Intel report warns of "more intense" global challenges before 2040

Olivia Gazis
·3 min read

More frequent and intense global challenges — in the form of disease outbreaks, financial crises, or the negative effects of climate change or new technologies — are likely to stress already brittle systems of government and international organizations over the next two decades, according to a comprehensive forecast compiled by U.S. intelligence officials and released on Thursday.   

Those challenges may be exacerbated by a "mismatch" between what societies want and what their governments are able or willing to provide, the report says.  

It also says the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may have already accelerated some negative trends, including nationalist sentiment and skepticism of international institutions, while stalling incipient progress in poverty reduction and gender inequality.     

"COVID-19 has shaken long-held assumptions about resilience and adaptation and created new uncertainties about the economy, governance, geopolitics, and technology," the assessment states.  

The "Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World" report — the latest iteration of an unclassified product issued every four years by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) — lays out for policymakers and the public what it says is "an array of possible futures" by 2040.    

The 156-page document is meant to serve as an "assessment of the forces and dynamics" that the NIC, which provides long-term strategic analysis to the Director of National Intelligence, believes will shape the international security environment in years to come. It is the product of broad consultations with experts, academics and international groups, as well as officials from multiple U.S. intelligence agencies.    

"We envision a variety of plausible scenarios for the world of 2040—from a democratic renaissance to a transformation in global cooperation spurred by shared tragedy—depending on how these dynamics interact and human choices along the way," the authors of the assessment write.   

"We offer this analysis with humility, knowing that invariably the future will unfold in ways that we have not foreseen," says the assessment, which reflects only the view of the NIC, and not that of the entire U.S. intelligence community or of U.S. policy. 

The authors predict that competition will persist between China and a U.S.-led western coalition, though "no single state is likely to be positioned to dominate across all regions or domains." They foresee a "more conflict prone and volatile geopolitical environment." 

Domestic politics are also likely to become more contentious, and "no region, ideology, or governance system seems immune or to have the answers," the report states.    

It notes a paradoxical trend of "increasing fragmentation" within communities that are increasingly connected through technology, ease of travel and trade.   

"As these connections deepen and spread, they are likely to grow increasingly fragmented along national, cultural, or political preferences," the assessment says. "In addition, people are likely to gravitate to information silos of people who share similar views, reinforcing beliefs and understanding of the truth."   

The widespread adoption of technologies like artificial intelligence – while conferring clear benefits to industries like healthcare, transportation and education – may also prove profoundly disruptive, according to the document.   

"By 2040, the world will have orders-of-magnitude more devices, data, and interactions, linking together all aspects of modern life and crossing political and societal boundaries," the assessment says. "Privacy and anonymity may effectively disappear by choice or government mandate, as all aspects of personal and professional lives are tracked by global networks."   

"Real-time, manufactured, or synthetic media could further distort truth and reality, destabilizing societies at a scale and speed that dwarfs current disinformation challenges," the report states.     

Countries that manage to adapt to change – whether those changes are climate-, technology- or demographically-driven – will gain an immediate upper hand.      

"The most effective states are likely to be those that can build societal consensus and trust toward collective action on adaptation and harness the relative expertise, capabilities, and relationships of nonstate actors to complement state capacity," the authors write.  

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