Strategic Forecasting: The Impersonal Dimension of Intelligence

Strategic forecasting is that portion of intelligence that focuses on events that have broad and fundamental effects on the international system. Examples of strategic events would include the collapse of the European imperial system, the Soviet attempt to change the global balance of power by placing missiles in Cuba, the American entente with China, the 2008 financial crisis or the current confrontation over Ukraine.

Sometimes the center of gravity of this level of events is a single event that sets in motion other events. Sometimes it is broad processes. These are events that transform the way the world works, and puts nations at great advantage and disadvantage. They have lasting consequences on a broad range of issues.

Strategic forecasting is that class of intelligence that is most alien to intelligence services—events that cannot be understood through sources, and whose outcome was unintended and unanticipated by the actors involved. In addition, it does not allow decision makers to decide whether the events will happen, but confines them to preparing for broad shifts. For most political leaders, immediate issues subject to control are more attractive, while strategic issues, which after all may be in error, require enormous effort with political costs. Careers are not enhanced in intelligence by broad and long-term thinking even if completely correct. Given the frequent and radical shifts in history that challenge conventional thought, many strategic forecasts appear preposterous to the intelligence consumer. In this sense, it is a form of intelligence best practiced outside of government and state intelligence services.

Strategic intelligence is not source driven, but rather it is model driven. This is not to say that strategic intelligence doesn’t depend on the inflow of information, but the level of information it requires is not necessarily information that is hard and dangerous to discover (although it is possible in some cases that it is). Nor does it consist of massive collections. The entire principle of strategic intelligence is to ruthlessly discard the subcritical noise that is being collected in order to identify the center of gravity of events. A tiny hint may sometimes draw attention to a major process, particularly in military affairs. Finding that tiny hint, however, absorbs huge amounts of time and effort and little time is left to understand the meaning. Moreover, in many cases, the process is in plain sight and the trick is to see it, and the even harder trick is to believe it.

The task of strategic intelligence is to build a model that takes into account the wide range of constraints that limit the choices of a leader, and identify the imperatives that he must pursue if he is to survive as a leader, and if his country is to be safe. The model involves imperatives that must be fulfilled, constraints that shape the solutions, decision-makers that must be modeled in these terms, with the variables extended into multiple domains and interacting with similar models for other countries. To manage this the broad outlines of behavior can only be modeled, and the data that is used cannot be excessively granular, as it both overwhelms the analyst and obscures the point, which is to understand the broad patterns that are emerging. Without the existence of a prior model that controls the selection and flow of intelligence, the system collapses under the weight of random information. It is important to bear in mind that no attempt is made to engage in a psychological model of the decision-maker. This is not only because such a model is impossible to create but also because the psychology of power and powerful leaders tends to make them more similar than different. A psychology of power in general is more useful than a psychology of the individuals.

To understand the current strategic reality, strategic forecasting requires a dynamic model of the international system operating on several levels. On the highest level, 1992 and the fall of the Soviet Union ended 500 years of history in which there were always one or more European global powers. From the broadest standpoint therefore, the fall of the Soviet Union was more than a matter of significance to Russia and other nations of the Soviet Union. It was also a European event, marking the end of European global power, shifting the center of gravity of the global system to North America and in its first phase, to the dominant power in North America, the United States.

On the next level, the post-Cold War period, history organized itself around three pillars. The first was the United States. The second was the European Union that appeared to be in the process of moving toward full unification, and would therefore counterbalance the United States. The third pillar was China, the successor to Japan as the world’s low-wage, high-growth economy. This period ended in 2008. To understand the contemporary world, it is necessary to understand each of these pillars and their fate, with particular attention to the United States.

This article is based on Valdai Paper #6 , prepared within the framework of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club research program. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.