Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.01.10

Beacons in the stormy seas of 2020

the japan times on December 30, 2019

At this time of the year, friends always ask me what will happen in the coming new year. As usual,this year I'm at a loss what to tell them,since 2019 has been a year full of unexpected uncertainties such as the U.S.-China trade war,rising tensions in the Persian Gulf and the bitter Japan-South Korea disputes.

One editor friend,however,asked me to write not about what would happen but instead a guide into events likely to happen in 2020. Instead of predicting the future,I may be able to provide some beacons for foreseeing what could affect the new year in the form of a number of tips.

My conclusions are simple. Throughout 2020,China will still be rising and U.S. domestic politics will further deteriorate,while Russia,contrary to all expectations,will fight back rather hard.

Tip NO.1: You cannot predict the future

No one can predict the future. Whoever claims that he or she has supernatural powers to foresee events in 2020 is a swindler. No fortune teller or futurist has a crystal ball in which they can see the future. Unfortunately this is the reality of the history of mankind.

The only thing that can be done is to provide a hypothesis of history. In my hypothesis history to imagine specific future events based on empirical events that I have experienced in my lifetime and my version of the currents of history for the past several centuries.

Tip No. 2: Do not make forecasting a business

No person or entity is always right in their predictions about the future,although there are numerous versions of predictionsーor geopolitical risk assessmentsーin the market because there is a demand for such forecasts (which publishers or authors cannot resist). Intellectually honest people know how dishonest it is to make a predictions a business.

Tip No. 3: Pessimism might be wrong

An economist friend of mine who is exceptionally aware of politics recently published a rather optimistic forecast for 2020. As a former Arabic language officer at the Foreign Ministry who served in the Middle East for years,however,I am a pessimist. Or I would say,my pessimistic predictions have been right in most cases for the past few decades.

Tip No. 4: Do not talk geopolitical risks

Many of the economists who often use the term "geopolitical risk" fall silent when they're asked what it really means. Most of them use the term unqualifiedly but cannot define it. Of course they can't because it is impossible to do it. Users of the term are only admitting that they are ignorant.

Geopolitics is the study of security threats against or strategic advantages of a nation or a region taking into account of their geological features, meaning mountains, rivers, seas and islands, as well as of their military history. If you expect a simple formula or equation to understand geopolitics, you are mistaken.

Tip 5: Focus only on long-term currents

A key to understanding the future is understanding the long-term currents of modern history. The world in 2020 can be characterized by three major elements: The continuous rise of China, the decline of U.S. domestic politics and Russia (unexpectedly) fighting back hard.

Such long-term currents have now been revealed in three tangible forms. They are the U.S.-China hegemonic rivalry, the alliance of the weak between China and Russia and the new great game between the United States and Russia in the Middle East. These will continue for the foreseeable future.

Tip No. 6: Don't try to predict short-term events

This means that other events or episodes are still important but they're nothing but dependent variables or short-term phenomena. For example, North Korea, which rejects denuclearization, will end its honeymoon with Washington and get tough on it again. Not-so-powerful South Korea's balancing diplomacy is failing to achieve either of its two aims.

China will not deal with the Trump administration before the U.S. presidential election is held and will continue to crackdown on Hong Kong and Xinjiang without making concessions. Japan and China will tactically improve their bilateral relationship. Russia will continue its interventions in other nations to get the U.S. to lift sanctions, but without success.

The European Union will survive Brexit as long as France and Germany work together. It may be a time for Iran to take political and military actions in the region but a major war in the Gulf will be avoided. Dictatorial regimes in Middle East nations will strive to survive. I may be wrong, or at least I hope I am wrong.

Tip No. 7: Establish your own perspective

The most important is to have your own grand view of history. If you have the time to buy and read unreliable predictions available in the market, then instead develop your own hypotheses. It is not very difficult. What you should do is to enhance your views of the currents of modern history.

These intellectual efforts must be based on your own experiences and do not have to be the same as mine. Empirically speaking, even if your grand view of history differs from others, your hypotheses about the future will have value if you have a sound and reasonable grand view of modern history of mankind.

The U.S.-China rivalry has just begun, and Japan, whether we like it or not, will have to continue trying to survive in East Asia. Japan should focus on major currents and not be misled by less important events or episodes. I wish all my readers a very happy, prosperous and truly peaceful new year.