There clearly is much about the future we can't predict, such as whether China and Taiwan will war, reconcile, or divorce; whether Russia will truly democratize or remilitarize; when or whether the two Koreas will reunify; what will happen in post-Castro Cuba or even in post-Saddam Iraq; or what will become of OPEC, NATO, Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, AIDS, global warming, al Qaeda, or any of the endless number of other things that concern us.
On the other hand, there is a more general future whose contours are already quite clear. This future will be marked by greater levels of global interconnectedness, more information becoming available to more people, and more world events seeming "local." It will see higher expectations of government and media-driven magnification of events, along with a broader definition of what constitutes a crisis.
Tomorrow's military decision makers will have to work in a climate of reduced response time and increased disaster potential. There will likely be less public and military tolerance for casualties, continuing confusion over the lengths and limits of sovereignty, new subliminal forms of aggression and intervention, and further diffusion of power from state actors to nonstate entities such as corporations and religious or ethnic groups.
Likewise, the coming period will also be one of proliferating levels of violence, a profusion of undeclared internal "non-wars," and accelerated technological obsolescence. In every sense, it will be a future of profound complexity, ambiguity, and turbulence that will admit of no easy explanations or simple solutions.
One of the defining features of this future will be a continuation of the convergence that has already occurred between the tactical and the strategic domains of human and military activity. In other words, even the most obscure incidents or conditions in the most remote locations may have almost instantaneous reverberations at other points across the globe. This reverberation can effect a shift in strategy, so strategies are more likely to change as a result of on-the-ground or "tactical" developments. Such magnification distorts decision making, compresses deliberation, multiplies the gravity of consequences and the impact of responses, and, in the case of military decision making in particular, places those on the ground under constant scrutiny and reproach.
Potentially even more important than this convergence of the strategic and the tactical is the more sweeping evolutionary trajectory of war itself. We are on the cusp of a grand evolution of war. We have gone from an extended historical period of "hot war," dating to antiquity, in which the actual use of force was the central element of statecraft, to a highly compressed period of "cold war," involving two over-muscled adversaries who engaged in the unrestrained accretion of capabilities and tacit threat-making so as to avoid the actual use of force. Now, we are in a period of "new war," in which non-military instruments of power and nontraditional uses of the military are becoming more the norm than military and foreign-policy planners care yet to concede.
The logical extension of this grand evolutionary trend suggests an eventual end-state of "no war." In this scenario, large-scale collective violence is largely eschewed for its ultimate ineffectiveness, and militaries as we have known them will become essentially irrelevant. The plausibility, desirability, and feasibility of this heretofore unrealized (and largely unimagined) end-state will be a function of our inclination to step outside the binding intellectual constraints of the past and to exercise the free will that purportedly distinguishes humans from other living species.
Key Elements of Strategic Thinking
The importance of being strategic in confronting the future should be self-evident. To begin with, it is a moral obligation of government--foreign-policy and military planners in particular--to look ahead, to take the long view, to consider the big picture (and the attendant interrelatedness of virtually all things), to anticipate and influence events before they occur, and to take due account of the after effects and the unintended consequences of action or inaction. …