Why Spy Agencies Say the Future Is Bleak

Climate change, technology, disease and financial crises will pose big challenges for the world, an intelligence report concludes.

By The Editorial Board (The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.)

April 15, 2021

Every four years, at the start of a new administration, American intelligence agencies put out “Global Trends,” a weighty assessment of where the world seems headed over the next two decades. In 2008, for example, the report warned about the potential emergence of a pandemic originating in East Asia and spreading rapidly around the world.

The latest report, Global Trends 2040, released last week by the National Intelligence Council, finds that the pandemic has proved to be “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II,” with medical, political and security implications that will reverberate for years. That’s not schadenfreude. It’s the prologue to a far darker picture of what lies ahead.

The world envisioned in the 144-page report, ominously subtitled “A More Contested World,” is rent by a changing climate, aging populations, disease, financial crises and technologies that divide more than they unite, all straining societies and generating “shocks that could be catastrophic.” The gap between the challenges and the institutions meant to deal with them continues to grow, so that “politics within states are likely to grow more volatile and contentious, and no region, ideology, or governance system seems immune or to have the answers.” At the international level, it will be a world increasingly “shaped by China’s challenge to the United States and Western-led international system,” with a greater risk of conflict.

Here’s how agencies charged with watching the world see things:

“Large segments of the global population are becoming wary of institutions and governments that they see as unwilling or unable to address their needs. People are gravitating to familiar and like-minded groups for community and security, including ethnic, religious, and cultural identities as well as groupings around interests and causes, such as environmentalism.”

“At the same time that populations are increasingly empowered and demanding more, governments are coming under greater pressure from new challenges and more limited resources. This widening gap portends more political volatility, erosion of democracy, and expanding roles for alternative providers of governance.”

“Accelerating shifts in military power, demographics, economic growth, environmental conditions, and technology, as well as hardening divisions over governance models, are likely to further ratchet up competition between China and a Western coalition led by the United States.”

“At the state level, the relationships between societies and their governments in every region are likely to face persistent strains and tensions because of a growing mismatch between what publics need and expect and what governments can and will deliver.”

Experts in Washington who have read these reports said they do not recall a gloomier one. In past years, the future situations offered have tilted toward good ones; this year, the headings for how 2040 may look tell a different story: “Competitive Coexistence,” “Separate Silos,” “Tragedy and Mobilization” or “A World Adrift,” in which “the international system is directionless, chaotic, and volatile as international rules and institutions are largely ignored by major powers like China, regional players and non-state actors.”

There is one cheery scenario thrown in, “Renaissance of Democracies,” in which the United States and its allies are leading a world of resurgent democracies, and everybody is getting happier. Its apparent purpose is to show that people could, in principle, turn things around. But nothing in the report suggests it is likely.

The gloom, however, should not come as a surprise. Most of what Global Trends provides are reminders of the dangers we know and the warnings we’ve heard. We know that the world was ill prepared for the coronavirus and that the pandemic was grievously mishandled in most parts of the world, including the United States. We know the Arctic caps are melting at a perilous rate, raising sea levels and threatening dire consequences the world over. We know that for all the grand benefits of the internet, digital technology has also unleashed lies, conspiracies and distrust, fragmenting societies and poisoning political discourse. We know from the past four years what polarized and self-serving rule is like. We know that China is on the rise, and that it is essential to find a manageable balance between containment and cooperation.

Global Trends offers no solutions. It can’t, by law: The 18 organizations that make up the intelligence community, including the National Security Agency and C.I.A., are sternly proscribed from giving policy recommendations.

Yet when a large body of intelligence specialists with access to an extraordinary array of privileged information invest considerable resources into figuring out where the world is headed, and then turn on a bright, flashing red light, there is good reason to take heed.

“We have the great benefit of drawing on both the broad and deep expertise that exists across the intelligence community. There are 18 intelligence agencies that we can reach out to, as well as other federal partners,” said Maria Langan-Riekhof, who as director of the National Intelligence Council’s Strategic Futures Group led the publication of “Global Trends 2040.” “We are not narrowly looking at just one issue or one domain; we’re trying to look across all those issues and asking how are they developing over time and what do they mean in aggregate.”

The warnings are clear. The real question is whether we  the government, global institutions, our societies  are capable of heeding them at a time when states and societies are turning inward and political discourse has become poisonous.

Mathew Burrows, principal editor for many earlier “Global Trends” at the C.I.A. and National Intelligence Council  including the one that warned of a pandemic  believes that the initiative to take the future seriously has to come from the executive branch. “You have to have a driving force to compel agencies to engage in longer-term planning,” he said.

A decade ago, Leon Fuerth, a deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration who directs the Project on Forward Engagement at George Washington University, proposed ways to do just that. The government, he wrote, needed to create mechanisms to anticipate the frequency and complexity of crises in today’s world, “to be anticipatory rather than reactionary.” The Biden administration started well on some fronts, notably on environmental policy and infrastructure. As a leader with a unique perspective on how politics, society and the world have changed over the years, President Biden can also be the one to recognize that an increasingly complex, volatile and unpredictable world requires a serious and coherent mechanism for anticipating and preparing for what lies over that dark horizon. The intelligence is there, and it cries out for action.


U.S. Intelligence Report Warns of Global Consequences of Social Fragmentation

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted weaknesses of the international order, said the report, which is issued every four years.  By Julian E. Barnes, April 8, 2021

WASHINGTON  U.S. intelligence officials warned in a report issued on Thursday about the potential fragmentation of society and the global order, holding out the possibility of a world where international trade is disrupted, groups of countries create online enclaves and civic cohesion is undermined.

The report, compiled every four years by the National Intelligence Council, mixes more traditional national security challenges like the potentially disruptive rise of China with social trends that have clear security implications, like the internet’s tendency to exacerbate political and cultural divisions.

A previous version of the report, released by the Obama administration in 2017, highlighted the risk of a pandemic and the vast economic disruption it could cause  a prescient prediction in hindsight.

The new report said that the coronavirus pandemic showed the weakness of the world order and that the institutions devised to face past crises are inadequate to coordinate a global response to new challenges like the spread of Covid-19. The failure of those institutions deepened public dissatisfaction and further eroded faith in the old order, the report said.

“Efforts to contain and manage the virus have reinforced nationalist trends globally, as some states turned inward to protect their citizens and sometimes cast blame on marginalized groups,” the report said. The response to the pandemic has fueled partisanship and polarization in many countries as groups argue over the best response and seek scapegoats to blame for spreading the virus and for slow mitigation efforts.

The global trends report  unlike the intelligence agencies’ annual threat assessment  is not supposed to look at immediate challenges. Instead, the report takes a longer-term, strategic look, trying to peer 20 years ahead to examine how current changes could transform the world of the future.

The intelligence council provides long-term strategic analysis for the director of national intelligence. It also regularly produces reports and assessments for officials and the National Security Council.

The report predicted that current trends would make global politics more volatile. On the international stage, China will continue to challenge the United States and the Western-led world order, and politics in certain countries will become more contentious, officials predicted.

Climate change was also a focus of the report, which noted the difficult adaptations that countries would need to make, such as building rainwater storage and reinforcing sea walls. Climate change would further drive global migration, which is already increasing, the report predicted. Technological innovation and cooperation between China and the West are keys to adapting to climate change, demographic shifts and other challenges, it said.

Income inequality could grow worse, the report said, tying it at times to information inequality.

The “trust gap” between an informed public that has faith in a government solution and a wider public with deep skepticism of institutions is growing, the report said.

The problem is made worse by technology. Algorithms, social media and artificial intelligence have replaced expertise in deciding what information spreads most widely, and that has made the public more vulnerable to misinformation.

Still, positive demographic changes in recent decades, with people moving out of poverty and into the middle class, had creating “rising expectations,” said Maria Langan-Riekhof, the director of the intelligence council’s strategic futures group. But fears of falling income across the globe are growing, a worrisome trend when coupled with changes in how information is shared and social divisions have deepened.

“Those concerns are leading people to look for the security of trusted voices, but also of like-minded groups within their societies,” Ms. Langan-Riekhof said. “Overlay those trends I’m describing, and you kind of see that recipe for greater divisions, increasing fracturing. We think that is likely to continue and probably worsen.”

Over time, the report said, these trends could weaken democratic governments.

“At the same time that populations are increasingly empowered and demanding more, governments are coming under greater pressure from new challenges and more limited resources,” the report said. “This widening gap portends more political volatility, erosion of democracy and expanding roles for alternative providers of governance. Over time, these dynamics might open the door to more significant shifts in how people govern.”

The global trends report has often looked at possible future situations. In the 2017 report, one example contemplated a pandemic plunging the world into economic chaos. It envisioned nationalistic politicians eroding alliances, a drop in oil prices causing calamity and more isolationist trade practices. It also forecast a pandemic (albeit in 2023, not 2020), which restricted travel, caused economic distress and exacerbated existing trends toward isolation.

The report has discussed the risk of a pandemic for nearly two decades, said Gregory F. Treverton, a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council who helped lead the 2017 effort. The 2004 report said some experts believed it was “only a matter of time” before a pandemic, he said.

“It was talking about a scenario exactly like what’s happened: a major global pandemic that shut down global commerce, air travel,” Mr. Treverton said. “The reports have been strategic warnings, and that is how I think of them, helping people who want to be strategic.”

The new report credited the previous documents for highlighting the potential for new diseases and pandemics but acknowledged that “we lacked a full picture of the breadth and depth of its disruptive potential.” For the new effort, the National Intelligence Council looked at which trends the coronavirus pandemic was accelerating and which were slowing.

“Much like the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to produce some changes that will be felt for years to come and change the way we live, work and govern domestically and internationally,” the report said. “How great these will be, however, is very much in question.”

Even before the spread of the coronavirus, National Intelligence Council analysts were examining the idea of more shared global challenges. But the coronavirus, Ms. Langan-Riekhof said, “really drove it home for us.”

“Challenges aren’t going to stay within the borders of a single country anymore, and we’re going to feel them globally much faster,” she said. “This may be a foreshadowing of things to come.”

Julian E. Barnes is a national security reporter based in Washington, covering the intelligence agencies. Before joining The Times in 2018, he wrote about security matters for The Wall Street Journal. @julianbarnes  Facebook

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