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Blindside: How to Anticipate Forcing Events and Wild Cards in Global Politics

Francis Fukuyama editor
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 198
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    A host of catastrophes, natural and otherwise, as well as some pleasant surprises -like the sudden end of the cold war without a shot being fired -have caught governments and societies unprepared many times in recent decades. September 11 is only the most obvious recent example among many unforeseen events that have changed, even redefined our lives. We have every reason to expect more such events in future. Several kinds of unanticipated scenarios -particularly those of low probability and high impact -have the potential to escalate into systemic crises. Even positive surprises can be major policy challenges. Anticipating and managing low-probability events is a critically important challenge to contemporary policymakers, who increasingly recognize that they lack the analytical tools to do so. Developing such tools is the focus of this insightful and perceptive volume, edited by renowned author Francis Fukuyama and sponsored by The American Interest magazine. Blindside is organized into four main sections. "Thinking about Strategic Surprise" addresses the psychological and institutional obstacles that prevent leaders from planning for low-probability tragedies and allocating the necessary resources to deal with them. The following two sections pinpoint the failures -institutional as well as personal -that allowed key historical events to take leaders by surprise, and examine the philosophies and methodologies of forecasting. In "Pollyana vs. Cassandra," for example, James Kurth and Gregg Easterbrook debate the future state of the world going forward. Mitchell Waldrop explores why technology forecasting is so poor and why that is likely to remain the case. In the book's final section, "What Could Be," internationally renowned authorities discuss low probability, high-impact contingencies in their area of expertise. For example, Scott Barrett looks at emerging infectious diseases, while Gal Luft and Anne Korin discuss energy security. How can we avoid being blindsided by unforeseen events? There is no easy or obvious answer. But it is essential that we understand the obstacles that prevent us first from seeing the future clearly and then from acting appropriately on our insights. This readable and fascinating book is an important step in that direction.

    eISBN: 978-0-8157-2989-1
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. 1 The Challenges of Uncertainty: An Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)
    Francis Fukuyama

    The collapse of communism, the rapid emergence of China and India as major economic powers, the September 11 attacks, the appearance of relatively new diseases like HIV/AIDS and H5N1 bird flu, Hurricane Katrina—the past decade and a half has demonstrated that nothing is as certain as uncertainty in global politics. As the famous scatological bumper sticker suggests, bad things happen. But there are benign surprises as well, and these, no less than catastrophic events, challenge society’s capacity to understand, to adapt, and to lock in good fortune.

    Anticipating and dealing with what were thought to have been very low-probability...

  4. 2 Thinking about Catastrophe
    (pp. 7-20)
    Richard A. Posner

    A catastrophe, as I use the term, is an unexpected event that causes great harm. The two parts of the definition fit logically because most harmful events that are expected can be mitigated by preventive measures, often or at least sometimes rendering them less than catastrophic. As science advances, enabling greater predictive accuracy at least over the natural world, scientists may be able to predict catastrophes that cannot be prevented (as well as prevent some man-made catastrophes that cannot be predicted). So to be more precise, let me substitute for “unexpected event” the phrase “event of low or unknown probability”—...

  5. Part I. Cases:: Looking Back

    • 3 Slow Surprise: The Dynamics of Technology Synergy
      (pp. 23-28)
      David Landes

      Surprise in human life comes in many forms and time frames. When the first mosquito of the season in the back yard surprises a person, who slaps at his ankle in reaction, the entire episode can be measured in just a second. Military surprises affecting entire societies, like the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor and the September 11 attacks, are events that typically unfold within a day or days, even though weeks or months may have gone into secret preparations. Surprises in the economic domain, such as a major recession or a deep regional financial crisis, emerge over a still...

    • 4 U.S. Intelligence Estimates of Soviet Collapse: Reality and Perception
      (pp. 29-41)
      Bruce Berkowitz

      It is commonly believed that the U.S. intelligence community failed to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, many of the U.S. officials who received intelligence about the Soviet Union, its decline in the late 1970s and 1980s, and its final crises in the 1989–91 period, believe to this day that they were not warned—that they were, in effect, “blindsided.”

      This is odd, because the documented record shows that the intelligence community performed much better than most people seem to think. Indeed, this record suggests that U.S. intelligence provided about as good a product as one could...

    • 5 Econoshocks: The East Asian Crisis Case
      (pp. 42-54)
      David Hale

      The East Asian financial crisis of 1997–98 was one of the most dramatic economic events of the twentieth century. A region that had enjoyed several years of robust economic growth was suddenly plunged into a financial crisis that produced widespread bankruptcies and sharply higher unemployment. The crisis brought down one of Asia’s oldest dictators, Indonesia’s Suharto, and helped to topple a democratically elected government in Thailand. It forced the International Monetary Fund to play a leadership role in organizing rescue programs but also brought the IMF severe criticism for imposing fiscal austerity on countries that had already fallen into...

  6. Part II. Cases:: Looking Ahead

    • 6 The Once and Future DARPA
      (pp. 57-70)
      William B. Bonvillian

      The idea that technological innovation can be a driver of both winning armies and growing economies is at least as old as the Appian Way. A transportation network very sophisticated for its time, the Appian Way was an accelerator for Roman military prowess and commerce. It allowed Romans to move armies quickly and with better command and control, and it facilitated commerce—fueling a growing economy that sustained the republic and later the empire. It was, literally, an early information superhighway.

      For nearly the next two millennia the example of the Appian Way inspired imitation. Libraries are full of books...

    • 7 Fueled Again? In Search of Energy Security
      (pp. 71-81)
      Gal Luft and Anne Korin

      On February 17, 2006, a rebel group called the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) declared “total war” against oil companies operating in Nigeria’s main oil-producing region. Nigeria is Africa’s leading oil exporter and ranks fifth as an oil supplier to the United States. For oil companies, it is one of the most inhospitable domains on the planet in which to do business. In recent years the country, half of which is controlled by strict Islamic law, has become a cauldron of turmoil where sectarian violence, radicalism, and corruption are rampant and on the rise.

      That winter...

    • 8 Emerging Infectious Diseases: Are We Prepared?
      (pp. 82-90)
      Scott Barrett

      News that a person has become infected with HIV is a personal tragedy but of no consequence to the world at large. News of thefirstperson to be infected with HIV—now that, had it been revealed years ago at the start of the pandemic, would have been of monumental importance.

      HIV/AIDS was discovered in 1981, in San Francisco, long after the disease had already spread around the world, having probably emerged in Africa fifty years before that. Had the first person infected—the “index case,” epidemiologists call him—been identified and prevented from infecting other people, tens of...

  7. Part III. Forecasting

    • 9 Ahead of the Curve: Anticipating Strategic Surprise
      (pp. 93-108)
      Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall

      We live in a world of surprises. When they happen, the typical response is, “Who would have thought… ?” Who, for example, would have thought that Islamic terrorists would hijack airplanes and fly them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? That was a question that almost everyone—including senior military leaders of the United States—was asking after the fact. Yet, even the most devastating surprises are often inevitable. Many people did anticipate the terrorist attacks of September 11. During the last twenty years, a half-dozen well-known commissions predicted that something similar would occur: Terrorists would attack the...

    • 10 Can Scenarios Help Policymakers Be Both Bold and Careful?
      (pp. 109-119)
      Robert Lempert

      Surprise, of both good and bad varieties, has become a ubiquitous feature of the world facing American policymakers. Leaders have come to expect adverse surprises, from terrorist attacks to global pandemics to signs that global warming is emerging faster than previously imagined. But many of the most serious, festering problems facing the United States—from encouraging a free, just, and stable global order to ensuring that the American middle class can thrive in a globalized world—also require leaders who can transform some of what seem like today’s inexorable trends. The need to nurture beneficial yet seemingly unlikely change, while...

    • 11 Innovation and Adaptation: IT Examples
      (pp. 120-126)
      M. Mitchell Waldrop

      Information technology might seem to be the one area where foresight should be almost easy, if only because the trend lines are so obvious. And indeed those trend lines do allow a certain confidence about the general picture. One can be pretty sure, for example, that microprocessors will continue to become exponentially more powerful for at least another decade; that broadband and wireless networks will continue to proliferate; and that electronic devices will become increasingly mobile, increasingly connected, increasingly embedded in buildings, cars, and appliances, and increasingly pervasive in our lives.¹

      What cannot be known with any confidence, however, is...

  8. Part IV. What Could Be

    • 12 Cassandra versus Pollyanna
      (pp. 129-142)

      James Kurth: I am an optimist about the current pessimism, but a pessimist overall. What do I mean by that? Well, I am optimistic about the three particular blindsiding phenomena that have lately received a great deal of attention: catastrophic hurricanes, nuclear terrorism, and the prospect of a global flu pandemic. When it comes to these three phenomena, there is actually little to worry about.

      First, turning to the topic of catastrophic hurricanes, or more generally, the phenomena of natural geological catastrophes—hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, volcanoes, or earthquakes—these affect everyone but only in a very limited area. Historically, natural...

    • 13 Global Discontinuities
      (pp. 143-152)

      Owen Harries: The two termsAustraliaandsurprisesdo not often appear in the same sentence. Australia is generally thought of as predictable, stable, dependable, but not surprising. It is worth remembering, however, that the areas adjacent to Australia have experienced their shares of surprises. Two examples: In 1940 the Southwest Pacific was one of the most inconsequential backwaters in the world, an area in which nothing of importance ever happened, which contained nothing of any strategic interest. Only two years later, locations such as Guadalcanal and the Coral Sea were the scenes of decisive events in world politics, and...

    • 14 American Scenarios
      (pp. 153-168)

      Walter Russell Mead: When I think about low-probability events, I find that the distinction between low- and not-so-low-probability events tends to blur. There are so many possible events, so many potential surprises, that it may be less important to think about the possibilities of given events occurring than to think about how to live in a world of growing uncertainty that is changing the tenor of life and politics even now. The future will witness dangerous, tragic, and threatening events—more low-probability events will occur, even if the probability that any one of them will occur does not change. The...

  9. 15 Afterword
    (pp. 169-172)
    Francis Fukuyama

    The authors contributing toBlindsidedeal with the problem of anticipating and preparing for what at the time seem to be low-probability events but which in retrospect are often seen as inevitable. They do this from a number of perspectives. They address the methodology for confronting surprise on the part of organizations, governments, and individuals; they examine historical cases of surprise like the collapse of communism or the Asian financial crisis; and they look to possible sources of future surprises.

    Across the chapters of this volume, it becomes clear that there are three fundamental reasons why we seem so often...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 173-180)
  11. Contributors
    (pp. 181-182)
  12. Index
    (pp. 183-198)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 199-199)