The National Intelligence Council last week published the latest in its "Global Trends" report series. This publication has been released roughly every four years since 1997 and describes how the NIC sees the world evolving over approximately the next two decades. This strenuous multi-year effort involves not only an impressive team of NIC analysts but also includes interviews with more than 2,500 individuals from 35 countries around the world.
The report is considered to be the U.S. government’s most comprehensive unclassified geopolitical projection. It is indeed a valuable part of the strategic conversation. But a close look at the paper raises several broad concerns.
First, it does not present anything new on a specifically global level. At its core stands the “Paradox of Progress” (also the report’s title). It reads: “The achievements of the industrial and information ages are shaping a world to come that is both more dangerous and richer with opportunity than ever before.”
While true, the statement is fairly trivial. That we are living in an age of risk paradoxically generated by human progress is an idea generated 25 years ago by sociologists like Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck.
The report highlights the transnational, national and communal facets of this paradox. There is tension between simultaneous desires for globalization and localization. The state’s power is eroding, being challenged by forces “from above” (globalization) and “from below” (communities, tribes). Our current human condition is a result of unprecedented unification as well as unprecedented disintegration. All of this is indeed true, but these arguments were presented 20 years ago in publications like Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld.
Furthermore, even the NIC’s own Global Trends 2015 (published in 2000) presents a world in which globalization creates a counter-movement of radicalization and fundamentalism – and in which the preservation of global peace requires various hard- and soft-power measures, to use terminology from former NIC chairman Joseph Nye.
A second problem with the NIC’s latest paper is its Western-centric approach. For example, Gregory Treverton, the current NIC chairman, writes: “It is tempting, and usually fair, to assume people act ‘rationally,’ but leaders, groups, mobs, and masses can behave very differently—and unexpectedly—under similar circumstances.” These words reflect one of the West’s most problematic epistemic maladies: the tendency to identify “rationality” with a traditional Western way of thinking while ignoring that other geopolitical actors have their own definition of rationality.
In this respect, describing ISIL or Iran as irrational or insane mainly demonstrates the Western inability to deeply understand the “other’s” logic and thought process. This can easily lead to inaccurate perceptions and understandings of reality – and, as a result, unpleasant surprises when trying to develop and apply strategic policy. This dilemma underpins many of the struggles of Western intervention (political, military and economic) in non-Western countries.
Speaking of allegedly irrational players, the report practically ignores the red-haired elephant in the room: President-elect Trump. Being a professional and “unbiased” entity, the NIC here refrains from addressing a flamboyant issue such as the next president’s policy – and more importantly, what seems to be most people’s inability to predict what his policy might be. This omission echoes the problematic relationship between the intelligence community and Trump: The former insists on being “objective” while the latter is all about politics – including in his perception of the intelligence community itself.
Even more broadly, the report ignores a significant factor in shaping the future: U.S. policy. The U.S. is treated here as yet another actor among many – i.e., a subject of observation, rather than a key player whose actions affect the future in monumental ways.
By neglecting the U.S.’s role in shaping the world, the NIC tries to avoid a political landmine. Yet in doing so, it neglects that problematic albeit important question: What will the new president’s global policy be? This question is crucial, especially when trying to describe how even the next five years might unfold.
This begs the question, what is the report’s true purpose? Looking 20 years into the future is indeed an intriguing intellectual exercise. But the NIC is not an academic institute – it is an entity whose aim is to support strategic planning. The NIC cannot allow itself to ignore the U.S. as a global player.
Finally, and most importantly, the report cannot exclude concrete recommendations that derive from its analysis. Remaining an observer is a sure recipe for future irrelevance. The report needs to address a crucial question: What does this all mean for the U.S.? As the prominent international relations thinker Robert Jervis once wrote, “Intelligence is easier to keep pure when it is irrelevant.”
Despite the criticism above, the NIC’s Global Trends series is an important initiative and “timed to be especially relevant for the administration of a newly elected U.S. president.” The report encourages a deep and educated discussion regarding the future. One can only hope that the NIC will continue publishing this series, despite the recent controversies regarding the role of the intelligence community as a whole.
Shay Hershkovitz, Ph.D., is chief strategy officer at Wikistrat, Inc. and a political science professor at Tel Aviv University specializing in intelligence studies. He is also a former IDF intelligence officer whose book, "Aman Comes To Light," deals with the history of the Israeli intelligence community.
The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.