16.01.23 Review

A Decade of Darkness: how the war in Ukraine has altered our understanding of the future of humanity

167 global experts have painted a bleak picture of the course of humanity over the next ten years, in a survey conducted by the Atlantic Council: Russia’s impending collapse; the further proliferation of nuclear weapons; a global conflict triggered by a Chinese attack on Taiwan; the loss of global superpower status by the US; even greater global uncertainty and the ongoing confrontation between democracies and autocracies (in which the former may very well be weakened, but not completely brought to their knees); and pessimism regarding the role of social media in society, and the dangers that technological breakthroughs will bring. This picture can hardly be interpreted as a direct and definitive prediction of what lies ahead, but it does illustrate, clearly and simply, how ten months of the war in Ukraine have shaped our understanding of the various scenarios that may take place and what they could mean for humanity.

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia has not only radically altered existing political agendas and the balance of power in world politics, but it has also changed how we view the present state of affairs and the future of the world. The Atlantic Council conducted a survey of 167 global experts (it should be noted that 60% of respondents reside in the US), questioning them about the most important changes that have taken place since the start of the war.

Arguably, the most unexpected and surprising result was the prediction of Russia’s impending collapse. 40% of respondents predicted that Russia would disintegrate in the next ten years (due to revolution, civil war or some other event). Only 8% predicted the same fate for the United States, and 6% for China. Among the list of potential ‘failed states', Russia also took the lead with 21%; Afghanistan, Pakistan, Venezuela and the United States followed, receiving between 7% and 10% of the votes. Predictions regarding Russia’s impending collapse have become more and more commonplace after ten months of its prolonged and unsuccessful war with Ukraine. The Financial Times, in its review of China’s political strategies, claims that China believes that Russia will emerge from this war as a minor power, having lost its status as a superpower.

The war in Ukraine has dealt a powerful blow to nuclear nonproliferation, which was already in a state of crisis. Experts believe that in the next ten years the number of countries possessing nuclear weapons will rise, while international cooperation on nonproliferation issues will decline. Only 13% believe that no new countries will acquire nuclear weapons in the future. 68% believe that Iran will be the next nuclear power, 32% suggest that it will be Saudi Arabia, 19% mention South Korea, and 14% Japan. The reasoning behind these answers is based on an understanding of the extent to which the Russian-Ukrainian war has exacerbated the problem of regional rivalry. Of those who believe that Iran will have nuclear weapons by 2033, 41% believe that Saudi Arabia will also possess them. In the context of the Iran-Saudi proxy conflict (sometimes also called the ‘Middle East Cold War’), the acquisition of a nuclear weapon by one of its participants will almost inevitably entail a mirror response. Similarly, according to experts, Japan and South Korea's nuclear aspirations are linked to growing threats from China and North Korea. 

The majority of respondents (58%) are still of the view that no one will actually deploy nuclear weapons within the next ten years. Nevertheless, 31% of respondents — an alarmingly high number — expect that by 2033, nuclear weapons will be used for the first time since World War II. Of these, 14% believe that Russia may become the first country to use them, 10% point to North Korea, while 3% of respondents name Israel, Pakistan and the US.

Despite fears that the war in Ukraine will escalate into a direct conflict between Russia and NATO, 60% of the surveyed experts believe this to be an unlikely scenario. The past year has exposed Moscow’s military weakness, meaning it is, on the whole, greatly unprepared for such a conflict, and will thus try to avoid it. At the same time, most experts believe that further military escalation is likely, albeit in a different context: 70% are of the view that there is a high probability that China will attack Taiwan over the course of the next decade. This scenario has become a prominent topic of discussion among the top experts polled by Foreign Policy magazine. If this were to happen, the likelihood of a direct confrontation between NATO and China would be high, as the United States would be willing to directly intervene. As a result, the greatest risk of a new global war lies in Asia, not Europe. It should be noted, however, that from the perspective and logic of economics, the picture seems somewhat more optimistic. 40% of those surveyed believe that the US and China’s mutual economic interdependence will decrease slightly by 2033, and only 18% think that it will decline significantly. At the same time, 40% predict that this interdependence will remain at current levels or even grow. This means that a decision made solely on the basis of political logic (an attempt by Beijing to annex Taiwan) will have serious economic consequences, lowering the risk of such an eventuality. 

As a result of the growing influence of other global players and its confrontation with China, the US may lose its status as world superpower, although it will most likely remain a powerful force in certain areas. Most experts (71%) believe that the US will retain its status as the world leader in military power, and a little over half of respondents (54%) believe that it will also be able to maintain its leadership in the field of technology and innovation. At the same time, most respondents believe that overall, the US is poised to lose its economic and diplomatic dominance in the next ten years. This signals a wake-up call for the entire free world, given the growing risk of global conflicts and the ongoing confrontation between democracies and autocracies.

The winner in this confrontation in the next ten years, according to experts, has not yet been determined. But democracies are more likely to lose some ground, and 37% of respondents believe that the number of democracies in the world will shrink, compared with 29% who believe the number will grow. At the same time, the overall balance of power will remain the same, with only 4% predicting that by 2033 the number of democratic countries will radically change. 35% believe that, in a decade, there will be a similar number of democracies as there are in the world today. A decline in levels of democracy, or autocratisation, is expected in the US, Turkey, Hungary and India by 8-9% of experts. 13% think that Iran will democratise, and 6-7% believe that it is likely that Russia, Turkey and Belarus will as well. In general, however, the majority of those polled are confident that democracy is facing a difficult decade ahead, marred by the growing popularity of nationalist and populist forces. When asked which social movements will have the most political influence around the world over the next ten years, only 5% named pro-democratic movements, while 28% pointed to nationalist and populist movements.

The role of social media in our society has also undergone a radical transformation. Over the last decade, inspired by the events of the Arab Spring, social media has been viewed as the driving force behind democratisation. Now, however, 53% of experts say that its impact on democratic countries is negative, with only 15% believing social media can play a positive role in promoting democracy. The change can be explained by the weaponisation of social media by autocratic and populist politicians to promote their own narratives and polarise societies. Technological development suffers from the same issues. While most experts believe that technological breakthroughs will continue to take place, they also feel that there will be concurrent problems and democracies will need to work together in order to introduce regulation that will ultimately mitigate any threats to the world order.Ultimately, technological development now also plays a part in the rivalry between democratic and anti-democratic forces. One way or another, these processes will take place at the same time as global volatility rises. 76% of experts predict another global economic crisis, similar in scale to 2008, by 2033. Another 19% believe that there will be two or more such crises. 49% expect that another global pandemic of the same magnitude and impact as COVID-19 is likely to hit by 2033, while another 16% expect two or more.

It is important to not take these predictions too directly or literally, as often, they fail to materialise. The emergence of new, unforeseen triggers (or game changers) may seriously alter scenarios which may have seemed feasible and fundamental not that long ago. Rather, these predictions serve as mirrors, helping us to understand the world around us, including any forks in the road and potential problems we may face. In this regard, the Atlantic Council poll looks like a vivid representation of how ten months of the war in Ukraine have fundamentally altered how we perceive the world.