Making Predictions Is Hard
especially about the future, as Niels Bohr once said (and was echoed by Yogi Berra). The National Intelligence Council has published its quintennial attempt to part the mists of the future and consider what the world might be like seventeen years hence in 2025. A good place to start taking a look at it might be the executive summary published at the Atlantic Council’s web site. There are links from there to our patron here, James Joyner’s, excellent commentaries on the report.
Unfortunately, I think James has been altogether too kind in his assessment of the report. Whatever the cost of preparing it might have been, it wasn’t worth it. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Here’s one incisive commentary:
Frankly, it’s not worth the hard drive space: India and China are rising (due to a “growing middle class”), as are non-state actors, continued growth will be a problem, catastrophic terror attacks are more likely, but terrorism can be solved with greater economic growth in the Middle East, Russia’s gonna be big too, “state capitalism” works. We’ll be powerful because of our focus on security and DoD and IC in 15 years too.
Tom Barnett is similarly unenthused:
Disappointing to see the NIC default to resource wars as a generalized bit of futures fear-mongering. It’s just so unimaginative and reflects the NIC talking to a lot of stale academics who trot out their analogies to 19th-century colonialism and balance-of-power politics while completely discounting the profound economic–and especially financial–interdependence (the latter currently on display big time).
Frankly, I think a better job could have been done by a half dozen reasonably well-informed graduate students over beer in a pub. I question the methodology of this report. To my eye the contributors lean altogether too heavily towards historians and political scientists (sorry, James) and far too lightly to hard scientists, engineers, and anthropologists. Here’s a sample bon mot from the report:
Leaders and their ideas matter. No history of the past hundred years can be told without delving into the roles and thinking of such leaders as Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler or Mao Zedong. The actions of dominating leaders are the hardest element to anticipate. At several junctures in the 20th century, Western experts thought liberal and market ideas had triumphed. As demonstrated by the impacts of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Truman, leadership is key even in societies where institutions are strong and the maneuvering room for wielding personal power is more constrained
This idea goes gack to Thomas Carlyle. It’s the “Great Man” theory of history and I think it’s a load of bull. While individual historical figures, e. g. Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Mao, may bring color and texture to the fabric of history that fabric is formed by economics, demographics, and social structures. Gaius Julius Caesar might have elected never to cross the Rubicon into the precincts of Rome, fomenting the collapse of the Republic and the rise of the Empire. Rome would still have been expansionist and there would still have been an empire. Rome’s location, population, and way of life demanded it. We’d just have used some other word for monarch than Kaiser or tsar.
France was loaded for bear after the French Revolution. Even without Napoleon’s military genius it still would have spread the Revolution all over Europe. It might not have invaded Russia but it most certainly would have invaded Italy.
And so on. The ghastly thing about that pronouncement in this document is that it has nothing whatever to do with the meat of the document at all. Nowhere do the authors demonstrate how the choices of individual leaders will influence the world of 2025. If they’re saying that the world of 2025 is completely unpredictable because it will be so completely formed by the decisions of unpredictable leaders in that world they could have stopped this 120 page report at page 25.
There is a repeated confusion of absolute growth with relative growth. While emphasizing the significance of the latter they don’t seem to appreciate that it’s absolute power, strength, and wealth that’s important not relative power, strength, and wealth. China is powerful because of its enormous size not just because of its relative growth, however dramatic that might be. The U. S.’s continued absolute power, strength, and wealth despite the relative change in power, strength, and wealth insures U. S. pre-eminence for the foreseeable future, even with our present economic downturn. Were it otherwise Luxembourg would be the most important country in the world.
While they pay lip service to the importance of demographics, the authors don’t see to apprehend the implications of demographic forces in the case of individual countries. It is a fact that China’s work force will have begun to shrink by 2025 and it is likely that it will continue to shrink for decades following that. That means that even in the absence of other forces wages in China will be likely to rise, an important stressor on the economy of a country that has based its growth on being the low cost provider of labor, and significant stress will be placed on China’s military (the labor force competes with the military for the same people), China’s social institutions, and China’s government institutions. If there’s one thing that’s certain about China it’s that present facts render the persistence theory an extremely poor predictor of events in China over the next couple of decades and the persistence theory has overweening significance in this report.
If there’s one thing that Americans should have learned over the last six years, it’s that culture matters in how societies react to catastrophic events. The significance of culture is all but absent from the assessments in this report.
I’m sorely tempted to convene my own competitive colloquium on this subject. We could surely do a better job than this.