As the world becomes increasingly chaotic, forecasting has turn out to be essential and complex at the same time. To predict what the future holds first requires identifying emerging patterns, which if not checked, will ultimately lead to certain outcomes. Policy makers and business leaders today are expected to not only manage the uncertainties of the present environment but also at the same time prepare their nations and organizations for the anomalies, discontinuities, and disasters that are likely.
To perform this task reasonably well requires charting the future direction of an organization in a given set of circumstances. Once the vision has been established, next comes developing an appropriate strategy.
This week the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) launched its much-hyped report titled Global Trends 2030 – Alternative Worlds. This analysis highlights some of the parallels drawn in the report especially related to the War on Terror and Arab Spring, including the weakening of nation-state system.
A total of five forecasts have been produced by it to date by NIC, and the last one came out four years ago. The NIC also produces the report known as the National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) and supports the Director of National Intelligence. To launch the assessment, the Atlantic Council hosted a two-day conference this week and assembled more than 150 participants from around the world. These attendees represented the policy and business arena, including media and technology sectors.
The reports, the attendees, and the esteemed panelists discussed what megatrends, game-changers, and underlying tectonic shifts, are likely to change the future world and how the US should go about developing smart strategies to adapt. Not only that, the forecast also examines how the world is likely to react to American decline or re-ascendance.
Arab Spring And War On Terror
The preliminary review reveals the highly analytical and elaborate report has a fundamental flaw. The report appears to concentrate more on the consequences and implications of the major megatrends, disruptions and crises but does not delve a whole lot on their possible origins. On other occasions, it makes questionable connections about why certain patterns are at work. For example, Arab Spring may be connected to the demographics; youth bulge and lack of economic opportunities in the region. However, one cannot overlook its link to the war on terror that is dramatically altering the societies in the region in favor of Islamists, and certainly in Pakistan. This change is creating the civil war like scenarios in many states of the region.
The shortcoming can lead to faulty solutions and policies that create more risks in the short-term, which have to be dealt with in the medium to long-term.
Similarly, the report asserts the nation-state system is weakening, and ethnic tensions and tribalism are on the rise, a trend also noted by PoliTact in its forecast last year. However, the assessment links it more to demographics, economics, and environmental causes. Whereas, PoliTact contends that kinetic forces applied in the region since 9/11 are also a reason for the rise of nationalism and ethnic tensions. The change in the balance of power in Iraq is reverberating far beyond its borders. Similarly, the likely fall of Assad regime in Syria is going to have far-reaching consequences. The shape of the political landscape in Afghanistan once the US withdraws is a cause of great concern for Pakistan.
Framing The Problem Correctly
To understand the issues in the proper context is critical; how the problem is framed has direct implications on how to solve it.
For example, in a number of think-tank discussions recently held in Washington DC, there is a growing emphasis on how politics is increasingly determining the fate of economic decisions. A good illustration of this is the fiscal cliff debate. Underneath this deliberation is a concern highlighted by the secretary of defense Leon Panetta in his speech at the Center for a New American Security on Nov 20. In his address, he emphasized the US does not have to choose between national or fiscal security under the defense strategy he is propagating. Obviously, a weak economy will create vulnerabilities that will ultimately impact national security. However, it’s overemphasis on security related issues for the last ten years that are now complicating the political and economic matters of the country.
Pakistan knows this quandary very well. The Kerry-Lugar aid package fell because of security concerns. The reason India is hesitant in moving swiftly on economic ties with Pakistan is out of security apprehensions that are complicating the political and economic decisions.
What Is Strategy?
Another critical debate taking place in almost every intellectual talk around Washington is about what strategy means, and what organizational structure can best implement it. The textbook definition that often gets quoted is; where we are and where we want to go, and how to get there. The strategy has to be clearly led by a compelling vision. However, what is missing in these debates is a critical introspection; the ‘how did we get here’ part. Without this segment, the mistakes are likely to be repeated. The challenge in this regard is that bureaucracies by their very nature are self-perpetuating and cannot be expected to solve dilemmas they have a hand in creating.
The attempt here is not to regurgitate the trends identified in the report, written primarily from the vantage point of US, but to provide an alternative perspective. With the vast information superiority of the US, many around the world will take the report and its premises as a given, and their opinions, more likely than not, will be shaped by the assertions and conclusions of the report.
The most critical and foremost future frontier is the battle for shaping public perceptions, and social media tools have become its most lethal weapon. The future is relative to the entity envisioning it. How the outlook appears in one part of the world, may not be the same in the other. However, the more people buy in and share a certain vision; half of the battle may have been won.