Earlier this month, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) published a report intended to provide policymakers with an overview of “the key trends and uncertainties that will shape the strategic environment for the United States during the next two decades.” The NIC’s officers, drawn from across the U.S. government, academia, and the private sector, support the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)—that is, the body that oversees the sprawling U.S. intelligence community.
No one has a crystal ball, but the NIC has written a similar assessment every four years since 1979, hoping to “to help policymakers and citizens anticipate and prepare for a range of possible futures.”
There is much one can say about the report, which is 156 pages long. Titled “Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World,” the assessment envisions a world in which America continues to face formidable challenges, including from other nations.
Below are some observations that are relevant for the issues I focus on at Vital Interests.
China and Russia are “likely to remain strongly aligned.”
The partnership between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin is potentially the most worrisome relationship on the world stage.
“China and Russia probably will continue to shun formal alliances with each other and most other countries in favor of transactional relationships that allow them to exert influence and selectively employ economic and military coercion while avoiding mutual security entanglements,” the report reads. However, “China and Russia are likely to remain strongly aligned as long as Xi and Putin remain in power,” even if “disagreements over the Arctic and parts of Central Asia may increase friction as power disparities widen in coming years.”
The two autocracies may continue to avoid entering into “formal alliances” with one another and others, but it’s not clear how much that really matters. The Russians and Chinese already have close economic and military ties, even in the absence of a formal commitment to defend one another. Their relationship is so tight that they already describe it as a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.” This is why when Putin addressed the possibility of a more formal alliance earlier this year, he said: “We don’t need it, but, theoretically, it’s quite possible to imagine it.”
The Russians have already done their part to build up the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) military capabilities, by providing Beijing with hardware and participating in joint exercises. The two sides engage in friendly commerce as well. While China’s economy dwarfs Russia’s, the Chinese have become a crucial trading partner for the Russians—meaning Putin needs Xi’s economic cooperation.
The report emphasizes that the two have been increasingly cooperating with one another to undermine what’s commonly known as the U.S.-led international order. “Western leadership of the intergovernmental organizations may further decline as China and Russia obstruct Western-led initiatives and press their own goals,” the report reads. “China is working to re-mold existing international institutions to reflect its development and digital governance goals and mitigate criticism on human rights and infrastructure lending while simultaneously building its own alternative arrangements to push development, infrastructure finance, and regional integration.” The NIC cites Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative, New Development Bank, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership” as examples of how the CCP is attempting to expand its soft power.
Meanwhile, Moscow “has tried to undermine international efforts to strengthen safeguards and monitor for chemical weapons and has used the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) to pursue opponents.”
While none of this is groundbreaking, it is useful to keep tabs on the “strategic” partnership between Moscow and Beijing going forward. Both face significant liabilities as they try to reshape the so-called international order, with few natural allies and many natural foes. China, in particular, is geographically surrounded by current and potential rivals. But that could make
Demographic shifts cause economic challenges for much of the world.
Demography is a key driver of destiny, and the report highlights some noteworthy trends in this regard, as demographic changes are bound to lead to new economic opportunities.
“During the next 20 years, the world’s population will continue to increase every year, adding approximately 1.4 billion people to reach an estimated 9.2 billion by 2040, but the rate of population growth will slow in all regions,” the report reads.
The population growth of Asian countries is expected to “decline quickly” and even begin contracting after 2040. The estimates are such that India is expected to supplant China “as the world’s most populous country around 2027.” That is an important fact, especially as Washington partners with New Delhi in the global rivalry between the U.S. and China.
The NIC’s officers write that as “birthrates remain low and the median age rises, most developed and a handful of emerging economies will see their populations peak and then start to shrink by 2040.” The report points to China, Japan, Russia and “many European countries” as the nations that are most likely to be affected by these shifts. These changes could cause problems, especially in countries where a high proportion of the population is too old to work. For example, the NIC points to the “declining workforces” in countries such as China.
For decades, the CCP’s “One Child” policy limited population growth, thereby allowing the existing citizenry to enjoy more per capita wealth. But this policy came with many costs, including leaving too few young people to shoulder the retirement burden of the massive older generation.
Meanwhile, a “youth bulge” is occurring in jihadist hotspots.
A whole set of different issues is likely to arise in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia— two regions that are expected to encounter “youth bulges.”
Globally, two trends—“fewer children per woman and people living longer”—are driving the median age up from about 31 years old in 2020 to approximately 35 in 2040. But that’s not the case in sub-Saharan Africa, where the median age is expected to be only 22 years old. The report points to Afghanistan, Egypt, and Pakistan as other countries where the population will continue to skew young.
The report’s authors explain this is a problem because such “youth bulges” often lead to “social volatility.” What the report doesn’t explain is that such volatility is occurring in jihadist hotspots. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) have grown tremendously across sub-Saharan Africa over the past several years. The Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other jihadist groups continue to field tens of thousands of fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, part of the reason the insurgency in Afghanistan has been so problematic is that the jihadists have been able to draw from a deep pool of young recruits.
Overall, the report downgrades the fight against terrorism as a priority for Americans. This is consistent with other policymaking trends in Washington. But keep in mind that it isn’t consistent with the demographics of the two most densely populated jihadist regions on the planet: Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal. Follow Tom on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.