U.S. Intelligence Report Warns of Global Consequences of Social Fragmentation
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted weaknesses of the international order, said the report, which is issued every four years.
WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials warned in a report issued on Thursday about the potential fragmentation of society and the global order, holding out the possibility of a world where international trade is disrupted, groups of countries create online enclaves and civic cohesion is undermined.
The report, compiled every four years by the National Intelligence Council, mixes more traditional national security challenges like the potentially disruptive rise of China with social trends that have clear security implications, like the internet’s tendency to exacerbate political and cultural divisions.
A previous version of the report, released by the Obama administration in 2017, highlighted the risk of a pandemic and the vast economic disruption it could cause — a prescient prediction in hindsight.
The new report said that the coronavirus pandemic showed the weakness of the world order and that the institutions devised to face past crises are inadequate to coordinate a global response to new challenges like the spread of Covid-19. The failure of those institutions deepened public dissatisfaction and further eroded faith in the old order, the report said.
“Efforts to contain and manage the virus have reinforced nationalist trends globally, as some states turned inward to protect their citizens and sometimes cast blame on marginalized groups,” the report said. The response to the pandemic has fueled partisanship and polarization in many countries as groups argue over the best response and seek scapegoats to blame for spreading the virus and for slow mitigation efforts.
The global trends report — unlike the intelligence agencies’ annual threat assessment — is not supposed to look at immediate challenges. Instead, the report takes a longer-term, strategic look, trying to peer 20 years ahead to examine how current changes could transform the world of the future.
The intelligence council provides long-term strategic analysis for the director of national intelligence. It also regularly produces reports and assessments for officials and the National Security Council.
The report predicted that current trends would make global politics more volatile. On the international stage, China will continue to challenge the United States and the Western-led world order, and politics in certain countries will become more contentious, officials predicted.
Climate change was also a focus of the report, which noted the difficult adaptations that countries would need to make, such as building rainwater storage and reinforcing sea walls. Climate change would further drive global migration, which is already increasing, the report predicted. Technological innovation and cooperation between China and the West are keys to adapting to climate change, demographic shifts and other challenges, it said.
Income inequality could grow worse, the report said, tying it at times to information inequality.
The “trust gap” between an informed public that has faith in a government solution and a wider public with deep skepticism of institutions is growing, the report said.
The problem is made worse by technology. Algorithms, social media and artificial intelligence have replaced expertise in deciding what information spreads most widely, and that has made the public more vulnerable to misinformation.
Still, positive demographic changes in recent decades, with people moving out of poverty and into the middle class, had creating “rising expectations,” said Maria Langan-Riekhof, the director of the intelligence council’s strategic futures group. But fears of falling income across the globe are growing, a worrisome trend when coupled with changes in how information is shared and social divisions have deepened.
“Those concerns are leading people to look for the security of trusted voices, but also of like-minded groups within their societies,” Ms. Langan-Riekhof said. “Overlay those trends I’m describing, and you kind of see that recipe for greater divisions, increasing fracturing. We think that is likely to continue and probably worsen.”
Over time, the report said, these trends could weaken democratic governments.
“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 said. “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 global trends report has often looked at possible future situations. In the 2017 report, one example contemplated a pandemic plunging the world into economic chaos. It envisioned nationalistic politicians eroding alliances, a drop in oil prices causing calamity and more isolationist trade practices. It also forecast a pandemic (albeit in 2023, not 2020), which restricted travel, caused economic distress and exacerbated existing trends toward isolation.
The report has discussed the risk of a pandemic for nearly two decades, said Gregory F. Treverton, a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council who helped lead the 2017 effort. The 2004 report said some experts believed it was “only a matter of time” before a pandemic, he said.
“It was talking about a scenario exactly like what’s happened: a major global pandemic that shut down global commerce, air travel,” Mr. Treverton said. “The reports have been strategic warnings, and that is how I think of them, helping people who want to be strategic.”
The new report credited the previous documents for highlighting the potential for new diseases and pandemics but acknowledged that “we lacked a full picture of the breadth and depth of its disruptive potential.” For the new effort, the National Intelligence Council looked at which trends the coronavirus pandemic was accelerating and which were slowing.
“Much like the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to produce some changes that will be felt for years to come and change the way we live, work and govern domestically and internationally,” the report said. “How great these will be, however, is very much in question.”
Even before the spread of the coronavirus, National Intelligence Council analysts were examining the idea of more shared global challenges. But the coronavirus, Ms. Langan-Riekhof said, “really drove it home for us.”
“Challenges aren’t going to stay within the borders of a single country anymore, and we’re going to feel them globally much faster,” she said. “This may be a foreshadowing of things to come.”
Published at Thu, 08 Apr 2021 14:23:44 +0000