Academic journal article Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations

Thinking the Future

Academic journal article Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations

Thinking the Future

Article excerpt

America's problem in a nutshell is that we do not think very well. The last quarter century has seen an explosion in the human capacity to create and manipulate new knowledge. Despite that fact, the instruments used to inform public policy choices are as creaky as ever. Washington makes policy largely by intuition shaped by an orthodox adherence to tired interpretations of international relations and public choice theory-ideas that have barely evolved since the Cold War. Our minds are behind the times. All this needs to change if America wants to out-think its enemies and help its friends in the world secure a safe, free, and prosperous future.

The answer to the problem is creating institutions and a professional ethos that exploit multidisciplinary public policy analysis using cutting-edge information instruments. At the same time, Washington must make room for a certain amount of creative destruction. Institutions, no matter how facile, will never keep up with knowledge innovation. Room has to be made to allow new ideas and methods to reach decision makers, and we need a generation of leaders with minds facile and agile enough to "learn new tricks."

Developing a capacity to identify and exploit new means of analysis for informing public policymaking could be the key competitive advantage of the twenty-first century. Knowing what is out there and what is coming is an important part of "thinking the future." Equally vital will be establishing the permanent capacity to change how we discover, innovate, and adapt new ways of knowledge creation to the task of sound decision making.


Thinking anew is an old project. Periods of Western history are defined by efforts to reconceptualize our understanding of the links between cause and effect and to use that knowledge to make decisions. The Renaissance is remembered as the age of recovering the innovations of Greco-Roman thought and applying them to contemporary thought. The scientific revolution of the early modern era introduced experimentation as the foundational method for establishing empirical knowledge. From the later part of the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment expanded scientific methods to virtually every field from medicine to military matters, arguing for replacing traditional means of gaining knowledge with new "rationale" processes. The Industrial Age ushered in an era when managers, accountants, and engineers applied scientific logic to organizing everyday life. The post-modern world introduced new intellectual constructs that questioned the Enlightenment's assumptions of inevitable human progress and even the certainty of knowing anything for sure.

As in every other field of endeavor in the Western world, as the minds of men and women pioneered new means of knowledge creation, efforts were made to apply them to the process of national security decision-making. During the Renaissance, for example, the famed sixteenth century Florentine writer, schemer, sycophant, patriot, politician, diplomat, civil servant, and scholar Niccolló Machiavelli applied classical ideas to every problem from organizing armies to managing state affairs.1 At the pinnacle of the Enlightenment, Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini applied scientific ideas to the art of war while Leopold von Ranke did the same for statecraft and international relations.2

In the twentieth century, many of the efforts to bring new methods of knowledge creation to the challenges of international affairs migrated from the private sector and academia into military affairs and from there to the emerging discipline of national security. Before the first decades of the century were over, notions of the scientific method had thoroughly permeated the industrial workplace. The 1911 publication of Frederick W Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management marked the outbreak of a "rationale" management craze. Industrial engineers armed with clip boards and stop watches fanned out across shop room floors, measuring every machine's function to determine the most efficient way to raise productivity. …

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