Forget Predicting: Focus on Shaping and Responding.
Start with the first proposition, the proposition that most human predictions are no more useful than those of dart-throwing chimps. We don't know if the gravest future threats will come from Russia, or China, or al Qaeda, or climate change, or some state or organization or phenomenon not yet on our radar screen: an "unknown unknown." This doesn't give us "nothing to prepare for." On the contrary, it tells us that we need to prepare to respond to anything -- we need to prepare for uncertainty, for challenges and opportunities that will mutate and surprise us.
We talk about the need for agility so much that it's becoming a cliché, but like most clichés, it got that way because it reflects truth. When you believe the future threat is the Russian Army rolling in massed tank formations across the plains of Eastern Europe, you focus on training and equipping your military to fight back against massed tank formations. You don't bother training for counterinsurgency or stability operations, and you don't worry too much about making every corporal a strategist. But when you believe the coming threat will surprise you, you prepare to respond to surprises.
That means you focus on creating creativity and resilience. You train your corporals to be strategic. You develop equipment that is versatile. You invest both in small cadres of specialists with the skills to combat the likely near-term threats, and in larger groups of "utility infielders." Finally, you seek to develop adaptive, dynamic institutional knowledge-building and decision-making structures and processes: if surprises come fast and furious, you don't want it to take six months to tee up the most minor decisions for the president.
This is what you do if you expect surprises, and it's distinctly different from what you do if you think you've got a good handle on the future.
The second proposition -- that our decisions and actions will shape the future -- also has consequences. (This is not to be mistaken for the proposition that we can control the future: as Karl Marx warned in 1852, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.")
If we like some possible futures more than others -- if we think that a multipolar world with robust international mechanisms for addressing global challenges is better that a multipolar world of great powers in conflict, for instance -- then we should get a move on.
You want effective and equitable international institutions in the future, at which time U.S. preeminence can no longer be assumed? Then we need to jump-start these institutions now, while we still have outsized credibility and power. You want a future world in which climate change doesn't cause mass refugee flows, resource competition and conflict? Then get cracking on emissions control and the development of alternative energy sources.
Leave the NIC Alone
"You're defining the future today, whether or not you intend to," writes David Rothkopf, "and thus the very best way to ensure a good 2030 is to focus on making the right choices in 2013." But this has an unstated corollary: to make the "right" choices in 2013, you have to have an opinion on what would constitute a "good" 2030.
The NIC's predictions are offered in terms of plausible alternative scenarios for the simple reason that this is about the best anyone can do. And it's far from useless: by outlining starkly different alternative futures, the NIC reports can help us figure out what we want to achieve and what we want to avoid.
We know the future is uncertain, but we know we have at least some ability to shape that future, providing we have a vision of what we want...and we know we can improve our national ability to respond to even the "unknown unknowns" with creativity, agility, and resilience.
So: quit beating up on the NIC, and let's get to it.