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Gregory R. Copley

Gregory R. Copley

Historian, author, and strategic analyst — and onetime industrialist — Gregory R. Copley, who was born in 1946, has for almost five decades worked at…

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Strategic Thinking: How To Think About The Future

Long-range planning — or at least a superficial view of it — is back in vogue, but modern societies are paying the price for their inattention to history, and the stove-piping of intellectual skills. So how can the “grand strategy” matrix be re-introduced before it’s too late?

Winston Churchill once said that we shape our architecture and thereafter it shapes us. Roman roads and city structures still guide us. We are captives of the infrastructure and modalities created in the past, and they keep us stable, but on a narrow path, unable to easily achieve radical twists and surprises to grasp the future.

Most great infrastructure — and most major military platforms — last a half-century; the doctrine associated with these investments of a nation’s exchequer and particularly its pride can last a century and often more. We can break a little from our shackles, but are often unable to travel far from our past. Change, and planning for change, then, becomes merely incremental. At least that holds comfort and safety … until an adversary surpasses us, and then the pleistocene tar pits in which our feet of clay are mired turns comfort and safety into fear and defeat.

Few things sweep away the constraints of the path like strategic, societal collapse or defeat. Perhaps Russia benefited from the collapse of the USSR in 1990-91 more than its rivals could comprehend. Many old structures and ways disappeared. Russia could adopt new approaches without fear or shame; it had no other choice. And where, today, Russia finds difficulty, it is where old ways and old infrastructure remain intact.

In planning for the indefinite future (or even the coming few decades), we need to be aware of the extent to which we are bound by ancient assets and ancient doctrine. And recognize that what we build today will, equally, both empower and constrain our successor generations.

We recognize that the success of the Industrial Revolution and post- Industrial Revolution society created enormous wealth which facilitated strategic dominance and urbanization. And that urbanization in itself compounded the growth of wealth, largely because wealth was able to become more flexible due to abstractions of the concept of “value”.

We will not discuss here the psychological (belief) structure which ascribes value to currencies and the like, but assume that “wealth” in modern terms is not merely about sufficiency in life’s essentials. Moreover, we should assume that the attributes of post-Industrial Revolution society have translated across “civilizational divides”, and have now become the hallmark of almost all societies.

So although the attributes of modernism seem to dominate most societies, it is in the areas of marginal differences and geography where the potential for conflict lies. It may be argued that population movement — disrupting cultural unity and therefore identity security — has become the dominant underlying factor of early 21st Century strategic change, whereas technological growth was the hallmark of the Cold War and immediate post-Cold War period.

Technology and population movement into urban areas are drivers of immediate thinking and planning for the “foreseeable” future. This means that our current thinking — and our ability to think about the longer-term future — is governed by this framework (technology plus urbanization), and our present belief in the inevitability and sustainability of this matrix. In UnCivilization: Urban Geopolitics in a Time of Chaos in 2012, I attempted to show that this linear extrapolation of present trends may not endure because urbanization trends, caused by and contributing to the rise in global wealth, could well mature in the coming few decades into:

• Reduced global population as falling reproduction rates result from urban lifestyles (already commencing);

• The inevitability that reduced population size will — once the distortion of population because of migration patterns eases — diminish demand for urban real estate, reducing values and therefore capital formation and flexibility (already happening in some areas);

• Healthcare issues caused by economic distortions and trends which will decrease live birth rates and life expectancy in many pockets of populations, thus compounding population decline;

• A continuing reduction in scientific and industrial innovation (already happening) due to a rise in urban governance and social patterns which inhibit investment and creativity; and so on.

These are short-term trends, out to perhaps 2035 or 2050. But within these trends are the seeds of the destruction of the “city-state” mentality which has been eroding the viability of the Westphalian state model which evolved as a result of the “re-set” which was the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. The models for the destruction of city states by applications of “crude power” can be seen in Philip of Macedon’s victories over the Hellenist states, and the destruction of the Italian medieval city states by nation-state power.

So if we can foresee the re-balancing of human society to the point where population numbers and movements fluctuate wildly and decline; where we can see our present value systems (that is, in terms of currencies and assets, not necessarily moral values) completely change; where our technological and scientific growth no longer promises uniform growth and widespread wealth … If we can foresee all of that within the short- to medium-term, how then do we position ourselves to see beyond that? Related: The 8 Major Geopolitical Catalysts Of 2015

We have seen cycles come and go in the past. We have seen the creation of infrastructure — such as Roman roads and bridges — transcend the cycles, and remain in use 2,000 years after they were created. Can we (and perhaps should we) envisage the creation of infrastructure which would remain viable beyond our comprehension of future societies?

But let us not get too far ahead of ourselves. We are obligated to continue to think about the next 30 to 100 years as “the long term”, and must prepare for that. Coping with a world in the process of transition on a scale which may have happened only once in the past, say, 1,500 years ago (perhaps the onset of the Dark Ages; or perhaps the end of them) already throws up massive uncertainties.

It is the scale and complexity of this new wave of uncertainty which need to be understood and managed. Some find comfort in retreat to the monasticism of compartmentalized specialization, and with dreams of the linear extrapolation of uninterrupted progress in their area of skill. But that will not give them shelter from the storm.

What we are witnessing, and about to witness even more, are the intersections of a range of seemingly unrelated trends, which will terminate linear progress in many areas now considered vital to humanity. This could preface a slide, commencing as soon as the coming decade, into a new Dark Age, or a new Age of Enlightenment. But it is a period where options — as well as threats — abound.

History shows that most political decisions are based on short-term expediencies and pressures. The narrower the focus, the more difficult it is to comprehend contextual threats and opportunities. That is not to deny the energy and possibilities created by xenophobia and ignorance; not knowing the impossibility of a task is sometimes an essential ingredient of success. But the mere short-term application of willpower, unsupported by strategic capability and depth, rarely achieves historical durability.

T. Irene Sanders, who has devoted her career to contemplating future strategic shapes, noted, in 2006: “[M]ost strategic thinking models, designed to provide us with information about the future, are still based on linear forecasting models and trend extrapolations. They are often too complicated and too disconnected from the dynamics of the big picture context they are designed to navigate.” Despite this, the US Defense Department’s approach to the present crisis in which it finds itself — that is, the prospect of being eclipsed technologically and in terms of doctrine by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in key areas — has been to develop its Long-Range Research & Development Plan (LRRDP), being labeled the “Third Offset”. But it is too limited in its approach; it continues in many ways merely to extrapolate from the existing base; from the legacy force of major capital systems and doctrine.

Part of that shortcoming derives from a national leadership which itself has not articulated a vision for the future, and defense is only one portion of a whole-of-society approach. Even so, the need for a totally new approach is evident.

It must be a maxim of strategic competition that when faced with a strategic momentum which is existentially challenging, then the answer must be to attempt to intercept the future, outflank it; not catch up with an elusive present. And that means comprehending that the future may be one in which social and population patterns, both in one’s own country and the contextual environment, bear little recognition to the current framework.

Indeed, to gain strategic dominance as the world passes through a period of comprehensive reorganization (chaos) should mean thinking of fielding totally new military technology and — more importantly — doctrine, as well as fostering totally new civil technologies and economic models.

History demonstrates adequately the constant cyclic nature of conflict. Despite this, the world is passing again through a period when the prospect of strategic conflict has been “relegated to history”, except among the aspirant powers, the PRC and Russia. But even those powers have not fully grasped the necessity which will emerge, that strategic success depends on maintaining control over most of the essentials of sovereignty.

Outsourcing of (that is, importing) the essentials of national survival works only until the shooting starts. Significantly, the emerging technology now evident means that “the shooting” may occur incrementally and indirectly, in the form of cyber warfare. Beyond our present move into cyber warfare, we assume that technology will continue to increase progressively over the coming decades.

The era of population decline and economic recalibration seems more than likely to fracture the path of technological progress. It may be that the social and economic context, coupled with the prospective loss of general learning, could dictate that power would move to those with simple and survivable technology and appropriately-matched doctrine.

Certainly, the strategic decline of the West — the “old West”; because “modern civilization” became globally pervasive — was attributable to the terminal exhaustion of a strategy which favored capital investment over maneuver and innovation. When social conditions stagnate, the ability to amass capital declines. Fluid strategic and conflict situations favor innovative thinking, maneuver, and surprise.

Again, this is not the distant future, but the coming two or so decades. Surviving those decades gives the option of dominating the world beyond, with probably a lot fewer people, a totally different economic framework and set of values, and a new palette of technologies, most of them less “networked” than today. The great skill will be to devise strategies and capabilities which will endure and succeed during the coming interregnum of highly-stressed economies. In other words, what tools will succeed to enable success during a period of economic downturn, population dislocation (in psychological as well as movement and numerical terms), and declining access to decisive technologies?

The great fear is to abandon what has worked up to this point, even though it may now be failing, in order to grasp at a new approach. More than ever, it is clear that a successful approach to the future will entail undertaking parallel approaches, developing, perhaps parallel structures, retiring the old as the new succeeds.

How well we perceive and plan for the future determines whether our society will prosper and dominate, or wither and die. It is difficult, especially in times of rising prosperity, to see how this wellbeing could change. But it will. That is the lesson of history.

Before we think about how to approach the future, we have to understand what keeps us locked into our present thinking and habits.

To begin with, our perspectives are constrained by life cycles, and not just our own and the intergenerational frameworks of our families. All life forms have cycles from birth to death. Cultures, societies, and civilizations, like all complex organisms, are no different. Still, it appears that aspects of cultures — which have their origins in the logic of humans to survive in given terrain and climatic conditions — may remain embedded in human DNA. Civilizations, which are quantification-based organizational tools which transcend and are more abstract than cultural tendencies, also mature and die, but even some of their lessons also become embedded in human DNA. Related: The Paris Jihad, Ready or Not, Has Begun, and Will Widen


It is part of this survival logic that each human views the world and the future through the prism of his or her own experiences, family and culture, and the terroir relationship which identification with a piece of geography brings. All of these factors have conspired — in the urban, electrified, and wealthy world which emerged during the 20th Century — to narrow, rather than broaden, human perspectives.

The predominant human “culture”, then, has, for more than half the people in the world, become the culture of urbanism. Urban culture is at once both sophisticated in educational and “civilizational” (quantification) terms, and yet narrow in that it has relegated the fundamentals and priority of survival — food production, the gathering of raw materials, and so on — to an unconsciousness. It focuses less on the cycles of climate, generational stewardship and tradition, and food production, and more on the immediate.

Most people see the world, and the future, increasingly in terms defined by this urban cultural and educational focus. Such a narrowness of vision (albeit a different one) would be unsurprising in poorer societies with lower educational levels and a greater rural population, where interaction with divergent ideas would be less frequent. But it has become more pronounced than would have been expected in educated, urban, secular societies. To succeed and prosper, sophisticated and articulate urban groups have generated many rigidly separated parallel paths of significant scientific or technological skills in education and industry. However — outside those skills — urban sophisticates have predominantly succumbed to random pseudo-secular beliefs, built without the same empirical foundations as their professional skills. To oversimplify: Inside their skillsets, vital to urban survival, they understand the empirical logic of progress; outside their narrow skillsets, an articulate ignorance prevails.

This has created a profound schism in Western civilization in particular, leading to a belief that, because of high intellectual capability, skill, and knowledge exists in one side of an individual’s life that this gives credence to beliefs in another side of that individual’s life. This is not new, but it is increasingly a facet of urban thinking, and urban society now comprises some 56 percent of human life.

In turn, this has led, in urban societies, to the attitude that traditional religious beliefs are primitive and risible, whereas secular beliefs are “scientific”. In its extreme form, as recent warfare has shown, this differentiation in bases of social thinking can lead to pseudospeciation: the belief that the “other” society is de facto another species, less than human; less than worthy of equality and respect.

But the reality is that beliefs, whatever the origin, are just that: beliefs. They are not knowledge. Beliefs are, however, a form or derivative of logic which help sustain social cohesion and therefore survival, so they are not unimportant. Indeed, those aspects of belief which contribute to identity security are critical to a sense of worth and purpose, which is the essential driver of societal progress.

As Oswald Spengler hinted in The Decline of the West in 1918, and I stressed in UnCivilization, we have, in fact, moved beyond the Age of Reason, and we have returned to an Age of Belief. Only now, belief is expressed in “non-religious” terms. That, too, has been a long time in coming: becoming stark with the evolution of communism as a pseudo-modern belief system in the 19th Century.

In reality, “secular” belief forms are merely the resonance of urban logic; they are no less culturally- based religions than, say, Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. And, as Elias Canetti pointed out in Crowds & Power, they shape how we retain cohesiveness in societies for survival. Political correctness is the name we give this modern herding instinct, and it keeps us all from straying too far from our group survival, whether in terms of our self-censorship of “loaded” words, or our adherence to physical fashions. We need to know who “we” are, and that is defined largely (and extremely superficially) by how we look, act, and speak, and, critically, where we are.

But all of these belief systems — secular or traditional — keep us in the present, and make difficult any thinking about the future.

How, then, do we understand how patterns emerge which shape our future, at least a century ahead? And how do we plan and implement strategies to ensure our society’s wellbeing when we are enmeshed in social patterns rooted in the immediate, often precluding broad contextual understanding?

By Gregory R. Copley

Source - GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

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