The National Intelligence Council’s recently published Global Trends 2040 report assesses the key trends that will shape the world over the next two decades. It’s a sobering analysis of the global challenges ahead and possible future scenarios for a divided world.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the international community’s failure to come together to address the crisis, which does not bode well for its capacity to resolve other global threats such as climate change, human migration and the plight of developing countries. The lack of cohesion about core values presents significant obstacles to tackling global problems.

The report’s most hopeful future scenario, Renaissance of Democracies, assumes democracies can transform the global economy through technological innovation, raise incomes for many throughout the world and also heal their fragmented societies by improving economic inequality and mending cultural divisions.

The subtitle of the report, “A More Contested World,” speaks to the rise of China as a rival to the United States. Despite their contested relationship, the two largest economies must also find ways to cooperate on global challenges. By 2040, China will be the world’s largest economy, which inevitably will give it greater influence in setting international norms that reflect its interests. But China has its own challenges, including rising labor costs, an aging workforce, environmental degradation and criticism of its treatment of minority communities.

Over the next two decades, the world’s population will grow older as people live longer and birth rates decline. By 2040, one quarter of the population in North America, Europe, China, Japan and South Korea will be 65 and over, which will result in sizable workforce shortages.

Large-scale human migration is expected to accelerate as nearly one quarter of the world’s population live in failed states. Today, 270 million people live in countries where they were not born, 100 million more than 20 years ago. Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America and South Asia will suffer significantly from political unrest and climate change as shortages of water and food force people to migrate. Immigration may help alleviate workforce shortages, but it will strain developed nations and exacerbate anti-immigrant sentiment, further fragmenting societies.

Artificial intelligence and other forms of automation will transform all industries, causing significant economic and social change. While these new technologies will likely produce more jobs than they destroy, the transition will create a mismatch between job requirements and worker skills. The workforce will need ongoing training to minimize disruption and a social safety net to permit dislocated workers to obtain new skills.

Governments have been less than successful in addressing rapid social change, which has led to a mismatch between people’s needs and the resources to respond to their demands. This disequilibrium risks eroding democracy and fueling increased discontent, spurred on by the proliferation of information silos and manipulated digital misinformation.

The trends report anticipates that we will experience a more contested world within local communities, countries and in international systems. To maintain a liberal world order, the United States and its allies will have to increase their competitiveness and demonstrate that democracy is a more successful mode of associated life than authoritarian models.

An alternative scenario, A World Adrift, describes a directionless international system unable to address global challenges with widening social divisions and political paralysis. In such a scenario, neither democratic countries nor China are able to provide world leadership.

The Global Trends report provides analysis but not policy solutions. Maine could assist by demonstrating that democracy can work here by taking steps to bridge the ideological divide and reduce political polarization. Maine can become a welcoming state for immigrants by easing their entry into the workforce to replace our retiring baby boomers.

Maine can also develop public-private partnerships to teach workforce skills that raise incomes and improve the quality of life for those without a college degree. Finally, Maine can exercise soft power by welcoming foreigners as tourists and recruiting students from China to our high schools and universities, offering an opportunity to experience a democratic society with both its flaws and freedoms, and to forge friendships between the two contested countries.


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