The Race to Consolidate Power and Stave Off Disaster
Responsible policymakers try to plan ahead. But how can
they know what the next crisis will be, let alone prepare for it while still grappling with current ones? People are notoriously bad at anticipating the future, and countries aren’t much better. Our lead package this issue explores whether they can improve.
Peter Scoblic and Philip Tetlock kick things off by pulling together decades of research on forecasting world politics. They argue that people and governments can indeed train themselves to make better predictions. The catch is that it requires robust discourse and intellectual accountability—a flock of open minds asking lots of sharp questions and following the answers wherever they lead.
Next, Elke Weber shows how psychology works to undermine reason, both individually and collectively. Cognitive biases, emotional reactions, and mental shortcuts result in poor decisions and bad policy—but they wouldn’t have to, if we could somehow corral our minds and our decision-making processes.
Finally, top experts explore three issues on which today’s complacency could easily lead to tomorrow’s disaster: Marietje Schaake on cybersecurity, Michael Oppenheimer on climate change, and Christopher Layne on U.S.-Chinese relations.
Pessimists don’t expect much, and they are rarely disappointed. Certainly, the world’s pitiful performance in handling the coronavirus pandemic gives little reason to believe that future threats will be called earlier or dealt with better. But optimists can point to the obvious, easy gains that would demonstrably flow from individual and organizational self-discipline and hope that future generations are wise enough to recognize and seize them.
U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower liked to say that “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” What he meant was that the process of planning forced policymakers and institutions to anticipate, prepare for, and train for a range of possible scenarios that might emerge—and thus develop the skills and muscle memory to respond calmly, flexibly, and sensibly to whatever challenge actually appeared.
At some point, there will be another catastrophe. It will probably involve something we already worry about now but don’t take seriously enough or consider to be urgent enough to address. When the crisis hits, people will do what they can and say, “It is what it is.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. Unless the next crisis really does involve a stray meteorite, the fault for screwing it up will lie not in the stars but in ourselves.
—Gideon Rose, Editor