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     Sittipong Phokawattana/Shutterstock

Hostile Nations, Environmental Developments Alter Threat Picture

April 13, 2021
By Robert K. Ackerman
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But even with these challenges, a diverse set of scenarios is possible.

Global changes increasing at an accelerated pace will drive new threats to international security, and some of these are already manifest in the worldscape, according to a pair of just-released U.S. intelligence community forecasts. Yet the diversity of these changes and their possible outcomes offer different potential scenarios ranging from “a renaissance of democracies” to “tragedy and mobilization.”

Demographics, both human and economic, will define emerging threats in the coming two decades, states “Global Trends 2040,” issued by the National Intelligence Council under the auspices of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Concurrent with these developments, technology offers the potential to mitigate problems that will arise, the report states.

And many of these problems already are increasing in severity, according to the “Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community.” Also released by the ODNI, this report focuses on near-term threats and concentrates on four countries: China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. It states that some of these threats are already playing out amid the global disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The global trends report states, “The most certain trends during the next 20 years will be major demographic shifts as global population growth slows and the world rapidly ages. Some developed and emerging economies, including in Europe and East Asia, will grow older faster and face contracting populations, weighing on economic growth.” The report continues that the historic improvements in quality of life over the past few decades will be difficult to sustain, and many countries will struggle to build on their successes.

“At the same time that populations are increasingly empowered and demanding more, governments are coming under greater pressure from new challenges and more limited resources,” the report declares. “This widening gap portends more political volatility, erosion of democracy, and expanding roles for alter­native providers of governance. Over time, these dynamics might open the door to more significant shifts in how people govern.” The report adds that “… large segments of the global population are becoming wary of institutions and govern­ments that they see as unwilling or unable to address their needs,” thus portending greater instability amid climate change. This effect will fall disproportionally on the developing world, but its impact will be widespread.

“These interactions are also likely to produce greater contestation at all levels than has been seen since the end of the Cold War, reflecting differing ideolo­gies as well as contrasting views on the most effective way to organize society and tackle emerging challenges,” the report declares.

Throughout these changes comes the potential for opportunity, the report notes. “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.”

The 20-year forecast of the global trends report is magnified by the one-year outlook of the threat assessment. The assessment sees many of the issues raised in the trends report already manifesting during the pandemic, and it predicts these strains are likely to be exacerbated even as countries begin to emerge from pandemic conditions.

“The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to strain governments and societies, fueling humanitarian and economic crises, political unrest, and geopolitical competition as countries, such as China and Russia, seek advantage through such avenues as ‘vaccine diplomacy,’” the assessment states. “No country has been completely spared, and even when a vaccine is widely distributed globally, the economic and political aftershocks will be felt for years. Countries with high debts or that depend on oil exports, tourism, or remittances face particularly challenging recoveries, while others will turn inward or be distracted by other challenges.”

And the effects of environmental change will become even more apparent in the coming year. “Ecological degradation and a changing climate will continue to fuel disease outbreaks, threaten food and water security, and exacerbate political instability and humanitarian crises,” the threat assessment maintains. “Although much of the effect of a changing climate on U.S. security will play out indirectly in a broader political and economic context, warmer weather can generate direct, immediate impacts—for example, through more intense storms, flooding, and permafrost melting. This year we will see increasing potential for surges in migration by Central American populations, which are reeling from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and extreme weather, including multiple hurricanes in 2020 and several years of recurring droughts and storms.”

Both reports offer that rivals will attempt to take advantage of these challenges. “Acceler­ating shifts in military power, demographics, economic growth, environmental conditions, and technology, as well as hardening divisions over governance models, are likely to further ratchet up competition between China and a Western coalition led by the United States,” the global trends report states. “Rival powers will jockey to shape global norms, rules, and institutions, while regional powers and nonstate actors may exert more influence and lead on issues left unattended by the major powers. These highly varied interactions are likely to produce a more conflict-prone and volatile geopolitical environment, under­mine global multilateralism, and broaden the mismatch between transnational challenges and institutional arrangements to tackle them.”

The threat assessment echoes those warnings and notes that many such efforts are already underway. “Beijing [China], Moscow [Russia], Tehran [Iran] and Pyongyang [North Korea] have demonstrated the capability and intent to advance their interests at the expense of the United States and its allies, despite the pandemic.

“China increasingly is a near-peer competitor, challenging the United States in multiple arenas—especially economically, militarily, and technologically—and is pushing to change global norms. Russia is pushing back against Washington where it can globally, employing techniques up to and including the use of force. Iran will remain a regional menace with broader malign influence activities, and North Korea will be a disruptive player on the regional and world stages,” the assessment posits.

“Major adversaries and competitors are enhancing and exercising their military, cyber, and other capabilities, raising the risks to U.S. and allied forces, weakening our conventional deterrence, and worsening the longstanding threat from weapons of mass destruction,” the threat assessment adds.

Nonetheless, the outlook is not guaranteed to be grim. The global trends forecast sees five potential scenarios arising from these changes: the renaissance of democracies, in which the United States leads the resurgence; a world adrift, where China leads but does not dominate; competitive coexistence, in which China and the United States prosper and compete in a bifurcated world; separate silos, which describes a world where globalization has broken down and is replaced by various economic and security blocs; and tragedy and mobilization, where a devastating global environmental crisis spawns bottom-up revolutionary change.

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