By Mary Kate Aylward, Peter Engelke, Uri Friedman, and Paul Kielstra
Prepare for Russia’s coming crack-up. Plan for a Chinese military assault on Taiwan. Temper the optimism about peak carbon emissions. Brace for the further spread of nuclear weapons. Buckle in for even greater global volatility ahead.
These are just some of the forecasts that emerged this past fall when the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security surveyed the future, asking leading global strategists and foresight practitioners around the world to answer our most burning questions about the biggest drivers of change over the next ten years.
A total of 167 experts shared their insights on what geopolitics, climate change, technological disruption, the global economy, social and political movements, and other domains could look like a decade from now. Although respondents are largely citizens of the United States (roughly 60 percent of those polled), their nationalities are spread across thirty countries, with European citizens constituting the majority of non-Americans. (In the following analysis, all geographic distinctions among those surveyed are based on what individuals identified as their sole or primary nationality, not on the countries where they currently reside.)
Respondents are also employed in a range of fields, including the private sector (26 percent), academic or educational institutions (21 percent), non-profits (19 percent), government (16 percent), and independent consultants or freelancers (13 percent). They are quite evenly distributed across age categories over thirty-five, with less than 10 percent between the ages of twenty-two and thirty-five, but they skew heavily male (a result that we will aim to rectify in future surveys).
So what will the world look like in 2033? Here are the ten biggest findings from the survey.
1. Russia as we know it may not survive the coming decade
One of the most surprising takeaways was how many respondents pointed to a potential Russian collapse over the next decade—suggesting that the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine could precipitate hugely consequential upheaval in a great power with the largest nuclear-weapons arsenal on the planet.
Nearly half (46 percent) of respondents expect Russia to either become a failed state or break up by 2033. More than a fifth (21 percent) consider Russia the most likely country to become a failed state within the next ten years, which is more than twice the percentage for the next most common choice, Afghanistan.
Even more striking, 40 percent of respondents expect Russia to break up internally by 2033 because of revolution, civil war, political disintegration, or some other reason. Europeans are particularly pessimistic about Russia breaking up: Forty-nine percent of them foresee such an event, compared with 36 percent of Americans.
This puts another finding into a darker context: Fourteen percent of respondents believe that Russia is likely to use a nuclear weapon within the next ten years. Among those expecting the country to experience both state failure and a breakup in the coming decade, a sobering 22 percent believe that use of nuclear weapons will be part of that history ten years hence.
Some, though, see hope: Of those who believe Russia is likely to experience state failure or a breakup over the coming decade, 10 percent think that it is the most likely of any currently autocratic country to become democratic by the end of this period.
2. We’re heading for more countries with nuclear weapons and less cooperation on stopping the spread of these weapons—but not necessarily actual nuclear use
Barely one in eight respondents (13 percent) stated that no additional country will obtain nuclear weapons in the coming decade, and more than three-quarters named a specific country that they expected to become a nuclear-weapons state during this period. Iran was most often cited as a likely nuclear-armed state by 2033 (68 percent of respondents)—an outcome that the Atlantic Council’s Matthew Kroenig, in a separate assessment, argues is highly likely to occur as soon as this coming year. But Iran may not be alone. Respondents who expect some expansion of the nuclear-weapons club believe, on average, that 1.6 countries will join within the next ten years.
One reason for this anticipation of multiple new nuclear-armed countries could be that experts expect regional rivalries to drive nuclear proliferation over the next decade. For example, of those who believe that Iran will obtain nuclear weapons during this timeframe, 41 percent say Saudi Arabia will as well. In contrast, of those who do not believe that Iran will acquire these weapons, just 15 percent envision Saudi Arabia doing so anyway. Similarly, 57 percent of those who say that Japan will acquire nuclear weapons believe the same of South Korea. The former is almost certainly a function of Saudi-Iranian antagonism (wherein if one gets the bomb, the other will feel pressure to follow suit); the latter is likely less a function of Japanese-South Korean tension than of both countries feeling increasingly threatened by China and/or North Korea. Indeed, among those who foresee China initiating military action to retake Taiwan in the next decade (discussed in more detail below), 22 percent think that South Korea will obtain nuclear weapons over the same period while 16 percent believe Japan will. Among those who foresee no such Chinese use of force, the equivalent figures are 13 percent and 6 percent.
On the positive side, a majority of those polled (58 percent) believe that nuclear weapons will remain unused over the next ten years. On the negative side, it’s nevertheless quite disturbing that nearly a third of respondents (31 percent) expect the next decade to include the first use of nuclear weapons since World War II. Responses from those who foresee nuclear use suggest that the weapons may be deployed in a regional rather than global conflict. Russia is most frequently cited (14 percent of all respondents) as likely to use such a weapon by 2033. But, of those who expect the country to do so, only one-third believe Russia will fight a war with NATO during this period. The second-most-cited potential perpetrator, North Korea (10 percent), presumably would also initially deploy nuclear weapons regionally against neighbors without nuclear weapons rather than, say, a country with superior nuclear capabilities such as the United States.
The proliferation of nuclear weapons is consistent with respondent answers that predict a lack of international attention to this issue. Less than 2 percent of respondents named nuclear nonproliferation as the area likely to see the greatest increase in international cooperation over the coming decade. When given the chance to name the biggest global risks receiving insufficient attention, 10 percent mentioned either proliferation or war involving nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction.
3. Expect a Chinese military offensive against Taiwan
Recently, US officials have been warning that China could launch a military campaign to reunify Taiwan with the mainland on a faster-than-anticipated schedule between now and 2027. And our survey results support that dire assessment. Fully 70 percent of respondents agree—though just 12 percent strongly agree—that China will seek to forcibly retake Taiwan within the next ten years. Only around two in ten don’t believe that such a scenario will occur. Intriguingly, among government employees, the figures rise to near certainty: Eighty-eight percent agree that China will use force against Taiwan, just 8 percent disagree, and the remaining 4 percent do not know.
Many people are currently focused on the risk of Russia engaging in a direct fight with the United States and NATO. But notably, even in the throes of a hot war in Ukraine right on NATO’s borders, the majority of respondents (more than 60 percent) disagreed with the notion that there will be such a Russia-NATO military clash within the next ten years—perhaps suggesting a belief that the conflict in Ukraine can be contained to that country or that the war has exposed Russia as too weak to take the fight directly to NATO. Given that a Chinese military assault on Taiwan would likely prompt the United States to intervene in support of the island, and that respondents were far more inclined to see a China-Taiwan conflict as probable than a Russia-NATO conflict, the biggest impending risk of war between great powers might be in Asia, not Europe.
4. US-Chinese decoupling may not be as dramatic as we think it will be
There has been a lot of talk about “decoupling,” or efforts to disentangle the US and Chinese economies. But the experts we surveyed delivered a clear verdict: Full-blown decoupling is very unlikely. Despite all the geopolitical tensions and tit-for-tat trade restrictions between the two countries, the most likely outcome (according to roughly 40 percent of respondents) is that the US and Chinese economies will be “somewhat less” interdependent in 2033 than they are today. Moreover, of those who believe China will use force against Taiwan, 64 percent predict at least some decline in economic interdependence—a surprisingly low number given how drastic a move a Chinese military campaign against Taiwan would be. Fully 22 percent of those expecting Chinese use of force against Taiwan believe that the US and Chinese economies will become more interdependent by 2033.
Overall, 58 percent of respondents forecast less economic interdependence between the two countries by 2033 and just 23 percent expect more. US respondents are slightly more convinced about this direction of travel, with 64 percent anticipating a drop in interdependence (24 percent still anticipate an increase).
Just as important, though, roughly eight in ten respondents—both overall and among Americans—expect any change in either direction to be limited at most. The widespread expectation, then, is a slow decoupling.
5. The United States will remain powerful but not hegemonic
Respondents generally expressed a belief in the United States’ staying power over the next ten years, though many envisioned a country preeminent in some domains of national clout but not others. Seven in ten foresee the United States continuing to be the world’s dominant military power by 2033—a notably high percentage given concerns about China’s military modernization and the United States losing its military edge—while about half think the United States will maintain its technological dominance over everyone else. Just three in ten, however, believe the United States will be the world’s dominant player in diplomacy, and only slightly more than three in ten believe it will be the world’s dominant economic power.
All of which raises a question: If the United States loses its economic and diplomatic dominance, can its other advantages be maintained? After all, military power depends to a substantial degree on strong alliances and economic and technological prowess, while technological power relies in large part on a country’s capacity to commercialize technological advances.
Two minority groups of respondents have sharply divergent views about American power. The first group, constituting 19 percent of the survey pool, are pessimists, believing one or more of the following will be true by 2033: The United States will be a failed state; it will have broken apart; or it will no longer be the world’s dominant power in any category our survey covered: military, economic, diplomatic, or technological. (Notably, roughly the same proportion of respondents—7 percent—listed the United States and Pakistan as the country most likely to fail over the next ten years.) Fourteen percent of American respondents and 17 percent of European respondents fall into this group. The most striking answers are from those who are citizens of countries outside the United States and Europe: Over half of these are in our pessimists category. (This analysis does not treat them generally as a category because they are too diverse to characterize and too few to rely on statistically.)
The second group, constituting 12 percent of all respondents, are optimists, believing that the United States will be the single dominant power in all fields: military, economic, diplomatic, and technological. Among American and European respondents, the proportions of optimists—12 percent and 15 percent respectively—are roughly the same as those for pessimists. The big difference comes from the rest of the world, where no respondents expect the United States to have such multifaceted hegemony by 2033.
6. Global cooperation on climate is set to increase, but curb the enthusiasm about peak emissions
Climate change is the issue most likely to shoot up the international policy agenda in the coming decade, according to respondents. A plurality (42 percent) believe that it will garner the biggest increase in international collaboration, comfortably ahead of second-place public health (cited by 25 percent of those polled).
Of those who assert that climate issues will attract the biggest boost in global cooperation by 2033, nearly a third (29 percent) believe that, among various social movements presented to respondents, environmental movements will have the most political influence worldwide over the next ten years. Among those who do not think climate change will rise up the international agenda, only 12 percent expect environmental movements to wield such influence.
If political leaders and policymakers focus more on climate issues, will greenhouse-gas emissions peak and start to decline over the next ten years? Views are mixed. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently estimated that global carbon-dioxide emissions will peak in 2025 (although it also admitted that a significant gap remains between countries’ stated emissions goals and the target of stabilizing the average rise in global temperature at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels). Respondents who foresee greater global cooperation to address climate change are split on peak emissions, in a reminder that such collaboration could result from both a proactive effort to accelerate the clean-energy transition or a more reactive response to a still-rapidly warming world: 47 percent believe that the peak will have occurred by 2033, but 42 percent disagree. Among the others, the equivalent figures—26 percent and 60 percent—reveal much greater pessimism.
Overall, in a clear counterpoint to the IEA’s assessment, a majority of respondents don’t think greenhouse-gas emissions will have peaked and begun to decline by 2033. The experts we polled are only a bit more bullish about that peak and decline happening within the next decade (35 percent) as they are about humans safely landing on Mars and returning to Earth during that period (23 percent). Only 6 percent strongly agree that we’ll see emissions peaking and declining over the next ten years.
On a separate question, respondents on balance were also more inclined to agree (39 percent) than disagree (35 percent) that by 2033 humans likely will have begun deliberate, large-scale geoengineering of the planet (for example, seeding the atmosphere with aerosols) in order to reduce the impacts of climate change—indicating that a slight plurality presumably think those climate impacts will be big enough by that point to spur such a controversial and consequential move.
7. Get ready for even greater global volatility
One remarkable survey result is how many respondents expect the world to face additional economic and public-health perils in the coming decade. Seventy-six percent predict another global economic crisis on the scale of the 2008-2009 financial crisis by 2033. A further 19 percent say that there will be two or more such crises. Forty-nine percent foresee another global pandemic with the scale and impact of COVID-19 breaking out by 2033, with an additional 16 percent anticipating two or more such pandemics.
These results might reflect recency bias, where recent experience of crises leaves us more concerned about others occurring. But they may also suggest more troubling trends, including a coming era of more frequent and intense public-health emergencies rather than once-in-a-century pandemics as well as a return to historical economic patterns after the relative calm of the post-World War II decades; between 1908 and 1946, five global recessions brought about greater declines in global per-capita gross domestic product than did the 2008-2009 crisis—amounting to more than one per decade.
8. The tug of war between democracy and autocracy will persist, with democracies potentially losing some ground
Our respondents as a whole do not foresee a clear triumph for either democrats or autocrats over the next ten years. More expect the number of democracies in the world to shrink (37 percent) than to grow (29 percent). But almost all forecast any change to be modest: Just 4 percent foresee many more or many fewer democracies by 2033. Thirty-five percent believe the world will have roughly the same number of democracies as it does today. (It’s worth noting that we asked about the future number of democracies, not the projected strength or type of these democracies.)
When asked open-ended questions about which countries are most likely to move from democracy to autocracy or the reverse by 2033, respondents most frequently chose “none.” Notably, 46 percent foresaw no shifts from autocracy toward democracy and just 31 percent predicted no countries going in the other direction, which is consistent with respondents’ general view that overall change will be modest but trending away from democracy.
Democracy and autocracy, moreover, are not necessarily distinct categories. For example, several countries—including Hungary, Turkey, and Russia—are cited both as autocracies likely to become democracies or democracies likely to become autocracies, suggesting that some respondents have differing views on how to categorize these countries.
Also notable: A small but significant minority of 9 percent of all respondents—and 10 percent of US respondents—selected the United States as the democratic country most likely to grow autocratic by 2033. Some respondents’ views on the future of US and global democracy appear to be linked, suggesting that they see the United States as the most important democratic country and guardian of global democracy. Among those who foresee either no change or a decline in the number of democracies worldwide, 12 percent expect the United States to become autocratic—their top choice. For those who expect the number of democracies to expand, none predict an autocratic United States.
9. Democracies will face a difficult decade of systemic dangers
Democracies are entering a dangerous decade in which they will need to contend with nationalist and populist forces and all the challenges associated with rapidly evolving technology. When asked which social movements they expected to have the most political influence worldwide over the next ten years, only 5 percent of respondents chose pro-democracy ones—whereas a majority picked either nationalist or populist movements. A third of respondents went with movements advocating for other causes often associated with democratic societies: the environment, youth issues, and women’s rights.
Admittedly, nationalists and populists are not invariably more supportive of autocratic political systems than democratic ones. Nor are, say, youth movements invariably opposed to autocracy. But our survey responses pointed to a connection between gathering nationalist and populist strength and greater popular pressure toward autocracy. Among those who foresee fewer democracies in the next decade, 68 percent predict increasing political influence for populist or nationalist movements and just 2 percent growing clout for pro-democracy ones. Of those forecasting more democracies, the equivalent figures are 38 percent and 10 percent.
Trends in mass communication and new technologies also present potential perils for democracies. Against the backdrop of a tech sector undergoing great transformation—from new regulatory efforts to the corporate upheaval at social-media companies to the ways in which these platforms have been caught up in broader political polarization—over half of respondents (53 percent) predict that social media will prove a net negative for democracies by 2033. Only 15 percent think it will be a net positive—a remarkable shift away from the dream, so prevalent during the early Arab Spring era, of social media as a democratizing force. Eighteen percent say that social media will have so evolved over the next ten years as to make the question impossible to answer.
For those who forecast a reduction in the number of democracies around the world, a large share (69 percent) expect social media to be a net negative for democracies.
Another compelling finding involved optimism about the speed with which some disruptive technologies—specifically commercial quantum computing, level 5 autonomous vehicles (where the vehicle performs all tasks under all driving conditions without the need of human input), and artificial general intelligence (where computers and machines exhibit human-like intelligence and creativity)—will be developed. In all three cases, majorities of respondents (between 57 percent and 68 percent) agree that these technologies will exist and/or be commercially viable by 2033. Although all three technologies promise enormous benefits for humankind, they also will raise challenges related to the future of work and income, public health and safety, national security, and democratic governance, among other domains. Democracies will need to ground the development and implementation of such technologies within democratic norms and values through appropriate regulation and standards and via international cooperation.
Through their answers across several questions, respondents raised the prospect of two contrasting scenarios for the coming decade. One of a world with democracy in decline, corroded by nationalism, populism, and social media, with a more autocratic United States deepening the trend. And another—predicted by a minority—of a world where democracy is ascendant, bolstered by a democratic United States, as well as social movements and mass-communication platforms consistent with democratic values.
10. International security organizations are likely to remain largely unchanged even as the world confronts unprecedented change and challenges
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed the capabilities and limits of institutions designed to enhance international security. While our respondents predict a range of major challenges to human security over the next ten years—from conflict over Taiwan to the fragility of the Russian state to more pandemics and economic crises—they expect the world’s existing security architecture to stay mostly the same.
Eighty-two percent of respondents, for example, believe that over the next decade NATO will remain an alliance of North American and European countries based on a mutual security guarantee. Among respondents who are citizens of NATO member states, 85 percent think that the Alliance’s current form will be maintained; among those from other countries, 71 percent say the same.
Responses on the possible expansion of the United Nations Security Council convey a similar message. Sixty-four percent of all respondents expect no new permanent seats to be added to the UN’s most powerful body by 2033. The difference between respondents who are citizens of countries with permanent seats and those who are citizens of countries without permanent seats isn’t pronounced (66 percent and 61 percent, respectively).
Beyond institutional inertia and the self-interest of the Council’s current permanent members, a major challenge in expanding the Security Council is the complexity of doing so. As one respondent told us, “If additional seats are added, it will be more than one because the rest of the world will not come [together] around a single candidate.” As a group, those surveyed seem to agree: Respondents who predict Security Council expansion identify an average of 1.7 new members. The strong presumption is that, if the number of permanent seats grows, India will be one of the beneficiaries. Over half of those forecasting that Japan, Brazil, Nigeria, or South Africa will gain a seat also say that India will get one. For those who chose Germany this figure is less than half but still 45 percent. If India’s time could soon come, however, Africa’s looks distant: Only 6 percent of respondents mention Nigeria or South Africa as likely new permanent Security Council members within the next ten years.
A question not directly posed to our respondents is whether this forecasted lack of change in NATO and the UN Security Council is indicative of strength (that these organizations will be effective tools amid the coming decade’s challenges) or weakness (that they are unable to adjust even amid manifest need). Some respondents offered comments pointing to the latter possibility. One worries that, without change, the Security Council will lose relevance as an increasing number of decisions about international security are made elsewhere. Meanwhile, 4 percent of respondents noted, unprompted, that they expect NATO will need to take on a wider global remit, including Asian security, over the course of the next decade. These are more whispers in the margins than the expression of a common opinion, but they do raise questions about whether stasis in these institutions should be interpreted as a sign of institutional health.
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