(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
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Think of it as a simple formula: if you’ve been hired (and paid handsomely) to protect what is, you’re going to be congenitally ill-equipped to imagine what might be. And yet the urge not just to know the contours of the future, but to plant the Stars and Stripes in that future has had the US Intelligence Community (IC) in its grip since the mid-1990s. That was the moment when it first occurred to some in Washington that US power might be capable of controlling just about everything worth the bother globally for, if not an eternity, then long enough to make the future American property.
Ever since, every few years the National Intelligence Council (NIC), the IC’s “center for long-term strategic analysis,” has been intent on producing a document it calls serially Global Trends [fill in the future year]. The latest edition, out just in time for Barack Obama’s second term, is Global Trends 2030. Here’s one utterly predictable thing about it: it’s bigger and more elaborate than Global Trends 2025. And here’s a prediction that, hard as it is to get anything right about the future, has a 99.9 percent chance of being accurate: when Global Trends 2035 comes out, it’ll be bigger and more elaborate yet. It’ll cost more and still, like its predecessor, offer a hem for every haw, a hedge for every faintly bold possibility, a trap-door escape from any prediction that might not stick.
None of this should be surprising. In recent years, with a $75 billion collective budget, the IC, that historically unprecedented labyrinth of seventeen intelligence agencies and outfits, has been one of Washington’s major growth industries. In return for almost unfettered funding and a more-than-decade-long expansion of its powers, it’s promised one thing to the American people: safety, especially from “terrorism.” As part of a national security complex that has benefitted enormously from a post-9/11 lockdown of the country and the creation of a permanent war state, it also suffers from the classic bureaucratic disease of bloat.
So no one should be shocked to discover that its forays into an anxiety-producing future, which started relatively modestly in 1997, have turned into ever more massive operations. In this fifth iteration of the series, the authors have given birth to a book-length paean to the future and its dangers.
For this, they convened groups of “experts” in too many American universities to count, consulted too many individual academics to name despite pages of acknowledgements and held “meetings on the initial draft in close to 20 countries.” In other words, a monumental effort was made to mount the future and reassure Washington that, while a “relative economic decline vis-à-vis the rising states is inevitable,” the coming decades might still prove an American plaything (even if shared, to some extent, with China and those rising powers).