A major new report released by intelligence agencies in the United States has painted a picture of a chaotic and potentially disastrous few years ahead for the entire world.
Significant global disruption sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a year-long impact on not just health, but economies, societies and general security stability, is obviously front and centre.
But not far off in the background are equally alarming threats – great power competition among nations, the disruptive effects of ecological degradation and a changing climate, an increasing number of empowered non-state actors, and rapidly evolving technology.
The Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community report, declassified for release on Tuesday, highlights how a perfect storm of terrifying factors have combined to produce a “diverse array of threats”.
It outlines a complex series of risks facing the west, and explains how those threats will likely clash with other dangers, raising the “potential for cascading events” in the near future.
It makes for unsettling reading and a stark reminder that those hoping for an imminent return to normal life post-COVID will be severely disappointed.
Four main nations of concern
Considered the world’s modern-era global cop, keeper of the peace and defender of its allies, the US has long identified countries of concern in these reports.
This year’s assessment is no different, going into detail about four nations that pose a threat to the US, its interests and its allies – China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.
“Major adversaries and competitors are enhancing and exercising their military, cyber, and
other capabilities, raising the risks to US and allied forces, weakening our conventional deterrence, and worsening the longstanding threat from weapons of mass destruction,” the report states.
Rather than slowing down those efforts, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have given something of a cover – a convenient distraction to advance nefarious causes.
Individually, and in some cases in partnership, these four countries have “demonstrated the capability and intent to advance their interests at the expense of the US and its allies, despite the pandemic”, the report highlights.
But its Beijing’s multi-faceted scheme to drastically grow its global domination that features prominently in the report.
“China increasingly is a near-peer competitor, challenging the US in multiple arenas – especially economically, militarily, and technologically – and is pushing to change global norms,” the report states.
Its whole-of-government strategy to spread China’s influence throughout the world while simultaneously undercutting the might of the US will likely gather pace.
So too will its pointed attempts to “drive wedges between Washington and its allies and partners”.
At the same time, Beijing is increasingly showing off its military strength and political might in order to pressure its regional neighbours and other strategically important nations to bend to its will, the report states.
“In the South China Sea, Beijing will continue to intimidate rival claimants and will use growing numbers of air, naval, and maritime law enforcement platforms to signal to southeast Asian countries that China has effective control over contested areas.”
Similarly, China is pressuring Japan over contested parts of the East China Sea, the report stated.
“Beijing will press Taiwan authorities to move toward unification and will condemn what it views as increased US-Taiwan engagement.
“We expect that friction will grow as Beijing steps up attempts to portray Taipei as internationally isolated and dependent on the mainland for economic prosperity, and as China continues to increase military activity around the island.”
Generally, China will continue “pursuing its goals of becoming a great power, securing what it views as its territory, and establishing its pre-eminence in regional affairs by building a world-class military, potentially destabilising international norms and relationships”, the report states.
Meanwhile, Russia continues to push back against the US “where it can globally, employing techniques up to and including the use of force”.
“We assess that Moscow will employ an array of tools – especially influence campaigns, intelligence and counter-terrorism co-operation, military aid and combined exercises, mercenary operations, assassinations, and arms sales — to advance its interests or undermine the interests of the US and its allies.
“We expect Moscow to insert itself into crises when Russian interests are at stake, it can turn a power vacuum into an opportunity, or the anticipated costs of action are low.”
On Iran, the report describes the rogue nation remaining “a regional menace with broader malign influence activities”.
North Korea is labelled “a disruptive player on the regional and world stages” in the report.
How COVID is changing the world
It will be some time until the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are behind us and no longer felt, the report warns.
Governments and societies around the globe will continue to be strained, “fuelling humanitarian and economic crises, political unrest and geopolitical competition”.
“No country has been completely spared, and even when a vaccine is widely distributed globally, the economic and political aftershocks will be felt for years.
“Countries with high debts or that depend on oil exports, tourism, or remittances face particularly challenging recoveries, while others will turn inward or be distracted by other challenges.”
The report adds: “The economic and political implications of the pandemic will ripple through the world for years.”
Coronavirus has also provided an opportunity for nations like China and Russia to benefit, including via what’s been dubbed “vaccine diplomacy”.
This influence-building could have broad social, political and security implications for years to come.
Another consequence of COVID-19 is the potential for other diseases to flare up in vulnerable populations, the report states.
“COVID-19-related disruptions to essential health services – such as vaccinations, aid delivery, and maternal and child health programs – will increase the likelihood of additional health emergencies, especially among low-income countries.
“As examples, the pandemic has disrupted HIV/AIDS treatments and preventive measures in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as measles and polio vaccination campaigns in dozens of countries.”
Other major challenges facing the world
The threat assessment report delves into a range of other risks, from the changing climate to terrorism and organised crime.
On the environment, it outlines how ecological degradation and climate change will “continue to fuel disease outbreaks, threaten food and water security, and exacerbate political instability and humanitarian crises”.
Right now, much of the effects of a changing climate on America and its security are felt “indirectly in a broader political and economic context”, the report states.
But warmer weather will likely produce direct and immediate threats, it adds, via more intense storms and flooding, for example.
Elsewhere, surges in migration – which can threaten security and stability, place strain on vulnerable nations, spark illness and disease outbreaks, cause humanitarian disasters and more – will grow.
Central American populations particularly are likely to relocate rapidly, due to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with environmental disasters like drought, hurricanes and other extreme weather.
In addition, regional conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq continue to fuel humanitarian crises.
The report also details how organised crime gangs have adapted to the challenges to the drugs trade presented by COVID-19.
And it identifies Islamic State, al-Qaeda and Iranian militants as the biggest plotters of attacks against US people and interests, and to varying degrees, directly on the US.
“Despite leadership losses, terrorist groups have shown great resiliency and are taking advantage of ungoverned areas to rebuild.”