A tale of two pointless documents


Nine months before the September 11 attacks—and just days after the Supreme Court halted the Florida recount, handing the presidency to George W. Bush—U.S. intelligence officials published an 85-page prediction for what the world would look like in 2015. It’s a world that seems familiar in some ways, and utterly foreign in others. And it’s a world in which power is diffusing and decaying—reflecting one of the most significant trends of 2014 and perhaps the coming year as well.

The future depicted in the National Intelligence Council’s ‘Global Trends 2015′ report, published in December 2000, contains numerous contemporary echoes, as my colleagues at Defense One have pointed out. There’s financial volatility; anonymous cyberattacks; widening economic divisions; an increasingly assertive China; a WMD-wielding North Korea; growing illegal migration to the U.S. from Central America; a mercurial, authoritarian Russia that ‘remains internally weak and institutionally linked to the international system primarily through its permanent seat on the UN Security Council’; a Middle East tormented by ‘demographic pressures, social unrest, religious and ideological extremism, and terrorism,’ and shaped by the destabilizing impact of new technology and the allure of political Islam.

But there are also developments that are difficult to imagine in 2015: a new state of Palestine; Iraq acquiring nuclear weapons; Japan losing its position as the world’s third-largest economy. Instead of a country reeling from 13 years of war, the study envisioned an ‘internationally isolated’ Afghanistan offering ‘a haven for Islamic radicals and terrorist groups’ (Osama bin Laden was holed up there at the time). Instead of forecasting grinding conflict between pro-Russian and pro-Western forces in Ukraine, U.S. officials wrote that ‘Ukrainians of all political stripes [are] likely to opt for independence rather than reintegration into Russia’s sphere of influence.’ They prophesied that ‘most technological advances in the next 15 years … will not have substantial positive impact on the African economies,’ missing the role that, say, cell phones have played in stoking economic dynamism in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2015, they noted, ‘Europe’s agenda will be to put in place the final components of EU integration’—integration that is now threatened by the region’s ongoing economic crisis. The report also posited bolder, alternative scenarios that it admitted were unlikely: Korean unification; the emergence of an ‘international terrorist coalition with diverse anti-Western objectives and access to WMD;’ China demanding that Japan dismantle its nuclear program, prompting the U.S. to come to Tokyo’s aid as the world powers hurtle toward ‘a major war.’

Yes, the original report got some things obviously wrong, but I don’t want to criticise them for that.

Could they have predicted that, say, Russia would annex the Crimea in 2014? Absolutely not, since it was a contingent and opportunistic decision (‘crossing at a ford’ as Miyamoto Musashi puts it) made over the course of a few short days.

Should they have tried? Again, I would say, absolutely not. And I do want to criticise them for that.

Firstly, international relations scholars are just no good at making predictions. We’ve failed to nail pretty much every single key global event for the past hundred years, and will go on merrily doing so until the world explodes or the research grants dry up, whichever comes first.

There has been a tendency over recent years, as Western economies have declined and decision-makers have lost confidence, to attempt to ward off risk with large amounts of data. Plenty of observers have criticised this strategy, as providing an illusion of security, rather than the real thing. In fact, I would not even grant it that advantage. In politics and security, attempts to assuage national paranoia tend to make it worse, as the fight against insecurity snowballs in the public mind. Attempts to counter small risks inflate their importance, and thus increase the need for fresh attempts to counter them, and so on, and so forth.

So if gathering data and attempting to cover all eventualities only succeeds in making us more paranoid, what is the solution? Just give up and let the current take us? Work harder to collect more data and make better predictions?

I would suggest that the best possible response to increasingly uncertain times lies not in big data and the oxymoronic concept of risk management, but rather in the idea of zanshin.

In kyūdō, zanshin means the body posture after the loosing of an arrow; the posture is intended to reflect the higher meaning of zanshin, which is a mental aspect maintained before, during, and after an action.[1][5]

In karate, zanshin is the state of total awareness.[6] It means being aware of one’s surroundings and enemies, while being prepared to react.

In the context of kendō, zanshin is the continued state of spirit, mental alertness and physical readiness to meet the situation (such as an opposing attack) that must be maintained when one returns to kamae after attacking. It is one of the essential elements that define a good attack.[4]

During the practice of aikidō, the usual method of practicing zanshin is to focus on the just-thrown uke, or opponent, while holding kamae and maintaining awareness in case there are additional attacks or attackers.[7][8] In Iwama Style training, zanshin is practiced as general awareness of one’s surroundings, of which uke is just a small part.[citation needed] In Yôseikan Style Aikidô students are trained to maintain that continued state of mental awareness and physical readiness beyond the dôjô walls and into daily life.

Rather than attempting to predict the future, it would be preferable rather to come out of each successive encounter with other international actors acknowledging that what comes next is uncertain, but alert, focused and confident in our own abilities to respond to it – whatever it may be.

Unfortunately, this is not something that large bureaucratic structure encourages. Not only does it place a premium on individual skill and intuition rather than systems – the antithesis of bureaucratic functioning – it also involves a great deal of sitting around seemingly doing nothing – not a good career choice for any ambitious young foreign service analyst.

Dilbert that one is only pretending to work

So, while the risk management approach is a terrible way to handle foreign affairs, in the absence of a severe overhaul of state decision-making systems, change is not going to happen. And this, loath as I am in my capacity as an IR specialist to admit it, is probably a good thing. The same systems that produce timid and sclerotic foreign policy, are also a large part of the underpinning for such goodies as democracy and equality and the rule of law. Injecting a greater proportion of arbitrary decision-making power into the system could well provide better responsiveness and thus greater protection from outside threats, but would also put citizens at increased risk from their own governments.

Tricky, innit?


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