Combating Future Uncertainties: Goals for 2018

9 january 2018

Andrei Sushentsov - Ph.D. in Political Science, is  Program Director of the Valdai Discussion Club Foundation, Director of the Foreign Policy Analysis Group, Associate Professor at the Department of Applied International Analysis of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).

Resume: Combating future uncertainties is the main task when it comes to forecasting anything. Speaking about international relations, there are two key uncertainties here – the unknown motives of actors in a crisis and the likelihood of spontaneous relevant events.

The need to find effective forecasting mechanisms is obvious. It is not only an important theoretical task, but also a solution that is sought-after in practice. Reducing the uncertainty of the actors’ motives during crises is one of the two key objectives when it comes to forecasting. So let’s take a look at three aspects of this uncertainty, namely, the role of an individual, the strategic culture and the impact of geography.

Despite the seeming abundance of information and the imaginary clarity of the processes, politicians often make incorrect assumptions about the intentions of their partners and opponents. When analyzing such situations, the role of the personality of a leader who takes decisions regarding the actions to be taken during a crisis becomes paramount. This is clearly seen in the crisis concerning the DPRK nuclear and missile program. Probably the key uncertainty at this point is the behavior of the US administration. Herbert McMaster, National Security Advisor to the US President, greatly influences President Trump and is known for his radical stance on the DPRK. He is behind the thesis that the United States should use force against North Korea, because, as he claims, the madman cannot be restrained and time is running out. Although recently, during the announcement of a new US National Security Strategy, McMaster described the strategy to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons as “all measures short of war,” war is kept in mind and is a very likely scenario. Apparently, McMaster is re-opening for himself the basics of strategic deterrence, and he has yet to realize that a war with the DPRK would be a disaster. In a way, the situation is reminiscent of the Caribbean crisis of 1962, when the parties were unaware of each other's motives and could not afford to use force. As a result of this, the crisis actually taught the Soviet Union and the United States a useful lesson on the subject of restraint, which was further developed in a series of treaties on limitation and prohibition of certain types of weapons. In the context of the Korean crisis, McMaster's episodic public remarks, including those made during his exchanges with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, deserve not to be neglected. Given the current situation, attention should be paid to decisions taken separately from rhetoric. Thus, the evacuation of US military families from South Korea can be considered as a signal that preparations for a strike are taking place.

The analysis of the strategic culture of a country participating in a particular situation remains important when it comes to forecasting. Let’s consider the Russian-Japanese rapprochement of recent years. After a significant gap in strategic experience due to the American occupation, Japan is again cautiously probing the limits of independent foreign policy. Recently, for the first time, Tokyo has come up with a national security strategy and a list of key long-term threats in the 21st century. Thus, Japan fears China's rise and seeks to secure Russia's neutrality in a possible future clash with it. This is precisely the long-term interest of Tokyo’s rapprochement with Russia. Obviously, this calculation is not strategically justified and is based on misunderstanding Russia's interests as well as the history of its relations with China. Manifestations of inexperience show up frequently in the countries which step into global politics for the first time or after a long break. A similar gap in continuity in Germany's strategic planning forces the leadership of that country to pursue an extremely cautious foreign policy outside NATO's framework.

The role of geography in strategic planning most clearly manifests itself when analyzing China's maritime strategy. Sea trade is China’s main source of prosperity. China’s center of gravity is located along its eastern coast, thus focusing the interests of Beijing on the sea. Seen from this geographical projection, the issue of Taiwan and the  disputes with Japan over the water area can no longer be regarded as peripheral and therefore take on a special significance. Structural economic and geographical factors literally push China into the ocean, where it is faced with the highly likely case of a collision with US interests. A possible turn towards the continent remains a very labor-consuming thing despite Beijing's desire to form developed infrastructure there as well.

The second key uncertainty – spontaneous events of high relevance – is an unexpected manifestation of existing long-term trends. Let's single out here three key varieties – totally unexpected events, “known unknowns,” and events unforeseen because of a perception error.

Speaking about unexpected events, we clearly still need to be concerned about catastrophic acts of terrorism, including in cyberspace, radical Islamism, waves of illegal migration and natural disasters. Fragile states will continue to be tested for strength, and the crisis of the liberal model will exacerbate under the blows coming from the right and the left. The events of this kind are difficult to predict, but one can safely assume that they will occur sooner or later and therefore prepare for them accordingly.

“Known unknown” is the second type of spontaneous events and is about the quite obvious, but still the unlikely development of a situation, which no one usually is prepared for due to its unlikely nature. Such events include the victory of Donald Trump in the presidential elections or voting in favor of Brexit in the United Kingdom. Similar events in 2018 include a possible social explosion in Ukraine, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Unexpected results may come from voting in next year's elections in the United States, Italy, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Finland, Ireland, etc.

The blind zone is the third type of spontaneous events. Correct understanding of the situation – due to ideology or stereotypes – remains unattainable despite the apparently available information. For example, the Russian leaders are often inclined to consider events unfolding in the post-Soviet space through the prism of negative influence coming in from the West and underestimate the importance of internal motives in the politics of the former Soviet republics. Such perception gives rise to distorted pictures and distrust, which repels our friends much more than the West attracts them. There is a communication problem, which can only be resolved by changing the perception paradigm.

There are effective methods for overcoming uncertainty though. Considering the motives of the players, it is important to remember that they are determined by structural factors, such as geography, the way GNP is produced, the main trade routes, etc. Much depends on the country’s strategic culture, the availability of relevant competencies as well as the people in the right positions. The continuity of the tradition of strategic thinking is of great importance. It is often possible to draw conclusions about the long-term plans from the guidelines, speeches and remarks of the top state officials. In Russia and China, strategic planning documents come with specific deadlines. Knowledge of the political language, culture and political context will make it possible to identify signal events in a flow of documents.

Continuous analysis of long-term trends is imperative for identifying and  interpreting spontaneous events. Each such unexpected thing, be it a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or a wave of political populism, have had their manifestations in the past. Through ongoing monitoring, one can keep a record of what has already happened and project the probability in the future by specifying the circumstances which may lead to something occurring again. The existence of such a system will strengthen the stability of a country or an organization in the face of the majority of international crises.

Valdai International Discussion Club

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