Every four years the U.S. intelligence community produces a “Global Trends” report — a predictive look at the next 20 years from a security perspective. Typically, these reports have not made for comfortable reading and the new one released last week is no exception. The New York Times summed up the future as seen by the CIA and other agencies as “pretty bleak.” But there is also a sense, implied more than stated, that we are at a historical turning point. The future is not going to be an extrapolation of the past and present; change is accelerating in pace and magnitude. In the wake of the current pandemic the report foresees “cascading global challenges ranging from disease to climate change … to societal fragmentation.” The threats are larger and more complex, but the capabilities offered by modern science and technologies suggest the possibility of a more livable future.
Paradoxes abound. Technological change can be both disruptive and uplifting. Confidence in institutions declines as the importance of those same institutions grows. China poses the greatest security challenge since the early days of the Cold War. But China is a critical partner in tackling issues such as climate change and China also provides the unifying threat that will galvanize a broad national (even bipartisan) response to a spectrum of challenges.
The Biden presidency presents its own paradox. The oldest president ever elected initially described his role as a sort of historical caretaker repairing the wreckage of the Trump years. But somewhere along the campaign trail that all changed, and Biden and his team began talking about a transformative presidency comparable to FDR’s New Deal. Biden is a veteran politician with a reputation for compromise and deal-making, including in foreign policy. But as president he has been assertive, even pugnacious, when laying out policy toward China and Russia. He has also been more than willing to characterize the present historical moment as pivotal for America and the planet. There is a certain buzz of anticipation in the air of Washington that is encouraged by the quality of the team Biden has assembled. Key players such as Buttigieg (Transportation), Raimondo (Commerce), Blinken (State), Sullivan (NSC) and Burns (CIA) are world-class talents by any measure. With this in mind, one veteran observer aptly commented that he sees the senior citizen president as “a genial, white-haired guy driving a Ferrari.”
The new team has its work cut out. The Global Trends forecast sees growing climate-related stress — droughts, floods, inundated coastlines and dramatic increases in refugee flows as crops fail and societies are unable to cope. New and more virulent pandemics are likely to be part of this witch’s brew. Wealthier and more capable countries will seek to insulate themselves by focusing inward and closing borders. But those same societies will lose their sense of shared citizenship as people retreat into cyber silos and adopt convictions about “reality” that may not be real at all.
Unless we are to succumb to despair, the obvious question is, what can be done to respond to the challenges at hand and in prospect. The initiatives emerging from the Biden White House suggest what a battle plan to win the future looks like. That plan blends domestic and foreign policy. It is designed to rebuild U.S. institutions and capabilities at home — and demonstrate that American democracy, not China’s totalitarian surveillance state, is the wave of the future.
The administration rolled out its proposed federal budget over the weekend. It is a blueprint of ambition and priorities. It is also a wish list because no one knows how much of this will ultimately survive the congressional meat grinder. A look at the budget suggests the following priorities: First and foremost, invest in American human capital. That means the Department of Education is easily the biggest winner in the competition for new funding. Within education, particular attention goes to community colleges. This is an interesting choice on several grounds, including politically. Community colleges do not serve the university-educated elites who are mainstays of Democratic Party support. They serve young people (and not so young) who may not have done very well in high school and may now be sidelined in low-paying, marginal jobs. The community college is geared toward giving such individuals the skills that will open doors to real careers. Those people, incidentally, are predominantly Trump voters. There are also international implications that call to mind comments by Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook. He noted that Apple has had no choice but to locate most of its manufacturing overseas because the huge number of machinists and other skilled trades required simply do not exist in the U.S.
A second priority is the urgent need to rebuild the federal workforce deliberately savaged by the Trump White House. Ronald Reagan was wrong when he said that “government is the problem.” No, the federal government and the institutions that work with it are, in fact, absolutely essential to coping with the future we see coming. A third priority is science, technology, research and development across the board. The only way that the climate challenge can be met is through multiple technological innovations from green energy to exotic breakthroughs involving changing the reflectivity of water through nanotechnologies and extracting carbon directly from the atmosphere. In the process, the critical infrastructure of the country will have to be reimagined and rebuilt.
It is noteworthy that the government department with the smallest proposed budget increase is the Pentagon. Yet, the challenge from China, so central to the administration’s planning, is increasingly a military one. It will be interesting to see what happens to military spending as Congress considers that harsh reality.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.