This is the last post in our series on the US National Intelligence Center Global Trends report – “A more contested world”. NIC produced five scenarios for 2040, as a way of “Charting the future through uncertainty”.
The scenarios were shaped by exploring three key questions or uncertainties:
- How severe are the looming global challenges?
- How do states and non-state actors engage in the world, including focus and type of engagement?
- What do states prioritize for the future?
Common to each were the themes of shared global challenges, fragmentation, disequilibrium, adaptation, and greater contestation.
Three of the five scenarios are based around the balance between China and the West:
- Renaissance of Democracies: where the United States leads a resurgence of democracies
- A World Adrift: where China is the leading but not globally dominant state
- Competitive Coexistence: where the United States and China prosper and compete for leadership
The other two posit more radical, severe global discontinuities:
- Separate Silos: globalization has broken down, and economic and security blocs emerge to protect states from mounting threats
- Tragedy and Mobilization: bottom-up, revolutionary change follows on the heels of devastating global environmental crises.
RENAISSANCE OF DEMOCRACIES
In this scenario, technological advances spurred economic growth. The West (and its Asian allies) strengthened its global leadership in the fourth industrial revolution and biotechnology. This enabled democratic governments to deliver services and provide security more effectively. In this context they were able to improve transparency, reduce corruption and generally increase civic confidence and social cohesion. Increased international collaboration and strengthened global institutions made major progress on climate change mitigation, cyber-security and developed consensus on the Arctic, AI ethics and space.
China on the other hand increased digital repression, limiting any free expression and inhibiting innovation. Its aging population, high public and private debt, and inefficient state-directed economic model blocked the country’s transition to a consumer economy. Russia also declined because of a stagnating workforce, overreliance on energy exports, and post-Putin elite infighting. Both regimes continue to make belligerent noises – on behalf of ethnic Russians in Eastern Europe, or around islands in the South China Sea – but draw back from any serious confrontation.
Non-aligned, populous countries – Brazil, Indonesia, India, and Nigeria – saw the success of the US and allies, contrasted with years of unfulfilled Chinese promises and so turned to fully embrace transparent democracy. Rapid diffusion of advanced technologies to developing economies enabled faster than expected improvements in education and job skills, building on remote learning.
A WORLD ADRFIFT
This scenario describes a future in which OECD countries struggled to recover from the pandemic, experiencing an extended of recession. Environmental, health, and economic crises had emerged gradually and sporadically, limiting governments’ ability to invest in social advances. Economic hardships widened societal divisions, leading to a more polarised society with frequent rounds of protests and unrest. This in turn inhibited investment and a further period of stagnant growth.
China also had climate change issues, but its centralised command system enabled it to mobilise resources more readily. Huge infrastructure projects aimed at managing the effects of climate change, like the great Shanghai sea wall, became the envy of the world. Its continued GDP growth allowed it overtake the US as the world’s largest economy. China has little interest in supplanting the US in international organisations, instead preferring to promote its industries and setting technology standards that advanced its development goals. It continued to focus on countering perceived security threats around its periphery and at home, and undermining the US’s influence in the Region. China’s economic and military coercive power was a turning point for the region, enabling it to intimidate Taiwan into unification talks. Although generally aligned with China, Russia increasingly became a junior partner.
Developing countries with large unemployed youthful populations feel compelled to appease Chinese demands in hopes of securing much needed investment and aid. The lack of global leadership has meant that state failures are not infrequent and the world is more vulnerable to individual hackers, terrorists, and criminal groups. Belligerents feel emboldened to pursue their goals with force, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.
This led to many waves of migration, mainly to Europe and the US, further increasing polarisation.
Large global problems, particularly climate change and health challenges, remain unaddressed. Some states, companies, and private organizations do use the freedom from over-restrictive regulation to discover novel ways to enhance human health and to experiment with new approaches to economic development and governance.
The third of their US-China scenarios is more of a middle way. Stimulus packages enable OECD countries to (eventually) recover from the pandemic. Increased collaboration amongst this group has stimulated trade and established a fairly stable society. After years of low petrol prices, post-Putin Russia saw its path to growth through joining the economic consensus, as did influential economies such as Brazil.
China of course stood apart, but its priorities of economic growth and trade meant that it established an uneasy balance of forces with the US. There were regular flashpoints and concerns, particularly in the South China Sea, but underlying self-interest meant that overt conflict was avoided, though covert cyber operations and similar continued.
Africa continued to be seen predominantly as a source of raw materials and cheap labour, now much in demand as other societies age.
Carbon emissions were reduced substantially, but not fast enough to avoid many extreme events. Richer countries have been able to adopt adaptation technologies, but much of the world is suffering.
By 2040 the world has fragmented into several economic and security blocs of varying size and strength, centred on the United States, China, the European Union (EU), Russia, and a few regional powers. Each enclave focusses on self-sufficiency, so international trade is disrupted.
Trade disputes, health and terrorist threats led to increasingly strict border control. Supply chains were disrupted, increasing costs and limiting growth, which were seen as necessary consequences of the need to protect citizens. While larger countries with sufficient resources managed well, other poorer countries in Africa and South Asia struggled, increasing migration forces and causing a further round of border restrictions. Failure to deal with climate change created yet more migratory pressures.
Digital technology overcame the physical barriers for a while, but increasingly the internet itself split into separate walled gardens for each bloc. Smaller countries sought to ally themselves with a major bloc, offering up scarce resources. Low-level conflict simmers along bloc boundaries.
International organizations and collective action to tackle climate change, healthcare disparities, and poverty falter. Countries independently adapt to the catastrophic impacts, significantly increasing the incentive for risky solutions.
TRAGEDY AND MOBILIZATION
This scenario describes a future where climate change caused such a major global food catastrophe that rich countries felt obliged to work together to manage the crisis. Rising ocean acidity devastated fisheries; changes in precipitation damaged harvests; global famine led to instability even in richer countries.
Eventually younger generations mobilized, reinvigorating global institutions and supplanting existing governments. Global attitudes about the environment and human security were being transformed by growing recognition of the unsustainability of past practices. Green movements swept to victory in democratic societies. Corporate goals expanded to include a wider range of stakeholders. China itself suffered famines, so fell in behind an EU/UN push for new Sustainable Development Goals. Russia and OPEC however were reluctant to abandon fossil fuels and are having to fend off internal dissent, and may yet be unstable.
The NIC approach to scenario generation – by exploring answers their three key questions – is not one I have encountered before. The resulting scenarios don’t seem to me to be very innovative: the US-China balance dominates their thinking and results in two extreme cases and a middle one. The final two scenarios are less well developed and I feel they may contain inconsistencies. Exactly how the scenarios were chosen is not made clear. Surprisingly for such a sophisticated organisation there was no attempt to produce visual descriptions of the different scenarios.
Nonetheless, it’s interesting to note the emphasis on geo-politics and climate change rather than on technology as so many “futures” are. SAMI also included analysis of geo-political dynamics in a recent EC project. We hope to be able to share that with you shortly.
The report also includes a section on Regional Forecasts. These 20-year projections of key demographic trends in nine regions include a wide range of very useful data, presented in appealing infographics.
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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