Ahh, the Futility of Strategic Forecasting…

Quoting from the JOE 2008 Report, Strategic Estimates in the Twentieth Century

1900 - If you had been a strategic analyst for the world’s leading power, you would have been British, looking warily at Britain’s age old enemy: France.

1910 - You would now be allied with France, and the enemy would now be Germany

1920 - Britain and its allies had won World War I, but now the British found themselves engaged in a naval race with its former allies the United States and Japan.

1930 - For the British, naval limitation treaties were in place, the Great Depression had started and defense planning for the next five years assumed a “ten year” rule — no war in ten years. British planners posited the main threats to the Empire as the Soviet Union and Japan, while Germany and Italy were either friendly or no threat.

1936 - A British planner would now posit three great threats: Italy, Japan, and the worst, a resurgent Germany, while little help could be expected from the United States.

1940 - The collapse of France in June left Britain alone in a seemingly hopeless war with Germany and Italy with a Japanese threat looming in the Pacific. America had only recently begun to scramble to rearm its military forces.

1950 - The United States was now the world’s greatest power, the atomic age had dawned, and a “police action” began in June in Korea that was to kill over 36,500 Americans, 58,000 South Koreans, nearly 3,000 Allied soldiers, 215,000 North Koreans, 400,000 Chinese, and 2,000,000 Korean civilians before a cease-fire brought an end to the fighting in 1953. The main opponent in the conflict would be China, America’s ally in the war against Japan.

1960 - Politicians in the United States were focusing on a missile gap that did not exist; massive retaliation would soon give way to flexible response, while a small insurgency in South Vietnam hardly drew American attention.

1970 - The United States was beginning to withdraw from Vietnam, its military forces in shambles. The Soviet Union had just crushed incipient rebellion in the Warsaw Pact. Détente between the Soviets and Americans had begun, while the Chinese were waiting in the wing to create an informal alliance with the United States.

1980 - The Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan, while a theocratic revolution in Iran had overthrown the Shah’s regime. “Desert One” — an attempt to free American hostages in Iran — ended in a humiliating failure, another indication of what pundits were calling “the hollow force.” America was the greatest creditor nation the world had ever seen.

1990 - The Soviet Union collapses. The supposedly hollow force shreds the vaunted Iraqi Army in less than 100 hours. The United States had become the world’s greatest debtor nation. No one outside of the Department of Defense has heard of the internet.

2000 - Warsaw is the capital of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nation. Terrorism is emerging as America’s greatest threat. Biotechnology, robotics, nanotechnology, HD energy, etc. are advancing so fast they are beyond forecasting

2010 – Take the above and plan accordingly! ComingAnarchy readers, in light of the past century, how would you summarize the strategic plan in 2010 and 2020?

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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26 Responses to Ahh, the Futility of Strategic Forecasting…

  1. Jim says:

    Paging John Robb…

  2. 2010 – Take the above and plan accordingly! ComingAnarchy readers, in light of the past century, how would you summarize the strategic plan in 2010 and 2020?

    Duck and cover? ;)

  3. Windhorst says:

    2010 – Former leading industrial nation Britain has just closed its last tank factory, but though dropping self-reliance, it ceases to take a leading role in the stagnating EU to compensate its fading military strength through deeper cooperation.

  4. Windhorst says:

    2020 – Britain has allied its forces with the countries it fought in various European and World wars, in order to battle particularly its former colonies.

  5. Dexter Trask says:

    I was recently in a training seminar at the State Department and I tried to make a similar point. My class was walking through and exercise projecting the top science and technology challenges that would face the United States in 2030 and I didn’t see a lot of value to the exercise. I pointed out that in 1932 literally no one in the world could have foreseen modern nuclear weapons (Leó Szilárd didn’t discover the fission chain reaction until 1933), yet by 1952 the U.S. had detonated a 10-Mt hydrogen bomb. Granted, black swans of this magnitude don’t emerge every twenty years, but they do make a mockery of forecasting.

  6. In 2020 the effects of the massive global cooling had been mitigated by nanotech walter filtration. The US-Canadian border was the new ice-line, but the Sahara had been transformed into a vast, leafy suburb. So, the loss of most of the Northern Hemishpher was no big whoop. Anyway, most people who survived the intial crash had migrated out of meat space and lived in a perpetual virtual reality orgy in Web 5.5, which isrun by a benign but authoritarian AI program known colloquially as Big Dad. A few hundred people reoccupied meatform bodies to “vote” in the US presidential election of 2020 out of nostalgia and as an ironic goof. The civil war in the Congo is ongoing, with over six million casualties during the decade.

  7. But seriously folks: No one in 1910 could have predicted 1920 at all.

    And the pace of change now is massively faster.

    Hold on to your hats, folks.

    Fear God and dread nought.

  8. elambend says:

    Actually, I rather think our ancestors did fairly well in many respects and the early part of the century is a bit simplified in the analysis above. By 1907 the American ‘Great White Fleet’ had done its tour and the US was recognized as a fairly big power. Roosevelt (t.) had gotten a nobel peace prize for his work on the Russo Japanese war and had already come up with a US Pacific facing strategy including our colony in the Phillipines, embracing (yes) Japan (along with Britain), blocking the Russians in the east and having a massive convoy of diplomats to shore it up. The big surprise in this theater the last century is the re-rise of China. Perhaps a warning of the possibilities or Russia. Britain was switching its navy from coal to oil and was spearheading the development of the Middle East which everyone was expecting to have a lot of oil.

    I could go on, but my general point is that a lot of trends were foreseen. Of course this just amplifies one of Lex’s points with which I whole heartily agree. Of all the ills of the last century, root of most of them was in that decade 1910-1920 the events of which no one saw coming.

    : China continues to grow wealthier, subject to the business cycle (and the bursting of asset bubbles), population busts just works to consolidate gains of middle class and raise labor rates
    : India, continues to grow wealthier, tries to keep east in shape and avoid spillover from Pakistan
    : Paksitan, war goes here
    : Mediteranean: Turkey will rise in influence and economic power and will become the most important county in the ‘Middle East’; if Iran ever becomes a friend, it’d make a great counterweight
    : Europe, the welfare state will falter, as will the Euro, but it will remain wealthy and the population decline will reverse (as it has already in France)
    :Russia??
    :Japan period of decline for awhile after currency default, wealthy decline, though

    : If I’m in charge, invest in the navy (subs and light cruisers), oil exploration, nuke power and free trade. Maintain peace and trade with our Pacific trading partners, maintain Europe, keep an eye on Turkey and help Iran rebuild (assuming the regime finally falls), try and keep budget in balance

  9. John says:

    I often try to complicate matters too much in thinking about world politics. This is especially so today when we are constantly told that “strategic threats” include climate change, pandemics, or someone throwing a grenade into a market in Peshawar. These may or may not be threats but they are certainly not strategic and the time spent trying to deal with them takes away precious time from real strategic threats.(I observe the CIA using spy satellites to look at supposedly melting ice caps)

    The basic conflict in the world today, in my opinion, is remarkably similar to the conflict in 1990. It is the divide between east and west. The basic conflict over the next ten years will be similar. The US/UK/Nato/Japan partnership is still the security basis for the West. A growing cooperation between Russia and China at the same time they court radical anti-Western regimes like Iran, Venezuela and Cuba is the growing threat in the East.

    Obviously this East/West conflict has different aspects to it today than it did in 1990 or especially 1980. The predominance of terrorism, for instance, is a much bigger factor in the world than it was in 1990(although it was a growing factor) Technological developments have led to weapons systems, especially in nanotechnology and bio-warfare, that have made nuclear weapons just one of many weapons of mass death. The ubiquity of computer technology and the internet have made cyberspace a real battleground, as real as sea or air or land or space. (Witness the current cyberwar with China and Russia’s attack on Estonia in 2007.) The economy of the world today, especially between that of China and the US is much more integrated than it was in 1990.

    But in my opinion, even in light of these changes in detail, there is still a competition, if not a Cold War, between East and West. The main difference now is that few in the West are willing to acknowledge it for fear of “re-starting the Cold War.” Well, it never ended.

    The next ten years, I think, will bring a growing awareness in the West that the strategic problems we think are “new” like terrorism and cyberwar and economic cooperation/competition with China are really simply new details in the same East/West conflict that has divided the world since 1945 (or perhaps since Salamis or Thermopylae?) As the link between Iran’s ties to terrorism and Russia and China’s ties with Iran become ever more clear it will be clear that terrorism is simply a tactic of the East in the war against the West. As it becomes clear that Russia and China are a pernicious, destructive force in cyberspace and not a constructive one, the whole notion of “cyber-terrorism” will be seen as another tactic of the East against the West. As it becomes more and more clear that China is (at least among some elements of their more anti-American leadership) trying to destabilize the US economy using economic leverage it will be seen that this is another facet of the East’s rising power and challenge to the West.

    Over the next ten years this conflict that is somewhat hidden now by Western politicians trying to be polite and Eastern politicians trying to deceive will come more and more to the forefront of policy-making. That is if the conflict doesn’t metastisize into something more overt and immediate in the coming few years, as I think is a slight possibility.

  10. Jing says:

    So let me get this straight… hacking google mail = Cuban missile crisis. Schmucks launch a DoS attack against Facebook = Thermopylae.

    I for one am disappointed about how bourgeois and petty our future manichaean existential conflicts are shaping up to be.

  11. Carl says:

    Within this decade:

    China will implode from a combination of economic collapse and resulting internal strife.
    Iraq will finally get around to having a, proper, civil war.
    The current regime in Iran will fall, but will probably be replaced by something equally anti-Western, but less containable.
    The EU won’t integrate their militaries and thus will continue to fade in importance from the world stage.
    Russia will invade one of the former USSR republics as a show of force towards China’s increasing interest in Eastern Siberia.
    Peak Oil (production) will no longer be deniable having already happened or within the first half of the decade and (mostly) the developing world will initially begin to suffer the consequences.
    Water resources will begin to create large scale conflict in South and SE Asia.
    The Chicago Cubs will not win a World Series/Minnesota Vikings will not win a Super Bowl.

  12. spandrell says:

    So no US bankrupcy? That seems like the closer big event in the next decade or two.

  13. Carl says:

    I thought that was a given.

  14. John says:

    On a China implosion. I doubt it. China’s implosion came in the middle part of the 20th century. In China it is a time of relative unity right now. The Han are 88%(I believe) of the population and in the course of Chinese history the turmoils of the early and mid 20th century are quite recent. The increased unity is really just beginning and past unities in China have lasted hundreds of years.

    The being said, from a perspective of anecdotal evidence there is great tension in China. Protests and little rural revolts are on the rise. But, from a historical perspctive, these are relatively minor and, I don’t believe” pose any threat to the regime. I once read that China is like the middle of a rope being pulled tightly at both ends. It appears calm only because the force being applied is tremendous. In China, however, this situation can last far longer than people suspect if history is any teacher.

    Regarding any enmity between Russia and China. There is no doubt some, especially on a racial level. However, from the persceptive of the situation since 2001 and really since the Gorbachev visit to China in 1989, relations have been getting better and better especially in regard to a growing cooperation against the United States. Just as the great geopolitical fact of the 1960s and 1970s was the conflict between Russia and China, the overriding fact today is the growing cooperation between the two on all levels, especially military and economic.

    Regarding a US “bankruptcy” it is probably coming but the Fed has proven unbelievably capable yet reckless in their ability to avert a collapse. Which off course only leaves us more vulnerable on the economic front and will make the collapse bigger when it comes.

    Regarding Jing’s comments, your criticism of my post is quite correct if viewed from a two week persceptive. So in that sense you have a point and it is noted.

  15. John says:

    Regarding Jing’s comments again, I did not pay them the respect they deserve. My comment was petty and I am quite bourgeois and proud of it. However, the point about Manicheanism is interesting. On the surface, from a very broad view of Manicheanism my East/West dualistic view is manicheistic. How that is an argument for the view being wrong is dubious.

    That aside, if you mean by manicheanism a final conflict between “good” and “evil” I would not make the argument from that perspective at all. There is nothing inherently “good” about the West or “evil” about the East. The West is “good” when its actions and values are parallel with common human values. The east is “bad” when its actions and values are pernicious to common human values There is nothing even inherently West geographically about the West. If you noticed I included Japan as part of the “West.”(and perhaps India as well) Different nations have different values and those with similar values tend to cooperate. Those who don’t hold those values tend to form counter cooperations.

    Is it your contention that nations do not compete with one another based upon differing values? If that is true you know a history I do not know. Or maybe your persceptive is ahistorical and you believe we have reached a golden age, “an end of history” in which the lessons of the past are no longer any guide to the future. If so, my view may still be Manichean however yours is quite Utopian and judging from the perspective of past Utopian ideas is, in my opinion, flawed.

    From a further perspective, it is questionable to call my view Manichean as I do not postulate any kind of “final battle” between East and West. In history and the life of the world nothing is ever final. The conflict between East and West, or to put it more precisely Eastern and Western values, will probably never even reach an overt battle, much less a “final” one, although the possibility of war is always there. Even war is never final, it is simply a historical fact.

    So my persceptive may be Manichean on a superficial level. But taken more broadly my view simply assumes a continuity in world affairs that many assumed was broken in 1989 or 1991. I never made that assumption and I always believed it was flawed.

    But thanks for the comments, seriously, I enjoy debating.

  16. spandrell says:

    John, you heard of the word “verbose”?

  17. Master Cook says:

    The big problem I see with US strategic planning now is that the goals are defined. The unstated goals seem to be to have the ability to intervene anywhere in the world, no matter how remote, and to reshape anyplace in the world according to the desires of our elites. Other than the arrogance, to me that seems to be a short path to bankruptcy, but that is the goal. But its not really clearly stated in the various public US strategic planning documents, which are heavy on boilerplate.

    And actually, while I think early 20th century British strategic planning was better, it could have benefitted from the British elites being more forthright as to what their desired “end state” (to use modern US military jargon) was in regards to the empire/ commonwealth, Europe, and the United States. They actually didn’t do a bad job, if you compare Britain with other fading imperial powers. But they clung to the status quo too long in regards to their empire, never had a consistent policy in regards to Europe, and wound up taking too subservient a role vis a vis the US.

    What the “threat” is most come after what the end state is. Threat to what? Threat to the desired end state. Other countries don’t run their entire foreign and defense policies just to damage you, you are really not that central.

  18. Guest469 says:

    My projections:
    Mexico annexes USA. Israelis and Palestinians agree on a single unified nation called Canaan. Belarus liberates Russia and restores the USSR by force. China turns into a Christian fundamentalist state. India suffers major economic collapse and transforms into a hindutva based war mongering fascist power. EU disintegrates. Germany starts another World War.

    If I’m sure of anything, it’s that my prediction record won’t be immeasurably worse than any else here.

  19. McKellar says:

    @Master Cook: I wouldn’t give US strategy that much credit. Other than protecting vital interests (trade, oil, etc.) the main goal seems to be to maintain the semblance of a mighty superpower (USA #1!) while fighting enough ‘good wars’ to convince ourselves that the US is a net source of good in the world. Any president or government bureaucrat that fails to uphold those dual conceits find themselves out of a job very quickly.

    And my predictions:
    Somewhat like Guest469 says, China will see a massive Christian movement over the next few decades, but instead of causing unrest or radicalizing China, it will result in a big nothing. The Chinese government will lose it’s ability to mobilize public sentiment, and will be capable of little more than basic civil management; no foreign wars, no crackdowns in the Autonomous regions, and no big diplomatic initiatives.

    The developing world, especially the new arrivals like India and China, will start to stagnate in the 20′s as social and environment costs catch up with them. This will be associated with increased insularity and a new era of religious resurgence, with new religions that will look alike like a blend of Pentecostal Christianity and native traditions (China will be more Mormon, though).

    Unemployment in the US will stay in the 12-18% range well through the rest of Obama’s two terms, but that will change with the collapse of North Korea in 2016. The resultant 3-year war between North Korean holdouts and US/Korean peacekeepers will necessitate a limited draft and a restructuring of the National Guard, effectively reducing the unemployment rate. Reconstruction will see North Korea turn into the first US settler colony, as soldiers decide to stay in-country instead of returning to the US. During the late 20′s, the US diaspora will expand to Europe and Africa, setting the stage for the Ghanaian Civil War in 2029.

  20. Jeff says:

    There is some awareness of unknown threats existing. That’s why the Pentagon builds war plans against seemingly friendly nations, like say, Canada. The irony is, by the time such a plan is needed, if it is needed, 10, 20, 50, 100 years have passed and the plan is meaningless because the nature of warfare and the geopolitics have completely changed.

  21. Max Kennerly says:

    2010 – Domestic economic concerns preclude strategic maneuvers among any of the major powers. China and the US remain locked in tandem, dependent upon each other to forestall a major correction. Middle class in the middle east continues its slow but steady rise to power, disrupting both the hierarchy and the insurgents.

    2020 – Nuclear proliferation fears finally comes to pass as a Western metropolis is destroyed. Military response is attempted but abandoned as largely futile given the small size of the non-state group that achieved the attack. Climate change causes severe disruptions throughout South America, Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, threatening overall stability. United States shifts substantial resources from military to counterintelligence with mixed but generally positive results. EU attempts to be as self-sufficient as possible. China begins real sustainable economic development after major stakeholders begin ruthlessly but quietly eliminating systematic corruption. Middle east remains in turmoil as oil reserves start falling at exponential rate, with middle class shouldering most of the burden of finding a new way.

  22. John says:

    sorry to annoy you Spandrel…..next time just don’t read the comment if its too long for you. I’ll try to limit my comments to twice the length of yours and write two lines :)

  23. John says:

    I agree to some extent with a comment above that the goals in US foreign policy are undefined. An even better word may be unlimited. On the other hand, to say then the US really isn’t that important and so other countries don’t make American affairs central to their foreign policy strikes me as illogical.

    Most of the other big powers in the world view US foreign policy as laughable precisely BECAUSE it is so undefined and unlimited. At the same time, they may view it as a threat because it is so unpredictable and unlimited

    Another central fact in foreign policy in the next ten years will be precisely a function of the above comments: the diminishing capacity of the US to excercise power militarily and economically at the same time the desire to exercise such power and perhaps the need does not abate.

    Such a state of affairs is highly unstable as there is no more vulnerable position to be in than to be wealthy with a diminishing capacity to defend that wealth. It is an invitation to adventurism for unscrupulous regimes. So, the next ten years will be a period of rising instability between nations (sorry for my verbosity)

  24. T. Greer says:

    Is it just me, or all the people posting 2020 predictions missing the point?

  25. Vejadu says:

    Random predictions for 2020 . . .
    * Blinding laser weapons first used by non-state entity
    * Undeniable bio-war attack on US kills under 5000 (non-weaponized)
    * Third party surges 2012 but doesn’t capture White House; does take 7 Senate / 22 Congressional seats
    * China uses illegal immigration to Siberia to siphon off energy of male/female ratio and gain political power thru the back door
    * India – Pakistan have another big war that doesn’t go nuclear/resolves nothing
    * Illegal immigrants get another amnesty in US; no major party succeeds in solidifying their vote; marginal Azteca party emerges in Southwest/Midwest
    * After Scottish devolution, Labor permanently out of power in (former) UK
    * France becomes first Muslim state in Europe
    * Congo war continues . . .
    * Major terror attack against West using maritime vessels as delivery device
    * Official unemployment stabilizes in US vic 11%; unofficial (including those not looking for work/etc) hangs at 16%.
    * US fails to successfully tax black economy (e-bay/craigslist/etc)
    * One cyber attack manages to crash 9 of 13 core internet servers
    * Japan becomes more nationalistic; officially admits possession of nukes; government falls but they keep the nukes
    * Argentina/Chile move towards unification
    * Quebec still a boat anchor on Canadian economic development

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