Intelligence officers predict a future shaped by faceless enemies like disease, climate change

Jenna McLaughlin
·National Security and Investigations Reporter
·4-min read

WASHINGTON — The intelligence community has published a wide-ranging report detailing its predictions about the state of the world in the next two decades.

The National Intelligence Council, in a report released Thursday, suggested that regardless of how humanity confronts ongoing challenges, some of the biggest threats will not be caused or instigated by human perpetrators. These global challenges will likely include “climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions,” which could create “food and water insecurity,” “increase migration” and its destabilizing effects, create “new health challenges” and decimate biodiversity, the authors write.

One of the major examples of that threat is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the authors write, which they describe as the most disruptive global event since World War II.

Joseph Kuresa, wearing a face mask and hair covering, winces as he receives a shot in his upper arm.
Joseph Kuresa receives a shot from Shaun Murry in Los Angeles. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The pandemic has “shaken long-held assumptions about resilience and adaptation and created new uncertainties about the economy, governance, geopolitics, and technology,” the report states. How the world adapts and learns from the challenges of the last year “is very much in question,” it continues, but will likely have a large impact on the way the future is shaped.

“These challenges will intersect and cascade, including in ways that are difficult to anticipate,” the intelligence report, which is issued every four years, concludes. “National security will require not only defending against armies and arsenals but also withstanding and adapting to these shared global challenges.”

The National Intelligence Council, a small body within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence composed of senior experts on various regions and threats, was formed in 1979 and tasked with peering into the near and distant future. Its “global trends” reports are drafted in an effort to help senior policymakers, lawmakers and private citizens think strategically about the possible evolution of threats to the current world order and how the future might look depending on how the U.S. confronts them.

The report draws not only on the analysis of members of the council but also on interviews and conversations with academics, civil society organizations, outside experts and even, according to the new report, high school students in Washington, D.C.

According to the report’s authors, whose analysis is speculative but based on available facts and trends, there are several “alternative scenarios” that could occur by 2040.

The first, a stated goal of the Biden administration, is a “renaissance of democracies” in which the United States and its allies have ushered in a new era of democratic norms and structures, buoyed by a growing global economy and improved quality of life for people everywhere.

President Biden, wearing a face mask, stands with arms crossed
President Biden at an event about gun violence prevention in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

In this future scenario, the analysts write, the authoritarian form of government demonstrated by officials in Russia and China will be unsuccessful, partly due to lagging innovation brought on by “years of increasing societal controls and monitoring.” However, China has already demonstrated success in technical innovation, partly because of aggressive intellectual property theft and partly through a broad mobilizing of its society in ways not possible in a democratic country.

Second, the analysts predict a possible “world adrift” in which the prevailing chaos created by societal divisions, disinformation, slow economic growth and other factors continues “largely unaddressed,” giving Beijing further opportunities to take advantage of divisions in the West but not providing incentive for China to constructively address challenges as a global leader.

Alternatively, the authors suggest, the U.S. and China could enter an era of “competitive coexistence,” in which the countries’ economic futures are inextricably linked, lowering the chances for outright war and forcing cooperation on issues like climate change.

Still, the trend of increasing connectivity fostered in particular by the internet could reverse, allowing for the globe to be siloed into different regions or economic and security “blocs” where information is walled off, supply chains are insulated and there is far less global trade, the authors suggest. This system could leave many countries caught in the middle and at risk of becoming “failed states,” write the analysts, while global challenges remain unconfronted due to the increasing fragmentation of society.

Finally, the intelligence community predicts the U.S. could be headed for a 2040 in which countries are forced to confront a global tragedy such as a food crisis, ideally spurring a global coalition to mitigate the effects.

Overall, the council predicts that no single superpower would dominate across the world, suggesting that the United States and China would need to share responsibilities as they urge the rest of the world to choose sides.

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