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US Intelligence Warns of Fractured Societies, Likelihood for Conflict

A woman protests the new measures announced to stop the spread of COVID-19, outside the government house in Buenos Aires, Argentina, April 9, 2021.
A woman protests the new measures announced to stop the spread of COVID-19, outside the government house in Buenos Aires, Argentina, April 9, 2021.

The world, already struggling with a global pandemic and challenges to long-standing systems and institutions, is unlikely to get much relief in the next 20 years, according to a new report from U.S. intelligence analysts.

Instead, they predict the institutions and systems that have dominated global events since the end of World War II will strain to respond to "cascading global challenges," including climate change, disease, financial crises and ever-advancing technology.

"These challenges will repeatedly test the resilience and adaptability of communities, states, and the international system, often exceeding the capacity of existing systems and models," the report warns, adding that some of the developments "could be catastrophic."

The mostly bleak assessment is part of Global Trends 2040, a report compiled by the National Intelligence Council and issued every four years. And while the latest installment lays out some scenarios in which democracies, such as the United States, regain their footing and manage to thrive, it warns that will not happen if they do not first find a way to handle ever more intense and frequent problems.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded the world of its fragility and demonstrated the inherent risks of high levels of interdependence," the report says. "The international system … is poorly set up to address the compounding global challenges."

One of the most critical challenges identified in the report is climate change, which is expected to gradually intensify over the next two decades and subject all countries to higher temperatures, rising sea levels and more extreme weather, such as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.

Poor and developing countries will be the most likely to suffer, and the inability of their governments to adapt and respond could result in new waves of migration.

That, in turn, according to the report, will strain the resources and capacities of destination countries.

Role of technology

Another critical concern is the growing tendency for countries to react to an ever more connected, technologically advanced world by pulling themselves apart.

The world "is both inextricably bound by connectivity and fragmenting in different directions," the report warns. "Communities are increasingly fractured as people seek security with like-minded groups based on established and newly prominent identities."

Feeding into that trend is the proliferation of technologies, such as artificial intelligence, which will make it easier for governments, groups and even businesses to shape public opinion, whether with influence campaigns or disinformation operations.

"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 says.

'Renaissance of Democracies'

Analysts say another factor that will shape the world over the next 20 years is the global power struggle between the U.S. and China.

"The rivalry between the United States and China is likely to set the broad parameters for the geopolitical environment during the coming decades, forcing starker choices on other actors," the report says.

In the most optimistic scenario, the intelligence analysts see the U.S. and its democratic allies prevailing, in part because adversaries such as China and Russia are done in by societal controls that have stifled innovation.

This so-called "Renaissance of Democracies" will see the West thrive because of advanced technology, economic growth and rising incomes, which lessen societal tensions.

But the analysts also foresee scenarios in which China can solidify itself as the world's leading, if not dominant, power, and in which the world is fragmented, dominated by regional powers "focused on self-sufficiency, resiliency, and defense."

In one worst-case scenario, food shortages and rumors spark waves of violence that take down leaders and regimes across the globe, leading to a radical shift in the allocation of wealth and resources.