THE BLOG

Lessons of the Crises in the Middle East

The unrest that continues to grip the Middle East is, first and foremost, a reminder of a truth that is too often forgotten: the desire to live in dignity is more powerful than any dictator or army.

It's also a reminder of another truth that most would prefer to overlook: our ability to discern the geopolitical signs of the times remains remarkably poor. Recent history is replete with examples of such failures--failures to predict as well as predictions that turned out to be incorrect, often egregiously so.

How many anticipated the collapse of the Soviet Union? 9/11? Hurricane Katrina? The global financial crisis? On the flip side, how often have we heard that China would be unable to sustain its economic growth? That North Korea would collapse? Perhaps the most instructive prediction in this regard is that of American declinism. As Jim Fallows quips, "Through the entirety of my conscious life, America has been on the brink of ruination, or so we have heard, from the launch of Sputnik through whatever is the latest indication of national falling apart or falling behind. Pick a year over the past half century, and I will supply an indicator of what at the time seemed a major turning point for the worse."

In the 1940s, many analysts predicted that Nazi Germany and fascist Japan would overtake their Western democratic counterparts. In the 1950s and 1960s, many predicted that the Soviet Union was ascendant, and America on the decline. In the 1980s, Japan was believed to be on its way to superpowerdom. Today, in the same vein, it is widely considered a question of when, not if, China will supplant the United States. Gideon Rachman, chief foreign-affairs commentator for the Financial Times, has a thoughtful reply to those who question the new wave of American declinism: "In the end, of course, the Soviet and Japanese threats to American supremacy proved chimerical. So Americans can be forgiven if they greet talk of a new challenge from China as just another case of the boy who cried wolf. But a frequently overlooked fact about that fable is that the boy was eventually proved right. The wolf did arrive--and China is the wolf."

Even if we assume that Rachman's right about China--a highly questionable proposition--the reality remains that predictions of American decline have a poor track record. Although it'd be preposterous to ask (or expect) that individuals always be able to connect the dots and think in time, it makes little sense to argue that our analytical capabilities are sound if a prediction that we make over and over again eventually comes true.

It's unlikely that our predictive abilities will improve significantly, no matter how realistic our models are and how many variables they take into account. No model, after all, can take into account the whims and the passions that drive us--the variables that play the most important role in shaping history.