Paradox of Progress: increased risk of conflict calls democracy into question


Economic and technological advances have enhanced human wealth and possibilities, but that same progress is disrupting the state-centered global order and creating potential pitfalls, according to Global Trends: Paradox of Progress, a new report from the U.S. National Intelligence Council.

“These trends will converge at an unprecedented pace to make governing and cooperation harder and to change the nature of power – fundamentally altering the global landscape,” the report states.

“As the paradox of progress implies, the same trends generating near-term risks also can create opportunities for better outcomes over the long term,” the study adds.

“The post-Cold War era is giving way to a new strategic context,” the authors note. “Recent and future trends will converge during the next 20 years at an unprecedented pace to increase the number and complexity of issues, with several, like cyber attacks, terrorism, or extreme weather, representing risks for imminent disruption. Demographic shifts will stress labor, welfare, and social stability.”

Super-empowered individuals and non-state actors are more influential than ever, undermining the prospects for consensus and collective action on which democracy depends, while the profusion of international actors and advances in information technology are enhancing the power of “veto players” and establishing echo chambers that “reinforce countless competing realities [and undermine] shared understandings of world events,” write the authors.

“These trends will converge at an unprecedented pace to make governing and cooperation harder and to change the nature of power – fundamentally altering the global landscape,” the authors write in the sixth in a series of quadrennial studies by the U.S. National Intelligence Council.

Democracy in question

“Democracy itself will be more in question, as some studies suggest that North American and Western European youth are less likely to support freedom of speech than their elders,” the report adds. “The number of states that mix democratic and autocratic elements is on the rise, a blend that is prone to instability. Freedom House reported that measurements of ‘freedom’ in 2016 declined in almost twice as many countries as it improved—the biggest setback in 10 years.”

“Overconfidence that material strength can manage escalation will increase the risks of interstate conflict to levels not seen since the Cold War,” the report suggests, adding that uncertainty about the United States, an “inward-looking West” and the dilution of international human rights and conflict-avoidance standards, will encourage authoritarian states like China and Russia to be more assertive on the global stage. Such challenges “will stay below the threshold of hot war but bring profound risks of miscalculation”.

“Greater public access to information about leaders and institutions—combined with stunning elite failures such as the 2008 financial crisis and Petrobras corruption scandal—has undermined public trust in established sources of authority and is driving populist movements worldwide,” it notes:

Moreover, information technology’s amplification of individual voices and of distrust of elites has in some countries eroded the influence of political parties, labor unions, and civic groups, potentially leading to a crisis of representation among democracies. Polls suggest that majorities in emerging nations, especially in the Middle East and Latin America, believe government officials “don’t care about people like them,” while trust in governments has dropped in developed countries as well. Americans demonstrate the lowest levels of trust in government since the first year of measurement in 1958.

The report outlines three illustrative scenarios for the next 20 years and beyond to indicate how specific decisions points could shape the future:

  • Orbits: Increasing nationalism and disruptive technologies increase the risk of war, leading several competing power to create spheres of influence.
  • Islands: A restructuring of the global economy leads to long periods of little to no growth. A subsequent rise in protectionism in response to popular demands for economic and physical security leads to less cooperation and a more fragmented world of walled off states.
  • Communities: Enabled by information technology, sub-national groups like municipal governments, private actors, and NGOs prove better at providing services than some national governments. Organized citizens from the Middle East to Russia challenge centralized control, and sub-national government leaders and civil society organizations routinely take part in regional decision-making processes around the world. 


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