A Resurgence of Democracy in 2040?

04.12.21 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The world will be “increasingly out of balance and contested at every level” over the next twenty years due to the pressures of demographic, environmental, economic and technological change, a new forecast from the National Intelligence Council called Global Trends 2040 said last week.

But among the mostly grim possible futures that can be plausibly anticipated — international chaos, political paralysis, resource depletion, mounting poverty — one optimistic scenario stands out: “In 2040, the world is in the midst of a resurgence of open democracies led by the United States and its allies.”

How could such a global renaissance of democracy possibly come about?

The report posits that between now and 2040 technological innovation in open societies will lead to economic growth, which will enable solutions to domestic problems, build public confidence, reduce vulnerabilities and establish an attractive model for emulation by others. Transparency is both a precondition and a consequence of this process.

“Open, democratic systems proved better able to foster scientific research and technological innovation, catalyzing an economic boom. Strong economic growth, in turn, enabled democracies to meet many domestic needs, address global challenges, and counter rivals,” the report assessed in this potential scenario.

“With greater resources and improving services, these democracies launched initiatives to crack down on corruption, increase transparency, and improve accountability worldwide, boosting public trust. These efforts helped to reverse years of social fragmentation and to restore a sense of civic nationalism.”

“The combination of rapid innovation, a stronger economy, and greater societal cohesion enabled steady progress on climate and other challenges. Democratic societies became more resilient to disinformation because of greater public awareness and education initiatives and new technologies that quickly identify and debunk erroneous information. This environment restored a culture of vigorous but civil debate over values, goals, and policies.”

“Strong differences in public preferences and beliefs remained but these were worked out democratically.”

In this hopeful future, openness provided practical advantages that left closed authoritarian societies lagging behind.

“In contrast to the culture of collaboration prevailing in open societies, Russia and China failed to cultivate the high-tech talent, investment, and environment necessary to sustain continuous innovation.”

“By the mid-2030s, the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia were the established global leaders in several technologies, including AI, robotics, the Internet of Things, biotech, energy storage, and additive manufacturing.”

The success of open societies in problem solving, along with their economic and social improvements, inspired other countries to adopt the democratic model.

“Technological success fostered a widely perceived view among emerging and developing countries that democracies were more adaptable and resilient and better able to cope with growing global challenges.”

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Many assumptions are built into this vision, and not all of them are defended or even made explicit. But taken at face value, the Global 2040 scenario in which democracy flourishes implies certain near-term policy choices that are at odds with current U.S. practice. Such discrepancies could actually make the report useful instead of merely interesting because they highlight areas for change.

For example, the resurgence scenario imagines that “leading scientists and entrepreneurs” from China and Russia will have “sought asylum in the United States and Europe” to escape repression in their home countries.

But US immigration policy today is not exactly consistent with this notion.

“The United States is still one of the top destinations for AI [artificial intelligence] students and professionals, but it may not stay that way for long,” wrote Doug Rand and Lindsay Milliken of the Federation of American Scientists in a new paper.

“The United States’ often rigid and confusing immigration policies make it difficult for AI professionals and students to stay in the country after they complete their education or try to change jobs. If this continues, countries like China, which is providing direct financial incentives to attract global AI talent, could gain an economic and national security edge over the United States.”

See Winning the Global Race for Artificial Intelligence Expertise: How the Executive Branch Can Streamline U.S. Immigration Options for AI TalentNYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy, April 9, 2021.

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It would be highly convenient if the relative freedom that characterizes more open societies guaranteed the technological superiority of those societies, and if the tyrannical practices of more closed societies meant that they were also bound to be technologically primitive. Yet we know that is not always the case.

A recent report on Russian robotics (including autonomous weapons and UAVs) describes a wide range of innovative applications of robotics technology which are not at all limited by that country’s often cruel suppression of dissent.

“The interest in robotic systems and the creation of new models by scientific research institutes continues to expand in Russia’s military [and] will require the continued attention of the West.”

See Russian Robotics: A Look at Definitions, Principles, Uses, and Other Trends by Timothy Thomas, MITRE Corp, February 2021.

The robotics report itself is a fine example of the sort of unclassified open-source intelligence analysis that could be, but is not, routinely published to inform and enrich public deliberation.

The U.S. Intelligence Community, as currently configured, does not view the American public as a consumer for intelligence and so (with few exceptions) it is unwilling or unable to provide such open-source intelligence materials. The robotics study was produced for the U.S. Army, which approved it for public release.