The National Intelligence Council issued its report, “Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World,” which presented a bleak vision of the global order in the years to come, and forecast increasing political, social, and economic divisions, and the escalation of negative trends due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which are expected to continue for the next two decades.
The report outlined five scenarios for the potential global order in 2040. In one, the US would lead a resurgence of democracies, and the world would be flourishing, while another scenario envisions environmental disaster and a food shortage crisis with the US failing to take leadership in the global order. The three other scenarios range between competitive coexistence between Washington and China, a world adrift, or the creation of separate silos following the collapse of globalization.
Anticipated Overarching Trends for the World in 2040
1. Increased Uncertainty following the COVID-19 Pandemic: The report argues that the COVID-19 pandemic is the most important global event since World War II, with regard to health, economic, political, and security repercussions, the negative effects of which will likely be felt for years.
The pandemic has been important in drawing attention to the fragility of the international community’s capacity to deal with unexpected crises and emergency situations. It has also raised significant doubts among populations regarding the ability of their governments to flexibly adapt to sudden changes. This has led to a loss of individuals’ trust in the government’s ability to deal with “disruptive economic, technological, and demographic trends.”
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing social and economic gaps and political divisions among individuals from different communities and led to the increased incidence and scope of injustices that were already present. This has also contributed to the depletion of governmental resources, and reduced confidence of citizens in the ability of their public institutions to effectively respond to emergency situations, as well as disparities in access to healthcare.
The National Intelligence Council linked the rise of authoritarianism in many countries with the exploitation of pandemic conditions, which created exceptional circumstances, to justify oppression of local political dissidents. The report sheds light on the inability of countries to form a unified global response and points of weakness revealed in international institutions such as the WHO, while also casting doubts on the ability of countries to work together in a united fashion to confront global challenges. The spread of COVID-19 has contributed to political polarization between countries, especially in light of attempts to blame other countries for COVID-19’s spread and for causing a slow global response to the pandemic.
The pandemic has also contributed to accelerating certain economic trends that already existed, such as diversifying global supply chains, rising national debts, and increasing governmental intervention in the economy. These debts, especially in developing countries, will undermine national capabilities for many years to come. Additionally, small companies will be able to penetrate global markets, while larger markets will be driven by companies that exert growing influence via the internet, and the trade environment will become more fragmented.
The pandemic also played a role in strengthening nationalism and polarization, especially exclusionary forms of nationalism, as countries have blamed certain sectors of society for causing the spread of COVID-19. One of the consequences of the pandemic is that it has stalled many positive trends, and prevented opportunities to develop these pathways, such as the progress made in poverty reduction or in achieving equality between men and women.
2. Increasing International Tensions Due to Climate Change: Climate change is linked to various phenomena that will cause many challenges for countries in the future, including problems arising from mass migration, as well as global warming producing increased divisions in societies at the local level, as well as a lack of water and food security at the state level, especially for poor countries. This will exacerbate international tensions and conflicts.
Global warming and earth’s rising temperature will contribute to rising sea levels and other “extreme weather events,” which will have negative effects on various countries. Climate change will also produce increased conflicts between countries regarding the steps that should be taken to protect the environment and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are responsible for global warming.
3. Growing Societal Fragmentation: The report forecasts that societal fragmentation will lead to increasing difficulties in dealing with future global challenges. This fragmentation will not only affect societies at the local level; rather, these effects will be felt at the national level and in the broader global order.
Despite the increasing connectedness and communication between individuals and societies, this connectedness has contributed to further fragmentation as a result of increased tensions within and between societies. This is because individuals have become divided among different key objectives and “national, cultural, or political preferences.” People are likely to be drawn to other individuals who already hold their viewpoints.
4. Widening Gap between Citizens’ Needs and Governments’ Capacities: Given the current conditions in the global order, and the increasing challenges that societies will face, especially in light of this fragmentation, the report anticipates that there will be a huge gap between current or future challenges and states’ abilities to address these issues. Individuals will have become increasingly wary regarding what their governments can actually deliver and what they need, which results in disequilibrium in societies.
This disequilibrium is also evident with regard to the inability of international organizations and alliances to deal with “severe global challenges.” As a direct result of this disequilibrium, there will be conflict within societies and between countries.
5. Increased Political Tension due to Technology: Technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be used to strengthen economic growth and communications, and to provide solutions for many challenges that countries face. Artificial intelligence will play a pivotal role in strengthening economic production and helping countries to deal with challenges, deliver services, reduce debts, and contribute to covering the costs of welfare for seniors. However, it will also be a factor contributing to political instability in the future.
Both real-time and manufactured or synthetic media contribute to undermining societal stability through significantly “distorting objective truth,” and spreading disinformation. Additionally, the uneven distribution of AI among countries and within societies will highlight and exacerbate existing disparities. The National Intelligence Council also warned of threats arising from the increased use of digital currency, since traditional currencies such as the US dollar or Euro are expected to face marked threats from digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, which could “add complexity to the conduct of monetary policy by reducing countries’ control over their exchange rates and money supply.”
6. Continued Competition between State and Nonstate Actors: The global order will witness competition between state and nonstate actors over leadership and control over technological progress and science, which will have many potential effects on states’ security across military, economic, and security spheres. Technological changes such as the rise in hacking will likely lead to “transforming human experiences.” Additionally, there is another factor that will contribute to determining the shape of the years to come, namely the competition between the US and China, which will “set the broad parameters for the geopolitical environment . . . forcing starker choices on other actors.”
7. Societies Adjusting to Changes in the Global Order: It is likely that the societies that are able to adapt to the changes in the global order and to achieve some kind of national consensus on how to respond to those changes will be well-prepared for the future, especially given certain inevitable effects, such as climate change.
This will enable some countries to resolve crises more effectively than others and to mitigate the ensuing consequences of these crisis. Technology and demographic transformations will also require adaptations and responses from different countries, especially in countries with aging populations such as China, South Korea, and Japan.
The report also observes that the “cascading global challenges” will be a test of countries’ capacity to be flexible and to adapt but will often “exceed the capacity of existing systems and models.”
8. Rethinking US National Security: The COVID-19 pandemic will contribute to the development of global policy, as it is very likely that this will reshape the US approach to national security. This will require going beyond the traditional approach, which only required relying upon the army and military arsenal. Preserving national security will also depend on the extent of the state’s ability to adapt and deal with shared global challenges.
Despite the bleak vision that the report lays out for the global trends for 2040, it also highlights more hopeful points, such as achieving economic growth in Latin America and Southeast Asia.
9. Increasing International Geopolitical Conflict: It is expected that global power will remain mired in conflict and competition between nations, as this has been the prevailing trend since the COVID-19 pandemic. This will not be a unipolar order; rather, many countries will be competing against each other. The role of regional powers will also increase which will create a geopolitical environment with greater conflict and continuous upheaval, and decreased opportunities for international cooperation.
Five Potential Scenarios for the World in 2040
1. US-led Renaissance of Democracies: The US could take leadership of the global order again through leading groups of rising democracies. This would involve achieving progress in both the technological and economic spheres through strengthening economic growth backed by partnership between the private and public sector, renewing individual trust in democratic institutions, reducing societal divisions, and developing the capacity to effectively respond to global threats.
All countries would benefit from these achievements, while China and Russia would suffer from faltering economic growth along with the evident impact of demographic factors. Authoritarian regimes would be undermined by their oppressive practices and overreliance on censorship and harsh regulations, which lead to the elimination of opportunities for innovation and the inability to provide opportunities to develop talents. This leads to a lack of investment in the necessary infrastructure to supporting ongoing innovation as well as requiring businessmen and leading intellectuals to flee to the US.
Given the above factors, both Moscow and Beijing would resort to hostilities, especially against neighboring countries, and their behavior would become less predictable, while China would suffer from an aging population, the inability to transition to a consumer economy, and rising rates of private debt, while Russia would decline because of its significant reliance on imported energy, and probable conflict between elites in the era after Putin.
It is worth mentioning that the key factors in achieving this scenario depend upon the US capacity to support opportunities for technological innovation and scientific research, which would contribute to driving economic growth, as well as the ability to deal with local challenges and meet the needs of its citizens, and consequently to address global challenges. If this scenario is achieved, the US will have affirmed its ability to deal with global challenges through cooperation with its partners and alliances, and through involvement in international multilateral institutions.
2. A World Adrift: In this scenario, the global order becomes chaotic and lacks direction as a result of various actors ignoring the rules of the global order, particularly China and regional players, as well as nonstate actors. In this scenario, technology is unable to solve problems, especially in light of the limits of international cooperation, which would ultimately result in giving terrorist and criminal organizations the opportunity to play a growing role, and pose challenges for various societies, especially in the Middle East and Africa.
China would exploit this state of chaos, slower economic growth, and increased political and social divisions in order to expand its international influence, especially on the Asian continent. Despite China’s ascent to lead the global order, it would not have the necessary military capabilities to find solutions for many pressing global challenges, especially climate change and instability in developing countries. These conditions would deteriorate further given the hesitance of countries to take collective action and initiative to address these problems.
By 2035, it is likely that China would have forced the Taiwanese government to discuss unification by forcing it to participate in talks, and would then expand to other regions. By the beginning of that year, China would have achieved significant international standing in the global order, and no regional power would be able to stop its rise.
3. Competitive Coexistence between Washington and Beijing: In this scenario, Washington and Beijing would compete as rival powers. Both countries would flourish, and they would be able to achieve economic growth and to compete to lead the world order in a divided world. In this scenario, some kind of economic linkage between the two countries would be established and trade relations would become stronger. At the same time, they would compete over political influence and in controlling global markets, achieving technological superiority, and trying to promote better systems of governance in order to achieve strategic advantages in this fierce competition.
This rivalry would take place in the context of mutual respect and acceptance of the rules governing their actions in these spheres, which would lead to a decreased probability of large-scale wars occurring. This would be especially true given growing opportunities to manage and solve international problems through global cooperation, increased technological innovation, and countries resorting to spying and electronic attacks to achieve their objectives without needing to become embroiled in major wars. In general, the existing challenges that climate change poses would be a factor in the long-term instability. In this scenario, social divisions within countries would be reduced as citizens realize the need to form large-scale societal collectives to get behind their governments in order to be internationally competitive.
National budgets would be reallocated to respond to global pandemics and economic recovery, and to help with infrastructural projects. According to the report, the competition between Washington and Beijing is less important in all of the scenarios, since these countries are facing a set of more dangerous global challenges, given that they do not possess the necessary structures and foundations to deal with them.
4. Collapse of Globalization and Transition to “Separate Silos”: In this scenario, globalization collapses, and many different economic and security blocs emerge to protect countries from growing threats, and to achieve self-sufficiency. These blocs would center around the US, China, the EU, and Russia in additional to other regional powers.
This would halt international trade and many sectors would lose their standing and profitability, such as the tourism sector. Although this scenario would involve restructuring supply chains and making countries less susceptible to fluctuations in these chains, economies would also become less efficient, and information would flow only within each bloc. Developing countries would find themselves caught in the middle, while some might be in danger of becoming failed states. Of course, these blocs would not be interested in cooperating to solve global challenges, especially the climate change crisis, which would not be discussed at all.
It should be mentioned that the strongest blocs would be those made up of countries that are better able to adapt to issues related to resource availability and the ability to defend borders, especially where there is a smaller numbers of neighboring hostile powers, as is the case in the US and Canada.
Additionally, the ability to achieve self-sufficiency would make many countries more flexible. In this scenario, opportunities to strengthen technological innovation would dwindle, especially in light of constraints on international cooperation and the faltering efforts of collective action to address global challenges. Some countries would deal with and independently adapt to global disasters and their ensuing consequences. There might also be some small wars as government efforts tried to draw public attention away from internal problems and mobilize this towards fighting enemies. There would also be proliferation of nuclear weapons.
5. Bottom-Up Global Revolution: In a scenario in which the US is not able to lead the global order, it is expected that “bottom-up” revolution would erupt in the wake of “catastrophic” global changes. This includes a growing food shortage crisis following a major global climate disaster as a result of environmental deterioration, which is one of the consequences of climate change. Youth would not trust their governments to solve problems based on their failure to address the current pandemic.
In this scenario, the EU would form a coalition with China and various NGOs in order to address climate change, poverty, and resource depletion. The EU would work with the UN to widely distribute humanitarian aid.
It is worth noting that China would not hold back from participating in this effort to stem the crisis, especially given the spread of famine in various Chinese cities. It would therefore work to strengthen clean energy technologies and to cooperate with the EU.
In conclusion, wealthy countries would help poor countries to manage the crisis through offering support for transitioning to using clean energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In this scenario, addressing global challenges would become a priority for countries instead of pursuing their own national interests. NGOs would also take on a more prominent role, especially in order to urge countries to work and cooperate together, and to pool necessary resources to overcome the crises. This would be particularly important given the expected refusal of fossil fuel-dependent countries to participate in the global revolution.