The world is in the midst of the most profound shift of global power and influence in more than a century. The collapse of the Cold War order, the rise of China and India as new global powers, and the advent of new transnational challenges have all combined to overturn old verities and points of reference.
This period of flux has spawned a cottage industry of futuristic debate and analysis, much of it good and interesting. Yet governments, including the U.S. government, remain very poor at long-range strategic planning -- that is, at making policy choices on the basis of well-considered strategic objectives and methods for achieving them, with a view to the long term. Why? Is it that government officials are less clever than outside analysts, scholars, and pundits? Or is it that forecasting the future -- and making decisions that have real consequences on the basis of these forecasts -- is vastly harder than armchair analysts imagine?
As chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC), which provides strategic analysis to the president and his National Security Council, I oversaw production of one of the pioneering pieces of long-range analysis: Mapping the Global Future: Report of the NIC's 2020 Project. This report generated great interest around the world, for both its methodology and its provocative conclusions about the dramatic shift of global power and influence, roughly from west to east. It was translated into Chinese, Russian, Spanish, and French, and served as a model for dozens of long-range analyses in other countries. Yet the most striking thing about Mapping the Global Future is how little impact it had on actual policy. Our judgment that international institutions were in crisis and needed to be radically reshaped to accommodate the rise of other powers was largely ignored. Another key finding -- that whereas the language of terrorism may be couched in ideological and religious terms, its underlying goals are essentially political -- likewise made hardly a dent in the overmilitarized and self-defeating counterterrorism policies adopted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The same dynamic is evident in other countries. I learned this firsthand in leading a nonofficial U.S. delegation around the world, under the auspices of the Atlantic Council, for strategic dialogues with counterparts in Brazil, China, Egypt, Germany, Russia, South Africa, and a dozen other key countries. Our dialogues revealed a surprising level of agreement on the broad trends affecting the global future, but generated few ideas for going beyond immediate challenges to prepare for those just over the horizon.
Why is this? And how can governments better prepare for the future?
The "why" is the easier question to answer. For one thing, senior political leaders are keenly aware of the contingent nature of history. Most are like Woodrow Call, the veteran Texas Ranger in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove: "Though he had always been a careful planner, life ... had long ago convinced him of the fragility of plans. The truth was, most plans did fail, to one degree or another, for one reason or another. He had survived ... because he was quick to respond to what he had actually found, not because his planning was infallible." Policymakers might add that the crucial test is how they react to unexpected events -- whether the responses are haphazard and episodic, or take place within a larger strategic framework -- not whether they saw them coming.
These global dialogues also revealed that middle powers, even important ones like Brazil and France, often feel themselves the objects rather than the subjects of history. They are disinclined to broad strategic planning because they lack confidence in their capacity to implement ambitious plans. France has tried, with mixed results, to compensate by acting via the European Union; it is an open question whether Brazil can eventually act like the global power it aspires to be.