Thinking about the future
27 Nov 2014|

The topic I was given at the recent Submarine Institute of Australia conference was ‘The Strategic Environment in the period 2020-2050’. That gave me a chance to reprise in part a lecture I gave in 2010 at the Australian National University, when I was asked to prognosticate about the Asian security environment in 2050.

As Neils Bohr is reputed to have said, prediction is difficult, especially about the future. (He was half right, as we’ll see below.) But at least this was a topic on which I wasn’t handicapped by any pretence of being an expert, which would’ve increased my chances of being wrong. So I started off thinking about the lessons of history; how I would’ve done had I been asked in 1910 to talk about the European security environment in 1950. I would’ve started with the status quo; in 1910, the major powers would be those in the first column of the table below.

In 1910, I’d know about aeroplanes and submarines—and the experts of the time would assure me that while they’ll likely be of some marginal utility in warfare, they’ll be unlikely to replace, or even seriously rival, tried and tested military systems such as the newly commissioned HMS Dreadnought. And I’d know about the political and economic theory of Marx and Engels. But even if I read widely, I’d have no way of knowing about the atomic nucleus, the discovery of which was announced by Rutherford a year later.

By 1950, the power structure of Europe looked like the second column of the table, and the USA and USSR—the latter now firmly a communist state—were both nuclear powers. What had been a concert of European royal houses with complex and intertwined security guarantees and alliances had become a bipolar, politically charged nuclear-armed standoff. There’s no reasonable prospect of being able to predict a change of that sort—although H. G. Wells gave it a red hot go.

Table: Key European players and security relationships in 1910 and 1950



Austro-Hungarian Empire  United States
British Empire Soviet Union
France NATO
German Empire
Ottoman Empire (in decline)
(Tsarist) Russia

There are two notions we need to understand the transition between 1910 and 1950. The first is that extrapolation—the basis for many predictions—is likely to give an accurate prediction only up to a point of dislocation. That is, up to a major upheaval which fundamentally alters the strategic calculus and invalidates working assumptions. WWI certainly fits that description; the pre-war world, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. The second important observation is that factors on which future developments might critically depend can be in the unknown category. (And of either the known or unknown variety.)

We also need to guard against hindsight bias when looking back in history for lessons about prediction. Knowing what happened, we can construct a narrative thread that links the Concert of Europe through WWI to the Treaty of Versailles, on to the collapse of the Weimar Republic, to the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and so on. There’s no shortage of arguments between historians about the details or the significance of individual events, but there’s (largely) a consensus about the causality.

But we’re only so ‘sure’ about that because those events actually happened. There’s no way to run counterfactual simulations to see what would’ve happened if some things had transpired differently. For example, we can speculate about the evolution of Europe after 1919 had the Versailles negotiations produced a less punishing outcome for Germany, but that’s all we can do. Alternative pasts are unknowable. Former US Defense Secretary and sometimes philosopher Donald Rumsfeld summed the situation up neatly with this observation:

I would not say that the future is necessarily less predictable than the past. I think the past was not predictable when it started.

So when we try to look forward to 2050, we do so with unwarranted confidence that we understand the causal patterns of the past. There might well be factors that will play a critical role in the future that we’re currently only dimly aware of or even can’t know now. It’s likely that any predictions made today—even by non-experts who’re more likely to be correct—will hold only up to the next dislocation. If we knew the chapter headings in the future history books, we’d be much better placed.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and declare thinking about the future to be hopeless. Rather, any hedging or shaping strategies we come up with need to accept the limitations of prediction and contain enough flexibility to adapt when the unpredictable future becomes the (somewhat) less unpredictable past. You can read what I think that means for the future submarine program here.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Michael Heilemann.

For an expansion on the ideas in the post, see Known unknowns: uncertainty about the future of the Asia-Pacific by Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson.