A Letter from the Conveners

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Sharp changes are afoot throughout the globe. Demographics are shifting, technology is advancing at unprecedented rates, and these changes are being felt everywhere.

How should we develop strategies to deal with this emerging new world? We can begin by understanding it.

First, there is the changing composition of the world population, which will have a profound impact on societies. Developed countries are experiencing falling fertility rates and increasing life expectancy. As working-age populations shrink and pensions and care costs for the elderly rise, it becomes harder for governments to afford other productive investments.

At the same time, high fertility rates in Africa and South Asia are causing both working-age and total populations to grow, but that growth outpaces economic performance. And alongside a changing climate, these parts of the world already face growing impacts from natural disasters, human and agricultural diseases, and other resource constraints.

Taken together, we are seeing a global movement of peoples matching the transformative movement of goods and of capital in recent decades—and encouraging a populist turn in world politics.

Second is automation and artificial intelligence. In the last century, machines performed as instructed, and that “third industrial revolution” completely changed patterns of work, notably in manufacturing. But machines can now be designed to learn from experience, by trial and error. Technology will improve productivity, but workplace disruption will accelerate—and will be felt not only by call center responders and truck drivers but also by accountants, by radiologists and lawyers, even by computer programmers.

All history displays this process of change. What is different today is the speed of change. In the early 20th century, American farm workers fell from half of the population to less than five percent alongside the mechanization of agriculture. Our K-12 education system helped to navigate this disruption by making sure the next generation could grow up capable of leaving the farm and becoming productive urban workers. With the speed of artificial intelligence, it’s not just the children of displaced workers but the workers themselves who will need a fresh start.

Underlying the urgency of this task is the reality that there are now 7.6 million unfilled jobs in America. Filling them and transitioning workers displaced by advancing technology to new jobs will test both education (particularly K-12, where the United States continues to fall behind) and the flexibility of workers to pursue new occupations. Clearly, community colleges and similarly nimble institutions can help.

The third trend is fundamental change in the technological means of production, which allows goods to be produced near where they will be used and may unsettle the international order. More sophisticated use of robotics alongside human colleagues, plus additive manufacturing and unexpected changes in the distribution of energy supplies, have implications for our security and our economy as well as those of many other trade-oriented nations, which may face a new and unexpected form of deglobalization.

This ability to produce customized goods cheaply and in smaller quantities may, for example, lead to a gradual loss of cost-of-labor advantages. Today, 68 percent of Bangladeshi women work in sewing, and 4.5 million Vietnamese work in clothing production. Localized advanced manufacturing could block this traditional route to industrialization and economic development. Robots have been around for years, but robotics on a grand scale is just getting started: China today is the world’s biggest buyer of robots but has only 68 per 10,000 workers; South Korea has 631.

These advances also diffuse military power. Ubiquitous sensors, inexpensive and autonomous drones, nanoexplosives, and cheaper access to space through microsatellites all empower smaller states and even individuals, closing the gap between incumbent powers like the United States and prospective challengers and giving potentially disruptive capabilities to non-state and terrorist actors. The proliferation of low-cost, high-performance weaponry enabled by advances in navigation and additive manufacturing diminishes the once-paramount powers of conventional military assets like aircraft carriers and fighter jets. This is a new global challenge, and it threatens to undermine U.S. global military dominance unless we can harness the new technologies to serve our own purposes. At the same time, the proliferation of nuclear weapons poses a serious global threat.

Finally, the information and communications revolution is making governance more difficult everywhere. An analogue is the introduction of the printing press: as the price of that technology declined by 99 percent, the volume grew exponentially. But that process took ten times longer in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries than we see today. Information is everywhere—some of it accurate, some inaccurate, such that entire categories of news or intelligence appear less trustworthy. The “population” of Facebook now exceeds the population of the largest nation-state. We have access to ceaseless and instantaneous communication with everybody, anybody, at any time. These tools can be used to enlighten, but they can also be used to distort, intimidate, divide, and oppress.

On the one hand, autocrats increasingly are empowered by this electronic revolution, enabled to manipulate technologies to solidify their rule in ways far beyond their fondest dreams in times past. On the other hand, individuals can now reach others with similar concerns around the world. People can easily discover what is going on, organize around it, and take collective action.

At present, many countries seek to govern over diversity by attempting to suppress it, which exacerbates the problem by reducing trust in institutions. Elsewhere we see governments unable to lead, trapped in short-term reactions to the vocal interests that most effectively capture democratic infrastructures. Both approaches are untenable. The problem of governing over diversity has taken on new dimensions.

The good news is that the United States is remarkably well-positioned to ride this wave of change if we are careful and deliberate about it. As an immigrant nation, we have always had to govern over diversity. Meanwhile, other countries will face these common challenges in their own way, shaped by their own capabilities and vulnerabilities. Many of the world’s strongest nations today—our allies and others—will struggle more than we will. The greater our understanding of other countries’ situations, the stronger our foundation for constructive international engagement.

This is why we have embarked on this new project on Governance in an Emerging New World. Our friend Senator Sam Nunn has said that we need to strike a balance between optimism about what we can do with technology and realism about technology’s dark side. So we aim to understand these changes and inform strategies that both address the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities afforded by these transformations.

To do so, we are convening a series of meetings and calling for papers to examine how these technological, demographic, and societal changes are affecting the United States (our democracy, our economy, and our national security) and countries and regions around the world, including Russia, China, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

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Over the course of our project, we have looked at the new challenges and opportunities posed by emerging technologies, new means of communications, and shifting demographics. Past volumes took us on a tour around the world, considering what these new dynamics mean for countries in all parts of the globe, and they looked inward, asking what the emerging world will hold for the United States and what we can do about it. We close this series with perhaps the most daunting challenge, that of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons pose a unique, existential threat to humankind. They are one of, if not the only, man-made tool capable of ending life on earth. For over half a century, states and international governing bodies have carefully managed that threat. We have had real success in limiting the proliferation of weapons and material and restricting arms programs, but sustaining, much less expanding, those successes is becoming increasingly challenging due to 21st-century technologies and global instability.

At the same time, nuclear energy is becoming increasingly important as the world comes to terms with the very real problem of climate change. Nuclear weapons pose great dangers, but nuclear power can be a great boon for humanity.

In his contribution to this volume, former secretary of energy and CEO and co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the honorable Ernest J. Moniz, wrestles with “the inherent dual-use nature of the nuclear fuel cycle,” and argues that  elimination of nuclear weapons combined with a major global expansion of the civil nuclear fuel cycle will be particularly challenging.  Squaring this circle, what he calls “the fundamental test of the nuclear era—balancing non-proliferation with peaceful uses of nuclear energy,” will require new methods of detection, prevention, and rollback and new means of addressing subnational risks. Fortunately, Secretary Moniz sees promise in the new technologies and policies available to those working on this problem and suggests a new path for dealing with the North Korea challenge. If the United States chooses to step up quickly and lead non-proliferation efforts, we can better manage the risks of nuclear weapons, while realizing the potential of nuclear power.

The second paper in this volume looks at what may be the most dangerous nuclear hotspot in the world: the Indian subcontinent. Ashley J. Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former senior advisor to the U.S. ambassador to India, contrasts the Pakistani and Indian nuclear programs but writes that neither state is satisfied that they have sufficient weapons inventories to ensure their national interests. Both parties will, he expects, continue to increase their stockpiles, but the relationship does not have to spiral out of control. To ensure a more stable future, Tellis calls on the international community to counter Pakistan’s coercive behavior and help “break the linkage between political revisionism and nuclear weaponry in ways that will ultimately assist both Pakistan’s internal stability and the orderly evolution of India and Pakistan as responsible nuclear powers.”

In addition to these two excellent contributions, we are honored to be joined at a roundtable discussion of these papers by our friends and colleagues former senator Sam Nunn, co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative with Secretary Moniz and Annenberg distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Bill Perry, former secretary of defense and Hoover Institution senior fellow. Senator Nunn will discuss the unique nuclear dangers presented by emerging technologies and geopolitical uncertainty, and Secretary Perry will draw on his unparalleled experience to help us understand what the United States should do about North Korea’s nuclear program.

We thank our Stanford University colleague Elisabeth Paté-Cornell for moderating today’s session. Finally, let us thank all of you who have followed our project over the past year, all who have contributed their wisdom, and all of our colleagues at the Hoover Institution who have supported this work, particularly Rachel Moltz. We have answered a great many questions but raised a great many more, and we look forward to continuing this conversation.