Is There a Map to the Future?

The former head of the U.S. National Intelligence Council explains why governments try -- and fail -- to see over the horizon.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

The world is in the midst of the most profound shift of global power and influence in more than a century. The collapse of the Cold War order, the rise of China and India as new global powers, and the advent of new transnational challenges have all combined to overturn old verities and points of reference.

This period of flux has spawned a cottage industry of futuristic debate and analysis, much of it good and interesting. Yet governments, including the U.S. government, remain very poor at long-range strategic planning — that is, at making policy choices on the basis of well-considered strategic objectives and methods for achieving them, with a view to the long term. Why? Is it that government officials are less clever than outside analysts, scholars, and pundits? Or is it that forecasting the future — and making decisions that have real consequences on the basis of these forecasts — is vastly harder than armchair analysts imagine?

As chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC), which provides strategic analysis to the president and his National Security Council, I oversaw production of one of the pioneering pieces of long-range analysis: Mapping the Global Future: Report of the NIC’s 2020 Project. This report generated great interest around the world, for both its methodology and its provocative conclusions about the dramatic shift of global power and influence, roughly from west to east. It was translated into Chinese, Russian, Spanish, and French, and served as a model for dozens of long-range analyses in other countries. Yet the most striking thing about Mapping the Global Future is how little impact it had on actual policy. Our judgment that international institutions were in crisis and needed to be radically reshaped to accommodate the rise of other powers was largely ignored. Another key finding — that whereas the language of terrorism may be couched in ideological and religious terms, its underlying goals are essentially political — likewise made hardly a dent in the overmilitarized and self-defeating counterterrorism policies adopted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The same dynamic is evident in other countries. I learned this firsthand in leading a nonofficial U.S. delegation around the world, under the auspices of the Atlantic Council, for strategic dialogues with counterparts in Brazil, China, Egypt, Germany, Russia, South Africa, and a dozen other key countries. Our dialogues revealed a surprising level of agreement on the broad trends affecting the global future, but generated few ideas for going beyond immediate challenges to prepare for those just over the horizon.

Why is this? And how can governments better prepare for the future?

The "why" is the easier question to answer. For one thing, senior political leaders are keenly aware of the contingent nature of history. Most are like Woodrow Call, the veteran Texas Ranger in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove: "Though he had always been a careful planner, life … had long ago convinced him of the fragility of plans. The truth was, most plans did fail, to one degree or another, for one reason or another. He had survived … because he was quick to respond to what he had actually found, not because his planning was infallible." Policymakers might add that the crucial test is how they react to unexpected events — whether the responses are haphazard and episodic, or take place within a larger strategic framework — not whether they saw them coming.

These global dialogues also revealed that middle powers, even important ones like Brazil and France, often feel themselves the objects rather than the subjects of history. They are disinclined to broad strategic planning because they lack confidence in their capacity to implement ambitious plans. France has tried, with mixed results, to compensate by acting via the European Union; it is an open question whether Brazil can eventually act like the global power it aspires to be.

For the United States, the problem is different. During the Cold War, there was little debate on strategic priorities — containing the Soviet Union was the sine qua non of U.S. foreign policy. After the Cold War, America not only lost its strategic lodestar, but also fell victim to the illusions of a "unipolar moment," which encouraged many to believe the United States was so powerful that it could simply dictate the global future by virtue of its unrivaled power. And just as many were beginning to question that dangerous illusion, the 9/11 terrorist attacks seemed to provide a new strategic rationale. George W. Bush’s administration, partly out of conviction and partly from opportunism, launched a badly misguided "global war on terror" — wildly exaggerating the threat posed by international terrorism and diverting the United States from more profound challenges of the early 21st century. (It is instructive to note that in the Mapping the Global Future report, produced during Bush’s presidency, international terrorism did not make the shortlist of major global challenges.)

Another factor militating against strategic planning is that decisions flowing out of such a process have huge consequences for policies and budgets. For example, the U.S. Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review — much praised except by those who actually know anything about it — has become more a competition for resources than a serious exercise in strategic planning. The State Department’s similarly inspired Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review seems destined to meet the same predictable fate.

Policymakers are right to be skeptical of bold forecasts. They should be skeptical when those doing the forecasting do not have to place bets on their judgments. They should be even more skeptical when the forecasters have a direct stake in the outcome. A policymaker who does his own strategic forecasting is like a lawyer who represents himself in court: He has a fool for a client.

So what does good strategic forecasting look like? The starting point is a careful and reasonably dispassionate analysis of broad global trends and the interaction among them. Mapping the Global Future looked at the interaction of several factors — the youth bulge in many Arab states, poor economic prospects, sclerotic political systems incapable of reform, and the rapid spread of information technologies — and concluded that many countries in the Middle East and North Africa were ripe for social upheaval. It did not, however, "predict" the Arab Spring. There are too many contingent factors to be able to predict precisely when or how such upheavals might occur or what the triggering event might be.

Sometimes change is not arithmetic but logarithmic, with nothing much seeming to happen until an accumulation of factors produces sudden, dramatic change. The Soviet Union’s collapse is one example of this phenomenon; future transformations in China could be another. Huge upheavals are clearly coming in Japan and much of Europe, owing to the rapid aging of these societies and the dramatic shrinkage of their working-age populations. We cannot predict exactly how they will play out, but we can say with confidence that the coming impact will be transformative.

Scenario analysis can help overcome some of the limitations of trend analysis. As I like to tell my students, linear thinking will get you a much-changed caterpillar, but it won’t get you a butterfly. For that you need a leap of imagination. Scenarios can help us imagine some of those leaps to the future, from which we then reason backward to see how, say, a peaceful, non-nuclear, unified Korea might emerge — or, more worrying, how its more antagonistic, nuclear-armed counterpart might come about instead.

Then there are "wild card" events, some of which fall in the category of "predictable surprises." The nuclear disaster at Fukushima may not have been predictable, but it was certainly possible to imagine a major disaster at a Japanese nuclear power plant, with predictable consequences. Whether the 9/11 terrorist attacks could have been prevented is debatable, but it had long been understood in the counterterrorism and national security communities around the world that a terrorist attack involving hijacked airplanes was among the most likely scenarios, if only because "skyjacking" had been an all-too-familiar terrorist tactic for many years. And the defense against such an attack would have involved precisely the steps taken after 9/11 — steps that might have been taken beforehand had strategic analysis driven policy decisions.

The United States now finds itself at a point where it possesses neither the power to impose its will nor the clarity of purpose the Cold War seemed to provide. It needs to develop the habit of strategic thinking — or, to put it more precisely, to embed strategic analysis more integrally into policy decisions and discriminate more rigorously among ambitious foreign undertakings.

A good place to start would be to institute a process of interagency strategic planning. This would mean wresting strategic planning from individual departments, which of course jealously guard their prerogatives and resist any attempt to bring them under a central coordinating body. There was a brief effort to create such a planning group a few years ago — I was a member of it — but the effort died after a single meeting, owing to strong bureaucratic resistance. Yet the need is compelling: The United States would never have gotten itself into a disastrous occupation of Iraq had these policies been subjected to serious critical scrutiny.

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