Rising need, fewer resources, fewer jobs—and more campaigns like Donald Trump’s. That’s the world ahead, according to America’s intelligence agencies.
Analysts from U.S. spy services predict a darker world to come over the next five years, with rising populations, falling incomes, and ever more technology to spread anger at the speed of a tweet—all trends that helped catapult Trump to victory—only set to increase.
The Global Trends Report, authored by the same intelligence community that concluded Russia tried to interfere with the U.S. elections, portrays a dystopian future of increasingly divided haves and have-nots, with climate change drying up resources and driving migrants into already stressed Western nations, only increasing competition. It further predicts governments or would-be leaders will play to their people’s worst fears, blaming “outsiders” or other nations for the calamities to come, so they don’t get the blame for their people’s declining state.
The National Intelligence Council—the “think tank” of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper—also warns that Russia and China might stumble accidentally into a “hot war” with the U.S. or another nation as they try to expand their power and influence, by, say, pushing for more territory, à la Moscow’s annexation of Crimea or Beijing’s construction of a military “island” in the South China Sea.
It further warns that Russia continues to see the U.S. as a competitor that must be checked on the world stage.
“This future, although dark, is not cast in stone,” said Suzanne Fry, director of the NIC’s Strategic Futures Group. Governments that invest in their infrastructure, environment, and information-sharing with their people would be best positioned to survive the coming conflagration, she said at the public rollout of “Paradox of Progress” at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
It’s unclear what the incoming administration will do with the document, considering Team Trump’s skepticism about climate change, warmth toward Russia, and stated goals to trim the size of government inside the U.S. and its intervention in the world outside. The report’s data were gathered prior to the election and are intended to help whomever takes office. The NIC, which is staffed in large part by current and former CIA analysts, delivered the report to Trump’s incoming national-security adviser, Ret. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, but outgoing NIC chief Greg Treverton said he has not responded to its findings.
The report is produced every few years, to give policymakers an idea of what to plan for.
This newest edition makes for grim reading.
“Working age populations are shrinking in wealthy countries, China, and Russia, but growing in developing poorer countries, particularly Africa and South Asia,” where there are also fewer jobs available, the report says.
Major economies are growing more slowly, and poorer economies that might have relied on cheap labor to move up in the world are being shut out by automation. Simply put, it’s becoming cheaper to build a robot to churn out cheap clothes than to employ ranks of poorly paid humans—a problem that’s already drying up jobs in the U.S. manufacturing sector.
Combine that shrinking pool of jobs with a climate-change-driven lack of resources and you’ve got a wave of migrants headed for Europe that military intervention can’t stop.
Those on the receiving end of that flood of humanity, already facing rising unemployment and falling incomes, will increasingly adopt a “circle the wagons, bring up the castle gate” hostile mentality toward the “other” that could make Brexit and the jingoistic strains of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign look tame.
“Populist leaders or movements, whether on the right or left, may leverage democratic practices to foster popular support for consolidation of power in a strong executive and a slow, steady erosion of civil society, the rule of law and the norms of tolerance,” with “anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment” undermining the West’s diverse societies, the report says. In other words, popular leaders may rally their followers to swallow increasingly authoritarian rule because they’ve convinced people it will protect them from outside/outsider threats.
The report’s authors say those self-identified groups will be more prone to being fooled by fake news because it suits their worldview, making changing their minds harder.
“There’s so much noise out there and so much misinformation that the more we can do to provide context… on what is really a confusing present and future… is all the more important,” said Treverton, head of the National Intelligence Council.
The angry and disenfranchised will also be able to better organize to express their discontent, thanks to the internet and proliferation of smartphones and social media.
“Connectivity is going to make it much more difficult for governments that are performing subpar work… because everything will be visible,” said the NIC’s Thomas Stork at the event. “It will create a forum for grievance… to raise voices of objection.”
That will make governing harder. As nations try both to deflect internal dissent and expand their influence, they’ll more and more often use measures short of war, the report predicts.
“Conflicts will be quite ambiguous,” said Fry, like Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections, which aimed to change minds, rather than crudely attacking ballot-box votes.
She said the risk with that IS countries potentially overstepping and triggering an actual conflict.
“Overestimation or inability to control those moments can lead to hot war,” Fry said.
“Both China and Russia think of what they’re doing in defensive terms,” said Treverton, but the defensive/aggressive moves “make chances of an inadvertent mistake and escalation more possible.”
What will be less ambiguous is the continuing rise of terrorism and other forms of violent extremism as a result of the competition for jobs and resources.
The drumbeat driving all the instability and competition will be changes to climate, and habitat. “Irrespective of what might happen with the climate, people are moving into places like low-lying coastal areas, which are vulnerable” to tropical storms and flooding, said the NIC’s Rod Schoonover—50 percent more people by 2035 than live there now. He said megacities are getting “sicker,” with many suffering water issues, and water scarcity growing in places like the Middle East.
He ticked off more grim developments: Air pollution over the next few decades will be the primary reason for environmentally caused death; half of the world’s population is likely to face water shortages; oceans are getting more acidic, polluted, warmer, over-exploited, and deoxygenated; soil for farming is degrading 40 times faster than new soil is being created; and the planet is suffering a rapid decline in biodiversity because of human activity.
One of the experts at the event, Larry Diamond from Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution, said the only way to head off the report’s overall predictions is to launch a sort of sweeping Marshall Plan aimed at those hit hardest by the changes. That could slow population growth in poor areas and raise taxes at home to subsidize the jobs that will pay less and less as they are replaced by automation, and offset trends that see a narrow segment of the population paid hundreds of times more than most of the planet makes.
“The nature of work and automation is accelerating to such a point that we’re not going to have work for people,” he said. “The most important point of identity is human dignity. If you rob people of that, you’re sitting on a volcano. Work is crucial to human dignity.”
That may be something the Trump administration well understands.