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Today is day 12 of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Horrific attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure have already been carried out by the invading Russian military forces and participating mercenaries. Ukrainians continue to fight fiercely and bravely for their land, democracy, people, and future.
The outcome in Ukraine remains uncertain, even as the Russian Government had expected a rapid victory. Nevertheless, it is not premature to assert that the invasion, which has violated post-World War II norms and represented an assault on a liberal framework that had fueled global prosperity, has put the world on a new historical trajectory, even as the details remain to be determined.
It is now likely that the notion of a global order in which trade flows and movement of peoples were free and open is no longer within reach. The post-World War II order has ended for all intents and purposes. A new order in which energy, natural resources, and trade flows are increasingly constrained by geopolitical interests is perhaps in its infancy. This will lead to profound changes for individuals, supply chains, and economies.
While the future cannot be determined with clarity, a single scenario laid out in the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2040 report may have moved to the forefront of likely outcomes. That is Scenario 4: Separate Silos. Under that scenario, the world would be “fragmented into separate economic and security blocs of varying size and strength, centered on the United States, China, the European Union (EU), Russia, and a few regional powers, and focused on self-sufficiency, resiliency, and defense.” Global problems such as climate change would not be addressed in an effective fashion. Underdeveloped countries, particularly countries that fall outside the major blocs, would become unstable. A few could wind up becoming failed states.
The report lays out six key takeaways:
1. Separating economies has dire consequences, including massive financial losses for countries and corporations, as supply chains fracture, markets are lost, and once lucrative sectors, like travel and tourism, decline. The resulting economies are less vulnerable to future supply chain disruptions but also less efficient.
2. Larger countries with abundant resources, few nearby enemies, and defensible borders, such as the United States and Canada, are better able to adapt than most others. The focus on self-sufficiency makes some states more resilient even as others founder.
3. To maintain domestic stability in this world, states adopt mixed political models combining elements of democracy and authoritarianism, increasing surveillance and potentially repression. Many states turn to exclusionary forms of nationalism to unify majority populations against perceived foreign enemies.
4. Unable to attract talent globally or sustain international collaboration, technological innovation atrophies. Wealthy countries begin to compensate by shifting resources to domestic education.
5. International organizations and collective actin to tackle climate change, healthcare disparities, and poverty falter. Countries independently adapt to the catastrophic impacts, significantly increasing the incentive for risky solutions.
6. Focused on internal security, the world’s larger militaries avoid direct armed conflict. Rival blocs compete for control over scarce resources, leading to smaller wars or other means of diverting attention from domestic problems and rallying public support against foreign enemies. Nuclear weapons proliferate.
At the time of this writing, it appears that a loosely-organized China-Iran-Russia block may be in its nascent stages of formation. India, while refraining from overt criticism of Russia, has real differences with China that likely precludes its early membership in such a bloc. The assumption that major powers would avoid direct armed conflict, including the emergency of calculations that allow for the use of tactical nuclear weapons, is also uncertain. A complicating factor will be the role of Artificial Intelligence and other cyber capabilities in decision making and implementation of decision making.
How the war ends will play a large role in shaping what comes afterward. Were Russia to withdraw completely from all of Ukraine and see a near-term change toward more liberal leadership, could result in a sort of best-case trajectory and allows for at least a partial resumption of a path toward greater global integration and collaboration. Realization of that path would require international reconstruction of Ukraine and some measure of generosity toward the Russian people should a new more liberal government emerge. A formula built along the Versailles arrangement following World War II would lead to potential future disaster. An outcome in which Ukraine is severely decimated, with or without continuing Russian occupation, could lead to a path that would be more severely fragmented than the one described above.
There are no crystal balls. What happens in the future will depend on what happens in the conflict, along with the choices the world’s leaders make afterward.