Voice

Known Unknowns

Why even bad predictions are good for America.

Every four years, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) produces a hefty report on global trends likely to shape future events, and every four years, pundits gang up on its semi-anonymous authors. The main accusation? You guys can't predict jacksh*t.

I say: lay off. It's true that the NIC's predictive track record isn't particularly impressive, but so what? We put far too much store on "predicting the future," and not nearly enough energy into shaping the future -- or developing the capabilities that will help us respond with speed and agility when events take an unpredictable turn.

The Case Against the NIC's Global Trends Report

It's easy and fun to diss the NIC's Global Trends Report, the most recent of which came out this week. The NIC prefaces the Global Trends 2030 report by insisting that it does "not seek to predict the future," but this disclaimer satisfies no one: after all, to identify a trend is to imply directionality.

Generally speaking, NIC predictions fall into three categories: there are concrete predictions, there are vague, hedged predictions, and there are contradictory predictions.

Concrete predictions -- being concrete -- are easily falsifiable, and as Michael Horowitz and Philip Tetlock wrote in September, a lot of those predictions don't look so good when "the future" turns into the past. Horowitz and Tetlock cite, for instance, the NIC's 1997 prediction that "The next 15 years will witness the transformation of North Korea and resulting elimination of military tensions on the peninsula."

Hmm, not so much. Horowitz and Tetlock are stern: "Needless to say, the Stalinist regime, though hardly the picture of health, remains untransformed....and relations between North and South show little sign of improving; military tensions are high." To Horowitz and Tetlock, prediction tends to be a chump's game -- or, perhaps, a chimp's. "Predicting events five years into the future" -- much less fifteen or twenty years -- "is so difficult that most experts perform only marginally better than dart-throwing chimps." Joshua Foust is similarly skeptical: "any specific prediction in these texts will almost invariably be wrong."

Then there are the vague and hedged predictions: it is "virtually certain" that we'll see a diffusion of power among countries! Demographic trends will pose challenges as some populations age and others remain characterized by youth bulges! "[L]ook at the ‘megatrends' and ‘game-changers' of the NIC study and you see only a rehashing of the past decade or so of Davos meetings and McKinsey studies, the dross of popular futurism," laments FP's David Rothkopf. Such vague predictions offer little specificity, which makes them both tough to falsify and tough to know how to use. Global Trends 2030 daringly predicts, for instance, that migration and urbanization "could put new strains on food and water resources." Since "new strains" can cover just about anything from minor disagreements to famine, epidemic disease, and world war, this is hard to dispute.

Finally, the NIC offers contradictory predictions, or "scenarios that represent distinct pathways." On the "food, water, energy nexus," we're informed that "there is as much scope for negative trade-offs as there is the potential for popular synergies." And in general, says the NIC, many "alternate futures" exist: the "risk of interstate conflict [could] rise owing to a new ‘great game' in Asia," but on the other hand we could see the United States, China, and Europe collaborating to prevent conflict from spreading, "leading to worldwide cooperation to deal with global challenges."

Basically: bad stuff could happen, or good stuff could happen, or in-between stuff could happen. Concludes Rothkopf: "[R]eports about the future seldom do much to illuminate our understanding of what is yet to come."

Of course, NIC reports are hardly the only predictive efforts to come under fire. Micah Zenko, for instance, suggests that predictions made by the military are just as bad as predictions made by the NIC: "The U.S. military has a terrible record of predicting where conflicts will emerge and where they will be deployed to fight," he argues, and offers a discouraging array of examples to prove his point. He quotes former Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right..."

The Future Will Be Unpredictable

If you want to stay on safe ground, you can always predict that the future will be unpredictable.

Admittedly, in a purely theoretical sense, the future is not unpredictable: the number of possible permutations is vast, but not infinite. So if you had, hypothetically, a powerful enough computer, and could load it up with data about absolutely everything that is happening or has ever happened, you might conceivably get that hypothetical computer to generate some solid predictions, with numerical probabilities attached.

This, however, is not a feasible proposition. Literature buffs may recall Jorge Luis Borges's short story, "On Exactitude in Science," about a map built on a one-to-one scale: "[T]he Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it... [But].... The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless."

For us humans -- with our cognitive biases, limited information, and limited processing power -- it will always be impossible to reliably predict the longer-term future, and all the more so as the complexity of our global ecosystem grows. All we can predict with confidence is that the future will -- probably -- be full of surprises.

Get Over It

But as I said, so what? Contrary to popular belief, predicting unpredictability has real value. The NIC's Global Trends Report is still valuable, because it reminds us of two important things: first, that there's a tremendous amount we don't know about what's going to happen in the future, and second, that the unknowable future will nevertheless be shaped by the choices we make in the present.

This isn't chopped liver. On the contrary: this information has logical and distinct implications for us as we make choices in the present.

Contrast the implications of concrete future predictions with the implications of predicting numerous possible alternative futures. If we have a concrete future prediction -- say, for instance, "a resurgent Russia will pose the greatest long-term threat to the United States" -- we will naturally focus our energies on preventing and preparing for possible conflict with the Russians. Like all choices, this will have opportunity costs: if we calibrate our investments and actions based on our knowledge of Russian capabilities, we won't be able to prepare fully for various other potential threats.

If our predictions about Russia are correct, this doesn't matter. But what if our predictions about Russia are wrong, as future predictions tend to be, more often than not? What if, say, China turns out to be the real threat, or a Latin American dictator acquires and threatens to use nuclear weapons, or, for that matter, the earth is invaded by space aliens? Well...we'll be in trouble. We'll have spent decades preparing for one thing, and it will be hard to pivot to face another. Path-dependency is a natural human tendency, and it's magnified by bureaucracy.

But let's say we accept the deeper message of the NIC's latest Global Trends Report, which I take to be this: there are many plausible alternative futures, and right now we can't really say which is most likely. We can't say which is most likely, in part, because all sorts of things are unknowable or beyond our control, and in part because life is like one of those "choose your own adventure" books -- our decisions will contribute to shaping the future. This has concrete implications for what we should do now.

Forget Predicting: Focus on Shaping and Responding.

Start with the first proposition, the proposition that most human predictions are no more useful than those of dart-throwing chimps. We don't know if the gravest future threats will come from Russia, or China, or al Qaeda, or climate change, or some state or organization or phenomenon not yet on our radar screen: an "unknown unknown." This doesn't give us "nothing to prepare for." On the contrary, it tells us that we need to prepare to respond to anything -- we need to prepare for uncertainty, for challenges and opportunities that will mutate and surprise us.

We talk about the need for agility so much that it's becoming a cliché, but like most clichés, it got that way because it reflects truth. When you believe the future threat is the Russian Army rolling in massed tank formations across the plains of Eastern Europe, you focus on training and equipping your military to fight back against massed tank formations. You don't bother training for counterinsurgency or stability operations, and you don't worry too much about making every corporal a strategist. But when you believe the coming threat will surprise you, you prepare to respond to surprises.

That means you focus on creating creativity and resilience. You train your corporals to be strategic. You develop equipment that is versatile. You invest both in small cadres of specialists with the skills to combat the likely near-term threats, and in larger groups of "utility infielders." Finally, you seek to develop adaptive, dynamic institutional knowledge-building and decision-making structures and processes: if surprises come fast and furious, you don't want it to take six months to tee up the most minor decisions for the president.

This is what you do if you expect surprises, and it's distinctly different from what you do if you think you've got a good handle on the future.

The second proposition -- that our decisions and actions will shape the future -- also has consequences. (This is not to be mistaken for the proposition that we can control the future: as Karl Marx warned in 1852, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.")

If we like some possible futures more than others -- if we think that a multipolar world with robust international mechanisms for addressing global challenges is better that a multipolar world of great powers in conflict, for instance -- then we should get a move on.

You want effective and equitable international institutions in the future, at which time U.S. preeminence can no longer be assumed? Then we need to jump-start these institutions now, while we still have outsized credibility and power. You want a future world in which climate change doesn't cause mass refugee flows, resource competition and conflict? Then get cracking on emissions control and the development of alternative energy sources.

Leave the NIC Alone

"You're defining the future today, whether or not you intend to," writes David Rothkopf, "and thus the very best way to ensure a good 2030 is to focus on making the right choices in 2013." But this has an unstated corollary: to make the "right" choices in 2013, you have to have an opinion on what would constitute a "good" 2030.

The NIC's predictions are offered in terms of plausible alternative scenarios for the simple reason that this is about the best anyone can do. And it's far from useless: by outlining starkly different alternative futures, the NIC reports can help us figure out what we want to achieve and what we want to avoid.

We know the future is uncertain, but we know we have at least some ability to shape that future, providing we have a vision of what we want...and we know we can improve our national ability to respond to even the "unknown unknowns" with creativity, agility, and resilience.

So: quit beating up on the NIC, and let's get to it.

Flickr

National Security

Confessions of a Strategic Communicator

Tales from inside the Pentagon's message machine.

I must have sinned egregiously during a past life, because when I arrived at the Pentagon in spring 2009, I was handed responsibility for the can of worms known as "strategic communication." I was a newly minted political appointee in the Office of the Secretary of Defense's policy shop and no one, including myself, knew quite what I was supposed be doing with my time. But my résumé included a four-year stint as an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times. This apparently qualified me as a "communications" expert, so strategic communication policy was deemed an appropriate addition to my murky portfolio.

It should go without saying that in and of itself, writing an opinion column reflects no qualifications beyond the having of opinions. I started my job at the Pentagon with plenty of opinions -- many half-baked -- but a mind blissfully free of expertise relating to "communications," strategic or otherwise. Opinionated ignorance is the hallmark of a happy political appointee, however, so I plunged resolutely into my new assignment.

For the better part of the 27 months that followed, I spent much of my time trying to figure out whether strategic communication was an idea whose time had come, or a non-idea whose time should come to a rapid end. (Readers with an interest but with limited attention spans can even look at the highly unofficial illustrated history of DOD strategic communication I put together in late 2009.)

If you believe what you read in the media, the Pentagon recently opted for the second view. "The Pentagon is banishing the term ‘strategic communication,'" trumpeted USA Today on Tuesday, "putting an end to an initiative that had promised to streamline the military's messaging but instead led to bureaucratic bloat and confusion." This, the paper reports, is the upshot of "a memo obtained by USA TODAY."

But reports of strategic communication's demise are greatly exaggerated. The memo obtained by USA Today -- also obtained by yours truly, and available here -- isn't really about the demise of strategic communication at "the Pentagon," which is, after all, an awfully big building.

On the contrary: this latest memo is just another shot fired in the ongoing skirmish between those who believe that strategic communication is merely an unnecessary euphemism for "communications" -- meaning, basically, press statements and talking points -- and thus should be controlled by public affairs offices, and those who believe strategic communication is a confusing term, but one that has nonetheless come to stand for something complex and important, something that has more to do with "strategy" than with "communications." I'm in the latter camp.

But let's look at that memo. It's been agitating a corner of the blogosphere since Tuesday, mainly because its contents and import have been misrepresented (or just misunderstood) by the media. The memo is from Pentagon press spokesman and Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs George Little to the commanding generals of the various combatant commands. It explains Little's decision to stop using the term "strategic communication," which he believes causes "confusion." According to Little, "the more accurate terminology, which will be used in future Joint Publications, is communications synchronization." The memo also complains that "over the last six years we learned that [strategic communication] actually added a layer of staffing and planning that blurred the roles and functions of traditional staff elements, and resulted in confusion and inefficiency. As a result, this year we stood down those staff elements."

"So what?" you ask. Quite right. What we have here isn't a DOD-wide policy change -- it's just a badly drafted memo explaining that OSD's Public Affairs shop is changing its terminology and internal structure because it finds strategic communication confusing.

Why Little felt the need to inform combatant commanders of his confusion is unclear, but his memo doesn't change anything for anyone at the Pentagon aside from his own staff. It's not a directive or instruction from the secretary of defense; it's not a policy document; and it's not doctrine or military planning guidance -- although Little seems to assume he'll be the guy writing joint doctrine in the future.

That's not terribly likely, as Little's memo is also a product of bureaucratic original sin: according to Pentagon insiders, the memo wasn't coordinated or cleared with the Joint Staff or the Policy office before going out. That's a big no-no, and likely to generate powerful new antibodies.

Neglecting to clear memos with other offices before leaking them to the press is standard practice for bureaucratic power grabs, of course, and Little's memo certainly counts as such. The Public Affairs office, he asserts, is "continuing our leadership role in communication and reminding those in the communication business that most things previously termed [strategic communication] are in fact Public Affairs responsibilities."

This passive-aggressive bureaucratese illustrates one of the reasons sane government employees try to keep strategic communication out of their portfolios: it's one of those things that people can't stop fighting over.

For the last decade, strategic communication has been the subject of rancorous interagency and intra-agency bickering. Public diplomacy experts at the State Department think "strategic communication" is what they already do, and want DOD out of the picture altogether. Meanwhile, the DOD Public Affairs office has traditionally insisted that strategic communication is what they already do, and they want the policy people to stop mixing their peanut butter in Public Affairs' chocolate. Pentagon policy and strategy experts meanwhile maintain that strategic communication has only a glancing relationship to traditional "communications" and is mostly an issue of planning operations to achieve "information effects." And the White House -- which apparently hasn't seen Little's memo -- insists on referring to top Obama advisor Ben Rhodes as the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications.

So what does it all mean? When it comes to strategic communication, is there a there there? Or is George Little right to despise the term "strategic communication," take the view that strategic communication is "in fact" just public affairs, and propose replacing it with the term "communications synchronization"?

Little's claim that the term "strategic communication" causes confusion is fair enough. (Trust me: it confused me for more than two years.) Indeed, I've often felt that there's a special place in hell reserved for the person who first foisted the term "strategic communication" on the Defense Department. The term itself was a corporate import, and a pernicious one.

In the corporate world, the term "strategic communication" has been used for several decades to describe the coordinated use of activities designed to make the corporate entity "look good," such as marketing, advertising, public relations, community relations, and so on. It carries overtones of manipulation: after all, marketers needn't care if their product is "good" (or healthy, or durable, or safe, or whatever) -- their goal is just to make sure people buy the product, regardless of its actual value.

During the early years of the Bush administration, the term "strategic communication" was similarly used to cover a multitude of sins. These ranged from the foolish but relatively innocuous conviction that lots of "messaging" was all it took to counter violent extremism, to rather more sinister efforts, such as paying to clandestinely plant feel-good "news" stories in the Iraqi press. To many, the term "strategic communication" became tightly linked to other regrettable Bush administration neologisms, such as the "global war on terror" (GWOT) and the "war of ideas."

In the last years of the Bush administration, internal Pentagon reformers sought to jettison the more egregiously stupid GWOT strategic communication initiatives. Just as important, they sought to rethink the concept of strategic communication altogether. If strategic communication just meant messaging -- or "public affairs on steroids" -- it was indeed a completely unnecessary concept. If there was a there there, it had to lie somewhere else.

By 2009, DOD consensus had begun to emerge around a more nuanced understanding of what strategic communication might mean. Ideally, the term could serve as a reminder that everything is a form of communication -- that our actions (and omissions) can speak as loudly as our words, and that wise officials, military and civilian alike, must consider the "information effects" of all that they say and do -- from press statements to changes in force posture.

This understanding of strategic communication -- which is reflected in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review and other key DOD documents -- has very little to do with traditional press and public affairs activities. In this view, "strategic communication" refers to the thoughtful integration of issues of stakeholder perception and response into policymaking, planning, and operations at every level. Public affairs, information operations, and traditional public diplomacy are tools that can support and enhance strategic communication, but they aren't the same as strategic communication. Strategic communication, in this view, is less about what we have to say than it is about considering how others may interpret our words and actions.

What strategic communication boils down to, in some ways, is a simple plea: learn, engage and listen; try to understand how people outside the United States view U.S. actors; think in advance about how what we do and say will be perceived, and plan activities accordingly. Invest in developing the linguistic and cultural knowledge necessary to do this. Recognize that sometimes we're going to make people angry, but try not to piss people off by accident.

Of course, this still begs the question: why call all this "strategic communication"?

There's really no good reason: it's just an accident of history. In my first months at the Pentagon, I tried hard to get rid of the term, which carries negative connotations for many. In the end, more experienced voices persuaded me to give up this quest: the term may be confusing, but it's been in use for over a decade within DOD by now. There have been studies and reports on strategic communication -- some quite smart -- and DOD has promulgated an official definition of strategic communication, discussed it in congressionally mandated reports and memoranda from the secretary, and integrated it into military planning guidance. It's not a great term, but by the end of 2009 I concluded that DOD was stuck with it. Rather than squabbling about terminological changes, I felt we should focus on integrating the insights the term strategic communication had come to reflect into policymaking and planning.

Now, OSD's Public Affairs office is proposing that the term strategic communication be replaced with "communications synchronization." It's George Little's prerogative to use whatever phrasing he wants to describe the work of his office, but I think the proposed new term is even worse than the old. "Communications synchronization"? To me, the term has a rather fascistic ring. Though I'm sure this was not the intent, it suggests a rigid determination to make all utterances hew to a narrow party line. Mostly, though, it just misses the point, which is that strategic communication isn't about "communications." Little's memo could have been written in 2002 or 2006. It hearkens back to the days when DOD leadership imagined that disciplined use of the right "messaging" would "win the war of ideas," and ignores a decade of accumulated wisdom.

In fact, the memo isn't even a good example of "communication synchronization": it's badly out of sync with the rest of the Defense Department, which for the most part has -- slowly but surely -- begun to integrate the concept of strategic communication into day-to-day planning and operations.

The good news? Combatant commanders are likely to give the memo the treatment it deserves, and place it right in the circular file.

Alex Wong/Getty Images