The New York Times editorial board recently wrote about the latest report published by the collective of American intelligence agencies: “Global Trends 2040”. Since a while, such a report is being issued every four years, at the beginning of the term of a new U.S. administration. It aims to assess and to anticipate where the world will be headed over the next two decades. Released April 15, 2021 by the National Intelligence Council, quoting from the OpEd, the report “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 sturm und drang. It’s the prologue to a far darker picture of what lies ahead.”
The report can be downloaded here, and it is a very interesting read. As the authors themselves make clear, “scenarios are not intended to be predictions but to widen the aperture as to the possibilities, exploring various combinations of how the structural forces, emerging dynamics, and key uncertainties could play out“. Noone can foretell, at least until now, the future by analysing the key dynamics of the past and the current situation. But even without the five scenarios which the report is drawing up, already the five general themes identified by the report are a valuable narrative and assessment themselves, not least because the report synthesizes intelligence methodology and information with a wide range of global consultations outside the intelligence community, inter alia including societal stakeholders and civil society.
148 pages can not be summarized correctly here. Neither I want to do this. Rather, I would like to create interest in reading it oneself, by reflecting a little bit, including through own thoughts, on the themes of the report.
Five themes are identified: (1) Global Challenges, (2) Fragmentation, (3) Disequilibrium, (4) Contestation, and (5) Adaption.
Global challenges include climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions. The report states that they are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country. Their impact on states and societies will create stress, or even catastrophic shock. The report assesses the current pandemic as “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II, with health, economic, political, and security implications that will ripple for years to come.“
This assessment resonates a lot with what some, or increasingly many, of us begin to realize: The pandemic was not a temporary event which would cripple us for a few months until summer 2020. It is ongoing, and I belong to those who feel that it will not be gone for a longer period of time, despite all containment efforts, including lockdowns, and vaccinations. Moreover, I feel we might be in a transitory phase where “defiance meets acceptance”, where things have become a norm which we would not have believed to witness a few years ago. Last weekend, I walked over an empty promenade along the shores of the river Rhine. Provisional signs regulated that, between Friday 1 pm and Sunday 7 pm, as well as between 10am and 7pm on public holidays, this strip could only be used wearing a facemask. Boy, those who got self-righteous when seeing people without facemasks, how many of them would have raised their eyebrows when seeing Asian tourists wearing facemasks on airports, just a few years ago?
This example of weird and perhaps over-regulating buerocracy just being used as a picture for my feeling that we transition into a new normal, where the fabric of societies is becoming altered beyond a temporary timeline. The depth of any analysis needs to go deeper, but some of those changes which appear to be there to stay, they become slowly visible.
It is also true that over the past year or so, the pandemic discussion with all its horrific extremes, including through simply denying it, playing it down, glossing it over, inciting polarisation and anger, it all deflected from the big threat underneath: The threat through climate change. Nothing made this less urgent, we just stopped paying attention.
Fragmentation flows from these global challenges almost logically. Whilst each of these challenges is transnational, even global, the report also pays attention to a new “smallness”, as I would coin it. Psychologically even understandable: Overwhelming threats will lead to a reflex raising the shield, or “turtling up”. In my view, such a defensive reflex will also be increasingly accompanied by selfishness. Every self-protection is a selfish but necessary act, simply because it is about protecting myself. However, with many things perceived as being at threat, including medical and economic well-being, this may lead to an unwillingness to share, outside a limited and accepted circle. But we may also see that such a fragmentation, somehow, works, because it may not affect global trade or global communication. The Internet grew during the pandemic, and so did the transportation of goods. There are winners in the economy, Amazon being just one of those, and most visible for us when we pick up our jeans, underwear, or groceries on our own doorsteps.
Disequilibrium is the third theme of the report, flowing again from the previous, fragmentation. It may be less visible for many, especially during selfish times, but it carries enormous destructive potential. The report focusses on its effects in a widening gap between what societies, communities, and individuals expect from governance and services, and what they can deliver. Thus, the report addresses the credibility challenges which became apparent already before the crisis. Legitimacy of democratic governance, and credibility of elected officials in such a system, this is not something new since the beginning of last year. Neither is the profound inability of systems of international order providing peace, security, and other important issues enshrined in the sixteen Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. The pandemic may just have been the rocket fuel which incensed the already existing slow-burning wildfire. Like I said in my previous blog entry: Feels like a perfect storm.
Contestation is the fourth theme. We see it already. Wealthy societies pump their reserves into handling the crisis, and into the race of getting out on the other side in the best position for competing, on economical and power levels. But the report also identifies disruptive potential of contestation inside societies. In my view, these will just increase the intent of societies and states to stay competitive. In this regard then, wealthy societies will stand a much better chance. Poor societies will be left to their own devices of internal contestation. Conflict, violence, exodus, displacement, migration will have an effect on those more developed societies which, given all the above, might even lock themselves down even more. Lockdowns keeping others out. For me an interesting question: How will tourism develop? The more we can pay, the more likely we will spend our holidays in protected resorts? May be in wealthy societies we will see the “One Percenters” enjoy themselves in even more luxurious seclusion, those who always have been local and rural might not feel a difference at all, and the forces tearing things apart will be felt by the many in between?
Adaption being the final theme, I have the most diffiulties to identify with the anticipation, because it is so difficult to see where adaption will lead us to, locally, regionally, and globally. Of course, we will adapt. We already have begun. However:
My blog is about peace, security, trauma, and reconciliation. Somehow, all my entries here revolve around this set of topics. So, whilst I encourage to also read the scenarios in depth which form large parts of the main body of the report, I wanted to offer some thoughts just related to this introductory part of the report itself. Thoughts related to my focus.
The challenges for values, such as human and individual rights, democracy, the rule of law, they have only been growing over the past many years. The Covid-19-pandemic is pouring gasoline on this fire, and some of the developments become more visible for more people. The influencing factors which may lead to even more erosion during a time of new adaption, they are captured well in the five themes raised in the report. Not necessarily expressis verbis, but one can see it. Much will also receive more detail in the main body of the report, but in these introductory sections, these challenges are incorporated in a larger context, but are not made standing out for those who may only read executive summaries.
But taken together, global challenges, fragmentation, disequilibrium and contestation do pose significant risks to how we help an international system in its adaption and, at the same time, transfer as much of these values into it, these values which have meant so much for many of us for many decades. In a competitive world driven by economic and power contest on the one hand and more fragmentation on the other hand, maintaining these values is one of the big challenges. We can only maintain values “at home” if we also contribute to their promotion abroad. With a different phrase, Kemal Atatuerk said the same, or the European Union in their strategy documents from 2003. It stays true, however, and even more so today. Otherwise, gaps will be filled by others, and ultimately the usefulness of these values will also be questioned in any disequilibrium at home. Selfishness will lead to greed if others are more successful, with or without values like the above. Ultimately, forces which contest these values will grow.
So, in preparing for a new world order, it continues to be absolutely vital for us “at home”, wherever that is, and whatever it means, if we continue to share.
That is where we need visionary leaders, willing to take risks by maintaining that we need to share, even if the storm of anger from those who feel disenfranchised blows straight into their faces. We will see much more erosion, we have not reached rock-bottom yet.