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Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World

National Intelligence Council

8 April 2021

Select excerpt from June 2021: SHIELDWatch Newsletter

Among the Key Takeaways of the Office of the Director on National Security’s (ODNI) outlook on global stability in the year 2040 are an existential threat that transforms multilateral cooperation and disrupts economic incentives; a reshuffled geopolitical hierarchy that foresees a stronger partnership between Europe and the People’s Republic of China; countries reliant on fossil fuels being the slowest to adapt to the changing landscape; and global priorities taking precedence over national interests. Using climate change as one of the persistent forces altering our current world order, ODNI presents five potential scenarios for 2040.

During the next two decades, several global economic trends, including rising national debt, a more complex and fragmented trading environment, a shift in trade, and new employment disruptions are likely to shape conditions within and between states. Many governments may find they have reduced flexibility as they navigate greater debt burdens, diverse trading rules, and a broader array of powerful state and corporate actors exerting influence.

During the next two decades, the pace and reach of technological developments are likely to increase ever faster, transforming a range of human experiences and capabilities while also creating new tensions and disruptions within and between societies, industries, and states. State and nonstate rivals will vie for leadership and dominance in science and technology with potentially cascading risks and implications for economic, military, and societal security.

Climate Change Contributes to Instability and Conflict Risk

Rarely is climate change the sole or even primary driver of instability and conflict; however, certain socio-political and economic contexts are more vulnerable to climate sparks that ignite conflict. Countries of particular concern are those with ethnic or religious polarization; livelihoods highly dependent on natural resources or agriculture; weak or illegitimate conflict resolution mechanisms; a history of violence; and low adaptive capacity. For example, an increase in drought or extreme weather may reduce the opportunity cost of joining armed groups for struggling farmers and herders, while sectarian elites may advance their polarizing political goals by exploiting local grievances exacerbated by climate change.

Strains Military Readiness

While militaries will continue to adapt and fight in the changing world, climate effects will strain readiness and compound fiscal pressures on many militaries. Storm surges and sea level rise will force changes to the design and protection of naval bases and aircraft runways, prolonged extreme heat will limit training days, and major storms and floods will force militaries to divert more resources to disaster relief at home and abroad.

Multinational “Superstar” Firms Perpetuate Economic Globalization

State-owned multinationals (SOM - NCs), most of which originated in China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and some EU member countries, almost certainly will continue to be active participants in international commerce. Some SOMNCs may distort the global competitive landscape because of the state support that they receive. As the competition for technology leadership intensifies, SOMNCs, including those from China, could increase their reliance on state support to capture and lock-in first mover advantages, prompting private companies to lobby their governments to intervene on their behalf.

Economic Activity Forecast

Growing Competition for Dominance.

The race for technological dominance is inextricably intertwined with evolving geopolitics and is increasingly shaped by broader political, economic, and societal rivalries, particularly those associated with China’s rise. Amassing the resources to sustain broad technology leadership, including the concentration of human talent, foundational knowledge, and supply chains, requires decades of long-term investment and visionary leadership. Those focusing their resources today are likely to be the technology leaders of 2040. In open economies, a mix of private efforts and partnerships between governments, private corporations, and research programs will compete with state-led economies, which may have an advantage in directing and concentrating resources, including data access, but may lack the benefits of more open, creative, and competitive environments.

Security and Privacy Reimagined

Current notions of privacy will continue to evolve, with individuals needing to share more personal information for access to applications, and tracking becoming ubiquitous. Authoritarian governments are likely to exploit increased data to monitor and even control their populations. Moreover, many companies and organizations will also have powerful tools such as video manipulation, or deep fakes, to improve tailored marketing or advance a particular narrative. Emerging AI applications may also become potential targets for data manipulation to skew their output.

China As A Space Power

By 2040, China will be the most significant rival to the United States in space, competing on commercial, civil, and military fronts. China will continue to pursue a path of space technology development independent of that involving the United States and Europe and will have its own set of foreign partners participating in Chinese-led space activities. Chinese space services, such as the Beidou satellite navigation system, will be in use around the world as an alternative to Western options.

Space Supporting Government and Military Needs

The space landscape in 2040 will combine emerging technology with a maturation of today’s capabilities to help drive commercialization and introduce new applications. Services, such as communications, navigation, and satellite imagery, will become ubiquitous offering improved capabilities, lower costs, and increasing efficiencies. The efforts of both government and commercial actors will establish new domains of space competition, particularly between the United States and China.

Complicating Government-Corporate Relationships

Public-private partnerships for investment, research, and development have been critical for attaining many technological breakthroughs and advantages, but core corporate and national interests do not naturally align. Large technology companies increasingly have resources, reach, and influence that rivals and even surpasses some states. National interests in maintaining technological control and advantage as well as protecting national security can be at odds with corporate interests in expanding global market share and increasing profits.

Disrupting Industries and Jobs

The pace of technological change, notably developments in advanced manufacturing, AI, and biotechnology, may hasten disruptions to manufacturing and global supply chains, eliminating some modes of production and jobs and bringing supply chains closer to markets. Shifting supply chains could disproportionately affect less advanced economies, while many new jobs will require workers with improved or retooled skills.


June 2021

Want to read more? Check out the June 2021: SHIELDWatch Newsletter

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