The Intelligence Community and Obama's Future

01/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thanksgiving, not surprisingly, followed tradition: family arguments, jogging, food, family reconciliations. Very little about Pilgrims. The kids already know about Squanto and have mixed feelings at best regarding white settlers. The process of American disenchantment with certain classic stories began when I was their age, in the late 60s and early 70s, and I suppose it must be complete by now except that - can it ever be? Does the story have an ending? I would guess not, because there really were Pilgrims, and there was a Squanto. That's where it all began and, from that time forward, there is much to be thankful for.

It's a bit perverse to think of Thanksgiving as a foreign-policy holiday -- it does celebrate a diplomatic event! -- but if you're reading this you probably suffer from my debility and so I needn't apologize. The new element this year, for someone with an almost tragic preoccupation with foreign policy, was the National Intelligence Council's "Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World," known to N.I.C. (pro. *nick*) enthusiasts as the 2025 Report.

The report is unsettling, in that the world it anticipates is so unsettled. One should perhaps not be surprised to see recognized trends coming to greater fruition: the rise of "emerging economies"/BRICs/Second World; relative decline of U.S. ("post-America"); stagnation, demographic and otherwise, of Europe and Japan; senility of many existing international institutions; and intensified resource wars as a result of climate change and of economic growth based on old-tech platforms. And yet... the report really is unsettling. This may in part be the result of its distinctive intel language, so definite, yet so hedged. "Despite the recent financial volatility -- which could end up accelerating many ongoing trends -- we do not believe that we are headed toward a complete breakdown of the international system, as occurred in 1914-1918 when an earlier phase of globalization came to a halt." Well that's a relief! No complete breakdown! And then there's the disconcerting use of boldface type to aid skimmers: "This is a story with *no clear outcome*, as illustrated by a series of vignettes we use to map out divergent futures."

The 2025 Report is written for President Obama. In some ways it is the intelligence world's version of the (ongoing) Centcom review of Mideast/Central Asia policy commissioned by Gen. David Petraeus and under the direction of Col. H.R. McMaster: the report caps a consultative process (a very wide one, in the 2025 case), combining straight talk, think tankery, hard intelligence and pre-emptive bureaucratic spin. The 2025 effort succeeds the 2020 report, which came out at the end of 2004. Both were prepared under the direction of Mathew Burrows; the 2025 Report also bears the strong imprint of Thomas Fingar, the chairman (since May 2005) of the N.I.C.

Despite many continuities, the disjuncture between the two reports is profound. The greatest departure is the latter report's total acceptance of a multipolar world that is very, very difficult to predict and (relatedly) has no narrative or story-line. Since the Second World War, or maybe the Wilson administration, and definitely through this Bush administration (and the 2020 report), there has always been a story line to make some sense of geopolitical chaos. In the 2025 Report, there is no grounding narrative. It tells "a story with *no clear outcome*." This could be seen as exhilarating, or nauseating; perhaps both. What I do know is that by the time I finished the 2025 Report I could barely remember the Bush administration, so long ago did it seem -- that misty era of democracy promotion! -- and so much simpler.

Rather than a coherent narrative for the Obama years, the 2025 Report offers four somewhat competitive fictions: "A World Without the West" (a sarcastic letter from a Russian crowing about the strength of an antidemocratic, Russia-China alliance that begins in reaction to Western protectionism); "October Surprise" (a U.S. president's diary musings on the flooding of Manhattan during the UN General Assembly, as a result of failure to address climate change); "BRICs' Bust-Up" (a letter from a Brazilian foreign minister describing how resource-anxious India and China came to blows, bringing in the U.S.), and "Politics Is not Always Local" (a disarmingly utopian column in the FT describing how NGOs nurtured a global middle class/civil society that took the globe cheerfully and winningly post-Westphalia).

Why these tales? I'm tempted to dilate on poetics. I had a formative experience in the early 1980s, at the Lawrence Labs in Livermore, California, hearing Herman Kahn, a far-famed apocalypse imaginer from the Hudson Institute, talk about kill ratios as he gamed various nuclear scenarios. In those days - perhaps still - the labs had a visitor center that included an animal (a rabbit? squirrel?) that had been something like the living thing farthest from some blast to nonetheless be killed. Something like that. I felt a real identification with that maybe-rabbit, and a confused non-identification with Herman Kahn and his bluffly presented concentric circles of blast zones.

What these 2025 Report "fictions" are, precisely -- what they are meant to evoke in readers, what their imagined audience is -- I don't feel I really know.

They strike me as mainly a reaction to the apparent durability of the New Powers, the emerging economies, whose cultures, and motives, remain somewhat opaque to the West. These powers are regularly underestimated and overestimated. To the extent that they have a shared culture or story it is an anticolonial one. China aspires to lead them, as India did under Nehru, and might again. And China might have just as much or little success as India did.

But the emerging economies do have a story -- unlike us, to judge from the 2025 Report. One big question for the Obama years is whether our Western story can keep its coherence-- whether the affective decoupling of Europe and America under Bush was or was not a result of deep trends. But it is also important to consider that the Obama story itself was fundamentally a negative one. It was a repudiation: of Bush, of swagger, of military solutions. It was also a repudiation of the belief that a black man could not be elected president by a majority of Americans. That, during the campaign, looked and felt and was promoted like a positive agenda: a black man CAN be president! Yet it was fundamentally a negative story in that it did not emphasize (very much) that a black man, as such, would bring something special to his presidency by virtue of his race and the distinctively racial experiences attached to it. That was an element of the story, for sure - certainly for someone like me - but it was not the essence, which had much more to do with demonstrating that a black man could be elected president despite being black. This was meant to show that race was not an issue, that the country had overcome racial thinking and that its capacity to elect Obama was a definitive indicator of this. In short, the race story would be over - is over -- like the Bush story and the military story.

It is truly remarkable that this unprecedented presidency - and this utterly unique president-elect -- are actually seen as offering a return to "normalcy" and a righting of the ship. This aspect of the Obama presidency will pretty much have to disappoint, since the times themselves are so abnormal as to prevent any "normalization." This is what the N.I.C. 2025 Report's lack of story line indicates: for worse or better, we'll be making history up as we go.

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Speaking of stories, I've been reading page proofs of Godfrey Hodgson's "The Myth of American Exceptionalism" (Yale U.P.). I'm hoping it will already be dated by the time it appears; I just don't see an Obama administration indulging in "mere bullying and boasting," as Hodgson sees the Bush administration having done. It is a good historical essay, deploying much evidence to undermine the idea that the U.S. is so exceptional. However, I think the key point is one Hodgson only half concedes: that exceptionalism "is not so much a disinterested view of the American past as a dimension of American patriotism." His book makes a good companion to Ted Widmer's excellent "Ark of the Liberties: America and the World," from earlier this year, which in some ways makes the opposite case, though with great subtlety. Widmer wrote speeches for Bill Clinton; he is also a rock musician, historian and distinguished librarian. He writes: "An immense gulf yawns between the way that citizens of the United States perceive the story of America, as the culmination of all prior events, and the way that most foreigners do, as a world that is still deeply new, and more than a little unsettling." "Still deeply new" - what an interesting phrase!