Paris '07 Workshop
Forecasting and Influencing The Future--It Is Not Always What We Seek
Mr. Jean de Ponton
Mr. Jean de Ponton d'Amecourt, Director for Strategic Affairs in the French Defense Ministry at the Hotel National des Invalides.
" ...history is not always a product of what we rationally seek,
but also tends
to the nth degree, the effects of unexpected events and unlooked-for developments
...history is made not only...through developments determined by the past,
but also by clean breaks with that past."
Those of you who have previously attended events of this kind that are organized by France—and I realize many of you have—will know that I am required, by our administrative law, to make a short speech to mark the occasion. As someone who has, in the course of a long career in the public and private sectors, had to listen to hundreds—for all I know, thousands—of such speeches, I can promise you that it will be relatively short. I hope it will be amusing in places as well, and I believe it will address some important issues.
As you entered the majestic Hotel des Invalides for the evening, you were welcomed by the figure of Louis XIV on horseback. Just next door is the gold-capped mausoleum in which the Emperor Napoleon is buried. No one would deny that those two men are two of the great figures not only of France but Europe, and I would like to think that their spirits are watching over us this evening.
These two great figures from our history had a number of things in common, besides, of course, a commitment to a Europe united under French leadership. First, they each had an established tendency toward the exercise of unrestricted personal power; second, they had immense ambition, both for themselves and their country; third, they had great faith in the modernizing power of a rationally organized state; and, finally, as we are reminded by the pictures that decorate the room in which we meet, they possessed a great (some would say excessive) confidence in the power of war to mold the future of a people.
The heritage these two figures have left us—in its high points and its low points—reminds us that history is not always a product of what we rationally seek, but also tends to exaggerate, to the nth degree, the effects of unexpected events and unlooked-for developments. At its simplest, history is made not only through trends and through developments determined by the past, but also by clean breaks with that past.
The feeling I have—perhaps you share it—of being in the presence of the ghosts of these two great historic figures leads me to reflect not only on the lessons we can draw from their lives, as I have briefly tried to do, but, more importantly, on the possibility of a break with the strategic order of the past, which we ourselves, perhaps, may have to confront tomorrow.
To this end, I would like to share with you some thoughts on the 30 years ahead. We in the Ministry of Defense have been collecting these thoughts over the last few months and we have organized it—as you must when looking into the future—both by analyzing the major trends of today—that's the historical determinism part—and by looking at possible departures from those trends.
FORECASTED FUTURE TRENDS
I hardly need to say much about the major trends over that period, because they mostly represent common ground among organizations whose job it is to peer into the future. For example, there is the "Strategic Trends" document produced by our British friends and the American report on "Mapping the Global Future," both of which have appeared in recent times. What we get from these reports is that the world in 2035 may contain a sepia-tinted Europe, a vision described as "gloomy" in the European Union's long-term vision, whether it relates to:
- The population of Europe reducing in both absolute and relative terms, in a world in which the balance between Europe, Africa, and Asia is changing
- The vitality and competitiveness of its economy, at risk of falling behind because of a chronic lack of investment in the future
- Its technological potential, increasingly marked, as it is, not just by interdependence but perhaps by dependence pure and simple
- The possibility of constant competition for access to natural resources and energy
- An incontestable reduction in its military capability
-Issues, still unresolved, relating to the identity and the boundaries of the European Union
- Continued conflict around the frontiers of Europe, not the least of which is on its immediate borders, in the Near and Middle East and in the Black Sea area and Central Asia
Taken together, these trends amount to a vision that could be thought of as pessimistic, of a Europe progressively falling behind in terms of population and competitiveness and therefore in economic and military power, with uncontrolled fires raging on its periphery, in a world system in which its influence is reduced.
THE DANGERS OF BREAKING WITH THE PAST
In reality, nothing about the future is fixed. The worst is never inevitable. Indeed, it is clear that the future belongs to those who take hold of it and bend it to their will. There is no such thing as fate: mankind, individual men and women, are masters of their destiny. It's a matter of will. There is no reason at all why our future, in 2035, has to be like the unhappy picture I have described. It will depend very much on the policies that are put in place between now and then. It depends more than anything else on us.
But I don't intend to put too much emphasis on continuing trends; I intend to talk more about the dangers from strategic surprises, of discontinuities, of breaks with the past, which we might be faced with over this period. It seems to me that these possible discontinuities can be understood under three main headings: the world order, the idea of power, and the relationship with modernity.
The World Order
For the first of these, the question is, clearly, are we headed toward a better-ordered or a worse-ordered world? Will there be more order or will there be less? In fact, it's quite possible to address this question in an objective and quantitative fashion; order is something you can measure.
It is quite a different thing to ask whether we are moving toward a morally better world or a worse one. And you will understand immediately that this is not the frame of reference I use now. The question of the order of the world can be sub-divided into a number of others. For example:
- Even today, each state is much more vulnerable to economic events elsewhere on the planet, even when it has little to do with the region affected, because crises spread in a paradoxical fashion. Could this process of infection produce a major international economic crisis, a catastrophic actualization of a risk that is always present in the system? One thinks, for example, of risks linked to the wild, and perhaps uncontrollable and unsustainable, rate of growth of China and the speculative bubble that is accompanying it.
- Could the development, even the super-abundance, of international law go too far, and lead one day to states simply deciding not to respect it? Is it possible, in some way, for too much order to produce disorder?
- Are we heading toward the progressive decline of non-proliferation regimes and the outlawing of weapons of mass destruction? This break with the past, which nobody wants, would be an especially powerful aid to the proliferation of WMD and their delivery systems.
- Can we imagine what it would be like if an extremely sensitive country, such as Iraq, were to come apart? This would lead to major regional instability, as each state tried to counter the effects of such a collapse or alternatively tried to benefit from it.
The second type of discontinuity, that surrounding power, is of the most interest to us. It is clearly at the center of the strategic game and here, too, there are many possibilities. For example:
- If there were easy access to weapons of mass destruction, facilitated by new information technologies, could this weaken or even destroy the regulating effect of the West's conventional military superiority? Do we understand the consequences of this radical "asymmetry"?
- What about the weaponization of space? Could it open a new dimension for military conflict between states?
- What would be the consequences of the first use of nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, marking the end of a major historical taboo, with enormous doctrinal consequences?
- Could keener and keener rivalries between "traditional" powers for access to natural resources and energy lead to a new Cold War conflict or, for that matter, a hot one?
The Relationship with Modernity
One last area in which the future might be radically different from the past is that which concerns the very basis of our societies and those societies with which our relations are problematic. Fundamentally, it is a question of whether there can be a convergence—or at least an orderly dialogue—between Western societies that have largely lost their faith in modernity as a source of progress and other societies. I am thinking here of various parts of the Arab and Islamic world that struggle today to find a route toward this type of model (if indeed that is what they really want), and Asia, which might, who knows, invent a new and unique concept of modernity for the 21st century, a century that, we are told, will belong to that continent.
Some other concrete examples of this issue are:
- Western soldiers are more and more tied down by legal and other limitations, but have to confront an environment in which frequently there are no rules. We are thus at the point of revolution as fundamental as that which saw the complex ballet of 18th and 19th century warfare replaced by the total war of the two great conflicts of the 20th century. There is a real risk that the conventional employment of military force could become inappropriate for coping with the spread of indirect strategies and wars of populations. If so, we need to think about radically different ways to employ our forces and new technologies such as roboticization, non-lethal weapons, situational awareness, or even embedding elements of our forces in the local population.
- We might suffer a major WMD attack or a coordinated series of cyberattacks, disrupting vital information networks such as those for telecommunications. This would represent a significant development in the way in which terrorists operate, and our societies are not well prepared to confront this.
- Could the tendency toward fragmentation of our societies into identity-based groups oblige us one day to reconsider something so basic as the notion of defense itself? In other words, in societies that are divided or have retreated into communitarism, who exactly is defending whom?
After this rapid canter through several possible discontinuities that could affect us in the future, I would like to come back, by way of conclusion, to the two great historical figures whose memories I evoked at the beginning of my speech. We can learn from their examples that deterministic factors and global trends amount, in the end, to nothing, because they affect all equally and do not differentiate.
In reality, there is no possibility that a vision based on trends alone will come to pass in the form expected. There will certainly be surprises and breaks with the past. As has always been the case, it is the ability to forecast what may happen and the determination to act that make the difference between being left scattered by history and "surfing the wave" of historical progress. Seeing so many distinguished decision-makers and eminent experts on defense and security questions gathered together, I have no doubt that this capacity to peer into the future and then to act in a decisive manner is widely shared among us. This would be my wish for us collectively.
I began by citing Louis XIV and Napoleon. But there is another figure whom I am legally required to mention in all speeches of this kind that last longer than five minutes. It is not the president—not the current one, anyway—but it is, of course, General de Gaulle. Let me conclude, then, not with my words but with his:
"Happy are they with the highest ambitions, the most skilful performers, the leavening in the bread of life, who, stranded on the beach by the flow of ordinary days, dream only of sailing off on the tide of history."