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Between 2015 and 2050: Considerations in Negotiating a Date for an Indian Grand Strategy Project

Peter Garretson, Airpower & Spacepower Strategist, and Grand Stategist, is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • August 03, 2009

    Security planners often grapple with the question of how far out they should be looking and planning, and it is not a problem to take lightly. Many believe that as the pace of technology quickens and the number of possible interactions in a globalized, flattened world increase, the real horizon of meaningful forecast moves ever closer. But in my view that only forces us to look farther out, to things that seem distant today, but can be anticipated, and to take a longer view.

    The job of a security planner is the job of a map-maker, a navigator, and a pilot. Using all our abilities, we chart the territory ahead as far as our tools can assist us, we decide upon a destination, and we chart a course, using time itself as a tool. While the policymaker always has the option to act along the immediate path of least resistance or maximum opportunity in the moment as a last resort, most policymakers look to their strategists for counsel regarding the best path that will offer maximum opportunity and freedom of manoeuvre for the long haul.

    Strategists, therefore, do not have the luxury of surrendering to the fog of the future. They must do their best to penetrate it, to draw the contours of the map, however hazy, and to set waypoints that avoid getting trapped in local minima, and maximize opportunity and freedom of manoeuvre. It is the aim of every strategist to resist the natural course of things, and engineer change both within an organization and in its environment. As W. L. Bateman has noted, "If you keep on doing what you've always done, you'll keep on getting what you've always got."

    In negotiating a date for a Grand Strategy or Future Environmental Estimate one is thrown upon the horns of a dilemma. If we come too close or too far, we add little value. Too close and we are left with little freedom of action and creativity--neither the world, nor our instruments to affect it can change that much. The inertia of the system, with its entrenched interests, locked-in acquisitions, settled decisions is just too great. Within that time period the macro-trends of the world are on a sort of auto-pilot. Too far out and the clarity of our vision becomes too hazy, and a product that is so far removed from current experience is likely to be perceived as distant, frivolous, unapplied, and irrelevant.

    Then too, many fundamentally misapprehend the purpose of looking into the future. They wrongly think it is about taking action in the future. But consideration of the future is not about taking action in the future. It is about charting the territory ahead so that we make optimal decisions in the now. It is about turning up your headlights so you see the pothole or the deer in the road with enough time to comfortably react. It is about looking far enough ahead on a map to see one road leads to a dead-end or cliff, and that the last off ramp is just ahead. The important point, beautifully expressed by UNESCO is "The visions that we have of the future affect what we think is worth doing in the present." The future is not set, it is created by the decisions we make today.

    To make good decisions, we need a map of the territory ahead, we need to know our position, and what is the current inertia of movement and direction of the wind--where will we go if we make no further corrections. We need to assess the power of our motive forces, and how far we could travel in a given period. Then based on the possible future destinations, we need to use the map to select those intermediate destinations, waypoints, that looks most advantageous, and the course required to get there. If there are turns or pitfalls along the way, we need to identify them. Then, we need to make the necessary correction in the present, to put us on that course. That is strategy in a nutshell--linking ends (desired, reachable destinations) with means (what our current resources actually make possible) in time.* It gets us to a waypoint, an intermediate destination in time, reachable with our abilities and resources, with a precise plan of action and restraint that keeps us on the path. That makes your strategy, clear, measurable, and able to be reassessed as needed.

    A strategy should take you to a waypoint, a "falsifiable vision of your future state" that is at least qualitatively different than today. A meaningful vision and strategy is grounded in time, specifying where a nation wants to be at a particular time in the future. It should not be too close in. Grand Stratagems take time to put in place and come to fruition. Like compound interest, stratagems also leverage time and build upon themselves. The selection of a point in time should be meaningful, it should terminate in a place that allows you to reassess your next turn in the road, and not leave you at a pleasant vista from which any further step on that trajectory will take you over the abyss. For that reason, your map must extend further than your strategy. For the same reason, a future environmental estimate must be longer term than your intended and actionable strategy.

    To those of us who grew up with 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2020 and 2025 still sound very futuristic, but 2020 is barely ten years away, and 2025 only fifteen. I would argue that 15 years is sufficiently "locked-in" that systemic inertia presents little room for the strategist or policy innovator to maneuver. Any strategy is likely to be little more than an articulation of the culmination of decisions that have already been made, and small changes in the present will not visibly come to fruition in 15 years. But beyond 15 years, our understanding of the future is constantly in flux, and the words of Yogi Berra ring very true to today’s long-term strategist: "The future isn't what it used to be."

    How far out should an environmental estimate look? Policy is based upon fundamental assumptions, both stated and unstated, about how the world is, and how it will remain. At a minimum, it should look out till one of those fundamental assumptions underpinning our policy is expected to change. At a maximum, examine important trends as far out as we have good data.

    Objects of concern for long term planners include changes in key trends. For instance, most trends appear linear in the short term, but over the long term follow a curve. It is important to identify when a trend, such as demographics or population, will level off or alternately when it reaches its point of maximum growth. It is important to notice reversals, such as when a trend that was historically increasing, such as the supply/production of oil go negative. It is also important to note when two trend lines cross, creating a reversal in relationship, such as when one country's GDP is expected to cross another. Some trends are unsustainable, and by examining the fundamentals one can surmise when what appears to be a linear trend might actually result in a sharp decline. Lastly some important trends, such as cell phone, TV, or electricity penetration assume importance once a sort of "critical mass" is reached and creates a "tipping point" in how society functions.

    Even before a formal study, past studies have sensitized us to the following changes in fundamentals:

    • 2010 China's demographic bulge goes bust, when the number of working age population starts falling
    • 2010 APSO prediction of a peaking in global oil supply (“Peak Oil”) where supply permanently can no longer keep up with demand
    • 2015 Energy Watch Group predicts Peak in China's oil production
    • 2015 India becomes an urban nation, with more Indians living in cities than rural areas, over a half billion people in cities
    • 2020 China's median age exceeds that of the US
    • 2025 China's GDP exceeds that of the US to become the largest economy
    • 2025 Energy Watch Group predicts a global peak in coal production
    • 2030 International Energy Agency (IEA) estimate for Peak Oil
    • 2030 Global Temperature rise likely to be 1 degree over 1999 baseline
    • Disappearance of small glaciers
    • Number of victims of climate change is expected to rise to 500,000 by 2030 with Economic losses due to global warming amounting to over $125 billion annually
    • 2035 India Peaks in its demographic bulge
    • 2035 India passes China to become the most populous nation on Earth
    • 2035 Himalayan glaciers are at risk of disappearing completely
    • 2040 Goldman-Sachs predicts India will have the third largest GDP
    • 2041 Peak Oil the most optimistic estimate (EIA) occurs for the peak in global oil production, heralding the end of growth and start of decline of the fossil fuel system
    • 2046 India reaches its peak population of approximately 1.5 billion people
    • 2050 Over a billion people in India will be living in cities
    • 2050 China's economy twice the size of US economy
    • 2050 India's economy will be equal to that of the US
    • 2050 Global Temperature Rise expected to be 2 degrees, falling crop yields, increase storm intensity, extinction of species, spread of malaria regions
    • 2063 India exhausts all domestic coal

    Looking then at the various dates, it seems to me that there are enough extant data and serious predictions available to warrant a strategic estimate should go out till 2050, and that a useful waypoint in time to serve as a focus for a strategic vision and grand strategy would be 2035 or 2040. By that time, the underlying strategic situation and pressures will be materially different, and is far enough out to be able to consider stratagems that would take two or three decades to come to culmination.

    Finally, strategy cannot be made looking backward. It must, must, must start in the the future as it is likely to be absent your action, and the future as you would wish to see it unfold. After you have decided the future and the direction you intend to go, you back cast to the present, and determine the sequential steps you must take to walk from here (the present) to there (your intended future). Only then, does the past become a useful means, and even then only peripherally. Fundamentally, the past is irrelevant. It is neither what is or what will be. The past is principally useful to understand causation and the trends and inertia of the system absent your action. But even then, it is first and foremost more important to know where you want to go, so you know which elements of the past to study, and which aspects you will have to exert additional pressure on to make it move. Ultimately, to use the advice of Retired US Navy Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, "You have a choice: you can either create your own future, or you can become a victim of a future that someone else creates for you. By seizing the transformation opportunities, you are seizing the opportunity to create your own future." Such thinking requires a fundamental paradigm shift to be successful: You do NOT start with a time-consuming and meandering examination of your past that you may get lost in its many intricacies (many of which are no longer relevant) and difficulties, and is likely to dull your appetite for change, and clarity of vision of where you wish to go. Every moment spent living in the past is a moment not spent thinking about and constructing the future. Instead, the basic and most essential element is a future orientation with this guiding principle: You back-cast from the future you want to create to your actions in the present. And then you get to work on the now.


    * I'll offer the following definition of Strategy: Strategy is the process an organism/super organism goes through to select desirable end-states, both for itself and its external system, that would not happen on their own, consider and apply the totality of means (its own and those external it can co-opt or induce), through direct and indirect means, to achieve that end state while trying to maximize effectiveness and efficiency of its resources and time, and minimize the risks of failure.

    And some additional thoughts:

    Strategy is a plan to change the status quo, and as such it will be opposed consciously or unconsciously by both the internal and external system which will seek homeostasis or follow the momentum of the system. This means there is almost always some cognitive component to shape/manipulate the mental state and incentive structure of the internal or external opposition. There are various "degrees of belonging" and correlation. Strategy usually involves some element of novelty and adaptation. It usually involves a sequence of events and considers branches. It is integral with a visioning conversation of what are valued end states and some predictions about the future. It is necessarily about choices and allocation of resources and coordination of resources in the present. Strategy is universal, it can apply to any adaptive system at any level of organization and is not restricted to the military realm or the operational art. The discussion of how to do strategy well, or what has proven useful maxims for strategy is an entirely different discussion from what strategy is.