This latest post in our series on the US National Intelligence Center Global Trends report – “A more contested world” covers the section they call “Emerging Dynamics”. Having looked at the structural forces – “megatrends” – in the previous section, here they address how those forces play out with regard to the cohesiveness of societies, resilience of states and types of interaction between states at the international level.
They see people in many countries as pessimistic and distrustful of leaders, and communities increasingly fragmented and in conflict, with competing goals. Governments face tighter resources and mounting governance challenges. The rivalry between the United States and China forces starker choices on other actors. Increased competition over international rules and norms will undermine global multilateralism, and international order.
SOCIETAL: DISILLUSIONED, INFORMED, AND DIVIDED
Potentially slower growth and smaller gains in human development means populations
are increasingly pessimistic about their prospects, frustrated with government performance, and believe governments are favouring elites or pursuing the wrong policies. Covid-19 is increasing these pressures. Less than a quarter of those polled in France, Germany, and Japan believe they will be better off in 2025. More than half of the public say the “system” is failing them. AI and greater internet access could increase distrust as people find it harder to establish what is “real”, have channels to vent their anger and become more concerned about state surveillance.
People in every region are turning to familiar and like-minded groups for community and a sense of security. In turn, this is leading to more influential roles for identity groups in societal and political dynamics but also generating divisions and contention. In developing regions where populations are growing fastest, including Africa, South Asia, there is greater participation in religion. Intensifying and competing identity dynamics are likely to provoke increasing polarisation, societal divisions, and in some cases, unrest and violence.
These competing identities are challenging conceptions of national identity, but in some countries exclusionary notions of nationalism are creating dangers for minorities and increasing anti-immigrant attitudes. In countries like India and Turkey these forces are deliberately harnessed to bolster the regime.
Improved access to technology is empowering the public, providing new opportunities for political participation, and making them more demanding, more concerned to protect what they have. Combined with different interest groups and identities this means demands are more varied, contradictory, and difficult to address. This will put even more pressure on governments, and we could see more mass protests, boycotts, civil disobedience, and even violence. “During the next two decades, these multiple paths for channelling discontent are likely to present an increasingly potent force with a mix of implications for social cohesion.”
STATE: TENSIONS, TURBULENCE, AND TRANSFORMATION
All these societal tensions make governing difficult increasing demands on established order. At the same time, governments’ capabilities are reducing as demographics, climate change and slow economic growth, not to mention recovery from the pandemic, take their toll. The report suggests that this “disequilibrium” could result in either:
- Democracy in crisis, authoritarian regimes may also be vulnerable
- “Adaptive governance” – with non-state actors and more local activity
- New models of governance
Key democratic traits – including freedom of expression and the press, judicial independence, and protections for minorities – are deteriorating globally with countries sliding in the direction of greater authoritarianism. Illiberal leaders undermining democratic norms and institutions and civil liberties have been enabled by public distrust of established parties and elites, and anxieties about economic dislocations and immigration. China, Russia and other actors, in varying ways, are undermining democracies and supporting illiberal regimes.
On the other hand authoritarian regimes are at risk too. Greater access to information could challenge the corrupt aspects of many governing parties.
The report suggests that the rise of “adaptive governance” where non-state actors complement, compete with, and in some cases replace the state. Insurgent groups and criminal organizations are filling in the governance gap and expanding their influence by providing employment and social services, ranging from healthcare and education to security and trash collection. In the pandemic, corporations, philanthropies, technology companies, and research and academic institutions worked in concert with governments to produce breakthroughs at record speeds.
Civil society and local governance has filled gaps providing humanitarian relief and welfare services, often supported by new technology. Local governance offers the chance new models that are closer to the community and building greater trust and legitimacy.
INTERNATIONAL: MORE CONTESTED, UNCERTAIN, AND CONFLICT-PRONE
Internationally the report argues we will see a more volatile and confrontational geopolitical environment. The rivalry between the US and China will strain and re-align existing alliances. Other powerful actors – Russia, EU, India, regional powers and non-state actors – will contribute a dynamic and unstable international environment. Multinational organisations like the WTO and UN will struggle, and the possibility of violent conflict becomes worryingly real. There are major problems in developing new international norms in new fields: Biotechnology; Artificial Intelligence; Cyber security and conflict; Arctic access and resource extraction.
The authors believe that the UK is likely to continue to punch above its weight internationally given its strong military and financial sector and its global focus. They suggest that its nuclear capabilities and permanent UN Security Council membership add to its global influence, but that a splintering of the union would leave it struggling to maintain its global presence.
Global conflict will be more multi-layered – no longer is the only option full-on nuclear war. There is a spectrum of conflict:
- From Cyber attacks and economic coercion (Belt and Road Initiative, vaccines)
- Through irregular forces, militias and assassination
- To blockades, formal military action
- Up to nuclear and WMD.
In a multi-polar, dynamic and confused world, deterrence becomes much more difficult. Arms control treaties are increasingly unsustainable. Terrorism remains a major threat.
Again, the report takes a pessimistic view of the future, though I have to confess that at the inter-state level I am no more optimistic. SAMI has done a lot of analysis of geo-political dynamics off the back of an EC project. We hope to be able to share that with you shortly. At a societal level however I do see more signs of collaboration and cohesion.
In the last of my reviews of the report I will be looking at the Scenarios for 2040.
Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
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