Every few years, the U.S. National Intelligence Council comes out with its projection of world events in the next 20 years. The latest report titled “Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World” predicts that our world in the coming decades will become more uncertain and chaotic due to abrupt demographic shifts, economic turbulence, runaway climate change and technological innovation. The COVID-19 pandemic has been cited as an example of the challenges ahead, with both governments and multilateral institutions flailing and failing to cope with the situation.
The “Global Trends 2040” is the seventh in a series of reports dating back to 1997. It envisages a world in which America will not be the sole dominant power. Going forward, it states that no single nation will be able to dominate “across all regions or domains.” Rather, rival powers will jockey to shape global norms, rules, and institutions. Geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China will set the parameters of international cooperation and competition.
The NIC report identifies four main trends—demographic, economic, climatic and technological—that will shape the world in the coming years. Although population growth will slow down everywhere, yet the world will have additional 1.4 billion people, mostly in Africa and South Asia, to reach 9.2 billion in 2040. Humanity will also age rapidly, particularly in East Asia and Europe, and continue to urbanize, with two-thirds living in cities, up from 56 percent today.
These trends will put an unbearable burden on the developing countries’ infrastructure and services, upset public finances in aging nations and increase the flows of migrant labor—with attendant political tensions. The dramatic development gains of the recent past will be wiped out with many countries struggling to sustain decades of significant improvements in education, health, and poverty reduction.
The NIC report depicts a depressing picture of the world economy. It projects an era of rising sovereign debt, leaving governments with shrinking fiscal space to meet their citizens’ expanding aspirations, and declining employment opportunities, as automation eliminates many higher-skilled service jobs. Another major threat will be posed by growing economic fragmentation due to rising protectionism, increasing regionalization and antiquated multilateral trade rules. Income disparities will sharpen leading to more concentrated economic power. Technology giants will further consolidate their monopoly positions as institutions of international economic governance would prove unequal to the new challenges.
The “Global Trends 2040” sees climate change as an irresistible force that will change the course of world politics. The past 10 years have been the hottest on record and each of the last five decades hotter than the previous one. Governments have now pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the current pace of decarbonization is too slow to stop the onset of disastrous warming. Extremely volatile weather conditions will worsen water, food, health and energy insecurity which, in turn, would increase political instability and mass migration, particularly in the developing world. As the planet warms, there will be more demand for geo-engineering, including the deployment of unproven strategies, like stratospheric aerosol injection, leading to unforeseen and unintended consequences.
An important megatrend identified in the NIC report is the emergence as well as convergence of new technologies. Over the next 20 years, innovations in the fields of artificial intelligence, network computing, machine learning, virtual reality, robotics, nanotechnology, space technology, smart materials and biotechnology will completely transform human life. It is estimated that some 64 billion devices will be connected to the “internet of things” by 2025 and possibly many trillions by 2040.
There will be stiff competition among China, the United States and other nations to dominate the emerging fields. New technologies will also challenge governments and societies by disrupting industries and jobs, reshaping relations between public authorities and private actors, threatening privacy and liberty, and even posing existential risks to human survival.
Thus, in the years ahead we must be prepared for a more contested, fragmented and turbulent world. Rapid technological change, economic dislocation and pessimism, declining social trust and siloed information will accelerate the rise of exclusionary identities and undermine civic norms. Politics will become more polarized and volatile, and governments would have a difficult time meeting public expectations in the face of economic, demographic and environmental challenges. Democracy will be under threat. A more conflict-prone and volatile geopolitical environment will adversely affect global multilateralism. International treaties, organizations, norms and standards will be under stress, and the world would grow more confrontational.
The “Global Trends 2040” also projects alternative scenarios for the future, each hinging on the quality and direction of the U.S.-China relationship. The first scenario dubbed “renaissance of democracies” envisions a restoration of the liberal, rules-based international order. Secondly, we should expect a rudderless global system in which the U.S., China and other powers fail to agree on common rules and institutions. “Competitive coexistence” is the third possible outcome which foresees Washington and Beijing willing to cooperate on shared global challenges despite their strategic rivalry. Lastly, the “Separate silos” contemplate the world’s fragmentation into economic and security blocs, or even great-power spheres of influence.