United States and China prosper and compete for leadership in a bifurcated world. Two other scenarios depict more radical change. Both arise from particularly severe global discontinuities, and both defy assumptions about the global system. The US-China rivalry is less central in these scenarios because both states are forced to contend with larger, more severe global challenges and find that current structures are not matched to these challenges. Separate Silos portrays a world in which globalization has broken down, and economic and security blocs emerge to protect states from mounting threats. Tragedy and Mobilization is a story of bottom-up, revolutionary change on the heels of devastating global environmental crises.”
Of course, as well as trying to look into the future by using available data and studying previous decades, the US intelligence community had other objectives – 1) to identify specific threats so that the US authorities (and Washington’s partners) can focus on them and allocate the necessary resources to the relevant contractors; and 2) to demonise certain states, ideologies, and political systems.
There is a noticeable preoccupation with the collapse of an international system that currently benefits the West. If serious changes were to take place that reduced the role of the US and EU, this would be viewed positively by most countries. While the two previous reports on global tendencies spoke of multipolarity, it is written between the lines in this one. It is probably due to the gradual materialisation of this multipolarity that the authors tried to avoid the word and simply limited themselves to mentioning regional alliances amid global disunity.
On the other hand, predictions for 20 years into the future are questionable and more reminiscent of science fiction than geopolitical modelling.
The well-known American scientist Steve Fuller, for example, has noted several points that negate the very possibility of predicting the future: 1) the future is essentially unknowable because it does not yet exist, and we can only know what exists; 2) the future will differ from the past and the present in every respect. This is possibly due to the uncertainty of nature, to which free will also makes a substantial contribution; and 3) the interplay between predictions and their results is so complex that each prediction generates unintended consequences that do more harm than good.
Therefore, everyone can draw their own conclusions from this report based on their personal views and preferences.