Difficulties of Making Predictions: Global Power Politics Edition

Difficulties of Making Predictions: Global Power Politics Edition

Timothy Taylor 29/07/2018 8

Making predictions is hard, especially about the future. It's a comment that seems to have been attributed to everyone from Nostradamus to Niels Bohr to Yogi Berra. But it's deeply true. Most of us have a tendency to make statements about the future with a high level of self-belief, avoid later reconsidering how wrong we were, and then make more statements.

Here's a nice vivid example from back in 2001. The Bush administration has just taken office, and a Department of Defense Linville Wells at the US Department of Defense was reflecting on the then-forthcoming "Quadrennial Defense Review." He wanted offer a pungent reminder that the entire exercise of looking ahead even just 10 years has often been profoundly incorrect. Thus, Wells wrote this memo (dated April 12, 2001):

  • If you had been a security policy-maker in the world's greatest power in 1900, you would have been a Brit, looking warily at your age-old enemy, France. 
  • By 1910, you would be allied with France and your enemy would be Germany. 
  • By 1920, World War I would have been fought and won, and you'd be engaged in a naval arms race with your erstwhile allies, the U.S. and Japan. 
  • By 1930, naval arms limitation treaties were in effect, the Great Depression was underway, and the defense planning standard said "no war for ten years." 
  • Nine years later World War II had begun. 
  • By 1950, Britain no longer was the world's greatest power, the Atomic Age had dawned, and a "police action" was underway in Korea. 
  • Ten years later the political focus was on the "missile gap," the strategic paradigm was shifting from massive retaliation to flexible response, and few people had heard of Vietnam.
  • By 1970, the peak of our involvement in Vietnam had come and gone, we were beginning détente with the Soviets, and we were anointing the Shah as our protégé in the Gulf region.
  • By 1980, the Soviets were in Afghanistan, Iran was in the throes of revolution, there was talk of our "hollow forces" and a "window of vulnerability," and the U.S. was the greatest creditor nation the world had ever seen. 
  • By 1990, the Soviet Union was within a year of dissolution, American forces in the Desert were on the verge of showing they were anything but hollow, the U.S. had become the greatest debtor nation the world had ever known, and almost no one had heard of the internet. 
  • Ten years later, Warsaw was the capital of a NATO nation, asymmetric threats transcended geography, and the parallel revolutions of information, biotechnology, robotics, nanotechnology, and high density energy sources foreshadowed changes almost beyond forecasting. 
  • All of which is to say that I'm not sure what 2010 will look like, but I'm sure that it will be very little like we expect, so we should plan accordingly.

The questions of how to predict for what you don't expect, and how to plan for what you don't expect, are admittedly difficult. The ability to pivot smoothly to face the new challenge may be one of the most underrated skills in politics and management. 

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  • Stuart Millard

    Predictions have become more difficult as the number of outcomes one is trying to predict increases.

  • Robert Hanson

    It’s tough to make political predictions, especially about the future.

  • Mary Cooper

    Making predictions is difficult, that’s why we delegate the task to computers.

  • Paul Finnigan

    Difficulty in predicting the future depends largely upon what aspects you are trying to predict, what information you have or can postulate.

  • Marc Harris

    The first thing we need to remember is that events that are making the headlines, are the past. Clues to the future lie in events people may or may not be even noticing.

  • Julien Malvar

    At the moment we are entering a very dynamic and unpredictable period in history.

  • Ivan Williams

    Nobody can predict the future, we can only make calculated guesses.

  • Kelsey Radnams

    There are way too many variables that influence predictions with so many unknown factors.

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.


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