Compared to their predecessors of three or four decades ago, U.S. national security officials are thinking in new terms, about new categories of threats. To an unprecedented degree, they must monitor the social, political, economic and psychological trends and processes that will determine the security environment in the years ahead. The kinds of things they are likely to worry about include the factors that will encourage Pakistan to take more aggressive action against militants or impede it from doing so; the conditions under which narco-violence could threaten the stability of Mexico; the likely lifespan of Tehran's theocracy; the causes and cures of social extremism, whether in Yemen or the United Kingdom; and whether nationalism is likely to veer China or Russia into more threatening paths.
Even more abstract issues populate the Obama administration's National Security Strategy (.pdf), filled as it is with discussions of extremism, weapons proliferation, climate change, food shortages, conflict resolution, failing states and global criminal networks -- all in the context of an international system characterized by an overarching fluidity.
Unfortunately for policymakers, the primary source of information that the government itself provides to inform their judgment -- "intelligence," as it is traditionally conceived -- will often contribute very little to their understanding of these processes.