It seems that in today’s public discourse strategic considerations are all but absent. Policy appears to be made largely through social media and the consequences of those statements often do not seem fully considered, if at all. Most recently it seemed as though the president of the United States would leave America’s European allies adrift in the face of Russian aggression as they had not paid their requisite financial dues in defense spending. At least on this side of the Atlantic, those remarks were lost in the shuffle of the controversy of the day or the latest perceived or real outrage. Elsewhere, those remarks were heard loud and clear. Moscow and Beijing are paying close attention to what the White House is saying and doing, making note, and planning accordingly. The myopic focus on local controversies and short-term issues—real and legitimate though they are—are distracting from broader trends and blinding policymakers to potential developments in the future. Strategic forecasting and scenario development is a well-trodden ground. From dry abstract policy analyses through to vivid dynamic, often over-the-top stories such as those by the successors to Tom Clancy and others. It is difficult to straddle the fine line of forecasting grounded in reality that is both informed, intelligent, and readable. Into this gap steps 2020: World of War by Paul Cornish and Kinglsey Donaldson. The book, a spiritual successor to General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War, August 1985: A Future History, forecasts a plausible scenario in which the Cold War turns hot and results in the destruction of Birmingham, England, and Minsk, Belarus. Hackett’s intent was to highlight the risks of conflict and spur policymakers into action. Gone is the Cold War, but in its place, are a plethora of dynamic challenges, regional threats, and new developments. The authors provide a brief introductory overview to a number of the trends—climate change, population growth, financial (in)stability, and resource scarcity. Interestingly they don’t really seize upon these trends in their analysis. The focus is, largely, on hard power politics. Cornish and Donaldson craft a number of scenarios from China using Australia as a distraction to take Taiwan, a resurgent caliphate across Egypt and Libya, a massive cyberattack, nuclear brinksmanship in South Asia, to a fragmented United Kingdom with a split Scotland declaring independence necessitating the formation of a new Hadrian’s Wall. The scenarios themselves are uneven in their quality. Some are more plausible than others, but others also seem to veer a bit too far into the Clancy-esque realm. The book is surprisingly timely seizing upon Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States to forecast how these scenarios play out. To say that these scenarios do not go well is putting it mildly. The authors acknowledge that these are, by design, worst case scenarios—well informed, but worst case nonetheless. Whether or not these developments and the surge in authoritarian and nationalist trends is the new norm or an aberration remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome of these dynamics, the reality remains that hard power politics and strategic forecasting must, by necessity, be a consideration in the corridors of power. It would be fair to say that there are leaders within the Beltway who understand this and are working to address the challenges. But it is equally fair to say that there is a real lack of a strategic appreciation within the broader corridors of power. 2020: World of War would make a good holiday present for some in the White House and in Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.