Last week, the National Intelligence Council (NIC), a part of the U.S. intelligence community that does long-term strategic analysis, published “Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World,” its quadrennial unclassified assessment of the “forces and dynamics … likely to shape the national security environment over the next 20 years.”

Global Trends is always an intriguing read. Published since 1997, it aims to give each new administration an idea of the world that it will confront. Insight, however, no matter how good, is wasted when policymakers aren’t paying attention — a lesson that the Global Trends report makes painfully clear.

The NIC does a wide range of work — it produces national intelligence estimates, among other things — and the Global Trends report is an especially thoughtful analysis. It looks over the horizon to espy the trends and trajectories that matter, without going so far into the future as to be meaningless. (Most experts agree that 15-20 years is as far as anyone can look before uncertainties and contingencies render anything possible.) The regularity of the report — it comes out every four years — makes it easy to evaluate previous efforts.

This most recent report digs into the four structural forces that will shape that future: demographics, the environment, economics and technology. The first portends a world that is aging, which will ease pressures on developing countries — not so many jobs to create or mouths to feed — but intensify burdens on developed nations (pensions must be financed, productivity maintained). The biggest environmental concern is climate change, which will force difficult choices on every government. Key economic trends include rising national debt, a fragmented trade order, growing trade in services, disruptive technologies, more powerful firms and rising inequality within and among countries. The advance of technology continues to offer the promise — or nightmare — of societal transformation. Governments will be increasingly attuned to the centrality of this sector and forced to address its disruptive potential.

The report then analyzes the impact of those forces. Societies will be increasingly pessimistic and distrustful as they try to deal with those trends. New identities are emerging and being reinforced by information silos, fracturing countries and rendering politics increasingly volatile. At the state level, governments will struggle to reconcile the growing gap between public demands and what they can deliver. At the international level, it says power will evolve and while no single state is “likely to be positioned to dominate across all regions or domains,” the United States and China will “have the greatest influence on global dynamics.”

It’s a bleak outlook. But all isn’t necessarily grim. The NIC analysts offer five scenarios for 2040. The happiest at least for the U.S. and Japan is “the renaissance of democracies” scenario in which that group of countries uses new technologies to innovate in both their economies and their politics, finding a consensus among their citizens and a renewed sense of purpose.

In the “a world adrift” scenario, the international order splinters as international rules and institutions collapse under the weight of neglect or sabotage. Democracies and developed countries lose most in this situation as other nations exploit the vacuum to advance their own interests. Under “competitive coexistence,” they say the U.S. and China re-establish a working relationship that is based on economic coexistence despite bounded competition in most fields. A fourth scenario, “separate silos,” envisions a world of regions “focused on self-sufficiency, resilience and defense.”

Finally, there is “tragedy and mobilization,” in which a catastrophe — triggered by climate change — catalyzes a global movement for systemic change to address environmental problems. The coalition is led by the European Union and China — mobilized because it is especially hard hit — working with nongovernmental organizations and revamped and reinvigorated multilateral institutions. Rich nations work closely with poorer countries to offset the damage, with newly empowered domestic political movements driving change at the national level.

Five themes dance through the report. The first is the rise of global challenges, which often lack a direct human perpetrator or agent. These redefine the meaning of national security — and moved from the theoretical to the real last year when the coronavirus emerged. The report calls the pandemic “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II, with health, economic, political and security implications that will ripple for years to come.” (And, it must be noted, the Global Trends report first raised the prospect of a global pandemic in 2004, and the 2017 report anticipated an outbreak — in 2023 — that would create many of the problems that the world now faces.)

Second is growing fragmentation within and among societies, a process that is enabled by technology, which connects ever larger numbers of individuals. This creates opportunities both good and bad, as choices are enlarged, lives are disrupted and communities of the like-minded — both happy and angry — emerge.

The result is the third theme: disequilibrium. That is where fragmentation (#2) undermines the ability of institutions to respond to crises (#1), creating what the report says is “an increasing mismatch at all levels between challenges and the needs with the systems and organizations to deal with them.” This leads to the fourth theme: greater contestation — rising tensions, divisions and competition. Finally, there is adaption, which it says is “both an imperative and a key source of advantage” in this world. Countries that adjust to changes that are imminent, rather than resisting or ignoring them, will be best able to surmount those difficulties and thrive.

The report closes with a brief graphic summary of key features of each geographic region (although East Asia is broken down into three parts: Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania). What leaps out in Northeast Asia (Japan, China, Mongolia, South Korea, North Korea and Taiwan) is the precarious demographic pyramid: The percentage of the population under 15 shrinks from 17.1% to 14%; the working-age population diminishes from 69.5% to 61.3%; and those aged 65 and older nearly doubles from 13.4% to 24.8%. (Much of that increase will be in China.)

Equally worrisome, climate change will hit the Asian mainland hard as average temperatures in China and Mongolia climb sharply. Meteorologists also expect an increase in major storm activity in the waters southeast of Japan.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder both of the importance of such work and its limits. A global pandemic has long lurked in the imaginations of health officials, some national security officials and Hollywood screenwriters. In retrospect, a conscious effort to ignore that possibility seems to have been required for the world to find itself where it is today. And yet, the Global Trends 2040 concludes that the pandemic “is slowing and possibly reversing some long-standing trends in human development,” “reminded the world of its fragility” and “shaken long-held assumptions” about how the ability of governments and institutions to respond to a catastrophe.

So, all the data and all the details, the logic and the careful analysis, are worth nothing if political leaders choose to look away. Read “A More Contested World” not just to make yourself smarter, but so that you, dear reader, can help make the case for more intelligent policy making as well.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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