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The Intelligence Community's Supposed Big Thinkers Share Their Fantasy Vision of a Still Mighty USA in 2030

The new "Global Trends 2030" report reads as though the world will continue to be America's plaything for a few more decades -- what a bunch of dreamers.

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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 Broadwelltaking 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.

Still, let’s take one prominent fact of Chinese history, which the analysts of the National Intelligence Council ignore (although China’s leaders are deeply aware of it or they wouldn’t have moved to  suppress the Falun Gong sect or, more recently, a  Christian cult of the Mayan apocalypse).  Under stress, China has a unique  revolutionary tradition.  For at least a couple of thousand years, in bad times  huge peasant rebellions, often fed by syncretic religious cults, have swept out of the Chinese interior to threaten the country: the Yellow Turbans, the White Lotus, the Taipings of the mid-nineteenth century, and most recently Mao’s own movement, among others.

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