Does a rebirth of democracy lie ahead?

One vision from a U.S. government think tank imagines how innovation and scientific progress could pave the way.

Tyrone Siu/REUTERS
A pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong April 4 prays for those killed during the military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Memos penned by bureaucrats can sometimes alter history.

In 1946, George Kennan sent a telegram from Moscow back to his bosses at the U.S. State Department. The now-famous “long telegram” warned that the Soviet Union, an ally in defeating Nazi Germany, would be looking to expand its influence and its communist system. The 8,000-word missive resulted in a decadeslong U.S. policy of wielding its economic and military might to contain the Soviets. The so-called Cold War had begun.

Government analysts, no matter how well informed, never possess crystal-clear views of the future. Inevitably, unknowns lurk in the shadows. The data always has holes. 

But the process can help leaders make better decisions, and suggest a better future and how the world might get there.

Every four years since 1979, analysts at the National Intelligence Council (NIC) have peered ahead and delivered their nonpartisan findings to the president and other U.S. leaders. In one sense, their Global Trends 2040, issued earlier in April, can be seen as yet another litany of familiar and disturbing challenges confronting the United States and the world. 

The document explores five potential scenarios for the next two decades. Four aren’t very encouraging. Climate change ravages the world and disrupts economic progress, contributing to a slowing or even a reversal of progress against disease and poverty. 

The lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic provide an additional burden, marking “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II, with health, economic, political and security implications that will ripple for years to come,” the report concludes.

In one scenario, the U.S. and China compete for world dominance, rather than cooperate to solve problems. In another, no country or group is strong enough to lead, and a chaotic world ensues.

But one vision is brighter. In a scenario called “Renaissance of Democracies,” NIC analysts foresee that a resurgence of democracies around the world may be led by the U.S. and its like-minded allies. “Open, democratic systems proved better able to foster scientific research and technological innovation, catalyzing an economic boom,” the scenario envisions, “improving the quality of life for millions around the globe.” 

A crackdown on corruption and increasing transparency helps “restore a sense of civic nationalism.” The result: Public discourse improves, creating a “culture of vigorous but civil debate over values, goals, and policies.”

And what of China? It’s playing a hot hand right now as a rapidly growing economic superpower. It promotes a vision that says democracy isn’t needed to provide a better life of material comfort for citizens. In many ways it’s backing up its claim, so long as a better life doesn’t acknowledge the rights of minorities nor the power of free thought and expression, which can be brutally suppressed. 

In this scenario, China’s system falters because it stifles innovation. Its crackdowns on Hong Kong and elsewhere lead to ever-tighter limits on free expression. It struggles with an aging population and an “inefficient state-directed economic model” that blocks “the country’s transition to a consumer economy.” 

China’s failure to allow freedom of thought and innovation works against its own success.

How can the next decades actually become a renaissance for the world’s democracies? That must be the work of these democratic systems, to prove their value and efficacy. 

What the analysts offer is a brighter vision of a future that could be achieved. That provides a starting point.

As the proverb warns, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

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