10 January 2014

*** On Forecasting

January 9, 2014

Soon after George W. Bush was elected president and before his inauguration in January 2001, there was a quiet assumption among some in Washington that Bush would appoint then-former senator from Indiana, Dan Coats, as his defense secretary. A second quiet assumption followed that Coats would appoint the bipartisan realist Richard Armitage as deputy defense secretary. Coats and Armitage would no doubt have run the Defense Department from the philosophical vantage point of tough caution in world affairs -- never flinching from a challenge, but also never overreacting.

Coats apparently failed his interview with President-elect Bush; or Bush simply had a change of heart. There was reportedly a need to balance Colin Powell at the State Department with an equally towering figure at Defense, and Coats apparently wasn't the one to do that. It was Bush's vice president-elect, Dick Cheney, who reportedly had an idea to solve the dilemma: bring back Donald Rumsfeld, who had already been defense secretary in the Ford Administration in the mid-1970s, and who therefore could both handle the job and stand up to Powell. Rumsfeld became defense secretary and appointed Paul Wolfowitz as his deputy. Armitage, meanwhile, went to work at the State Department as Powell's deputy. Thus, largely because of a series of events involving personnel that few could have predicted, you had the aggressive team of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz reacting to 9/11 rather than the more cautious team of Coats and Armitage. Moreover, you now had a bureaucratic war between the restrained team of Powell and Armitage at the State Department and the newly aggressive team at the Defense Department.

Such factors, again, all having to do with personnel, and all exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to predict in advance, would have a profound effect on geopolitics in the ensuing decade. Indeed, the Iraq War, which defined the last decade for American foreign policy, might well not have happened, or, at a minimum, would not have played out at as it did, had Coats become defense secretary.

In other words, to say that individuals do not matter amid larger forces is rubbish. Think of World War II without Hitler, of the Balkans without Slobodan Milosevic or Richard Holbrooke, or of Russia in the 1990s without the indiscipline of Boris Yeltsin.

Moreover, very odd, utterly unpredictable events matter greatly to world history. Imagine the decade after 9/11 if only a few votes in Florida had shifted -- or if just one Supreme Court vote had shifted -- giving Al Gore the presidency. Would we have gone to war in Afghanistan the way we did? Or gone to war in Iraq at all?

And yet events can be forecast. Or rather, trends can be discerned that the daily media regularly miss. They can be forecast because, as I have detailed, while half of reality is utterly unpredictable events involving individuals, the other half is composed of large geographical, demographic, economic and technological forces whose basic trend lines can be foreseen, however vaguely at times. If one concentrates on those larger forces, it still won't be possible to predict, say, the philosophical makeup of a particular president's foreign policy team, but it can be forecast to some impressive degree the kind of world that team will face. 9/11 itself may have been unpredictable, but the trend of an emboldened al Qaeda mixed with further radicalization of the Middle East clearly was predictable.

That is why at Stratfor, analysts reduce those larger forces to the constraints placed on individual leaders as a method for forecasting. In other words, such forces as geography, economics and technology limit the parameters within which individual leaders can operate. Those parameters, however, are still broad enough for all sorts of surprising events to happen -- events that are decided by individuals. But the parameters, based on constraints, rule out enough choices so that intelligent forecasting is possible.

The difference between the media and Stratfor is that the media often recognizes no limits to what individual policymakers can achieve; Stratfor, while still recognizing human agency, assumes that there often are limits to individual choice. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz may have invaded Iraq, whereas Coats and Armitage might not have. But even Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had to contend with sectarianism in Iraq, which, in turn, was a product of the country's history and geography that could easily have been forecast in advance.

More examples:

-- A glance at the map would have revealed in 1989 exactly how the countries of the disbanded Warsaw Pact would perform economically and politically for two decades thereafter: Those in the north -- heirs to the Prussian and Habsburg traditions, like Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (later the Czech Republic and Slovakia) -- became relative success stories, while the former Byzantine and Ottoman Turkish Balkans would languish in relative economic underdevelopment, political instability and war.

-- Russia, whoever leads it, requires buffer zones of a sort in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, owing to its flat geography and history of invasions. Thus, Russia will, for the foreseeable future, miss no opportunity to interfere with the countries of the former Warsaw Pact.

-- German leaders want to punish Greece for its economic indiscipline. They don't want Germans to retire at 70 so Greeks can retire at 60. But German leaders also require Greece to be within the Eurozone in order to be a market for German exports. German leaders also find Russia's human rights behavior distasteful, but they cannot pivotally break from Russia while their relationships within the European Union are so delicate. Hence, German leaders' decisions are constrained.

-- Israel would like to destroy Iran's uranium enrichment capabilities. But the fact that Iran has crossed one red line after another without an Israeli military response demonstrates how the decisions of Israeli leaders are constrained by geography and Israel's own insufficient military capabilities.

-- The Obama administration would like to help the Syrian rebels. But it is constrained by the very lack of the rebels' organizational and institutional coherence, which is in turn influenced by sectarian and ethnic divides that are partially determined by history and geography.

The theme of the above examples is that leaders face few good choices, hemmed in as they are by history, geography and economics. And without good choices, they often opt for caution. Caution by policymakers further enables forecasting.

Of course, not all leaders are cautious, as when Rumsfeld accepted a strategy for invading Iraq without a post-invasion stabilization plan that was fully fleshed out. But usually when policymakers act thus, they pay for it in ways that can be forecast in advance.

Forecasting is strongest when it concentrates on geographically -- and economically -- determinative factors, such as the trajectory of trade routes and the availability of natural resources. For example: What do the new discoveries of shale gas tell us about geopolitics? Stratfor analysts do studies on the geopolitics of iron ore, of coal, and so on. Forecasting is more tenuous when it involves the actions of individuals who can be influenced by the most complex and personal of motives. Thus, predicting what Israel's top decision-makers will do on any given day vis-a-vis Iran can be an iffy enterprise. Nevertheless, because Stratfor has gotten the constraints of Israeli leaders right so far, readers of this website will not be surprised that -- at least until now -- Israel has not attacked Iran, all the anxious media reports going back years to the contrary. Nevertheless, I must emphasize, tomorrow is another day.

Constraints are about necessity. They are not about the public statements of leaders voicing their often lofty, insipid and subjective desires to the media at press conferences.

Finally, forecasting requires humility. The forecaster must always be aware of what he or she does not know and perhaps cannot know. And about what the forecaster does know, he or she must constantly play devil's advocate, as analysts do at Stratfor. But by concentrating on what can be known, as well as on the various larger forces that limit the desires of policymakers, the forecaster has the ability to make readers somewhat less surprised by what happens next.


Robert D. Kaplan is Chief Geopolitical Analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical analysis firm, and author of the bestselling book The Revenge of Geography. Reprinted with permission.

Page Printed from: http://www.realclearworld.com/articles/2014/01/09/on_forecasting-full.html at January 09, 2014

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