Opinion | Why Spy Agencies Say the Future Is Bleak

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.

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