U.S. Intelligence's New Year's Wish

By Tom Engelhardt
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In the end, though, the document, like the IC itself, is an overblown artifact of Washington's own limitations and fears. It's also mind-numbingly, bone-blisteringly dull and repetitive, featuring elaborate charts laying out what you've just read as if you were simply too thick to take it in paragraph by paragraph. It's exactly the sort of thing that no bureaucratic collective should be allowed to inflict on the great unknown, and that no one raised on H.G. Wells, Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Philip Dick, Ursula Le Guin, George Orwell, William Gibson, or for that matter, Suzanne Collins should ever have to endure.

And yet, the strangeness of this project, historically speaking, should get your attention. Stop for a moment and think about time and the state. States have traditionally had an urge to control the past (sometimes working hard to gain a monopoly on the writing of history). And -- no surprise here -- most states have the urge to control the present. But the future? The future is time's democracy. No government can secure it. No military can invade it. No intelligence agency can embed its operatives in it.

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This is why the Global Trends series that originally emerged from the increasingly self-confident world of the "sole superpower" holds a certain fascination. It represents a unique state foray into the future, a singular attempt to corral and possess it. Once upon a time, the distant future was the province of utopian or dystopian thinkers, pulp fiction writers, oddballs, visionaries, even cranks, but not government intelligence services. Peering into it was, at its best, a movingly strange individual adventure of the imagination, whether you were reading Edward Bellamy or Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin or H.G. Wells, George Orwell or Aldous Huxley.

That was, of course, before the Pentagon began planning for the weaponry of 2020, 2035, and 2050; before war turned nuclear and so, with the exception of two cities in 1945, could only be "fought" in think tanks via futuristic scenario writing. It was before the leaders of the sole superpower were so overcome by hubris that they began to suspect the future, like the present, might indeed be theirs.

And yet the future is, and remains, everyone's, always. Until it actually comes to pass, your guess is as good as the CIA's or the NIC's. Probably better. They may, in fact, be the worst possible candidates to write about the future. Even when they know the rap against them -- as laid out in Global Trends 2030, their inability to let go of "continuities" for "discontinuities and crises" -- it doesn't matter.

They simply can't bring themselves to think outside the box. They don't dare surprise themselves, no less give the future its surprising due, even though -- my own guess -- ours is likely to be a world increasingly filled with those discontinuities. The rise of China, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Arab Spring, the eruption of both the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, even the tiniest of unexpected trapdoors in history -- like Paula Broadwell taking down America's "greatest" general -- are conceptually beyond them. Surprise is their poison. They would prefer to palm a few cards and play from the bottom of the deck rather than acknowledge that the future just isn't theirs.

Apocalypse When?

The early years of the George W. Bush era proved a visionary, if quite mad, moment. That was when Washington blew a hole in the oil heartlands of the planet and may have launched the Arab Spring. More recently, policymaking has been firmly restored to an administration of managers and the American imperial imagination, such as it was, began to atrophy. Global Trends 2030 reflects that all-American reality, which is why it's less like entering the future than getting a guided tour of the airless corridors of Washington's collective mind as 2013 begins.

Of course, the future is an impossibly tricky thing to guide anyone through. Take China, for example. No one would claim its rise isn't a fact of world historical importance. Still, I think it would be fair to say that, from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth, an individual who accurately predicted the next bizarre and spectacular twist in China's path to the future would have been laughed out of any roomful of experts: the collapse of imperial China, the improbable rise of Mao Zedong's communist movement out of the chaos of invasion and civil war, or -- most improbable of all -- the creation by China's Communist Party, after a decade of startling radicalism and extremism, of an unprecedented capitalist powerhouse (slated, as Global Trends 2030 points out, to pass the U.S. as the globe's leading economy by 2030, if not earlier).

So why should anyone imagine that, when it comes to China, present trends can simply be extrapolated into the future? And yet so it goes for the folks of Global Trends 2030, who project a more daring than usual series of scenarios for that country, ranging from cooperation with the U.S. in hegemonic regional harmony to growing nationalism and "adventurism" abroad to (an extreme improbability, as they see it) an economic "collapse" scenario that shocks the global economy.

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Tom Engelhardt is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch and is republished with permission.


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