April 20, 2021 I wrote a blog post “Futuretelling” on occasion of media informing about the report “Global Trends 2040”, a product of the collective of American intelligence agencies, issued then on occasion of a new Presidential administration (the Biden administration) taking the helm. I’d like to revisit the issue, almost one and a half years later.
“Global Trends 2040” revolves around five core assessments:
Global challenges include climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions. The report stated 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 assessed the 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.“
Fragmentation flows from the predicted transnational or global challenges. Overwhelming threats will lead to a reflex breaking apart, or threatening, globalisation.
Disequilibrium was the third theme of the report. 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. Doubts in the benefits of democratic governance, the profound inability of systems of international order to provide peace, security, and other important challenges to the sixteen Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations create a perfect storm.
Contestation was the fourth theme. 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. Conflict, violence, exodus, displacement, migration will have an effect on more developed societies. In a way, this amplifies fragmentation and antagonisation.
Adaption being the final theme, it means that profound changes will ultimately end in a new equilibrium. The question is how such a new system state may look like. Or, how much of our current one is left, and what will be the new reality.
To me, the core statement of “Global Trends 2040” is that we are passing through a phase of profound global system change, or paradigm change.
That was spring 2021. “Global Trends 2040” was written during the Covid-19 pandemic, so it was somewhat easy for the authors to qualify an existing pandemic as “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II“. Then, summer 2021 brought the catastrophic events around the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taleban, and a crushing defeat of the West’s ambitions for Afghanistan over two decades. Spring 2022 saw the beginning of a war of aggression by the Russian Federation against the Ukraine. Motivation and publicly voiced rationale by the Russian President went, from the outset on, far beyond his claims related to the Ukraine, and related to overthrow the Ukrainian government. From the West’s perspective it is an attack against the West, it’s systems and it’s values. The Russian President describes this as a threat against Russia, claiming to act in self-defense. Of course, I have a clear position here joining those who state this is a brazen and aggressive move attempting to overthrow an existing order, and violating fundamental principles enshrined in international treaties. But on various occasions since then I have also acknowledged that it depends on where people live, and which cultural and historical ties they have grown up with, whether they join this assessment, or blame the West. This is a war on multiple levels, including information warfare, a war of systems against each other, a war of economies, a war of dogma how to prevail, and to govern. The physical battlefields are local or regional, information warfare happens in cyberspace, and the conflict is ultimately global.
So I wonder how the events of 2021 and 2022 would have been reflected in the wording of the report issued in spring 2021, if these events would already have been on the books of history by the time of writing. If already the pandemic posed the greatest disruption since WWII, it has only gotten worse since then.
With lightning speed, the World is continuing to change. Nobody would have anticipated, even in early spring 2021, that the situation went so haywire in summer 2021 in Afghanistan. And after that, if someone would have asked “What’s next?”, I doubt many people would have anticipated the developments in the Ukraine bringing us closer to World War III. May be, many years in the future, historians will assess that we already were in WW III. Because, even the forms and shapes of warfare have changed. Some of it started in 2001, when we began to see consequences of asymmetric warfare. And at that time, people would have found it unimaginabe that we would see conventional armies battling each other, on European soil, 21 years later.
What else do we know about battlefields of such larger warfare? I could go on about Asia and the ever increasing tension between China and Taiwan, just recently blowing up again on occasion of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, bringing likelihood of yet another massive conflict into the equation. I could refer to how we all, internationally, after 9/11/2001 made critical assessments related to terrorist attacks against nuclear power plants. Now we are finding ourselves in a situation where Russian military forces conduct their attacks using the biggest nuclear powerplant in mainland Europe as a shield. Of course, following the same logic as outlined above, two sides accuse each other of being responsible for it. From a perspective of the threat being real, and grave, even this mutual accusation, being part of information warfare, adds to how scary the situation has become.
The Doomsday Clock has, once again, moved closer to 12, with the UN Secretary General telling us August 07, 2022, that the risk of nuclear confrontation is back after decades.
I could refer to the many developments in Africa, and since I am not a paid professional analyst with own staffing resources, my list of critical developments in the World would be highly selective, and certainly biased. Of course, it would include a whole chapter on instability in the Western Balkans, where I spend much of my time.
So, what can be said about “What’s next?” now, mid summer 2022?
The almost natural reflex is about looking around and to assess specific situations, specific countries or regions, and to attempt making predictions about how things may remain stable, or not. But more often than not, previous developments have taught us that destabilisation, system change, conflict and war occur almost to the surprise of professional analysts, and intelligence systems. The short term developments may be subject to correct analysis, like intelligence organisations unequivocally warned about Russia being serious about invading the Ukraine, once there was enough evidential data. But that was a short-term prediction, being put out into the public domain only from end of 2021 onwards, also in order to convince those who still, until February 23, 2022, doubted that Russia would follow-through on building up her military power alongside the borders of the Ukraine. Did we have enough data to predict this already, say in April 2021, at the time when “Global Trends 2040” was issued? From what I know through publicly avalable information, I would doubt it. So, this is not about “I told you so”.
The same will be the case related to anything up in the future, any new conflict development, where we then, again, will ask ourselves with hindsight whether we would have been able to predict it. In a highly complex and unstable environment, the fault-lines of where conflict arises next, and which physical or virtual dimension it takes, are difficult to predict medium-term, and impossible to predict long-term.
However, this makes the highly abstract level of “Global Trends 2040”, which I summarised above so profoundly valuable. Because, whilst we cannot be sure about “What’s next?”, we can be reasonably certain about that we have not reached rock-bottom. “Global Trends 2040” predicts a fundamental paradigm change and a war of systems, not a state of “rock bottom” from where things might recover to an old or only slightly changed equilibrium.
One of my favorite Youtube channels is called “Veritasium”. The channel is run by Derek Muller. Veritasium is covering a broad range of subjects, based on scientific evidence. According to its own website, “Veritasium is a channel of science and engineering videos featuring experiments, expert interviews, cool demos, and discussions with the public about everything science.” You will find a vlog as of August 2, 2022 there, called “The 4 things it takes to be an expert“. This piece is amazing:
In attempting to answer the question which experts have real expertise, the vlog includes a long list of references related to scientific evidence for its statements. The four things that make somebody a real expert, in ANY field of expertise, are based on long and ardous training, the vlog talks of a rule of thumb of 10.000 hours. In order to become an expert, one has to go through many repeated attempts with feedback. At one point of the video, Veritasium refers to a sample of 284 people who make their living on offering analysis or commenting on complex issues related to politcal and economic trends. These people were followed and questioned over two decades. The results, in a nutshell, are sobering. Any so-called expert with only education, but without extended feedback loops, was doing terribly. These “experts” were not significantly better in their predictions than non-specialists.
Watch the vlog. But what is the issue here? At least, that we have to be very careful in attempting to make predictions. And secondly, that we need to have a healthy and limited expectation in relation to what pundits will tell us. In my own self-assessment, I would certainly qualify for the 10.000 hour rule in relation to my own field of expertise (peace & security). But it would not make me believe that I would be able to find anything more than short-term answers to the question “What’s next?”.
Something which is called “cognitive bias” adds to the problem. This is what is behind the picture attached to this blog, and you can find the picture in wikipedia’s list of 188 cognitive biases, grouped into categories and rendered by John Manoogian III. In essence, according to the website teachthought, “a cognitive bias is an inherent thinking ‘blind spot’ that reduces thinking accuracy and results inaccurate–and often irrational–conclusions.” The graphical summary is listing 180 (!!) of them.
With having said that on our limitations to predict the future reliably, I will finally come back again to “Global Trends 2040”. What I, in sum, subscribe to, is the general statement about a time of system change which “Global Trends 2040” has, in my view correctly, deducted from available assessed information, which we call intelligence.
After President Nr 45 of the United States of America took power, I would find it comparatively easy to anticipate the scenarios that were possible to happen, and my worst case scenarios were pretty much along the lines of what we witnessed, until including January 06, 2021, and what we see coming up as a continuing threat for democracy in the United States, until today.
But compared with the complexity of fragility which we experience, this prediction was a piece of cake, since it was largely based on a psychological analysis of a person with multiple personality disorders, adding perhaps some deeper understanding about American society because I was embedded there for five years and listened and learned a lot.
Asking the question “What’s next” related to what we experience since then, I only know it will get worse, but I don’t know how, meaning “What’s next”. This is not a Doomsday attitude. Rather, it is a personal statement about the gravity of the situation we are finding ourselves in, these days.